The Greatest Spectacle in (dirt track) Racing

Brady Bacon wins the inaugural BC39 race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

A certain amount of skepticism comes with the first of anything new—even for an establishment as old and renowned as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The track itself began construction in 1909, the first Indianapolis 500 came in 1911. It was decades before another series turned laps on the hallowed grounds.

A dirt track has been whispered about around ims for years, but different logistical problems prevented it from coming to fruition. President of the Speedway, Doug Boles teamed up with a local dirt track promoter and the Clauson family to make the dream become a reality. Thus created a tight 1/4 mile dirt track in turn three of Indy the Driven2SaveLives BC39 event was born.

Bryan Clauson (aka “BC”) was a phenomenal Hoosier dirt track racer that climbed the ranks to national recognition. He has many accolades in the racing world, top marks include the 2014 Chili Bowl winner and three Indianapolis 500 starts. In 2016 Bryan lost his life due to complications from a midget accident and the racing community was shaken.
Only a year prior, we lost IndyCar driver Justin Wilson in a racing incident as well. Wilson’s brother Stefan teamed up with the Indiana Donor’s Network to create a new campaign called “Driven2SaveLives.” Both Justin and Bryan were registered organ donors and each were able to save five lives. To honor Bryan’s legacy, Driven2SaveLives came on board to support the BC39 race, gain awareness and “race to end the wait” for life-saving organ donation.

The stage was set and it was an emotional evening from the start. An unprecedented 115 cars were ready to rumble on Wednesday night, September 5th. They came from all over the country to participate in the first eve, many of which ran with Bryan at one point in his career. The star-studded roster included 24 usac midget feature winners and series champions including Dave Darland, Christopher Bell, Tracy Hines, J.J. Yeley and more. nascar drivers Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Landon Cassill both fielded entries and Conor Daly carried the flag for the IndyCar series.

Tim and Diana Clauson-Bryan’s parents, fielded a couple of cars in their late son’s honor and in a tearful twist of fate, both were in Victory Lane by the end of the qualifier night. Tyler “Sunshine” Courtney from right here in Indianapolis won the first heat race of the night and later on, 15-year-old Zeb Wise of Angola, IN had a daring win in the Stoops pursuit race. Inches off the wall for laps on end, it was easy to identify why Wise was Clauson’s protégé.

“I figured I couldn’t follow everybody around the bottom or I’d lose spots,” said Wise. “I tried the top side. I was patient with it, figured it out and came through the field.” Win in hand; Wise became the youngest usac feature winner in history — poetically beating his mentor, Clauson, in the process.

On Thursday, mother nature did not cooperate. After weeks of torrid heat, the skies opened up and poured for hours leading up to the green flag. Fans, drivers and crew waited skeptically for the track to dry. After a delay in action, USAC announced that the surface has been prepped and ready. Although the first couple of mud packing sessions were… tough, the track worked in quickly and racing resumed.

The storm did not scare the fans away. The following morning, the Indy Star reported that over 13,000 people were in attendance and the grandstands were completely sold out. By the time the A main squared up and the 4-wide salute laps were completed, everyone was on their feet.

39 laps for Bryan’s car number, each more exciting than the last. Cullman, AL native Kevin Thomas Jr. led early on, with Courtney hot on the trail. Two grooves distinctly started to develop. Cars piled up on the 14th lap and all were able to restart.

Shortly after getting back to action, Broken Arrow, OK native Brady Bacon’s light knock came to a pounding on the door as he took jabs for the lead. He tried low, but couldn’t make it stick, pulling the front two wheels off of the racing surface.

Once the leaders caught up to traffic, Bacon got to cooking. A beautifully executed slide job through turn 4 earned him the lead and that was all she wrote. Chad Boat slid into second in the closing laps, Thomas clinched third, Courtney fourth and Christopher Bell clawed his way from 17th to finish 5th.

“This is definitely extra special…” said the ‘Macho Man’ in Victory Circle “It is obviously very special that (Clauson) opened a lot of doors to make a lot of things happen that would have never happened without him… He has done a lot of things for a lot of causes even since he had been gone and that shows the impact of his personality on the whole world.”

The stroke of midnight ended the festivities and race fans both familiar with this genre of racing and not went home content. From the start, Bryan was smiling down on this event. He would have loved to race a midget at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

All morning and day leading up to the first heat race, we were skeptical that the weather would allow such an event. Lightning, thunder, and rain threatened at a distance but just before the big drops fell, a striking double rainbow appeared over the oval.

In a choked voice over the track’s loudspeaker rang the words we were all thinking. “And there he is, Thank you Bryan.”

Personality with a side of Ribbs

Big personalities are nothing new to racing. From the very beginning, motorsports has attracted some extremely colorful characters. Since I have been working in racing, everyone pales in comparison to Willy T. Ribbs. His presence is instantly recognized in a room, and it always has been that way throughout his career. From the very beginning, Ribbs idolized Muhammad Ali, and modeled his physique and attitude after the iconic boxer. Pair that with an intense gaze and larger-than-life stories, Ribbs always stood out. That, and he was the only African American driver around.

A second-generation racer, Willy can thank his father, Bunny, for putting motorsports on his radar. Growing up in San Jose, CA famous motorcycle and IndyCar driver, Joe Leonard lived next door to the Ribbs family and was an influence as well. “I wasn’t a problem child, but my thing was driving fast” explains Ribbs, “By the time I got out of high school- I knew where I wanted to go… you look at all the drivers that came from around the world and they were racing the British championship.”

Ribbs made a name for himself in Europe through Formula Ford before coming back to America and competing in the Formula Atlantic series. He fell through IndyCar, Champ car and NASCAR, tried his hand at Trans-Am thanks to Paul Newman, and raced in IMSA for the late Dan Gurney.

Ribbs credits a handful of highly-recognized friends that have helped him through his career. “If I were to have been a grin’n shugglin’ idiot- it wouldn’t have changed anything… I also knew that for me to continue to go up the ladder of the sport, I had to have a name. I could not be like the other guys. It was that personality that got Bill Cosby’s attention.”

Though recent issues have been brought to light about Cosby’s life off-camera, Ribbs admits that his career would not have been the same without the help of the famous comedian. “I didn’t call him, he called me!” Ribbs says that Cosby was not the slightest bit interested in racing. In fact, though Cosby helped funnel a significant amount of money into Ribbs’ career, he did not come to the track. It was purely a business transaction. Cosby had the funds and the name recognition in a time when there were few African American men in the spotlight. This was an investment in Ribbs as a promising athlete and man of color.

Another influential figure in Ribbs’ Rolodex was famous boxing promoter, Don King. “Don knew me through my relationship with Ali. He said that he wanted to represent me,” says Ribbs, “Bernie (Eccelstone) knew that Don was representing me and wanted to meet.” Ribbs recounts how the eccentric boxing promoter came face-to-face with his motorsports counterpart “If you ask Bernie Ecclestone about this, he will still remember Don walking into the hotel room eating an ice cream cone. It was fascinating to watch the two engage.” It was King that helped orchestrate Ribbs’ first entry in the Indy500, but the relationship was fleeting. “I just think that Don thought that there was going to be more money in racing, at that time boxing was all cash.”

Willy T. Ribbs is a recognizable name in racing, but not necessarily for the results that he earned. Controversy has followed Ribbs through his career. Strangely enough, Ribbs was an extremely proficient driver. He has, to this day,a fire in his eyes. For whatever reason- and there are a few theories- Ribbs never reached his full racing potential. Some attribute Ribbs’ attitude and sometimes prickly, outspoken nature and to that he says “BULLSH*T. I didn’t talk myself out of anything.” His response points directly to the obvious. “Be honest with what the truth is. Be man enough to admit that ‘we didn’t want him because he was black.’” Realistically, it is a combination of many factors. Sadly, the result is a driver who had the gumption, bravery and talent to get the job done, but will be remembered more for superficial reasons than capability.

In fact, Ribbs has talked frequently about how he was treated in different series, and he found that the European mindset was more welcoming to him. “It was a night and day difference. When I went over there to race, it was like going to another planet in terms of acceptability. Those guys saw me as a race driver- and that is what it was all about. You know? When I got back here, I was a black race driver.”

Like being the ‘first’ of anything on an emerging front, Ribbs was faced with unfair added pressure to set a precedent. It was Dan Gurney who pointed out to Ribbs that his responsibilities as a racing driver ended with himself, his family and team- just like any other racer.

Bottom line is, Willy T. Ribbs pushed the envelope. His uniqueness steps outside his race- Willy truly is a vivacious, bold and an unapologetically fierce person. If there is an opportunity to hear him speak at an engagement, it is not to be missed. Look past the controversies, look past influences, and you will find one of the most colorful voices in racing with stories that will make your jaw drop. He is, at his core, personality with a side of Ribbs.

Rebel Rally

The goldRush Rally is the craziest exotic car parade that you have never heard of. If you have heard of it, then you probably stumbled upon it somewhere in the back roads of the United States or caught ‘dope’ pictures on social media.

Though it is referred to as a ‘rally,’ those who organize it are adamant that no street racing is to be tolerated. This is not a cross-country barnstorming, but more of a wild group road trip. Almost 200 participants sign up to caravan in their Lamborghinis, Porsches, Ferraris, McLarens, and more. There are no restrictions on makes, models, or years of the participating cars, though most that are entered are considered to be ‘exotic.’

Each year, the route changes. For the special ten-year anniversary this June, expedition stopped in ten metropolitan cities from Boston to Las Vegas. Lasting little over a week, they happened to swing through the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for an afternoon.

There is nothing subtle about a fleet of candy-colored supercars arriving at your office- especially on a grey Tuesday morning. This was the VIP group, which included nascar Champion and 2014 Indy500 starter Kurt Busch driving a menacing 2018 Ford GT and former Seahawks Defensive End Cliff Avril in his own Black Panther themed ride. All of a sudden, there was a spectacle. These magnificent cars were a taste of the 200-odd legion on their way.

“We get guys from all over the country” explained one of the drivers named Geoff. “Most own their own cars, but sometimes you’ll get someone from another country that rents a new Lambo or something just to participate.”
Geoff Fear owns a luxury watch company that sponsors the series and has been an eager participant since the beginning. Decked out in Premiere Jewelry logos and goldRush stickers, Fear rocked a classic Gulf paint scheme this year on his McLaren 570S. Every car sports their own unique design and attitude – each wilder than the next.
Geoff represents most that run this rally. This tradition has turned from a lighthearted week of parties and supercar spectacle to a close-knit reunion. “This is my family and I look forward to this every year,” he said earnestly before smirking and adding “There is something about running from the cops that really brings people together.”

As one can imagine, discretion is not the goal of this organization. No matter the city, a crowd gathers. This often times includes the Fuzz. Sometimes the police are present to provide an escort, and sometimes they are present to provide tickets. The series rules specifically state:

“The goldRush Rally (the “Rally”) is not a race. You must not compete in any manner with other participants. You must not place any bets of any kind in relation to the Rally… You must comply with all applicable laws and regulations of the City, County, State, and Country in which you are present at any given time during the Rally, including but not limited to all speed regulations, laws of the road, etc.”

But being pulled over is a regularity. Speeding tickets are a mark of pride but not getting caught is the ultimate prize.
From the Golden Gate Bridge to the Las Vegas strip, goldRush embodies a new type of gearhead. It is luxury, it is humor and it captures the elusive idea of ‘cool.’ There is an outlaw vibe here and the cast of characters has no shortage of personality. In their mission statement, goldRush even refers to themselves as both a ‘social event’ and a ‘lifestyle brand’ and travel days are almost exclusively covered with new media platforms like Instagram and YouTube. Besides a presence at sema, this organization’s focus is not on media attention — but bringing like-minded people together.

This is a tribe and yet another flavor of car culture, one that is still creating their own mark and community. These guys have a mix of crazy eccentricities and attitude. In a word, these guys are rebels.

Ms. Understood

One thing is for sure; Danica Patrick is a household name in America. Those outside of racing have a very basic understanding of her, but even some of the most dedicated fans I have met have only a superficial view of the GoDaddy Girl. This year, Danica announced that she will be retiring from her role as racecar driver, and decided to end her career with one last shot at Victory Lane. They dubbed it the ‘Danica Double.’ Two races: NASCAR’s Daytona 500, and the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500. Here, she wanted to redeem her reputation, end the doubts of her talent and (maybe) make history. Neither of those races shook out the way she wanted them- 35th at Daytona and a 30th at Indy. As we end the chapter on her racing career, there are still countless misconceptions, false stories and heated arguments involving Danica. At the end of the day, her image is her legacy and things have spiraled out of control, Danica Patrick is gravely misunderstood.

The first thing that Danica haters bring up is the stats. In calling attention to the scoreboard, no, her record is not overwhelmingly impressive. She started her professional racing career in the Formula Atlantic series before moving up in open wheel to IndyCar. She was not the first woman to race in IndyCar, the Indy500, or even be the first female Indy500 Rookie of the Year. Patrick was, however, the first woman to win an IndyCar race at Twin Ring Motegi, Japan back in 2008. To those who say that she won off fuel strategy and thus does not count as a real win…Shut up! That argument is invalid. Every win in modern motorsports has something to do with strategy.

Should Danica Patrick be inducted into the motorsports-based Halls of Fame? If the criterion is based on statistical wins and poles… No. After the 2011 season with Andretti Autosport, Danica took her rising star and sponsorship money and went over to NASCAR. Here, she raced 6 seasons. In that time she scored 7 top 10’s, and 0 top 5 finishes. She is however, the first woman to win a pole in NASCAR and did so for the 2013 Daytona 500. Add that to her 3 poles, 20 top 5’s and 7 podiums in IndyCar she had a somewhat modest career. The numbers are a small blip in the Danica superstardom. As she grew bigger, so did her reputation.

As someone who has personally worked with and in proximity to Danica Patrick, I testify from my own experience that she is perfectly respectful to those around her. The stories I have heard from others say different. I take those with a grain of salt. She is blunt, honest and answers questions thoughtfully. I will say that her patience is very short, but so is her time. Think about what you are going to say to her beforehand, and furthermore, really think about if your question is worth asking. If you have to answer the same question 1,000 times in a season- you would get a little annoyed too.

Danica is also a very public sore loser. When things fall apart on the racetrack, the disappointment radiates off of her. She cares. This should not be a deciding factor in her image. There is something to say about taking defeat with grace and poise, but many great moments in racing have sprung from the heartbreak of losing. A.J. Foyt jumping out of his car on pit lane at the 1982 Indianapolis 500 and beating his Coyote with a hammer. How about later on as a team owner, backhanding Arie Luyendyk on camera after a dispute in Texas in ‘97? Tony Stewart still is not ‘graceful’ when his day goes south nor is Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Busch or was Mario Andretti in his hayday.

As a young fan, I will never forget the 2008 Indy500 when Ryan Briscoe took Danica out in a pit incident. Danica literally marched down the pit lane to confront her fellow driver. She had to be held back by security. Through racing’s long and heated history, one thing is for sure. Like Foyt, Stewart and countless others: hell hath no fury like an angry racecar driver. She proved to me her true grit that day.

A separation is in order. As frustrating as an on track incident is, drivers still have a role to play with the fans. There have been many a negative stories about Danica in this category as well. I have to chalk some of it up to fans not choosing their time appropriately. There is absolutely no excuse, however, for a driver to be rude to fans. I personally have seen Danica be respectful with her hoards of followers.

Something that Patrick is adamant about is her reputation as a role model. She did not ask for that spotlight. The on track novelty of being a woman in a man’s world has long since worn off. She is first and foremost a driver- that means she is an inspiration to little girls and little boys alike. If she has proved anything in her career, gender does not play a factor.

In the spirit of full-frontal feminism, Danica has harnessed the power of what she brings to the table. A mantra of hers is ‘rock what you got’ – and she has used her differences to market herself. The provocative GoDaddy commercials and racy pictures at the beginning of her career were all a means to an end. It worked. In her book Danica: Crossing the Line she notes that she was in control of her comfort level the whole time. Instead of questioning her path to household fame, maybe ask yourself why there is a demand for cheesecake pictures of her in the first place.

At the end of the day Danica Patrick is only human. She has been faced with an unfair amount of scrutiny and judgment over the years. Be reasonable your expectations. She gets tired of being asked the same regurgitated questions, being forced into a role as the token female, and fighting off the army of liquored up race fans asking for her phone number. As much as we would like to believe that the motorsports community has evolved, racing is still very much a boy’s club. Danica has helped fight that battle, even though she was unfairly drafted into that war. For that, I have the upmost respect for her. She has made her money, and she had the opportunity to do what she loved. Maybe she changed perceptions just a little. She doesn’t care what we think of her. In her last press conference after crashing out on the 68th lap of the Indianapolis 500 with a smile she leaned into the microphone and said to the media: “I will miss you- most of the time. Maybe you’ll miss me a little bit.”

“Reserve is off!”

“Andwearestartingoffattenthousandtenthousand… tenthousanddollARS. Eleven? Eleventhousandelevendthousandd… Twelve! Twelvethousanddollars. Who else? Do I hear thirteen?Thirteenthousand?Thirteenthousand? Once. Twice… One more time… SOLD!”

This constant rhythm of words is pumped through the loudspeakers for hours on end, the cadence of money exchanging hands. This was the sound that I heard going through the tunnel entering the Indiana State Fairgrounds arena. Usually home to the Indianapolis semi-pro hockey team, the building was turned into a auction stage for the week.

The largest touring auction series in the United States, the Mecum show has been coming to Indianapolis for 31 years. They have a total of 14 stops on their tour and touch all corners of the US of A. Every Mecum event is televised live on NBC Sports and it is easy to see the entertainment value.

Mecum proudly states that they have the most stops on their tour; the most collector cars offered at auction, the most cars sold at auction and the most dollar volume of sales.
The Indianapolis stop alone is a six-day extravaganza. They feature 300 cars a day minimum for sale in order to show all 2,000+ lots that have been consigned.

“There are no restrictions,” said a seller named Michael in a vaguely east- coast- style accent. “I make my living selling cars at these things — primarily Volkswagens. That’s my little Bug right there!” Nestled between an impossibly tall 2000s Ford F150 and a brutish 1960s Ford Mustang was his little cherry-red Bug.

“This is my 21st car this weekend for sale. I have sold 13 of da ones I brought. Whatever I don’t sell, we ship home. You see — mine have a reserve.” He leans over and points to a yellow sticker centered at the top of the windshield. “That there means that I, as the teller won’t take home any less than THAT amount. When one of my cars is up for sale, I can stand up there with the auctioneer. If no one is biddin’ at my asking price here, I can give him the nod. That tells him that I’ll take anything for it- just to not have to pack it up and take it home. He tells the crowd that the reserve is off- and the biddin’ really starts.”

Unlike Barrett- Jackson auctions, Mecum does not have any parameters of what types of cars people can put up for sale. No restriction of year, make, model, rarity, or current condition makes for a cornucopia of options. Buyers can be anywhere from the Average Joe who pick up a car for fun, to serious collectors looking for diamonds. Sit in the auction arena for 20 minutes and you will see a varied array of items come up for bid and hundreds of thousands of dollars- if not millions- change hands.

Part of the excitement comes from the randomness of what is put up for sale. “Sellers pick which stop they want to sell at based on the market of that city,” explained one of the traveling Mecum security staff. “Trucks you want to sell at the Kansas City or the Houston stops. Exotics go better in LA or Kissimmee (FL).”

Sellers can put one lot up for sale or many. The collection that captured my attention was the Jim Street Estate.

James Skonzakes, better known by the moniker Jim Street, bankrolled the legendary car customizer George Barris to make a dream car in the early 1950s. The ultimate result was the Golden Sahara II. After the second round of modifications, Street invested over $75,000 (equivalent to $675,000+ today) in this technological masterpiece. Street used it as a marketing tool and lent the Golden Sahara II to motor events and dealerships to show off the car’s new- age voice control system, remotes that could drive the car and even the self- driving feature. This must have melted the minds of onlookers back in the mid 50’s. Unexpectedly pulled from the show circuit and stashed in a garage for decades, the Golden Sahara II fell into a state of disrepair.

If that piece of rolling art was not enough to capture the imagination, the other lot in the Jim Street Estate collection was “Kookie’s Kar.” Hailed as the “catalyst that started the T-Bucket Craze” this car is the definition of a classic hot rod. You might have heard of it from the TV show “77 Sunset Strip” though it has undergone an extensive re-customization since then. Also stashed from public eyes for decades, both lots were put up for bid with no reserve to begin with- it would be completely at the digression to the pool of buyers what they wanted to pay for it. Estimates were between $100,000 – $1.2 million each. It all depends on who has the money and how bad they want to take either car home.

Though the lineup of cars is seemingly random, it is clear that Saturday’s lots are the top shelf items. A collection of Ford GTs, a group of cars being sold by baseball icon Reggie Jackson and others will join the Golden Sahara II and Kookie’s Kar.

Cars are displayed in groups organized by which day they will be put up for sale. In the morning they are rolled to a big screening / staging area where buyers and people representing buyers give the cars one last look over.

“I call them Flashlight Commandos” laughs Michael, “likely is that if their boss wants my car, they will have picked it out in the catalog already and they are making sure that it doesn’t leak or nothin’.”

Once past staging, the car is driven up to the queue and given a last wipe down. The handlers cut the engine and manually push it on stage. All the while, an auctioneer is hammering words a mile a minute until it is time.

“Okayfolks. ABeetle. ABeetle. LotW201.” The auctioneer lists the car’s stats, make, model, and asking price then recites the bill of sale in one breath. The bidding starts. Teams of Mecum employees are dispersed throughout the crowd of bidders. Referred to as Ringmen, they are in charge of relaying if someone in their section wants to place a bid. To alert the auctioneer when they have an interested buyer, the Ringmen holds up fingers to represent how many thousand dollars and gives a short yell. Every time a desirable car is on the auction block, these Ringmen sound like a chorus of squawking birds until the price is driven up to draw out the top buyer.

“Once. Twice. SOLD!” The auctioneer hammers down their gavel and the Ringmen let out another shout to celebrate the fact that they just sold another car. If a lot is not desirable, the seller can give notice to take off the reserve price then the crowd practically falls over themselves to get the car at the lowest price possible. This happens for hours on end without let up. The energy level is incredible, and it is hard to understand without being there in person. Auctioneers are the ringmasters but the Ringmen run the show.

As I exit through the tunnel on my way out, the auctioneer is still drumming up the crowd. “What is that?” he yells, “THE RESERVE IS OFF!” I close the door behind me just as I hear a loud cheer from the crowd.

Full Tilt

“I have the sickness,” he said with a smile, pushing his beer back and forth across the polished wood table at the restaurant we met for lunch. “My first Sprint car race was at Terre Haute a long time ago and I was like: ‘WOW, This is really cool.”

The sickness he speaks of is an affinity for racing. Ask a true race fan and they will tell you that the sport gets under your skin, you become addicted to going to the dirt track, the drag strip or anywhere they drop a green flag. Renowned motorsports photographer John Mahoney takes that passion to another level.

Mahoney, a Indiana native, discovered dirt track racing first then graduated on to his first Indy500 in 1955. “I have not missed a ‘500’ since” he states proudly. You might know his name, you might not- but if you follow American open wheel racing at any point in the last 40-odd years, you have undoubtedly seen his work.

Mahoney has photographed the stars of USAC, long before they become stars. He graduated from Indiana University with a degree is psychology and went to work for the state of Indiana. During his studies, he met and befriended an equally well known and talented would- be motorsports photographer Gene Crucean.

“I got my first Press Pass by pretending to write for a fake newspaper.” Mahoney admits wryly. “We called it Northwest News.” It was the mid sixties and he and his first wife had moved to southern California. “We reached out to the track in Sacramento, asking for passes but got no reply. I just wanted to get into the pits for free!” He had Crucean pose as the pretend editor for Northwest News and kept sending in requests. “The weekend of the race I was out in southern California, I was at a hotel- they were always having parties in the hotels- and I ran into JC Agajanian, you know, the promoter for Ascot Speedway. I thought to myself: ‘its now or never’ and walked up to him, saying that I was a writer for Northwest News and we never heard back about credentials. JC said that he had never heard of Northwest News but pulled out a pass from his pocket and gave it to me!” Later on Mahoney got hooked up with a couple legitimate racing publications, his photography flourished and the rest is history.

The camera was merely a means to an end. In order to get in the gate, being a member of the press was an easy and fun way to be close to the action. For John Mahoney, it was his golden ticket. His ex father-in-law was a master in the darkroom and quickly taught young Mahoney the tricks to developing film and printing his own pictures. Many years later at a pivotal point in his career with the Indiana Employment office, Mahoney decided to take make his ever-growing weekend hobby and turn it into his sole career. “It was a risk” he admits, “But it was the right choice.”

Dirt track sprint car and midget racing was, is, and will forever be his favorite. He has had the privilege to work with some of the biggest names around. From Foyt – his personal favorite-, Andretti, Rich Vogler, Bryan Clauson, Tony Stewart, and many more. In the handful of best races he has seen, the Hoosier will list big, local, Indiana races over the decades at the top.

“Some guys says that the ‘good ol days of racing was better- BOLOGNA! Some of the best drivers and racing is happening today!” Though the sport has changed, Mahoney loves it the same as ever. “Yeah the money aspect has changed racing, but the on track skill is as good as it always has been.” He cites the talent of Jeff Gordon, Kyle Larson, and Christopher Bell as reference. “THESE at the good ‘ol days!”

Mahoney is constantly asked for photographs for varying projects. Trying to obtain credit for his images is a never-ending battle. He has helped put together a few books on the history of USAC racing and is currently working with Dave Argabright and Pat Sullivan on another. His personal photo collection is featured proudly in “FULL TILT: The Motorsports Photography of John Mahoney” and on his website johnmahoneyphoto.com.

Mahoney, unlike most professional artists- is about as humble as they come. He refuses to admit how influential and important his vast experience is. He also jokes that he has yet to make a good portfolio of racing pictures. His wife, Martha, made a point to pull me aside after our lunch meal. “He is one of the best, no doubt. He will never say it but – if you have seen his work, you know.” Between portraits, actions shots and details of the track — John Mahoney is one of the best visual storytellers in racing. For a career made through the lens of a camera, Mahoney has managed to live his life at the place he loves best and the manner he loves best: at Full Tilt.

House Cleaning

With the turn of the New Year, two women have achieved new roles of substantial power in the motorsports industry. Both will impact the discussion of women in racing as we know it.

The first big announcement was by the FIA. Also known as the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, they are the governing body that oversees the racing aspect of Formula 1 and sub divisions among many channels of international motorsports. In December, they appointed a Spaniard by the name of Carmen Jorda to the FIA Women’s Commission.

A ‘test driver’ for the Lotus Formula 1 team, Jorda’s racing resume is not the most impressive. More of a spokesperson, shots of Jorda posing in a driving suit or standing in front of an car holding her helmet are plentiful, but actual driving stats are scarce. In her frustration with the challenges she has faced being a woman in racing, Jorda has decided that the industry is rigged. Her opinion is that her gender will never have a decent opportunity in professional racing and therefore a separate, women’s only series should be created. In an interview with the sanctioning body back in 2015, she stated: “Nowadays you see women competing in their own championships: football, tennis, skiing – you name it – and in none of these championships are men and women competing against each other. So the question is: why not have a F1 world championship for women?”

Former CEO of Formula 1, Bernie Ecclestone not only agreed with this thought, but openly contested the role of women in motorsports in general. He has even gone as far as to say that women “should not be taken seriously” in F1 and that “they physically cannot drive a car as fast.” Though in 2000 Eccelstone went as far to share his vision with Autosport racing magazine, saying that if a woman did make it in Formula 1, “What I would really like to see happen is to find the right girl, perhaps a black girl with super looks, preferably Jewish or Muslim, who speaks Spanish.” Clearly as Ecclestone saw it, women in this industry are merely present for visual appeal and to be used as a marketing tool.

This segregation that Jorda speaks of only further feeds the divide. Not only would pulling in sponsors be an issue for a separate female series, but it eliminates one of the biggest appeals of motor racing- equality. When competing for the Champion of the World, all drivers should have the chance to Just be drivers. A women’s only series limits the winner to be the champion only amongst women. This takes a step backwards from the groundwork that predecessors have fought every inch for.

Possibly, unbeknownst to Jorda, she is the Achilles heel to her own cause. By posing for photo shoots she has turned herself into a marketing ploy. Yes, it has gained her access to one of the biggest boy’s clubs in the sporting world, but at the cost of being taken seriously as a competitor. In her new role on the Women’s Commission, it is her responsibility to now uphold the reputation of her gender in the most historically scrutinized form of racing. Here lies the concern.

Jorda’s appointment sparked outrage across social media platforms, particularly from women in the industry. One of the hardest-hitting tweet responses was from an engineer by the name of Leena Gade:

“I chose to compete in a man’s world, like so many other women in countless motorsport roles. WE want to be the best against males & females. Can’t do that? Play another game.”

In early January, Schmidt Peterson racing announced Gade as the first female head engineer in Indy Car series history. This appointment goes in the opposite direction from Jorda’s.

Leena Grade’s race engineering resume is a perfect example that women can share the podium with men. Biggest accomplishments to date include her three 24- hour Le Mans wins, one of which she was subsequently awarded the FIA World Endurance Championship ‘Man of the Year’ award. Gade is quick to say that she is also on the FIA Women’s Commission and hopes to negate the thought of a separate women’s division in racing.

The tides are changing in the motorsports world. This is a topic that is very personal to me as a young woman stepping into this industry. The days of these sexist ideals are on the way out. Liberty Media announced in early February that Grid Girls in Formula 1 are going the way of the dodo as well. This removal, I believe, is a positive one. I agree with Carmen Jorda that women have not have not had a fair shake in racing. I also believe, however, that this fight is also an uphill battle to reprogram societal norms. It is not easy – but retreating to a separate series takes away just how big of an accomplishment an appointment like Leena Gade’s is.

Drivers like Janet Guthrie, Lyn St. James, Lella Lombardi, Maria Teresa de Filippis, the Force sisters, Simona de Silvestro, Danica Patrick, Sarah Fisher, Katherine Legge, Pippa Mann and dozens of others serve as reference material, a testament that women have and will have a place in the top tier of motorsports. As Ecclestone once stated: “women should be dressed in white like all the other domestic appliances.” If you truly believe that Mr. Ecclestone, then it is high-time for us clean house.

The Cutting Edge

“I love this show” says Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian, Donald Davidson. “Everyone that you see, aisle after aisle, booth after booth. Everyone that you see is employed in motorsports. You wouldn’t believe how big it is.” Draped in respect from his peers, the humble racing expert cannot walk more than a couple paces without someone recognizing him. They grab his arms, his jacket, a celebrity based on knowledge. Davidson is one of thousands of racing enthusiasts that flock to the downtown convention center in Indianapolis for the Performance Racing Industry, or PRI show. Though Davidson doesn’t merely attend the show, he is an esteemed guest. He was invited to speak about the four A.J. Foyt Indy 500 winning cars on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum booth adjacent to the main thoroughfare. Groups of onlookers gather as the interviewer sets up a professional camera and lights. They listen, eager to hear a tidbit from the Grand Master himself.

Happenings like this occur all over the 3,400-booth showroom floor. Sister event to the SEMA show, the PRI show celebrated its 30th birthday this year. Unlike SEMA, PRI is focused specifically on auto racing. For one weekend in December, this is the center of the racing world.
No one gets into the racing industry by accident. Walking through the aisles, anyone can see that this is a passion-based profession. Booth topics go from shock absorbers to exhaust systems, brake pads, chassis, racing sanctioning bodies and publications. Seminars go on in the morning, hosted by trendsetters and industry leaders. Some are as technical as “Battery, Cranking & Charging System Myths Explained!” While others focus on the human element like “Derek Daly Academy Driver Development Seminar.”

Professionals, team owners, drivers, and engineers are invited. This is not an event open to the public until the last day. In more recent years, both PRI and SEMA have put a larger emphasis on educational development. By investing in college-age students, they are keeping the industry alive and evolving. My personal favorite example of such student/corporate partnership was a virtual reality prototype introduced to me by a student that I happened to meet in the Online Resources booth.

He introduced himself as Taylor, the lead Project Manager for the IU School of Informatics and Computing on the Augmented Reality application presented in front of us. A college student with one of the coolest homework projects I have ever heard of, he pointed to the 1958 Monza 500 winning Indy Roadster and explained. “Me and a team of students worked on this all semester. We made a digital 3D model of the engine.” Holding up an iPad to the Race of Two Worlds Champion, a digital model of the car’s engine appeared on the screen. As you moved left and right, the digital rendering followed, changing perspective. “You can use this technology to create a living dictionary of engines,” he said. With more time and resources, applications like this can be used to peel away components to virtually look into the inner workings of just about anything. Motorsports is just one application of such a program. Students like Taylor are doing research like this all over the world to further development in everything from engineering to biology. This is just the beginning.

As big as the PRI show is, it comes nowhere close to the notoriety that SEMA earns, and I think it should. Though it is not as physically big as SEMA, the PRI show should be a MUST ATTEND for anyone that aspires to work in racing. Simply being there can be educational in every definition of the word. You never know who you are going to meet, what you are going to learn or what connections you can make. The PRI show displays the cutting edge of what is happening now in the racing industry. Mark your calendars for next year. The PRI show returns December 6-8 2018.

Winner, Winner, Turkey Dinner

Christopher Bell wins the 77th running of the Turkey Night Grand Prix at Ventura Raceway

Motorsports is steeped in tradition. Driver lineages, rituals, and yearly challenges are defining landmarks through racing’s past. In racing, prestige comes with age. The Daytona 500? 58 years old, Knoxville Nationals? Also 58. Chili Bowl Nationals? 30 years. Besides Racing’s Greatest Spectacle, the Indianapolis 500- that just checked off 106 years old and 101 runnings last May, the Turkey Night Grand Prix is one of the oldest marquees in motorsports.

For 77 years this race has been a Thanksgiving tradition in the southern tracks of California. The winner list reads like a who’s who of open wheel of racing history. Bill Vukovich, Johnnie Parsons, Tony and Gary Bettenhausen, A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Bryan Clauson and Tony Stewart are only some of the familiar names that are engraved into the famous ‘Aggie’ trophy.
Though not the originator of Turkey Night, the late J.C. Agajanian was a big promoter and proponent of the history of the event. Since his passing in 1984, J.C. Agajanian Jr. and family have done their best to keep Turkey Night alive in his father’s honor. “You know I have gone to Turkey Night my entire life,” laughed J.C. Jr., “I started out selling programs… I have only missed a handful in my life. Some of the best drivers in the world have raced here- (tonight) is some of the best talent that we have ever had!”
The inaugural race was held at Gilmore Stadium in 1934 and lived there until 1950. In 1960 Turkey Night was hosted at Agajanian’s famous Ascot Park for the first time. Thirty years later, the 50th annual Turkey Night Grand Prix became the last of more than 5,000 main events held since the track opened. The gates were closed the next day, the track destroyed to make way for a failed development project. The Thanksgiving tradition lived on, bouncing between dirt and pavement tracks alike before landing at Ventura Speedway in 2016.

“We normally get maybe 12- 16 cars for our regular program,” explained a local race fan named Sherry. “This is a big deal for us!”
Shane Golobic from Fremont, CA driving the No. 17w Clauson-Marshall/ Wood car led the field of 52 midgets in practice on Wednesday night before the big show, but reigning Turkey Night champion and Elk Grove, CA native, Kyle Larson, topped out qualifying.

Though Larson has recently reached mainstream recognition for his talents in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup series, his roots are in open wheel dirt track racing. “Coming back to dirt is like riding a bike,” says Larson.  A daring competitor, he is known for his hair-raising strategy of working the high line around the track. Though he put up a valiant fight, it was Norman, OK native Christopher Bell that took home the trophy at the end of the night.

Though the box score only counts three official lead changes between Larson and Bell, it is not indicative of the battle fought. The two sea- sawed from the very beginning, trading point multiple times within each lap. At one time Larson swept his No. 1 Kunz/Curb-Agajanian- racer around the outside of Bell’s No.21 Kunz/Curb-Agajanian car going down the front straightaway, daring Bell to find a new line. Immediately through turn 1, Bell fired back by impossibly finding grip higher on the groove.
A couple of yellows slowed down the pace and bunched the cars back up. Bell held off Larson on every restart, high low and in between. You could throw a blanket over the two right down to the end of the 98th and final lap. Golobic closed the gap in the last two turns and finished third. Bell crossed the line .193 seconds before Larson.

Bell has had an exceptional 2017 campaign, racing — and winning — in the NASCAR Xfinity and Camping World Truck series, and taking home a Golden Digger from the 2017 Chili Bowl Nationals. Turkey Night is just the whip cream on Bell’s already impressive launch into the higher levels of professional racing. At 22 years old, Bell is following the projection of Larson, Jeff Gordon and other open wheel hotshots.

“Did you guys have as much fun as I did?”  Bell asked the crowd after getting out of the car. The packed grandstands roared in return. As far as traditions go, this one is well worth pulling up a chair to. It is always a feast of talent.

Tricky Maneuvers

It was in thick and anxious anticipation that I waited for my press credential clearance for the Red Bull Air Races. Their second year being held in a hover over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, this was a great opportunity to take a new angle of attack on a sport and facility that I have become comfortable with.

This degree of motorsport is yet another marginal hue according to the United States demographic. Internationally however, the Red Bull Air Race Championship has been flying high for eleven years. Similar in tone to Formula 1, the Air Race Championship frequents exciting and affluent cities all over the world. Before hosting their series finale at Indy, the pilots had already put on a dazzling display in Saudi Arabia, Japan, Russia, Hungary, Portugal, and Germany and did a fly- by off the beaches of San Diego. Indy is far from the most populated event, though with a few more years of traction, and a prayer for good weather, it could be.

Finally, with email confirmation in hand, I ran down to the offices that are kiddy corner to the famed Speedway. Upon entering, I noticed a dramatic shift. All of the credential girls had turned into 50’s-inspired flight attendants. (EXP WHAT IT LOOKED BEFORE) In the spirit of branding domination, Red Bull converted both the credentials office and the media center into lux cocktail lounges. Complete with potted plants, huge translucent murals on the glass walls, and more helpful stewardesses, the place was almost unrecognizable.

This is precisely why I wanted to see this spectacle. Where the Indianapolis 500 is steeped in history and fans, this over-the-top effort to make an impression through details is a different approach to this facility.

Last year, both classes of planes put on a great show. In the title series, referred to as the Master Class, a German pilot by the name of Matthias Dolderer was handed the win and championship with one more event to go. This time around it was mathematically down to a handful of pilots, whomever won the race would take home the prize.

With the sun shining and the wind low, it was considered ‘perfect flying condition’ by most of the pilots. One- by- one they zipped through the puffy nylon pylons. Each run required three trips through the course before loop–da–looping around and starting the circuit again. The name of the game is to complete the task as perfect as possible. Penalties take form as additional time added to the run. These penalties can be for clipping a pylon, not going though the two- pylon gates in a horizontal fashion, flying too low in the course or flying too high in the course, pulling too many g’s on the loop and others.

In short- not just any pilot have the skill to do this. The Red Bull series itself knows the level of competency needed and hand picks the pilots to compete. This is very different from most motorsports where drivers show up with their bag of cash from sponsors and deals with a team. Here, Red Bull assigns the pilots to the stables and hooks sponsorships on their own. Everybody gets a slice of the pie.

A mechanic who was dutifully buffing his plane broke all of this down to me. “Each plane has one man. I am the man for this plane,” he said wearily. “We ship the planes from one country to the next, then assemble them close to port. They fly them to the track.” He said.

“So you have to completely disassemble their plane between races?” I asked. “Yes” he sighed “we pretty much rebuild them from the ground up overnight.” It was no wonder why this gentleman looked exhausted.

Even though the weather was shockingly beautiful for qualifying, a cold, harsh rain set in for race morning. The officials called off the support series, named the Challenger Class, and the qualifying order from the day before stood as results. This made French born Melanie Astles the first woman to win a major event in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway track history. “I am glad that I won here at Indy,” she said “but I do my best flying in the rain and in the wind. I was looking forward to going out there today and showing my best, but I am still happy with the result.” She said.

With one eye on the radar, Flight Control opted for a later start time for the Master Class. Unlike other events held at IMS, the Red Bull Air Races continue rain or shine- the heavier deciding factor being wind speed. The blustering breeze made the pylons dance all morning.

While waiting for the weather to clear, the pilots stationed at the front of their hangars to do interviews with media, talk with sponsor guests, and interact with fans. One of the front -runners for the series title, Japanese team Falken pilot Yoshi Muroya even hosted a special guest. 2017 Indy500 Champion and fellow countryman, Takuma Sato was close by all weekend.
Another contender for the race win and series crown was a veteran of the sport, American, Kirby Chambliss. “I have logged over 27,000 hours (of flight),” he said “that’s like taking off and landing four years later.”

After the gaggle of fans continued on, Chambliss rolled his Red Bull-spangled plane to the front of the hangar and grabbed an armful of tall, thin energy drink cans. I watched as he methodically set them up around the open floor area. Glancing up, he felt the need to explain the method to his madness. “This is my test track,” he motioned. “I like the flight simulator fine, but this just helps me picture what I need to do out there better.” Carefully, the two- time World Champion demonstrated the path he would take around the big course outside by using his hand to simulate the plane. After a couple of circuits he explained how the day was going go.

After each pilot takes a qualifying time, the Master Class grid is set. Much like drag racing, two pilots are slotted against each other. The better time moves on to the next round. They go from 14 pilots, to 8, then move on to 4. The last round is a shootout, best time takes all.

The wind and mist carried on throughout the rounds. Late in the previous day, the race officials made it clear that clipping a pylon, whether it was moved by the wind or not, would result in immediate disqualification. A few would be knocked out of the running by this rule enforcement, including Chambliss.

Muroya set the bar high out the gate with a new track record of 1min 03.026 seconds, which no one could touch. It came down to he and the Czechoslovakian, Martin Sonaka in the Red Bull colors. Leading the points going into this final round of battle, not only was the race win, but also the series championship was at stake. The fatal flaw of a missed vertical maneuver added four seconds to Sonaka’s time, and he could not recover. This handed the win and crown to Muroya, making him the first Japanese pilot to win a championship in series history.

Amongst screams and jubilation, Takuma Sato appeared in Victory Circle to congratulate his friend. Only four points granted Muroya the series championship, and mere seconds gave him the opportunity to kiss the bricks at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“We love this sport,” said an Air Race fan by the name Jim. He and his wife had avidly followed the series for years, and had the helmet full of notable signatures to prove it. “We don’t like any other organized sports. If you can’t get killed in the stands, then it is not exciting enough for me. We are from San Diego and saw them on their way out here. This is our first time in Indy!” When asked if he would come back for the already- promised Red Bull Air Race in 2018, he was quick to reply “Absolutely.”