All in the Family

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Racing has a specific smell, my first NASCAR race at Chicagoland Speedway the weekend of September 18th was no different. The hot metal, burning race fuel, and mass of sticky people make a magical mixture that could never be replaced by any court or field sport.

Like the smell, the atmosphere at a professional motorsports event is distinctly laced with an electric excitement like no other. It is no wonder that race fans are fanatically energetic.

I mean, who wouldn’t stand up in their chair when a field of 40-some cars come rolling past like thunder?

Leading up to the event, I could not help but notice the differences in NASCAR culture compared to other sporting events. The emphasis around the facility was clearly geared toward families. This race was christened the ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle 400’, a tactic that was clearly to attract a younger audience’s attention and provide a unique atmosphere at the race track. All weekend long the characters of the show were taking pictures and posing amongst the fans. Some of the Xfinity and Sprint Cup cars sported special livery in honor of the Heroes in a Half Shell so that you could not only root for your favorite driver- but also for your favorite character. Is this traditional motorsports marketing? Not in the slightest, but like it or not it is becoming more challenging to attract a younger audience and hold their attention- this was an excellent way to do so.

Besides the families in the stands, there was a distinct theme of drivers that were sporting the ‘family man’ image. Walking into the driver’s meeting, during driver introductions and even on the pre-grid, drivers with families were never without their child and/or wife by their side. This phenomenon may be applicable to other disciplines, but in tandem with the Nickelodeon cartoon theme, this presence was noticeably prevalent.

This familial emphasis found its way into the garages as well. The crews working on the cars naturally seem to form their own band of brotherhood. Before the race, there were prayers, huddles, back slaps and good wishes. Comradery can take many forms. Some teams even have a BBQ set up right outside their hauler with a crewman cooking up a hot meal for their guys. One took me through the day’s menu of grilled pineapple and teriyaki chicken.

It was a beautiful, clear afternoon in Joliet, IL when the Sprint Cup cars came down for the green on the 1.5mi bull ring. The race itself was relatively yellow free. Due to rain earlier in the week, the grid was set by accumulated season points. Last year’s Chicagoland champion and defending Sprint Cup Champion, Kyle Busch in his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota started from the pole. He was quickly under siege by the second place starter, Brad Keselowski in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford. It would come down to tire strategy and a late yellow brought on by No. 98 of Michael McDowell that would reshuffle the field. Second generation fan favorite, Chase Elliott in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet would have to come in for fresh rubber. Frontrunner Martin Truex Jr. in the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota would beat Elliott off of pit lane. Coming down to the green, Truex used the advantage of fresh tires to take home the win. Joey Logano in the Team Penske No. 22 would finish second and Elliott would roll home third.

In the thick cloud of burnt rubber and the aroma bacon encrusted nachos, Truex rejoiced in his win with his wife and crew by his side. Moving forward in the Chase rounds, it will be interesting to see who advances.

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An Interview with Lyn St. James

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Lyn St.James is more than a retired racecar driver. While other previous Indy500 participants fade into obscurity, Ms. St.James tours the country giving talks, encouraging the next generation to join the circus of motorsports and tells tales about her career.

Ms. St.James has quite a few stories to her impressive resume. She started racing in 1974 with a Ford Pinto (that she immediately drove into a lake). By 1979 she competed nationally as a professional driver. Ford had faith in her talent and she worked her way up into bigger and faster road racing divisions. Her top accomplishments include winning the 24 hours of Daytona twice (1987, 1990) and the 12 hours of Sebring (1990). This road led her to competing famed racecourses like LeMans and Nurburgring. In 1992, eleven years after visiting the most iconic race in the world, St. James competed in her first Indy500. She would win the Rookie of the Year title, finishing 11th- the first woman to hold that honor. She has competed against legends Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell and Rick Mears, all while facing the adversity of being a woman in a male dominated sport.

This last summer Ms.St.James came out to speak at the World of Speed motorsports museum in Wilsonville, Oregon to promote their impressive Heroes and History Indy500 display. I had the wonderful opportunity to interview my idol further about the centennial Indy500, her training habits, and even politics. What continues to impress me about Ms. St. James is her quick and candid frankness when answering my inquiries. This is a sampling of some of my favorite answers.

The last time we talked was out at Indy, I saw you just before you got behind the wheel of a vintage Indycar. Tell me about that experience. How did that all come about?

That actually came as a result of the IMS museum. They organized that exhibition. Some were museum cars owned by the museum and some were independent owners. I was asked if I wanted to drive one and I said ‘certainly’. The car that I was driving was the 1935 Pirrung that Wilbur Shaw finished second in the 1935 Indy500 and it is actually owned by a woman…It was really lovely, I didn’t know what to expect, those cars are not that easy to drive!…Two things she said to me, one was to be careful as we got out onto the track because that was a fairly tight turn, almost a U turn. She said that if you turn the steering wheel too tightly it will override the steering box and you will lose your steering. The other thing was that there was this handpump that she had to use to pump oil into the engine. She wasn’t just a passenger!

It has been 24 years since you won the Rookie of the Year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In those years how have you seen the sport change?

It has gone through a number of changes. The most significant are the improvements in safety, both the tracks as well as the cars. The demands of the increased downforce and physical capability that is needed to drive these cars has demanded that these drivers be amazingly fit athletes. The technology has taken leaps. The equipment itself has  changed. I look at those cars, and I talk to some of the drivers, and I read about what is like to drive them and I scratch my head. I know that it is well beyond what my skills are able to do. I admire and I am in awe of what those competitors are doing right now.

If you could have anyone as your teammate, who would you want and why?

Rick Mears. Just because his driving style and mine are probably what I can tell are the most similar, and he is very open and willing to share. He is one of my idols and that would be my choice of teammate.

In your opinion, who is the most underrated female racer (and yes you include in that pool)?

(long pause) That is a tough question. One of the things that I learned a long time ago was to never expect, anticipate or judge other people’s opinion of my skills because if you do, you are down a downward spiral. We have enough challenge to control our own self doubt, our own internal thoughts. When you allow other people’s thoughts to penetrate your brain and process those, you are in dangerous territory. There are some people that overrated my driving and those that have underrated it. I don’t value that… the key people that I really regarded was the respect that I would get from my teammates and from my owners, my crew.

If you had one piece of advice, one takeaway from listening to your speech and your stories, what would it be?

You have to have the confidence and believe in yourself. If you rely on lap times and external opinions, whatever. If you rely on external information to feel good about who you are, then you are in quicksand. You have to figure out how to have that confidence in yourself, and it ain’t easy. It comes from lap times sometimes, but if you rely on that you are really set up for failure.

8th Annual Rust O Rama

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There are many flavors of car enthusiasts. Some devote their loyalty to Model A pristine vintage, some like the new souped-up imports and then there are hot rodders. Some hot rodders pledge allegiance to traditions while others create their own frankenstein dream kustoms. Events like Rust O Rama put on by the Cherry City Bombers car club feature their own niche of hot rodder that should not be overlooked.

The cars and the people at the 8th annual Rust O Rama are a mix of eras and style. Some are clean and polished with a little detailing that sets them apart, others go for the extreme rusty and rough look. Each car and their driver has no shortage of personality showing, and it is interesting to walk the rows of vehicles and observe just how different people’s tastes can be.

The car club makes it a point to have ongoing entertainment throughout the day. Music, a mobile tattoo parlor, vendors of clothing and jewelry, pinstripers, a hairstylist, and the ever-entertaining pinup contest. Each year, the Bombers pick a charity to feature. This year the foundation of choice is called Magic Wheelchair who make Hollywood- grade costumes for children bound to wheelchairs. The pinup contest- like the car show itself- helps gain awareness for the cause. This year I personally dressed up and participated as one of eleven pinups. Dawning my hair sprayed curls and extreme eyeliner was well worth the $173 that we girls collectively raised for Magic Wheelchair.

As the finale to the day, two members of the car club got married right on the rockabilly stage, all while celebrating and welcoming anyone that wanted to be present. I could not ask for a more unique grouping of cars and people to be around for an afternoon. So when this event rolls around next year, come on down to Salem to support charity, get a tattoo, or simply people watch. It is never short of entertaining.

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