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From Spurs To Slide Jobs
by Ashley Zimmerman
I was on Facebook a week or so ago and saw a meme talking about how we ended up where we are, and it got me to thinking. How did you end up at the racetrack? One of my favorite things about going places like the Knoxville Nationals is that we are all in one place with enough free time, that we often get to ask this question. The answers are always fascinating to me, and incredible stories in themselves. It’s become one of my favorite things to ask during interviews, as well. Have you ever wondered how your seat neighbor or your favorite driver ended up at the racetrack?
If you haven’t thought about asking, contemplate the answer some Saturday night, and given the time during intermission or pit side after the races and.. ASK. I say this with reasoning. Some of the most incredible stories inside sprint car racing come from asking questions of sources you would not expect to harbor the intimate details of our sport. When you begin the conversation at the beginning of an individual’s timeline, you’re likely to hear some of the oldest of tales.
With society being focused on being more PG and PC in their presentation in media, whether it’s print, social media, or television we miss out on some of the details that built the foundation of our beloved sport. These stories harbor details that without being shared are now becoming a dying breed, a breed of stories that house some of the best and craziest times of sprint car racing.
My parents began traveling from Illinois to Knoxville Raceway in the late 70s. My dad was great at making friends, and over the course of a few seasons had made quite a lot of them. His friendships grew to be strong since they made the trek every single weekend without fail. For me, growing up in this atmosphere, these friends became my racing family. Due to the era in which my parents began experiencing sprint car racing at Knoxville, you can imagine they were in the thick of the elusive poker games in the Arizona barn post-races, the school bus you see pictures of floating around social media, and many other incredible details like theft of the water truck to park it on the courthouse lawn.
You can imagine when you are surrounded by these shenanigans that when you bring a daughter into the world in 1986, as a father you straighten up your act some, and as a parent you don’t speak of the crazy things you partook in, until they are too old to try and reenact those shenanigans. For me, when my father passed away in 2003, those details went with him. As a teenager, I hadn’t yet begun asking questions of what happened before me; I just absorbed the details that came out in conversation. Regretfully, I wish I had the epiphany of asking how people ended up at the racetrack many years ago.
Luck would have it, though, that I would later enter the Knoxville Nationals Queen’s contest. The year that stands out to me, prior to the start of the evening portion of the contest, the contestants went to a type of sponsor dinner where we were instructed to mingle and introduce ourselves to the occupants. I happen to run into a man, whom when I introduced myself as Ashley Zimmerman, he immediately asked me if I was Joe Zimmerman’s daughter. When I responded with yes, he smiled, and asked me if he ever told me about the poker games. Now, as a nerd of racing information, I of course knew what poker games he referred to, and I promptly returned to my mother and began asking questions.
Now, I never got the details of the poker games from my mother, she laughed, and pretended to know not what I spoke of. But, this simple introduction a stranger birthed the question; just how did I end up at Knoxville Raceway? From there, I began asking my racing family about memories of my father and how my family started out their path to Knoxville regulars. I’m not going to out my father, but I sure learned where I get my love for laughter, fun, and mischief from!
But, it was this interaction that began to cement my love for the history and nostalgia of racing. I embraced that I’ve loved for a long time to absorb the stories of sprint car racing; it’s my nerd home base. Sprint car racing has gone a great distance since its birth on dirt tracks made for horse racing, an era not full of cameras, no social media, and television. This means, these details are harbored in the veterans of our sport; the drivers, the crew members, track officials, and even our seat buddy who’s been a track regular for decades.
Where we fail, is that this era can find information at the tap of a few keys on a search engine, and we take for granted that these details will be there somewhere mixed in the pages of various links and message board posts. What if no one ever asks of our veterans to share their story? If we don’t ask how they ended up here, and the details they’ve buried deep inside their heart and mind, how are they to know it’s worth sharing?
I have been very guilty of thinking that the things I’ve been told and experienced are the same things that any other race fan has went through or absorbed. It’s a character trait of mine to assume I’m not of a unique nature; how many of us make this assumption? In reality, each of our stories is unique and individual, and the details are important to create the emotion and nostalgia that drives the history of our sport. We just need to be asked a simple question.
How did you end up at the racetrack? How did you end up in sprint car racing love? These are my favorite answers to hear as a writer, and I am so passionate about asking them. I don’t want the details that created the excitement around our sport to be lost over time. Next intermission, lazy afternoon at the campground, Q&A on social media… ask. I can promise you the answer will surprise you. I’d love to hear what you learn, or what your story is, others will, too.
A year ago, returning to racing had our eyes on iRacing to fill the void in our reality. Aside from typical Mother Nature racing issues, it’s beginning to feel a lot like race season. Will it all be the same? Will we appreciate the finer things in life in light of our experience in the last year?
The last year has taught me and shown me a lot inside the world of dirt track racing, and it wasn’t because I was interviewing drivers.
Remember to appreciate what you have around us. Dirt track racing exists only out of the love and passion of promoters, officials, sponsors, drivers, and of course the fans. Our ability to race every summer Saturday night across the United States is a freedom we are blessed to experience. We are not entitled to dirt track racing in any form, and if we as fans drop the ball in supporting each facet of dirt track racing, no one is going to ensure its continuation.
COVID-19 has seemed to bring out the worst in how we treat mankind, between how we feel about masks, the vaccine, stimulus checks; we’ve begun to state our opinions and offended responses to other’s opinions without thought or compassion.
Carry kindness with you next to appreciation as the 2021 race season begins. Did your favorite hometown driver get a new big time sponsor? Is your nearest grass roots race track still opening for race season? COVID-19 coupled with the prior season of too much rain, our tracks are hurting and our sponsors are, too. If you favorite driver was able to obtain a new sponsor to keep racing this season or level up to do new big things; make sure you support that sponsor and tell them why you’re supporting them. Believe it or not, dirt track race fans are the most brand loyal when it comes to supporting sponsors, so make sure you do what you do best! If your local grassroots track is still able to function at 100% coming into this race season, make sure you are kind to the promoters. When they have to cancel because of rain, or implement a mandate, try to understand from their perspective what they are trying to accomplish. Grassroots race tracks across the US die every single year, even when there isn’t a pandemic that took away most of their race season, so for them to be able to give you another season of racing..just be kind to them.
Don’t forget about those who filled the void. Many race fans learned in the face of the pandemic, that iRacing isn’t just a game, and the guys (and girls) that spend countless hours on the simulation perfecting their craft have invested a lot of effort and work. Some of them do it because they wish to race, have raced, or just simply for the love of racing. Just because they aren’t the teams out on the series trail, doesn’t mean we now forget them in the face of returning to normalcy. These individuals are still working hard every week to compete in leagues, live stream their events, and chase their own dreams. They still have to obtain sponsors for their leagues, and still deserve gratitude and fan appreciation. Spend some free time watching a league’s live stream, like their Facebook; remind them that we still remember what they were able to offer us during quarantine.
Most of all, be thankful! Be thankful to return to your hometown track, be thankful to watch your favorite driver, be thankful to return to the stands and sit next to your racing buddies. Voice it, too, let the promoters and drivers know their hard work and passion has not gone unnoticed or unappreciated. We allow ourselves to get caught up in the things that upset our routines and plans, and forget to say the biggest compliment we can. Thank you. If COVID-19 and the loss of so many and so much has taught us anything, it’s to say the things left unsaid to the people in our lives that we appreciate – it simply can be gone tomorrow. Make sure your race family knows that even though you get mad about a rain out, or wearing a mask, you are still thankful for every ounce of effort they put forth.
Every single person in the racing industry from fan, driver, promoter, to sponsor worked fervently to ensure that we could salvage one wee bit of our racing season amidst the worst of COVID-19, and we need to pay thanks where thanks is due. You only become the first sport to return to racing during a pandemic because you love what the sport stands for and the people who follow, so don’t let them down by only expressing your upset in a somewhat normal world.
From me to all of the racing industry – thank you. Thank you for giving us something to look forward to, allowing us to continue to love our dirt track life one more year, and for giving us a place to escape to amidst a tragedy. I appreciate you.
The 2020 race season is officially a wrap, and while I hate winter, I’m glad we can say we’ve concluded a part of 2020, and are now one step closer to the end. Reflecting on time that has past, allows us to remember great moments in time, and also to learn lessons about ourselves and those around us. I figured now was as good of time as any to jump on the year-end review band wagon.
Love him, hate him, agree with what he did, or disagree, no matter where you stand on the Kyle Larson fence, you cannot deny that we were treated with one of the greatest moments in dirt track racing as a result. It has been incredible to witness the talent and skills that Kyle possesses in a race car, he makes every lap on the track look easy, and sometimes flawless. It takes an unimaginable amount of mental toughness and drive to set out on the path he did this summer, and find the level of success that Kyle did. While I am saddened to see him go back to NASCAR, I think this summer will give him a new level of ability and fight that will be equally as exciting to see on asphalt. But, what I really took away from Kyle’s mistake, never stop fighting, never stop trying, and never stop improving. Many people would have given up before the fight started, but Kyle pressed on to make himself a better individual, and to prove that people can change their ways. Kyle made a positive comeback from a situation that could have completely ruined his life, not just his career; it’s a strong reminder that even when the task looks daunting, even when you’re ready to hide, if you want something bad enough, go get it.
I did not attend a single race this season that felt “normal”, limited seating, social distancing, face masks, sometimes no crowds, races in place of cancelled races; it all impacted the feeling of a Saturday night at the racetrack. I will be the first of many to admit that attending the “One and Only” instead of the Knoxville Nationals wasn’t even close to the same feelings and vibe. There was a lot of heartbreak involved in cancelations, not getting to see our family and friends at the racetrack, and for some, not getting to go to the racetrack at all. I could focus on the “what should have happened”, or what was missed out on, but I choose not to. If there is one thing that this race season taught me, it’s to be thankful for what we did have. Be thankful your local track was able to host any racing, possibly ensuring their return to racing next year. Be thankful you were able to take in a race, regardless of what it was called. Appreciate that you were able to take a moment and forget what was happening in the world around us. Luckily for us, there’s next year, and a whole race season ahead; for some, they aren’t so lucky. There’s always another race is a statement I now hold a lot of respect for.
The silly season of ride swaps, sponsor changes, and all the rumors that come with it, seemed to begin early for sprint car fans; this is always a time of nerves for me. As a fan, I always want to see my favorite driver return to the racetrack. It would be foolish to think that as silly season begins, there might be some car owners or sponsors that have been adversely affected by the pandemic, and funding may be cut short. When you’re fueling the rumor mill, or listening to the peanut gallery discuss the rumors of so and so going to such and such, take time to pray for those drivers; there entire world is in limbo in an industry where rides are not unlimited. It’s a game of musical chairs, and eventually someone misses out on a chair – and that’s their livelihood.
With silly season comes sponsorship changes, and this one is near and dear to my heart. Think of your local drivers, the guys you see rolling into the track after a long week at work – the blue collar men and women just out there trying to live a dream. Sponsors can be the end all be all that determines how often the race, if they can race, and how hard they can chase their dream. With the pandemic effecting most small businesses, local drivers will have to be twice as diligent in attaining funding for their next race season. As a local driver, many of your supporters are small businesses, people you form relationships with, whom become a part of your family. When you hear of people talking about wanting to make a donation, or support something, suggest your favorite driver. They all of sponsorship proposals and opportunities available for any individual, including yourself. You don’t have to have thousands to support your favorite driver, pay for some race fuel, a tire, tear offs, they won’t forget you, no matter the size of contribution. (I’ve spent a lot of time working on sponsorship proposals, and trust me, even a tank of fuel goes an incredibly long way.)
I’m always impatient about winter, but I feel even more anticipation toward the next race season, I’m optimistic that we will have found a more normal way of life by then. I can’t wait to see local tracks reopen for full seasons, and larger tracks attempt to make up for having missed our major events. Many people didn’t get to attempt events surrounding their passions or hobbies in 2020, and I could not even begin to imagine what life would be like without wings, right rears, and slide jobs.
Wondering about my 2020 race season specifically? It has been an absolute rollercoaster ride that I am beyond thankful for. I returned to writing the fall of 2019, I’d spent a long time away, chasing other goals. Since my first two articles came out in December of 2019 in Dirt Monthly, life hasn’t been the same. From May to July, I had somewhere around eight articles just in DM. August, I joined the Hoseheads family. September, I began working for Outside Groove, and soon will have my first article online. October, I started working with Bill W at Open Wheel 101, and have enjoyed seeing a few of my articles republished. I’ve gotten the opportunity to meet some amazing individuals, and interview some of my favorite drivers. Some of you have even sent me feedback, and it has meant the world to me, and helped build my confidence after such a long hiatus. I cannot imagine what next year will bring, it’s already been a challenge balancing a day job, horses, and my writing; but it’s a challenge I welcome.
What about the 2020 season impacted you? What will you take away as a lesson amongst the dirt and methanol fumes?
My passion for writing has allowed me the opportunity to tell the stories of a lot of incredible individuals, this is something that I enjoy doing immensely; telling the stories of other people. I want you to read that again, and emphasize that I said telling the stories of other people. While at just thirty four years old, I realize that I have a multitude of adventures and experiences left to live, my journey to get where I am as an individual has not been paved in gold. There have been times where I have hurt deeply, lost greatly, struggled through great difficulty and adversity. These stories of my life have made me very adverse to the vulnerability it takes to share my personal story; it’s not something that people encounter me doing often. In fact, my friends currently reading these words are likely shocked that I’m about to be raw and open in such a public format, but, there are times that call for such moments.
They say, “vulnerability is not weakness, vulnerability is the birth place of creativity” and on this Friday morning, I’m going to take some time to embrace vulnerability with sharing a part of my story.
In 1978, my parents experienced their first season of racing at Knoxville Raceway. Aside from loving the sport, they fell in love with the track, the town, and its proximity to their home in Illinois. For some time, my mom would drive the nearly three hours home after the races, while my dad slept in preparation for work the next day. Eventually, as time wore on, they purchased a camper, and fully settled into the life and friendships they had made coming to Knoxville Raceway.
When I say friendships, I mean it in the very most plural form of friendships. My father loved to meet people, talk to people, bond with people; you get my drift. One of my favorite memories of my younger years at Knoxville, is being in the pits after the races, my dad was talking to someone on the push truck crew, and my tiny eyes could no longer stay open. I would tug on my dad’s pant leg and say “dad, I’m tired, take me home”, and in usual parent response, he would say “just one more minute”. This went on for some time, until eventually the leg tugs stopped, and I was found curled up on the ground, sound asleep on that black zook everyone loves so much. (I always knew I loved the dirt.)
In 1986, two weeks after my birth, I began visiting Knoxville Raceway every single weekend with my parents, just as they had for seasons before me, and just as we did for many seasons after. I grew up surrounded by the incredible individuals my parents had become incredible friends with camping and going racing in Knoxville, Iowa. You see, the family I was born with, they have not, and they do not play a role in my life, they did not help me develop and grow into the person I am, they do not see my milestones. While the list of people my talkative father made lifelong friendships with is too numerous to put into this column, every single one of them helped to make me who I am, they impacted my life, they experience my milestones, and they are my true family. (Let that last sentence sink in, because I feel across dirt track racing as a whole, this is a statement we can all put emotion and understanding into.)
There is a family, well, two now, that I do want to share in specifics. Jim and Mabel Hardin, I cannot recall a time in my childhood when I didn’t know their names, see them every weekend, or camp next to them. It’s because of them that I was able to experience what it was like to have grandparents, to make memories that for no particular reason stay with you and still make you smile. The entire Hardin family never ceased to include me in their lives when we came to Knoxville, and it was a type of inclusion I did not get to experience anywhere else in my life. It is a type of inclusion, that thirty four years later, this entire family still gives me, and I still get nowhere else in my life. It is impactful, it is warm, it is kind, it is loving, and it is family.
Jim and Mabel have a daughter, Christi. Many currently know her as Christi Woodruff, the woman who wears many hats around Knoxville Raceway, but my favorite hat is the lady who gives me hugs, and is always excited to see me. You see, many moon ago, Christi Woodruff married Jeff Woodruff aka Woody. That inclusion I speak of, blessed me the opportunity to be the flower girl in their wedding, and while I’m thirty four, this is a fun fact that to this day, I will brag about. Like the rest of the family, Woody has become my family.
The Woodruff’s have watched me through two queen’s contests at Knoxville Raceway, shared in the joys of graduating high school, cried with me when my father passed, and allowed me to write about Woody as one of my very first articles at Dirt Monthly. I’ve rode the rollercoaster of race results, experienced what it’s like to have siblings through their children (as mine, again, are absent from my life), helped with the queen’s contest, visited every single time I’ve came to Knoxville, and one of my most favorite moments; witnessed and cheered loudly when Trey Starks won Jeff Woodruff his first Knoxville Nationals Preliminary night feature win.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know, that the presence of Kenny Woodruff (Woody’s father) in their pit box that night made that win even more incredibly special. I didn’t have to ask to know it, when I interviewed Woody for my feature in Dirt Monthly. After all, this is a son following in his father’s footsteps. Both men of few words, knowledge of sprint car racing that could fill books, hall of famers, and absolutely incredible individuals; both have left their marks on us all.
As if 2020 could not get anymore tumultuous or heartbreaking, Christi sent me a link to her Instagram post last night sharing with me news that sadden me immensely. If you could feel your heartbreaking, I can imagine it would feel what I am feeling for the Woodruff family in this time. Kenny Woodruff was diagnosed with ASL. This is a devastating diagnosis and I pray in the time allotted to them, they are able to enjoy a few more precious moments, find a bit of peace, and enjoy the love of their family around them.
Kenny Woodruff blessed the sprint car racing industry with some incredible moments on dirt. He was passionate about our industry, about success, and it showed. I cannot begin to imagine the knowledge he has stored away, and the things he could pass on to teach us all. The victories, and records that Woody has amassed in his lifetime as a crew chief is representation of this multitude of racing knowledge.
2020 has taken far too much happiness from us, this was a low blow that no one needed, wanted, or deserved.
I’m blessed that I’ve shared my life with the people around me, and there is not one ounce inside my heart that wants to see them experience this hardship. I hurt for the family that has guided me through life so flawlessly.
One of my absolute favorite things about writing at Dirt Monthly is the Local Heroes’ section, and the opportunities that arise for me to write about drivers that aren’t often times found in the headlines. For me, I’m not a headline chaser, I don’t search out the opportunities to write about what everyone is buzzing about, and I like to write about the stories that inspire me. While I don’t own a sprint car, or any race car for that matter, almost any story I have written in the last year has had a component of inspiration that could be derived and used in anyone’s everyday life; it simply is my favorite part about pitching a topic to the editor at Justin Zoch and what I hope allows me to stand out in a sea of media members.
In June of this year, Dirt Monthly published a story I wrote about someone I call my best friend, and while it was a story I have been familiar with for nearing a decade, it was still a story I was eager to share with the world; as Billy Brickley has been inspiring my journey through life with his racing without being in print. While Billy dubs himself as semi-retired in present day life, his storied career in lightning sprints throughout Illinois was noticed by many. While I’ve had the opportunity to bring Billy up in conversation a multitude of times, I’ve always heard how incredibly fast his cars were and how impressive it was that he did it with very little; the amount of times that Billy has made it to victory lane justifies the sentiment behind these statements. Billy was known for his ability to make speed while budget racing, and this undoubtedly taught me something in my long career of rodeos and barrel racing jackpots. While money can buy fast things, and make the trip to the winner’s circle seem faster and easier, hard work, ingenuity, and passion can also find you under the checkered flags at the end of the night. When more expensive horses have beat me, when other barrel racers roll up in nicer rigs than mine, I just remind myself that I’ve put my hours in at home, and other people have found immense success in making do with what they have and found a place in the record books. My favorite line from interviewing Billy, and yes, while I can repeat his career in racing from memory including the regret he has in not making a last lap pass to win a golden driller at the Tulsa Shootout, I still forced him into an interview; he simply stated in a laughing tone; “I’m only semi-retired, and as long as there is a semi in front of retired, I can always come back.” It’s a motto that has stuck with me this year, as I’ve quite literally hung my spurs on the wall to focus solely on writing about racing, and pursuing a passion for a career I put on the back burner some seventeen years ago.
In May, Dirt Monthly published a story I did on 34 Raceway regular Nick Guernsey, and boy, this story left a lasting impression on me. Nick Guernsey is a Purple Heart recipient, and while his decision to fight for his country after 9-11 was rooted in civil duty, and love for the red, white, and blue, it also had a second motivator; fund his racing habit. Nick poured all of his free time, and combat money into building a sprint car from Iraq, but in facing war, he was also injured in a roadside IED incident, where he also lost many brothers. His dedication to his country didn’t stop once he returned state side and began racing either, he uses his platform in sprint car racing to share about the Hope For The Warriors fund; that helps veterans and families transition once a solider returns home. There is so much to learn from Nick, whether it’s perseverance through difficult times, chasing your dreams as far as you can take them to get them, or your love for country; what Nick Guernsey represents is something I hope to take into my life every single day. No matter what he’s doing, whether it’s helping a fellow driver, reaching out to talk to a fellow soldier, being a father, or being a sprint car driver; he goes hard into the paint and puts every ounce of effort into doing the absolute best that he can all while wearing his signature smile. If you’re ever at a racetrack where Nick Guernsey happens to be, I cannot impress upon you enough to take a moment to have conversation with him, he will leave a mark upon your evening.
In June, I also had the opportunity to interview a young driver from Minnesota for the Local Heroes section of Dirt Monthly (yet to be published, hopefully next month?) by the name of James Broty. In my previous post here, I talked about being a driver’s hype man, and referenced a driver I had formed a friendship with after having the opportunity to interview them, and this is the man of the hour. James comes from a family of race car drivers; a race team that was originally funded by his father spending summers painting houses in his families’ native country, Norway. Through the connections and great networking of his father, they even have a Norwegian sponsor aboard the team this year. The family runs Broty Racing Engines in Minnesota, and while James’ dad has retired from racing, James and his younger brother are still strapping into the car every weekend. They aren’t a large money team, they have to think about motor conservation throughout the year, especially now that James has stepped up from 360 to 410, and divide their time at the track focused on their cars as well assisting their loyal customers. Talking with James, you would never hear the stress or frustration; just sheer positivity and passion, in every single conversation. James has set lofty goals, and I’ve applauded from the sidelines to see him make his first A features with the World of Outlaws in just his first season in a 410, and smiled to the point of showing my dimples when he’s talked with passion about wanting to be the type of driver a kid can look up to, someone a kid can call a hero. I spent a great deal of time talking with James Broty on the phone for his interview, listened to how much he admires his peers in racing and takes every suggestion and piece of advice to heart. He shared with me during our interview a wipe off board that sits on his refrigerator, and has all of his goals to mark off as they are achieved, and after listening to him, I don’t dare question they won’t all get erased in time; only to be replaced with newer and bigger ones to achieve. It was the inspiration that I needed coming into the busiest time for barrel racing in my area, knowing I was pressing pause on one passion, to see if I could do great at another, it was a time where my heart felt like it was being tugged in two directions; my answer was a white board on my refrigerator centered on the goals I wanted to achieve with my writing and my writing only. (My barrel horses will be there next year, just as fat and out of shape as me, and still eager to go, right?)
I went into chasing my dream of returning to writing about sprint cars thinking I would learn about drivers, improve my writing ability, be a little bit more of a grammar Nazi than I already was, and spend a lot of time focusing on the sport I love; I overlooked the way each driver I spoke with would change my life, my mental health, and make me root for the hidden headlines. I find myself every weekend rooting for the local guys I’ve interviewed from the back, from the front, from Facebook, and addicted to using my race pass for just about every answer I need. As a thirty four year veteran of this great sport on dirt, I feel confident that I can say one thing; guys like James Broty and Billy Brickley have a few thoughts wrong; you don’t have to be a platinum member of a circuit to be anyone’s hero, and even if you’re semi-retired you simply aren’t washed up. We see what you did last Saturday, we saw what you did back then, and for many of us you’re always going to be legends simply because you’re stories impacted our lives and fueled us to do our unimaginable.
While my interviews generate income, the lessons I’ve learned from every single one of those conversations, have been payment enough. The driver’s in our sport are incredible men, doing the unthinkable in a sprint car and behind the scenes. As the racing season begins to slow, take a moment during intermission to learn about the driver’s not making the headlines in the blogs, the magazines, or might be simply in the local section; there are some incredible drivers out there, that while not the talent of Kyle Larson, are still doing historical things.
You can find past articles of mine at www.dirtmonthly.com with some of their free issues; Nov/Dec – 34 Raceway – A Day In The Life, Gearheads- Jeff Woodruff aka Woody, May – iRacing 101 with Elbows Up Billy, Local Hero – Draython Schanfish, Gearhead – Scott Bonar of Midland Performance, Nick Guernsey Feature, June – Gearhead – Conner Nelson from Wayne Johnson Racing, Billy Brickley Feature, Flea Ruzic Feature, July/August – Jacksonville Speedway with Paul Nienhiser, coming in September – Gearhead – Drew Brenner of Sheldon Haudenschild’s crew, Q&A with Justin Grant feature. Coming maybe in October – Local Hero – James Broty, Dominic Scelzi & The Long Road Home Q&A, Jenny Hutton – Life after Keith Hutton.
I feel profoundly lucky when I say that the thirty plus years I have been around dirt track racing, I have managed to surround myself with quite a few like-minded individuals; simply meaning, my friend circle consists of the majority being dirt track fans, raw, passionate, lovers of slide jobs, followers of the who, what, when, and why of dirt. I put a lot of the cause of these friendships behind the basis that I inherited my father’s ability to strike up a warm conversation with any stranger, and leave a lasting impression, majority of the people that I sit with during the Knoxville Nationals, have quite honestly watched me grow up, there isn’t a single person for rows and seats around me that hasn’t heard parts of my life story, experienced my lows with me, and used me for my abundant nerdom knowledge of racing, stats, and on the fly ability to mentally track points during the week.
Even more so, through my friendships, and now through writing for Dirt Monthly, I spend a great deal around drivers, and crew members, and it brings me to something that has begun to weigh heavily on my heart and mind.
Who are you when you approach a driver? When you shake the hand of a crew member?
I spend a lot of time sitting in the pits after the races, simply just people watching the interactions between fans and teams. I enjoy being incognito and sometimes hard to spot (hard to believe if you see my Twitter profile picture, I do rock the unicorn hair!), I don’t carry a media pass, and I am quite quiet about my affiliations; not that I’m embarrassed, or want to be sneaky, all in all, simply because I want to see the stories that other people don’t pick up, or make the headlines, I want to stay unique and outside of the box.
In my people watching, and through being personal friends with a wide expanse of team members and drivers, I’ve noticed how fan interactions lack a key component that I feel in this day and age, we could all benefit from adapting into our lives.
Life on the road is hard, strenuous, frustrating, and sometimes greatly depressing. Even as a weekend warrior, each race carries a heavy weight of necessary success; whether it be the cost of racing, chasing dreams, or wanting to do a stand up job for those sponsoring you; each race counts heavily. In a sport fueled more by adrenaline than the methanol fuel firing through the motor, the lows are more impactful are emotion filled than the highs. Many of these teams are going without seeing loved ones (some from stuck currently in other countries), some drivers are functioning without a true consistent team, some are going from day job to racetrack and back again; at the end of the night, no matter your walk of life, you’re focused on one place, trying to make moves and take risks that potentially end you up with a checkered flag behind your head in victory lane.
It’s when those moves don’t work, or a pressure filled weekend is approaching, that our teams and drivers need their fans in a capacity I think many of us overlook; maybe we’re too busy talking crap on social media, maybe it’s out of our box to interact this way, or maybe it just slips our minds. Our teams, our drivers, no matter what track, no matter what race, they need their hype men (or women, or kid)!
We are often very quick to build our friends up in our social lives, but I see it missing in the conversations of who won, crap talk, the next race, the biggest headline, and in line for an autograph. It’s a place we need to take the time, whether we say a bit on social media, when we shake their hand asking for an autograph, or when we muddle around the pit box looking at the car at the end of the night, or heck, even at Dingus after the races when the rest of the world is partying.
Did your guy try to make some moves that cost him some places? I bet he’s dejected, he might not show it, but he’s beating himself up mentally; instead of rehashing his mistakes, hype him up. Focus on the maneuvers and showing that has found him success, share with him how much is being said in positivity. Is your local driver entering up with the big dogs in a few weeks? Take some time to talk about how impressive their skills have been, where their talent lies, give them vibes for the weekend to come; we all know inside their head they have every single doubt running crazy. Did your team take a hard hit, wreck the car, and do some serious damage to the car and equipment? Here’s your time to shake a crew guys hand, tell him how you see them busting their humps in the heat and humidity.
There can be more to fandom than watching our favorite’s win, boo-ing the guy who wins too much, focusing entirely on the headlines, or arguing who’s better on social media groups. Saturday nights at the track are exhausting, they are trying, they are full of levels of fatigue some of us can’t even imagine, and at the end of the night they roll the car into the trailer and have to head down the road preparing themselves for the next one; fuel them to want to get to the next one faster, and drive harder into the corner.
We are a society who sometimes loses sight of the value of the spoken word, and the value of unwavering support. We tend to focus on what looks cool, or being right, or talking about the biggest headline, and forgetting about the fight inside the minds of the road warriors we admire and idolize. If we’re going to put them on the pedestal of fame and excitement, we better take some time to let them know we appreciate them, and let them know we enjoy them even when the night might not have been perfect.
All people feel good when their effort alone is noticed, not just their successes. When times are tough, all people have trouble seeing the silver lining in what it is they are doing, as fans, we can part the clouds and show them how bright it shines, when we use our words in a positive manner, in any format.
On a personal level, I absolutely would have to say that this year, with the pandemic, schedule changes, seasons ending early, cancelations of everyone’s favorite races, less fan capacity, every single person involved in dirt track racing is experiencing a mental struggle with finding a definition of success that fits the current situation; hype them up, help them, put them on notice that we see them rocking it out every single night, do your part as a fan.
Personally, I had the pleasure of interviewing a driver this year for the “Local Heroes” section of Dirt Monthly, aside from a great interview, with amazing content and a bad to the bone family story, I’ve gotten to be pretty good friends with this driver. This season has been a season of high risk, high reward for his family and team, he’s put himself out there to chase some goals, and occasionally, he finds himself in a moment of doubt. I feel honored to say that I hear about these moments, I’m entrusted to have a chance to be someone’s hype woman. (Probably a wise choice, words seem to be my thing!) As someone who’s become this driver’s fan through an interview, I take my hype job very seriously, and I put my all into helping alleviate a mind focused on doubt and attempt to find a way toward confidence. Now, I’m not saying I have a calling in motivational speaking, or that my words have anything to do with anyone’s level of success, but this driver has experienced some amazing success this summer and has set an incredible foundation for himself to be someone fun to watch, be a little kid’s hero; and if I got to play any role in helping him chase some goals, even if it was one single ounce of motivation, then my job as a fan in the most positive aspect, is complete.
Don’t let this season end with your favorite driver dwelling on their mistakes of the season, let your last words, your last tweet/post, be hype.
August 12th, 2003; while for many generations of race fan, it’s a date that seemingly has very little effect, for me, while I was just 17 years old, it is still a date that can cause me to stop in my tracks, take an inventory of my life, and pause the hustle for a moment of silence. You see, seventeen years ago, it was a gorgeous Tuesday night before the Knoxville Nationals, and like usual, Terry McCarl was hosting the non-wing version of the Front Row Challenge in Oskaloosa. Out of the ordinary, Australian, turned Knoxville native, Keith Hutton put down the wrenches as the crew chief of the iconic #55 car, and suited up as a driver. Through what was later determined to be just a freak racing accident, we laid Keith Hutton to rest filling the grandstands at Knoxville Raceway later that week. Losses like Keith’s, are moments where drivers, car owners, fans, fabricators, crew members, we feel a lump in our throats, and a break in our hearts. While death is a part of this lifestyle we all love, we do not prepare ourselves to lose the men that strap in on just an occasion, and those moments we do, impact our lives in way we can never anticipate.
For myself, and my family, we spent every weekend eating breakfast with the Hutton’s (Keith & Jenny). When I was chosen for a trip to Australia, as a student ambassador, it was the Hutton’s that convinced my father I would be safe in the land down under, and what necessities I should take. I feel blessed to have shared in the love for rodeo with the same fire and passion that Keith also did. The impact losing Keith left on my life, I still continue to feel to this day. You see, it was the emotions that my father felt from losing Keith, that left him to share a multitude of details with his only daughter [me!] about what to do, if/when, my mother and I should ever lose him to a freak incident. At 17, I could not even begin to fathom the possibility of such, especially with a fifty year old parent, driving a semi-truck as an occupation. Unlucky for me, I would later use the knowledge I was given as the result of our loss as a family, and industry, exactly one month to the passing of Keith. My entire world turned upside down, and for a few moments in time, I faltered, and questioned the option of giving up entirely. It was when I saw the answers I had been given, were answers my mother had the questions for, that I dusted myself off, and planned the funeral my father had wished for, just thirty days prior.
If the memories I had made in my seventeen years of life prior to losing Keith and my father, had not solidified a love for sprint car racing, utilizing my love for sprint car racing to continue to feel connected to my losses, did.
This last weekend, I was honored to have been given the opportunity to reconnect with Jenny Hutton, Keith’s wife in Indianapolis. The last time I had seen her, was the 2004 Knoxville Nationals, and that moment is engraved in my memory. My mother and I had purposely sought out to find her, located in the All Star’s merchandise trailer, we stood on the midway, hugging, and sobbing; as I had just shown her the #55 I had tattooed on my arm, in memory of Keith. While reuniting with Jenny was bittersweet, in the truth that I was coming to say “safe travels” as she returns to Australia to enjoy family, and to chase her own personal dreams, it was also incredibly inspirational.
You see, Jenny has been incredibly private about the loss of Keith Hutton, and the memorialization of his death; but it’s simply because she’s been in the mecca of the racing industry, living out his legacy in the most positive way possible. While there were many times throughout the years after losing Keith, Jenny wanted to throw her sucker in the dirt, figuratively speaking, and allow the pain to consume her being; she chooses to change her narrative. Jenny is passionate about seeing the light in the darkness, and pursued a career at Indy Racing League in safety inspections and accident investigation. Jenny allowed her personal loss to fuel her passion for preventing others from suffering through similar pain.
I left Indiana this weekend feeling like yet another Hutton had turned my life upside down, but this time in teaching me how to take the pain from my losses, and find the light in the darkness. There is an incredible strength inside of women like Jenny Hutton. I’m going into the next two months looking at the significant dates, and reminding myself to see the light in the darkness of the loss of two incredible men. I was incredibly blessed to have the man whom raised me share his love for sprint car racing with me for seventeen years of my life, and I have been blessed that the people inside of that sport enveloped me with their love, hugs, and positivity after my losses. Myself, and the world of sprint car racing was made better for the contributions and passion that Keith Hutton brought to the racetrack every single weekend. While for some this may be the first time you’re hearing about Keith Hutton, there is still an impact to be made by his passing; don’t allow the sadness of tragedy prevent you from doing incredible and positive things, let it fuel you.
On August 12th, I implore you, take a moment, wherever that might be, use the remembrance of those we’ve lost in sprint car racing, and in our personal lives, and change the narrative. Take this moment to feel happiness for having witnessed their legacies, for sharing in their memories, and simply smile.
P.S. Please watch upcoming issues of Dirt Monthly, where I will have a full interview with Jenny Hutton about the remarkable things she’s experienced in Indy Racing League, her life with Keith, and her inspiring perspective on using loss to fuel her passion in safety.
While statistics and results are well documented throughout the history of racing, the emotion elicited by the rich moments created by our dirt track ancestors is developed through the delicate sharing of each goose bump in its entirety of every race. When this happenstance is passed from each race fan to the next we tend to name this recalling of events racingnostalgia; nostalgia that has become easily shared by turning to our fellow fans and sharing a warm smile and a welcoming greeting at any dirt track venue across the world, it’s as if this friendly approach is a trigger to recall in the most vivid of descriptions frozen moments throughout racing history. While COVID may demand we take a six foot away approach, we are still very blessed to have the ability to mingle with individuals that love our sport just as much as we do. Our reality in the world outside of the race track can be quite daunting these days and sometimes prevents us from living each moment with the warmth and enjoyment that we once did. It brings me to worry about those whom thrive on moments of happenstance and nostalgia, I call them the last few of a very rare breed, a breed that has been slowly dying from racetracks around the world for many seasons now. We are a breed that is hard to spot, you can’t just look us up and down and know we are “one of them”, you come to find us after you’ve shared a “hello”, or asked a simple question about the race, the track, or the town. We are the story tellers, we are the bringers of life to nostalgia, to the goose bumps, to the nights to remember, and the moments lost in statistics versus the results. Too often we are overlooked as the fan who sits alone, so dedicated to sprint car racing, they will come alone simply to just come to a race track that means something to us; we overlook the ones whom start off quiet; the ones we may potentially dub unfriendly, simply because they want to absorb every detail, every sound to recall later. It is that absorption of each detail that has created the nostalgia that has allowed us all to relive moments like Jack Miller and “hooooollllllyyycooooow”, that causes those goose bumps, and draws smiles across our faces, all thanks to the intense recollection of a dying breed, the lost art of storytelling, the beauty of sharing the nostalgia of racing history.
In our beginnings of life are taught we need wings to go to heaven, later we evolve to learn that leaving this Earth can solidify your moments in this fast paced sport, coining you a legend in our history.We seem to forget that strong beautiful wings lead us to heaven every single Saturday night, lucky are we to have our paths guided by vapor trails. Our nights in a slice of heaven on Earth begin with a little motor heat, and end us in celebration in Victory Lane. It’s the moments in between, at the track or the campground, where the details form from our interactions, and begin the deep roots of memories to later become filled with nostalgia. These moments years ago, started as potlucks with your neighbors, purchasing the same tickets at big events year after year; where we learned about your families, your trials and tribulations; with the hustle that has become daily life, these moments have slowly faded to brief passing’s – unless, by great happenstance, you’re one of that dying breed, the story tellers, the detail absorbers, the creators of nostalgia. You reach out to those camped around you, you cross fingers to see them the following race season; you answer the questions from the “puppy racers”, and you take each opportunity to recreate the nostalgia of the great moments you’ve witnessed in your race fan career, and take great pride in creating another generation in the now lost stories you were graced to hear fall upon your ears over the seasons.
We heavily document each Saturday night with statistics, who has done what or broke what record, and sometimes allow the details to fade. Social media has given us the opportunities to visually absorb the highlights of each race, but what social media lacks is the emotion those highlights are able to give us. Youtube is unable to let a proud smile creep across it’s lips when they recount how spectacular it felt watching Jason Johnson battle it out with Donny Schatz for his nationals championship; but the story tellers, the heart that goes into the way they pass nostalgia on to the next race fan, is a talent no machine can recreate.
COVID will undoubtedly change our normal lives for many years to come, but as race fans, we have shown our Saturday nights at the track are not to be messed with or interrupted. We have shown our love for sprint car racing, our local tracks, and our drivers, is unrivaled of any sport on this Earth. As race fans, it is also our duty to not allow the stories to die, to not trickle away into just remnants of days gone by. As we sit in the stands, or lounge around under the awning at the campground, don’t let the hustle of day to day prevent you from that warm greeting, and conversation. It may be through this simple interaction, you learn the power of Tony Bokhoven yelling “let’s go racing in the valley!” Our maybe, just maybe, you’ll remember that wings don’t just take you heaven in the afterlife, but heaven on Saturday night.
My name is Ashley Zimmerman, and I am a freelance writer. I’ve grown up around sprint car racing, and dirt tracks my entire life. Currently, I consistently contribute to Dirt Monthly magazine, and my column here on Hoseheads. Although, I am always looking for more opportunities, if you like what you read, don’t hesitate to reach out. I pitch all of my own articles for Dirt Monthly, but will consider any opportunities to write and expand my horizons. Anything published in my column here, has not been published elsewhere, and is available for contribution.
Amjzimm55@gmail.com or on Twitter – snappybee55
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