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    In The Groove

    by Stacy Ervin

    While the Memorial Day weekend of racing was phenomenal, most dirt racers and fans across the country are doing what we love with very heavy hearts.

    On Wednesday last week, we lost Jesse Hockett, one of the most talented and versatile young racers around. The Missouri pilot known as "the Rocket" lost his life at age 26 in a freak accident in his race shop. Ironically, the weekend before had probably been the most successful time in his career. That, coupled with a beautiful new bride, made it seem like the world was at his feet. Now we're just left with good memories and sadness over what might have been.

    I think the most shocking part of this whole ordeal is that he did not lose his life on a race track. Those of us who have spent our lives around this sport always know in the back of our minds that the inevitable can happen. It often does. And while we try not to dwell on it, we go into it knowing full well we probably will lose friends along the way.

    When I opened an email on Wednesday evening that told me Jesse was gone, my first thought was, "Where were they racing on a Wednesday afternoon?" I've talked with others who had the same first thought. Some drivers can seem to be bigger than life, but in reality, no one is immune from death. When it happens on the track, no matter who it is, we half expected the shock. When it happens away from the race track, it's so hard to understand how it can be so.

    Jesse Hockett was one of the most likable drivers in any pit area and always one that could be counted on to put on a fantastic show and probably win in dramatic fashion. He'd been through a lot in a short life, having lost his cousin, best friend and crew chief in a different accident a few years ago. Now his family and friends are left to grieve once again. It just doesn't seem fair.

    But as the saying goes, we all know life goes on. Jesse would want us to continue racing because it's what we's what he loved. And that's exactly what happened over this Memorial Day weekend. Tracks around the country raced in tribute to the Rocket, took collections for his family, packed pits and grandstands in his honor and started parade laps with missing man formation for him. Racing is a family sport, we all know. Not only does it keep blood relatives together, but anyone in racing becomes part of a larger family. Partly that is due to the dangers involved and the potential need for a strong support system.

    Racing people are passionate individuals by nature, and nothing brings out our giving sides like the need to help a fellow racer or the family of a fallen racer. That's what makes me so proud to be part of this racing family. And on this Memorial Day, it's what makes me proud to have been part of my Grandpa Rocky's family. I've noted many times before that he's the one who fueled this great passion for racing in my life and even in tough times like we've seen this past week, I would not want to be anywhere else.





    Racing is the ultimate family sport

    We all know that racing is the most unique paradox on this planet. Mostly we love it with everything we have within our souls. But when the bad things happen, and in sprint-car racing in particular they are frequently bad, it can be an ugly addiction.

    In many ways, racing is just like a marriage. You enter into it knowing you are committed for the rest of your life. Knowing you are accepting it for better or worse. And knowing that no matter how many times you wish you could just give up and walk away, you simply never will.

    One of the most interesting aspects of racing is the way it appears as both a team sport and an individual sport. The driver is the star, getting all the glory for the bigger-than-life bravery. But behind the driver is a team of mechanics to do all the technical work and in some cases a car owner to pay all the bills. And then behind all of them are the family members who are, simply put, along for one big roller-coaster ride.

    Families in racing don't just have to be related by blood. Families in racing come in all forms, because racing breeds a sort of lifestyle that requires soul mates of all kinds to come together. Those who aren't totally committed tend to fall away quickly from all the demands racing makes. And sometimes even those who are committed find the sacrifices become just too great to handle anymore.

    You see, a driver may be the only one strapped in the car, turning the wheel and mashing the gas pedal. But the rest of us, the “family,” are riding in that seat too. We feel the elation and the pride when the slide job works out and we cross the checkered first. Likewise, we feel the shock and the terror when the motor goes up in flames and the car flips end over end.

    Most of the time, the “family” has to be a lot stronger than the driver. Yes, he or she may be the one taking the impact, breaking the bones and waking up sore the next day. But the “family” watches it all unfold and picks up the pieces in the aftermath. It's far from an easy job.

    It's for these reasons that we mostly find that both members of a couple involved in racing come from a strong background in the sport. It's rare that a person who is not totally devoted to spending their life in this paradox we call racing would marry a person who races a sprint car. Some do, and once in a while it works out, but most of the time these relationships fail miserably.

    Take an informal poll of the wives of sprint-car drivers in any pit area in the country and you'll likely find that most of the women are bigger racing fans than even their husbands. And it's precisely that coming together of people who share racing in their blood that keeps this a family endeavor for generation after generation.

    Women like Amy Swindell, Patty Haudenschild and Nickie Anderson were once little girls who watched their fathers race. They grew up to watch their husbands race. Now they watch their sons race.

    “I always went to the races with my family. It was just what we did,” Swindell said. “We would take a week in June and go to Florida, same place same time every year, and would leave after the Saturday night races at West Memphis and get home in time for Dad to race on Friday.”

    Some of her fondest childhood memories include watching the painter letter her dad's car with his number and his name, Elmer Gray.

    “One year I got the painter to put stars on each side of his name,” she recalls. “I really don't know if Dad ever knew it was me that did that. I liked it!”

    Her brother, Terry Gray, also became a racer.

    Likewise, Patty Haudenschild watched her father, Max Sweeney, and then her brother, Mike Sweeney, race. One of her funniest memories involves her dad winning a race after he had retired to help her brother start his career.

    “He was mad at Mike 'cause he wanted to go surfing instead of getting the car ready, so my dad told him, 'If you go surfing I'm racing that car tonight,'” Haudenschild said. “My brother didn't believe him so Mike had to wrench for him and he won and everybody was laughing in victory lane.”

    After her father lost his life in a midget at California's Ascot Park, her mother married another racer, Bob Hogle.

    Nickie Anderson was one of 12 children belonging to racer Frankie Lee Heimbaugh. With such a big family, including brother Mackie who was a Knoxville Raceway regular for many years, there was always someone to watch on the track.

    “I don't know any other way. I don't know how they afforded to take all of us kids, but we were always there,” Anderson said. “When you're born in a racing family you want everybody who wants to race to be able to. It's just what we did.”

    When she met her high-school sweetheart, Jack Anderson, he was a fan of drag racing.

    “He called our racing 'circle racing.' I went to a few drag races with him but it was boring,” she recalls. “So my dad converted him.”

    Anderson adds her father taught both her husband and her brother how to drive race cars and how to run auto-body repair businesses. There was even a time that Jack Anderson and Mackie Heimbaugh shared driving duties in one race car.

    Amy Gray and Sammy Swindell were also high-school sweethearts.

    “Sammy's dad and my dad raced together. Our families were friends,” she said, noting they attended the same birthday parties, dinners and card games during the winter. “My dad got hurt one summer and Sammy's dad drove my dad's car. We all just kind of grew up together.”

    Though Patty Sweeney was introduced to Jac Haudenschild about 30 years ago, it took a while for the two to get their relationship off the ground.

    “I never really thought I would stay involved (in racing) after losing my dad. It was too painful 'cause he was a really great person and I never wanted to go through what my mom went through,” she said. “I had a great career right out of high school, so no I did not think this is where I would be.”

    Now, she watches over her 16-year-old son, Sheldon, in his first year of piloting a sprint car. The couple also has a 17-year-old daughter, Raquel.

    “I figured Sheldon would be a racer 'cause he is so coordinated in everything he does,” Haudenschild said. “Our kids are good kids and racing has helped make them that way. Racing is good for families. It keeps you close.”

    The Swindells' son, Kevin, now 20, grew up on the road, home-schooled by his parents for three years so the family could travel together on the World of Outlaws trail. His childhood experiences led him into his own very diverse racing career. He currently races with the United States Auto Club.

    “Kevin will tell you to this day that it was absolutely great growing up around the races,” Amy Swindell said. “I think Kevin became the adult he is today because of being on the road. I have never had to worry about him being on his own because he learned everything. He could read a map when he was 5 and tell his dad which direction to go. He also watched him race so much that he began to offer his opinions to his dad after the races, which was always a treat for me to watch Sammy's face when Kevin would question his dad as to why he didn't move to the top or pass that certain guy by going low. Stuff like that is priceless to me.”

    Jack and Nickie Anderson got out of racing when their daughter, Kelley, was born. Son, Johnny, came along seven years later and got the family back into racing when he started in go-karts at age 10. He started racing in the 360 division at Knoxville after graduating from high school in 2000. Jack Anderson passed away last August, but the family team continues to thrive because everyone else remains involved. Little Jack, Johnny's 2-year-old son with wife, Jenny, will likely be the next generation.

    Nickie Anderson continues to see her extended family at the track, as well. Mackie Heimbaugh's son, Frankie, was a Knoxville 360 regular until he was sidelined with an injury last year. Another cousin, Chad Heimbaugh, now drives the No. 04, and Frankie helps his wife's brother, 360 driver Dustin Selvage.

    Like the other women, Mandy Pittman, Amy Tatnell and Joanne Cram grew up around racers and went on to marry sprint-car drivers.

    For Pittman, going to the races was about spending quality time with her dad, Mike Ward, since her parents were divorced.

    “My grandparents would take me to Riverside where dad raced. He won a lot so I can literally see how I grew up through the victory lane pictures every week,” she recalls. “He had my name on the hood of the car.”

    Amy Tatnell missed out on a lot of the success of her father, Jerry Richert Sr., including his win in the second Knoxville Nationals in 1962. But he still raced during her childhood, giving her lots of good track memories.

    “I loved racing,” she recalls. “I could tell you every car's number and who was driving it and could give you stats for the entire summer. I was a race geek.”

    Soon, her brother, Jerry Richert Jr., began his own racing career.

    “I can remember Sonny's early days of racing when him and Dad would race against each other. It's no wonder my mom would go through a pack of cigarettes back then. My dad certainly did not cut him any slack,” she said. “One of the best memories is when I was (Knoxville) Nationals queen in 1988. I got to walk him out to his car. That was really special for me.”

    Joanne Cram has a lot in common with Tatnell, including being a former Knoxville Nationals queen in 1999. Her involvement in racing began with her grandfather and her uncle, Fred Brownfield. Soon, her brother, Travis Cram, began racing around their Washington State home.

    “My brother and I were very close. What he was into, I was usually into,” she recalls. “I helped work on the car and that was a really fun bonding experience. He taught me what I know and never made me feel stupid. He would always explain, 'Here's what we do and here's why we do it.'”

    In the mid-1990s, Brownfield wanted Travis Cram to branch out in his career, so he sent him off to spend the summers in Knoxville. Joanne Cram followed each summer during breaks from her teaching career. It wasn't long before she would meet and then marry Knoxville 360 regular Joe Beaver.

    “I really never wanted to marry a race-car driver. I grew up around them and had very close friends, but I never wanted to end up with one,” she said. “I met Joe at an after-race party, we started talking and hit it off. I didn't find out until later that he was a race-car driver. After the first couple weeks of dating him, I knew he was the one I wanted to be with.”

    For Mandy Ward and Daryn Pittman, partnership took a little longer.

    “Daryn and I first met in Oklahoma. Dad crashed really hard and he came over to check on him,” she recalls. “A year later, Daryn raced at West Memphis and parked side by side with my dad. They rode to the driver's meeting together and Daryn asked my dad, 'How old is your daughter?'”

    They started dating after she earned her degree at the University of Memphis and did not marry until after she had spent four years as a school teacher.

    “I think I always knew to some extent I would be around racing. I knew Dad would always be around it,” she said. “I never thought about being a driver's wife until I met Daryn.”

    Marriage for Amy Richert and Brooke Tatnell took quite a bit longer.

    “I did get out of racing for a few years after Dad passed away and Sonny was not running much. I concentrated on my triathlon career and also had a very successful job,” she said. “I could never get sprint-car racing completely out of my system.”

    She met the Australian Tatnell in 1991. They were friends but drifted apart until reconnecting in 2004. Their daughter, Emma, was born in 2006. Maintaining a stable family life is now at the forefront for this family.

    “My dad and brother have always had a good job to fall back on and this is our full-time job. There is no guarantee in this business. One day you're a hero and the next a zero. You have no 401K or medical insurance, so for me it was really hard at first because I was used to getting a paycheck each week,” she said. “It's also hard because we spend four to five months in Australia, so there is never really a break from racing. On the other hand, it has its benefits. We get to spend a ton of time together with Emma and get to travel and see lots of the two countries.”

    Life on the road also changed for the Pittmans recently, with the addition of their 3-month-old daughter, Taylor.

    “It's a whole different ball game now,” Mandy Pittman said. “I used to watch Daryn on the track and be able to tell him what the other cars were doing. Now when he asks me about that, I have to say, 'Oh, I think Taylor was screaming on that lap.' Now I sit in the grandstands and I'm not in the pit area, so I'm not knowing what's going on.”

    Joanne Cram and Joe Beaver have two young children, JJ and Jolyn, who are both very involved in other sports activities. In addition to running weekly at Knoxville on a tight family budget, Joe Beaver has a very demanding job which sometimes takes him away from the track.

    “I appreciate Joe's realistic attitude about racing. He knows he's not going to do this as a full-time racer,” Joanne Cram said. “But it's a good time, the family likes it and he and his dad can do it together.”

    Despite a lot to juggle, she understands the ups and downs of this lifestyle.

    “When you're born into a racing family, you know what you're getting. It's in our blood. It's one of those things you just have to understand to make it work,” she said. “It takes a lot of work to be married. Then throw a race car on top of that. It's almost like a three-person marriage.”

    Mandy Pittman agrees.

    “I don't regret growing up in it. It helped seeing the ups and downs to make me the person I am today,” she said. “It makes you closer as a couple. It keeps kids out of trouble. When you sit in the same place in a grandstand every week you get to know the people around you and their children. You form relationships.”

    Amy Tatnell also enjoys the family atmosphere.

    “The kids love to come and meet the drivers as much as the parent,” she said. “It's really neat to see an entire family come out for a night at the races.”

    But as with families in other walks of life, racing family members can sometimes have spats.

    “Sonny and Brooke raced together last year and it was really a fun year, except when Sonny spun Brooke out,” Tatnell recalls. “Let's just say Sunday dinner was very interesting.”

    Still, the racing community always remains “family” just by the nature of the business.

    “The faces do change, some do leave,” Nickie Anderson notes. “But the feeling never leaves when you're walking in the pits, there's a closeness and a respect for each other. A lot of that is because you never know what's going to happen, but the people in racing don't disappoint you or let you down.”

     e-mail Stacy here

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