Kings of the Road

Racing vehicles for sport began in Mesopotamia with the invention of the chariot, somewhere around 2500 B.C.  It has survived in one form or another, ever since.  It was only natural that soon after automobiles started rolling off of assembly lines, the question of who could pilot them the fastest, necessitated a contest.  Over time, organized auto racing spread throughout the United States, and in the early 1950’s, hard packed clay ovals started popping up in fields around Arkansas, like mushrooms after a summer rain.  Drivers varied from the guy down the street who knew a thing or two about cars, to a crop of local legends, who left chewed up tires and shredded sheet metal, from I-30 Speedway, to Riverside International in West Memphis.  Some moved through the ranks, and got a once-in-a-lifetime shot to test their mettle against the 42 other drivers that start a NASCAR Sprint Cup race, but most simply indulged in a hobby, that can become an addiction.  Something in the gut churning roar of a tweaked-out, gas guzzling, high performance engine; the smell of scorched rubber and the feeling that you can push a machine just a little bit harder, keeps them coming back.  

Local racer Casey Findley has been coming back, to get his fix, most of his life.  Like the majority of other dirt track competitors, his family has been involved as far back as he can remember.   While originally from Illinois, they immigrated to the Central Arkansas region when he was young, and took up where they had left off.  They found an established community of like-minded individuals who spoke a similar language, with a slightly different dialect.  While his early years were spent hanging around a garage, trailing his dad and his uncles, he took his turn at the wheel as soon as it was offered to him.  He eventually found sponsors, who believed that he was worth the investment.  They have kept his cars running, season after season, for the better part of twenty-five years.  Sponsors are a critical element in the sport, considering that on any given night, you can incur thousands of dollars worth of repairs, and even the most successful drivers readily admit, that the purses they take home would never cover everything.  In his early forties, Casey says that he is of an age where most drivers consider calling it quits, but he is still fiercely motivated, and he is still winning races.  When I ask him why he is willing to deal with the expense, stress, and the toll it takes on his body, he says that it is the need to push himself a little further, and to test the limits of what he and his car are capable of.  It also becomes clear through our conversation, that although his chance to move on to NASCAR glory may have passed, his son, Drake will soon see his window of opportunity opening, and Casey is doing what he can to ensure that Drake is ready.  Every race is part of a process of passing on the knowledge that he has accumulated, to try and help Drake’s dream become reality.  

To be a good driver, you need a combination of reflexes, timing, and instinct, as well as the strength to withstand the stresses applied to your body by a healthy dose of G-forces.  Drake has been honing these skills, from an early age.  At 4 years old, he began racing go-carts, and he never looked back.  Now that he is 12, he has graduated to a mini-sprint car -  which, for those not familiar, is an open wheeled vehicle with a wing on top.  The wing keeps the whole contraption, powered by a 600cc motorcycle engine, tethered to the ground while going round and round at a ridiculously high rate of speed.  If you’re thinking that it’s abnormal for a fresh-faced kid, who is not even close to applying for his first driver’s license, to cut loose on a race track, you are correct.  Most of the other cars are being driven by men twice his age, and his closest competitors are at least three years his senior.   When I initially met the Findley’s one afternoon at their shop, a couple of weeks before the racing season began, it was hard to get over the fact that I was talking to a boy, not much older than my own.  I couldn’t picture my son, who once accidentally ran his grandmother’s car into a tree while goofing around in a parking lot, being responsible for that much horsepower.  With his shy grin, and his well-mannered speech, I was curious to see how he would perform in an arena that requires intense, controlled aggression.  Drake told me he had to keep up his grades and stay out of trouble to earn the privilege of suiting up on Saturday’s, and so far he was doing a good job of it.  Naturally, I also asked about what his mother thought of it all; if she was scared he might get hurt.  

“She supports it, but she was nervous…the first time.  She still comes out every weekend to watch.  I think she’s over it.” He tells me, fidgeting as the shadows get long and his attention starts to wane.

I hang around and talk to Casey, and one of his main sponsors, Tim Cobb, who is a big part keeping it all up and running.   He also occasionally drives a different vehicle himself, when he feels the itch. When I inquire about what brought them together, he says, “I decided to field a new car, called a Late Model, and I immediately thought of Casey.  He was out at I-30 winning a bunch of races in an IMCA modified, and I thought we’d give it a shot.”  If you got lost on that last bit, don’t feel left out.  I didn’t know the difference either until it was spelled to me in detail.  Basically, Late Model cars are the highest class of vehicle driven in local competitions, and put simply, they go really, really fast.  As the day started to turn over into evening, I left them to their work and headed home with a giddy feeling, that in a week’s time, I’d have the chance to see just how fast they could go, up close.

As luck would have it, it rained, off and on, for two weeks straight, pushing the track opening back, and shaving valuable time off the racing schedule.  Racers win points, just like in the big leagues, and the less races there are, the less chances for them to find their groove.  At the end of the season they tally up the points and the winner leaves with bragging rights, and cash money from the purse.  Whatever dates they miss, they don’t get to make up, there are no second chances.  The tracks also lose out, and that is not good for anybody, because without a venue, the whole system would collapse.  Based on a conversation that I had with Tracey Clay, whose family owns and operates I-30 Speedway, it does happen.  The week before I made it out, they were able to host a few races and Casey had won in his IMCA modified, but they had to push back their official opening night.  

On April 11th 2015, a big, bright sun hung in the sky and it was finally, a good day for racing.  I bought a pass for the pit, and quickly signed a waiver without reading a line of it.  I assumed that in doing so, I relinquished any rights to sue, should I be killed, or otherwise maimed in the area designated, and that I was responsible for making sure that none of those bad things happened.  I felt confident that should an errant tire plow into me at 100 mph, someone could say, “Well, he died doing what he loved…”, and that was enough for me.  

Armed with two cameras and a flash, I trudged down a path through the mud behind a row of trucks with trailers hitched behind.  All the while, a fleet of ATV’s swarmed this way and that throughout the proceedings.  On one side of me, there was a banked wall that keeps the cars on their proper trajectory, on the other side, a stand of trees.  There is safety netting and tires that line the track at intervals, and everyone seems to feel pretty comfortable that it’s sufficient.  Once I made it to the pit, I was utterly lost, so I wandered around, soaking it all in, stopping the occasional passerby for an informal interview.  I met drivers from all over the region, some who had driven for hours, on very little sleep.  After a couple of times around, I finally spotted the FireHouse Subs logo and the distinctive blue and orange coloration on Casey’s car.  It was obvious from his pace that he was rushing around to make the final preparations, but he paused long enough to give me a handshake and ask me how I was doing.  Over the roar of nearby engines and the constant hum of activity, he filled me in on how he thought things were going to play out.  

“We ran the car the other night at Woodline in Corley, Texas, but it wasn’t feeling right, so I just laid off.  It’s still early in the season, and we’re working out all of the kinks.”  He said, squinting as he faced the Western sky.  I asked him about the competition, he answered, “Well, there’s lots of good drivers out here.  Some of them have already been running for a few weeks, at tracks further south.”  

The car was clean and bore no obvious signs of combat.  His crew was spread out trying to round up parts and replace a tire on the mini-sprint.  I got a sense of just how chaotic it is in the hours leading up to a race, as all around us, other teams struggled under raised hoods and jacked up hot rods.  There was also the issue of the track, which still looked rough after weeks of wet weather.  For the first couple of hours, tow trucks and other vehicles circled around trying to provide as smooth a surface as possible before the hot laps began.  After we spoke for a few more minutes, I let Casey get back to work and wandered up to the track to watch the stock cars parade around the grounds in a procession, kids perched on the back.  Some flew flags, and all were emblazoned with numbers and sponsor names, with the exception of a handful who looked like independent operators.  The air turns cool and drivers are directed this way and that by the disembodied voice of an announcer who cajoles and pleads with anyone who will listen that this is their “last chance”, for one thing or another.  The crowd has been meandering in and taking their places in the bleachers.  There are couples walking hand in hand, and children reveling in the freedom of being able to get as dirty as they want, without worrying about the consequences.  I encountered a few other photographers who filled me in on who to talk to to get to the infield where you can stand within a few feet of the cars as they make the turn at an absurd rate of speed, and careen at treacherous angles. 

I checked in to see when Drake would be making his debut and found him suited up and ready to go.  Tim had arrived, and was nursing a swollen finger that he cut, while tinkering with an engine. It had swollen to the size of a whole dill pickle and frozen his wedding ring in place.  He was looking for someone to cut it off so that he could avoid a trip to the emergency room, and officially ending his night.  There seemed to be a general sense of confusion, and from what I saw around the grounds, everyone was in a state of controlled panic as unanticipated problems manifested and were dealt with.  Casey huddled with Drake and gave some last minute instructions as Casey’s brother-in-law, Tyler Breshears, continued working on the Late Model.  I saw Drake hop into the cockpit and take his place in line, so I headed back to the track to get in position to catch that all important shot of him rocketing past with a steely look in his eye; in short, the perfect shot to fill out my story.  

At first, it was disorienting to be in the midst of a slew of vehicles, hurtling towards me and then breaking into a controlled slide as they took the corner.  I stood there, trying to get a bead on the cars, and time it so that they looked like something other than smears of paint on my view screen.  I didn’t notice at first, that something had happened.  It was only when the traffic had slowed, under a yellow caution flag, that I started looking around to find out what was wrong.  I saw the ambulance, with lights flashing, headed over the banked edge with tow trucks following behind.  I could see the other photographers jogging towards the site, and I overheard one of them say to the other, “I think that was Findley.”

I started running too, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Casey’s tall figure bounding past the bleachers a yard at a time.  When I got there, the action was already over.  The white #5 car that Drake piloted, was hitched behind one of the wreckers, and he was trailing it.  I caught up and asked what had happened.

“I don’t know, the steering broke, I couldn’t control it.”  He answered.

“Will you be able to race tonight?”

“Probably, but I don’t know.”

When we arrive back at the trailer, the team determined they needed a part to fix the steering, which likely broke, due to the rough conditions.  They scramble to find a replacement while the clock keeps ticking.  Casey is due to hit the track momentarily and I duck out once again to give them some breathing room and grab a bite to eat from the concession stand.  The hours pass as the preliminaries are taken care of.  

Casey starts in the eighth position, when they line up for the feature race, and the night air has turned cold as midnight approaches.  In real terms, I have very little invested in the results, but I can’t help but hope that it turns out in Findley’s favor.  I settle into position just as the engines rev and the cars thunder to life.   A volley of fireworks sends puffs of smoke into the sky, which then settles, giving the grounds a more ominous feel.  The air vibrates as the automobiles whiz by, and I try to catch them as they pass.  They float in slow motion as they bank away from me and the drivers whip the wheels back when they hit the straightaway.  They jockey for position, nudging each other when necessary, and attempting to cut inside to make a pass.  At first, Casey makes a couple of moves and aggressively passes one car, and then another.   He is doing his best to get to the front of the pack, but there is stiff competition.  I lose sight of him as I recognize the drama further up the line, where the #5 and #8 are locked in fierce battle.  In an instant the #8 car, which was in the lead, is pushed off the track in a melee that brings a caution and the crowd audibly boos at the injustice.  The minutes pass as the cars get back into there former positions and the #5 car takes a spot at the head of the line, and then without warning the #8 car returns, just before they get underway, and the audience cheers as he reclaims his spot.  When the action begins again, I notice that Casey’s #58 has settled in, and seems to have let off.  Shortly after that, the race is over.   The #8 car heads to the winner’s circle, and I head back to the pit to get a recap.

“The track was really rough.”  Says Tim, his hand still giving him fits.  I try to get in a few words, but it’s loud, and I don’t have the energy to shout.

The team huddles around and talk it over.  The sheet metal is dented and ripped, but the car didn’t suffer any major damage.  I wait for my chance to say my goodbyes and shake a few hands before I set out for home.  When I get in the van, I’m still buzzing from all of the excitement.  Part of me is disappointed that I didn’t get the neat ending that I was looking for.  Neither Drake nor Casey is going home a winner tonight, but it turns out that dirt track racing is more like a marathon than a sprint.   Each season is filled with events both inside and out that keep it interesting.  I think about what draws thousands of people from around Arkansas to racing arenas every Friday and Saturday night.  I realize that it’s like watching a good serial on television; you get hooked by the initial episode, but you have to watch the whole season to see how it ends.

A couple of days later, I catch up with Casey and hash over what happened.  Casey says that midway through the race he took a couple of lumps and his tires overheated, forcing him to hang back to make sure they didn’t have any catastrophic breakage.  I ask if Drake was disappointed, and he says, “Yeah, you know, he was kinda bummed.  With all the rain, he’s been itching to get back, and then we had the breakdown.”  They’ve ordered a new part for the mini-sprint, and he is all set for the next race.  They got the Late Model back up to shape too, ready to roll for the weekend. Tim’s hand turned out to be infected, and he might have to have surgery, leaving him on limited duty for the time being.  I promise to check in and see how things are going, and bring the family out with me, next time I get a chance.  It’s hard to say from one week to the next how anything will turn out.  It’s anyone’s guess, who gets enough wins to claim the points and take home the trophy.  Will Casey and his team get a handle on the new car and make a name for themselves in the Late Model division?  Will Drake continue to progress, and be given that one in a million shot to hit the asphalt in Indianapolis, Talladega, or Bristol?  It’s hard to say, but I can see how the storyline can become addictive.