Where it all started (or how I became a race fan)

     I have had people ask me over the years, exactly how I became interested in racing?  I didn’t know anyone who raced and in fact, I don’t think I knew anyone who had ever been to a race either. My parents had, what I like to say, less than zero interest in the sport, so it was something I had developed from within myself.  That being said, I knew exactly how it all started.

     I was always a big car lover since I can remember. My mother says that when I was around 4 yrs old, that I would shout out the makes of cars that I saw driving on the road. My parents divorced when I was just a couple years old, and I would spend a month every summer visiting my dad in Columbus Ohio. I was an avid reader, so I would always look forward to stopping at a Truck stop in Findlay, Ohio where my dad would let me select a magazine to read in the car. When I was 11, I picked out a racing magazine called Circle Track & Highway, and little did I know what an impact that decision would have on my life. I devoured every single word, and after reading a feature article about Indy 500 veteran Lloyd Ruby, decided right then & there, he would become my favorite driver. Racing appealed to me, I guess, as the epitome of what cars were supposed to do.

     Now keep in mind I really had no other exposure to the sport. The only races that were televised was the Indy 500 and short snippets on ABC Wide World of Sports. (usually months after the races were run) All I knew about were the major racing series like Indy, NASCAR, Formula 1 and NHRA. During my visits to Columbus every summer, my dad was always trying to find fun activities for us to do. I was a big baseball fan and loved the Cincinnati Reds, so we went to a couple games every year, but in the summer of 72, I must have worn him down, as he announced we would be making a trip to see the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. I was so excited to see all those cars and take a lap around the track in a van seeing the names of the drivers still lettered on the pit wall, that on the way back to Ohio, he told me that we would get tickets for the Indy 500 the following year!  

     While my parents had been divorced as long as I could remember, I had a great relationship with both of them. My dad, Marc, owned his own wallpaper hanging business and was a jazz drummer for all his life. As a child, I went through all kinds of phases; collecting coins, stamps, fishing, slot cars, model kits, gas powered model airplanes, you name it. I never did anything halfway however, I went all in, and would be obsessed, but after a couple years, would move to the next great thing. I’m sure both my parents were convinced this would just be another passing phase like the rest.

    I waited all year for May to come when we would be going to the race  and as the day got closer, got more and more excited. Finally, we packed up his 1962 Econoline Van and headed to Indianapolis. Unfortunately, the 1973 Indy 500 was considered the worst in the history of the race, and it just rained and rained. There were no jet dryers, so the method of drying the track was tow trucks driving around lap after lap. Finally, the rain stopped, the track dried, and after driver introductions they got ready to start the race.  One of the cars, driven by Rick Muther, failed to start, and finally, urged on by the pleas of the massive crowd, it fired up, and sped up to catch up to the field. It came screaming around the 4th turn where we were sitting and you could have convinced me it was going 200 mph!

     The field of 33 came around on the pace lap, all lined up in rows of three, and all I could think was; “This is the greatest thing I have ever seen!”  The field took the green for the start and out of our view, there was a major crash in Turn 1 with Salt Walther getting upside down and on fire with about 10 cars involved. Before they could clear the track, the rain resumed and that was it.  We came back the following day, which was also rained out, & due to work commitments, my dad had to head back, so that was all I ended up seeing. Well, maybe not entirely, as that night, when we were parked in the A&P parking lot camping, a young lady on top of a van took her top off. Keep in mind I was 14, so twice in the same day, I said “This is the greatest thing I have ever seen!”

I’m not sure if that was when I decided I could really learn to love this sport, but it certainly didn’t hurt. We were able to return the following year for the race which was a classic, and my dad & I looked forward to going for the next several years. I eventually did get to go to MIS in a couple years, and didn’t really know about short track racing for a while longer, but that will be another chapter.

MIS and why it has meant so much to me for over 40 years

 

     As I stated in the last blog, I developed my love for racing entirely on my own. Having loved my annual trip to the Indy 500 every May, I soon found out there was a big racetrack in Brooklyn, Michigan. When my Mom asked me what I wanted for my 16th birthday, I immediately blurted out; “I want to go to the NASCAR race at MIS!”  Now, my birthday was in January and of course the race wasn’t until June. She got this look on her face like, “Oh, no, can’t I just buy you something?”, but I had made up my mind. We drove all the way from Rochester to Brooklyn to see the Motor State 400 on the big two mile oval, and of course it rained. Not only was my very first race in Indianapolis rained out, now the same thing happened at Michigan, so I was feeling like it wasn’t much of a birthday after all.

     Fortunately, later that same year, in September, my mother brought home some complimentary tickets she had received from work at Pontiac State Bank. Now why would a bank have free race tickets for their employees? First National City Traveler’s Checks was a major sponsor in both Indy racing & NASCAR at the time, and was one of the first non automotive companies that used racing to expand their business.  They figured that if they treated bank tellers and managers to a fun day at the races (including hospitality), that those same bankers would reach for their brand of traveler’s checks when a customer wanted to buy. That seems pretty basic in racing today, but at the time it was not commonly done.

     So, I finally got to go to MIS for the “Michigan Grand Prix” which featured the USAC Indycars, and also the IROC series. While I was very well versed with Indy racing, this was the first time I had ever seen stock cars; my favorite, David Pearson won a spectacular IROC race, and Tom Sneva won for the first time in the Indy portion of the day. I loved every lap and couldn’t wait to go back!  That started my love for MIS and I managed to go to at least a couple races a year while I was away at Michigan State and for several years later. When Lori & I started dating, she had never been to a race, but she enjoyed our trips from Pontiac to the Irish Hills just as much as I did, especially when her favorite Bill Elliott won year after year.  Back then we would just head for the infield and drive around until we found my friend Bob in his Dodge van.

    By 1990, I had finally graduated from Lawrence Tech with an Engineering degree, and received a job offer with Libby Owens Ford Glass in Clinton, Mich. “Wow, that isn’t too far from MIS!” Lori & I  eventually moved to Somerset, just 5 miles west of Brooklyn, and I bought season tickets with pit passes. It was so exciting being in the pits, and we thought we were in heaven. At first, it seemed odd to drive by the track twice a day, but it soon became a regular part of the landscape in the Irish Hills, & this area will forever be my home.

     Around 1997, there was a blurb in the Jackson paper about how MIS was looking for 100 local residents to become ambassadors for the track in their communities. I quickly signed up hoping to be chosen, and was one of those who was selected for what was called the “100 Club.”  I volunteered to be on the steering committee, which allowed me the opportunity to get to know some of the track staff. One day, I was asked if I knew that they had a group that performed pre race pit road tours, and was that something I would be interested in. Was I ever! 

     This Pit Tour Team has the task of taking the guests of suites and hospitality down on pit road race mornings to give tours about the track history and explain pit stops etc. I remembered how excited I had been to go down on pit road the first time, and sharing in their excitement as I took them down was very enjoyable. Even though it was a volunteer position, the track did supply us with great parking, credentials, and lunch, so it was a pretty good deal as far as I was concerned. The best part was that we are done by race time, so watching the race is not an issue.

   Had a few moments that stand out for me from the pit/garage tours. I took a group from Aflac down one year and a woman asked if I would autograph her picture of Carl Edwards. I explained that I didn’t work for the race team, but she insisted, “But you’re our Aflac tour guide!”  Remembering the part about “Creating lasting memories”,  of course I would oblige. As I started signing next to Carl’s name, she stopped me until her husband could get a picture of me signing it. Lol.  When the Indy Racing League came in 2002, I was really pumped up. It was a hot day, and I really overdid it and started feeling ill. Ended up spending a couple hours in the First Aid center with an IV, but recovered in time to go to my seat and watch the race. I thought I had been in every part of the facility, but could now add the First Aid center to that list !  

     Over the next nine years, I became the one guy in the group with the most passion, and apparently, someone noticed, as in 2010, I received a call that in many ways was life changing. I was told that the person that managed our group was moving to Texas, and would I be interested in taking over the program. Naturally, I didn’t hesitate.

     While this job has really nothing to do directly with the race, it is pretty important, as the various companies that purchase suites and hospitality pay a lot of $$$, and my group plays a major part of making sure their guests have a special experience. The MIS motto is “Creating Lasting Memories for Every Person, Every Time” & I truly try and ensure that our guests experience just that. I work with the Corporate Partnerships staff of MIS; not only are they really great people, being behind the scenes making a big event like this happen is extremely satisfying.  The last few years, we have also been doing a lot of Garage Tours, so getting to take people through there is a lot of fun for both them and us!

     Being the one who manages the program also means that I am responsible for recruiting my team of 25-30 volunteers. Proud to say, I have an outstanding team, and I value our friendships tremendously.  Still feel honored to be able to work at such a great facility, and never thought when I first went there, that I would find myself doing this after going to so many of the races there. It truly is a magical place.

Rand Thompson

No more MARC Times, but how do I keep the fun going?

I was having the time of my life in 2009 writing weekly feature articles about Toledo & Flat Rock Speedway, while finally having access to Victory Lane festivities, and getting to know some of the drivers, crew, and officials. I had been going to the Toledo big shows for many years, but now was also enjoying the Sportsman, Factory Stock and 4 cylinder racers for the first time. Really liked getting to know guys like Jim Froling, Ron Allen, Landon Schuster and Brad Turner among others.

     As far as Flat Rock goes, Lori & I had attended pretty frequently to watch when local hero Joy Fair was racing, but after he retired in 1999, the place just didn’t seem the same and I went infrequently. I had always been a Late Model fan because of Joy, but was now finding out how much I loved the Street Stock division, and how great the racing truly was. The nice thing about doing what I was doing, is that everyone likes to see their name in the paper, so the racers (at least the ones I knew) were always nice to me and the officials also treated me well.  The Moore family in particular went out of their way to make me feel like I belonged. Seeing my articles and pictures show up in the paper every week always made me feel good.

     Once the MARC Times ceased publication, I was very disappointed, to say the least, as it appeared that all the fun was over. Joy sure knew how to make me laugh, as he would introduce me to people that stopped by when I was visiting him at work. “Hey, do you know Rand? He was a writer for a racing paper, but he was so bad, it went out of business! “ and then give me that classic gotcha look of his. While I was still attending the races at both tracks, I was convinced that any week, I would show up at the pit gate and be told I was cut off; as in no paper, no free entry. For reasons that I honestly never understood, that never happened, and I was still welcomed every week when I signed in. Perhaps my statement earlier in the year to Scott played a role, or maybe they just liked me, I don’t know, but I was very grateful to say the least.

    I found I really enjoyed doing media stuff and tried to find another outlet in 2010 to keep it going. Found a website called Midwest Racing News that accepted my volunteer proposal to be a feature columnist.  The website primarily covered N. Indiana racing, and while I submitted material regularly, it didn’t seem like anyone I knew ever read it. The big personal development was that I finally found a new job as a Quality Engineer at a manufacturer in Holt near Lansing that made parts for hip and knee replacement joints. This made it way more challenging to make it down to Toledo on Friday nights, so most of the season was spent at Flat Rock.

     One other big development in 2010. I had spent the previous nine years as a volunteer at MIS giving pre race Pit Road tours for the guests of suite holders and other hospitality areas. Really loved taking people down on pit road as it was a lot of fun to share in their excitement.  I am very passionate about MIS and the area (I live just 5 miles from the track) and was both surprised & thrilled to be asked by the track to take over the management of the Pit Tour program. (I will talk more about my job at MIS in a future blog)

     So, at least for a couple years, things were actually looking pretty good and my role in racing was becoming a bit more solidified in 2010 & 2011.

(to be continued)

Transitioning from the grandstand to writer in 2009

I am waiting for the season to start in a couple months, and while I love posting pictures, I wanted to do something a little different, so I thought I would write a blog to let people know a little more about me.

For this first entry, I wanted to discuss how, after thirty plus years watching from the stands as a fan, I was able to figure out a way to be able to contribute more in the local racing community.  My passion since I was a teenager has always been racing, but since no one in my family had any interest it was something I had to cultivate entirely on my own.

     In many respects, 2009 was the most difficult year of my life. I was recently downsized from my job at an auto supplier after working there 18 years, and with all the economic turmoil, finding a new job in S. Michigan at the age of 52, was pretty daunting to say the least.  Out of nowhere, I had heard that someone had bought the rights to the MARC Times weekly racing paper and was planning to relaunch it.  As someone who had subscribed for years before it ceased publication, I was excited to hear it would be coming back. I contacted the new owner, Patrick McNamara, and after finding out he lived nearby in the Irish Hills (in my subdivision, no less!) he asked me if I was interested in writing. Well, at that point, I had not really done anything like that ever before, but was confident I could handle it.  The problem was that he mentioned Butler Speedway as a logical nearby choice, and even though it was the closest track, I had only gone there once in my life. My favorite track for years was Toledo, and I told Patrick that was the one I was really interested in. A couple weeks later, he said that Toledo had agreed to be involved and I had the position. Not only that, when the writer that had planned to cover Flat Rock moved away, he asked if I could do both.

     I never expected that there would be any money involved, but as someone who bought hundreds of dollars of race tickets every year, the idea of getting in free was pretty damn appealing as you might imagine. (especially when on unemployment!)  The only real issue was that even though I had been going there for years, I hardly knew anyone at the two tracks, other than Toledo friend, Charlie Krall. Lori used to enjoy going, and while she loves racing, she had lost interest in attending in recent years, so for most of the previous 10 years, I went by myself, and if I talked to the guy next to me in the stands I did & if I didn’t, I didn’t. I knew none of the drivers, other than a friendship with my hero Joy Fair, who had retired in 1999, and hadn’t hardly spent any time in the pits.

     I had previously spoken in passing with track owner Ron Drager and GM Scott Schultz; they were very accommodating and I was really looking forward to the beginning of the season.  A few drivers were very helpful granting interviews, including Dennis Whisman, Jim Froling, and Tim & Rob Moore, and I was getting to know a few more people in the pits every week.  I wrote the best article of my life, with the story of Joy Fair’s last race car as told by the car, and Joy loved it, so I was having a blast. While I was still looking for employment as a Quality Engineer, at least I was having some fun, and things were seemingly going well at the race track. There were dark clouds forming on the horizon however………

     While Patrick was very passionate and the content was good, he struggled getting the paper mailed out in time, and the tracks were getting frustrated that their advertising was late. I got a call one day from Scott Schultz asking me what was going on. It went something like this; “Rand, what is going on with the paper? If you can’t tell me I’ll understand” My reply was “Scott, I’ve been writing for the paper just a few months, I have been coming to your track for over twenty years; my loyalty is 100% with you and ARCA”   Scott really liked that.

Well, in mid August, Patrick pulled the plug and that was the end of the “new” MARC Times; just when I was having the time of my life. I thank him for giving me my start, but at the time I thought my role at the track was in real jeopardy after just four months. As as you all know now, that didn’t end up being the case.  

(to be continued)

Hey, Tell me About Your First Car!

Wrote this article in 2012 and thought you might enjoy seeing it.  Had a blast talking to all of those who contributed their memories.

Hey, Tell Me About Your First Car!

Everyone remembers their first, and most of us have fond (or maybe not so fond) memories of their very first car. Mine was a 1972 Mercury Capri that my aunt Lois was selling. I was so smitten by it, that I went out and found another one a dozen years ago, and have restored it to take to car shows etc.  I spoke with several racers at MIS, Spartan, and Toledo to find out what they remembered about their first street car. I had an absolute blast talking to all the racers for this article.

Ken Schrader; “My dad had a used car business, so I had stuff to drive, but the first one that was really mine was a 1965 Dodge Window Van.  It was great because I could haul around my dirt bike in the back.”

Todd “The Onion” Bodine; NASCAR driver; “Mine was a 1972 Chevelle 4 door hardtop with big rust holes in the floor & trunk and saggy springs. My brother Geoff and I drove it from Stafford Speedway (Ct.) to Richmond (Va.) one time and had to drive the whole way with all the windows down, so the fumes wouldn’t go through the rust holes.

Brian Keselowski, NASCAR driver; “I had a 1987 Chrysler LeBaron.  It was a piece of crap & I mean a total piece of crap. It was my sister’s car and after she wrecked it and blew it up it was just sitting there.  I was 14 working in the race shop for $20 a day, and wanted to work on it so I had something once I got my license.  I think it ran on 2 cylinders and leaked more oil than it burned gas.  In high school I had a class where we made a video. (author; the Keselowski brothers attended Rochester HS, my alma mater) My dad (Bob) had a 1973 Charger and in my video I miraculously transformed my LeBaron into his Charger. I only had it a couple months and replaced it with a 1992 LeBaron. I loved that one; it was a 6 cylinder, but fast!” (author: What about your brother Brad?) Brian; “Brad had a 1994 LeBaron which was my mom’s old car.”

Abby Looman aka “Little Miss Dangerous” Spartan Pony Stock driver; “My very first car is still the car that I am driving!! His name is Fabio. It’s a blue ’06 Ford Taurus. That car has been so reliable for me! I can run it to the very end and it won’t run outta gas. I have had it for 3-4 years and the only things that have happened to it were the water pump and alternator. Darren and I did the alternator ourselves. That was an adventure!”

Frank Kimmel, 9 time ARCA champion; “My first car was a 1967 Pontiac Firebird. I blew the engine the first week I had it, and put in a 283 Chevy engine. Ask my brother (Bill Kimmel, Crew Chief) about his. He took it over to the High School and did some laps around the cinder running track.” Bill Kimmel; “It was a ’66 Impala. My dad was so mad that he took away both the car and my license after just one day.”

Brian Boesel, Spartan Pony Stock driver; “1978 Olds Cutlass with a 455 engine. I turned it into my first street stock race car when I was 18 yrs. old to race at Lorain County Speedway in Ohio. So, not only was it my first street car, it became my first race car too!”

Joy Fair, Michigan racing legend, also my friend and hero; “I had a Ford Model T that I found in a field and paid $5 for. I took it home and my dad couldn’t believe I wasted good money buying it. I rebuilt the whole thing and drove it for quite a while. (author: I miss ya everyday, buddy)

Larry Wallace, Spartan Speedway Modified driver;  “A 1932 Ford five window coupe. I got it when I was 13 and didn’t yet have a license.  I just about wore out second gear driving around in a field. I drove it on the street anyway and got tickets. You know, I still have it!  We drive it around for fun, and I am working on getting it finished. It was a ‘Model  B’ with a 4 cylinder, and I thought about making a V8 street rod, but decided to keep it original since I’ve had it that long. It even still has the mechanical brakes” (author; “Larry showed me some pictures and I can’t believe he still has it!”)

Chance Rice, Spartan Speedway Modified driver; “It’s a 1985 Porsche 944. I still have it, but just got a Chevy HHR.  Now I have A/C that works! Going to keep the Porsche and have some fun with it.”

Ralph Young, retired ARCA driver and former ARCA championship crew chief for Benny Parsons; “I had a 1949 Dodge with a flathead six. It was a lot of fun going to football games and stuff with it, but the engine would lock up all the time and I always needed a push from everyone to get it going.”

Jeff Bloom, Michigan Motorsports Hall of Fame Sprint Car driver; “Mine was a ’55 Chevy with a six cylinder. One day I decided to do some laps around the high school cinder running track. I got caught by the principal, and he made me pick the cinders all up and put them back on the track.”                     (author; Jeff and Bill Kimmel could have had a pretty good race with each other, I guess!)

David Howe, owner of Beacon Sales & Service and sponsor at Spartan; “I had a 1974 Plymouth Barracuda with a 340 engine. It’s all restored and I still have it.”

James Hylton, Finished 2nd in NASCAR Cup points 3 times and winner of 1972 Talladega 500; “1936 Ford 5 window coupe. They had cable brakes back then, so I put 1948 Ford running gear and engine in it. The 1948 engine was better than the 1936 with 100 horsepower and I had 3 carburetors on it.” (author; James still competes every week in ARCA at the age of 77!)

 

Dave Stehouwer; Spartan Super Late Model driver; “Mine was a 1963 Pontiac Tempest, but I didn’t have it very long. I totaled it on the very first day I drove it.  My dad had a used car lot, and picked this car out for me and fixed it up. It had a 326 engine. My dad asked me to go pick up some parts for him. I was 16, so I decided to take the long way home past my girlfriend’s house. I was getting on it a little, got to the top of a hill, and there was a 1964 Ford just parked there in the road. I tried to swerve, but hit it so hard that the trunk of the Ford was pushed all the way to the back wheels.  I had to call my dad and have him come and get me. After that I had a 1962 Corvair 4 door with big holes in the floor and an automatic. (author;  I could tell from his voice that he really liked that Tempest, and after all these years still regretted what happened to it.  Also, he still hates that Corvair)

Trina Wurmnest, Spartan Pony Stock driver; “My first was a hand-me-down from my sister. It was a VW Bug bright orange and they called it the great pumpkin at Dansville High School. During Halloween they decorated it as a pumpkin. In the winter time I had to cover the motor when I parked it to keep the motor warm and covered myself up when I drove it.”

Matt Crafton, NASCAR Truck Series driver; “Mine was a 1991 Chevy S-10. Nothing special really, just a truck.”

Dan Loughan, Spartan Modified driver; “I had a 1965 Pontiac Tempest. It was bought and paid for before I ever had a license. I had a 326 c.i. engine and I used to do a lot of street racing with it. I would drag race it 12-14 times a night and even wired up a switch so I could turn off the brake lights in case I needed to avoid the police.”

Karl Busson, 1967 IMCA Sprint champion driver and winner of 1968 Little 500; “My first was a 1932 Ford roadster with a Mercury engine and three carbs. I had no fenders on it, so I used to get pulled over a lot. I ended up putting a chopped and channeled ’32 Ford 5 window coupe body on it, and also changed the Flathead to a Buick engine.”

Bill Venturini Sr., 2 time ARCA champion driver and team owner. Father of TV commentator Wendy; “Mine was a 1964 Pontiac Bonneville 4 door. I only had it four months and then got a 1966 Ford Galaxie 500 with a 428 engine and 4 speed.  There were only 48 cars built like that, and I am trying to find one to buy right now”

Jim Froling, Toledo ARCA Sportsman driver; “I had a 1981 Buick Century that I got from my grandfather. It was a good running car, but for some reason, every time I drove by a Bill Knapp’s or Sign of the Beefcarver restaurant, it kept trying to pull in the parking lot for the early bird special.”

Mike Westphal, Spartan Pony Stock driver; “My first car was a 1983 Mustang 4 cyl 4 speed. I bought it for $400 and from the outside it didn’t look like a car that had been sitting for ten years, but it sure ran that way. (the girls liked it though!) I drove it for two weeks and the clutch went out so we fixed it, and then it made it three weeks before the trans blew up. I sold it for $800 so it kinda worked out for me.”

Darrell Basham, long time ARCA driver, “My dad picked up a 1958 Chevrolet Convertible for me. It wasn’t the best, but man I felt so cool driving it around.”

Dennis Whisman, ARCA Figure 8 driver; “I had a 1967 Camaro that once belonged to my sister. It looked fast with red paint and mag wheels, but it only had a six cylinder, so it was actually pretty slow. The exhaust was loud, so it didn’t sound too bad, but I always had these guys with muscle cars pull alongside to try and race me. They always got ticked off when I wouldn’t take their bait.”

Flat Rock’s Dan Dow Named 2014 Mechanic of the Year

Dan Dow was named as a co-winner of the 2014 Mechanic of the Year, along with Butch Dowker, by the Michigan Auto Racing Fan Club. Dan, who wrenches on several cars in the Flat Rock Speedway DTS Street Stock division, was honored at the MARFC 49th Annual Banquet on January 17, 2015.

He builds engines, and helps out wherever he is needed, on the cars of his sons, Rob and Tim Moore, plus the cars of Guy Fire, Gary Calhoun and Aaron Greathouse.  Rob won the 2014 “A” championship to match the one Tim won in 2011, while Guy Fire and Aaron Greathouse also joined Rob and Tim as feature winners this last season.

Congratulations Dan!