Standing close to the action brought a new perspective on the sport.
I know that race fans all have the same burning question whether they sit in the stands at a racetrack or in front of their televisions: What is it really like on the track? Even as a media member, for all these years I've been either sitting in media centers or standing somewhere around the track with a camera, I've always been an observer, not a participant in the actual running of the race.
In short, I was just like the other spectators out there, only a little closer to the action. All of that changed on the weekend of September 16, 2006, at Indiana's famed half-mile, high-banked Salem (Indiana) Speedway during the ARCA RE/MAX Series Eddie Gilstrap Motors ARCA Fall Classic.
With the help of G. B. Abbott, safety director for the track, I became a working team member for this event. Salem's pit road safety team consists of Abbott, his wife Dee, and Barry Smedley.
I picked Salem because I am familiar with the track and its operations. I have been attending races there for over 40 years. The safety team has the reputation of being one of the very best in the country.
Since this race was a one-day Saturday show for ARCA, my race duties would start on Friday night. The first order of business was checking all the equipment, which entailed putting the radios on chargers, taking the fire extinguishers out of storage and making sure they were fully operable, and finding a firesuit as well as underwear, balaclava, gloves, and a helmet that would fit me.
You have to be alert and focused on the task at hand.
Next on tap was the official lecture from G.B. on what my duties would be the next day. As he explained what he wanted me to do and what I was to stay away from completely-all types of potential hazards exist on a hot pit road during a race-my thoughts were a little different. What I heard was, Don't get hurt and don't do anything stupid.
I went to bed with that thought racing repeatedly through my head. Even though the green flag wasn't scheduled to fly until 7:15 p.m., we still had to be at the ARCA truck when the garage opened at 9 a.m. At this point, the only people who knew that I was participating in order to write about my experiences were G.B., Dee, and Barry. This was intentional because I wanted to have the same experience as the rest of the safety crew and didn't want special consideration.
Of course, that plan went away almost immediately because the first person I ran into while we were placing fire bottles along the wall on pit lane was Frank Kimmell. I have known Frank for years. He cocked his head and looked at me quizzically as I carried a fire extinguisher while wearing a firesuit. So I explained the situation and asked him to keep quiet about it.
Next was car owner Eddie Sharp, who I had recently finished writing about, so I thought I should let him in on our little secret, too. After that, we continued to set up the pits for the practice and the race. Buckets of speedy dry had to be placed along pit wall along with brooms and shovels and all the other required paraphernalia. We walked the track looking for anything that could be a hazard to drivers, crews, fans, tires, and us.
Caution's out! Time for our guy to step up.
Then it was time for practice to begin. All of a sudden there was an entirely new perspective on how I watched an auto race. I was stationed toward the end of pit road, standing next to the wall that separates pit road from the track. At Salem, the speeds are high and the main spot for trouble is off the fourth turn, where the cars have a tendency to slap the outer wall, slide down the track, and finally smack into the inner wall.
When the morning started, I had no clue how much beating and banging happens on the racetrack. Sure, we all see it on television and from the stands, but you don't realize how prevalent it really is until you are standing on the side of the track, even during practice. As I stood there with my eyes focused on the fourth turn, watching for the bump or wiggle that would send a 3,000-pound stock car careening my way, I remembered the second part of my job: looking at the cars speeding by and finding anything that could cause a problem on the track. So my head was on a swivel as I watched the cars go by, quickly glancing up the track to see if anything was coming my way, then back to the cars flying by, back up the track, and so on.