Many times the sport of Auto Racing gravitates towards the flashy drivers standing on podiums broadcast after national races such as the Daytona 500, Indy 500, Coca-Cola 600, and even a weekend at Talladega Superspeedway. And that's a good thing - very understandable. However, over the years I think people may forget that racing is mostly done on a grass-roots level.
This week for my Monday Morning Kent's Tailgate Talk piece I wanted to
tell people about a lesson I learned about racing towards the end of
last week. The lesson came courtesy of long-time friend Wayne Hixson of
Hixson Motorsports which is located in East Tennessee outside of
Chattanooga, Tennessee. Helping with the lesson was driver Thomas
"Moose" Praytor of Mobile Alabama. The two once again are taking on the
other teams in the ARCA Racing Series.
I was driving by the Hixson Motorsports Shop. The shop is only a mile or two away from the marina where I was heading to once again work on my fixer upper / flip it boat. Buying a boat to rebuild and sell is a horrible idea, but that's another story. I noticed that the Praytor hauler was parked at the shop so I decided to pull in and see if I could get a quick interview with Thomas and possibly a picture of Wayne and him together. After all, the seal around the boat head could wait... it didn't work anyway and the fact that a lightning storm was on the way helped me decide that sitting under a huge metal boat dock in water was probably not the best place to be.
I pulled in and was greeted by the shop dog who ran with mud covered paws towards me before I had a chance to step out of the Jeep. Following close behind him was Thomas Praytor. "Sorry mister, he gets excited when people come by," Thomas said pulling the tongue with paws away. "Can I help you with any thing?" I explained quickly to Thomas who I was, that his dad sent me material for PR on him and for Mobile International Speedway. Thomas noted that he did know who I was and politely thanked me for running a few articles on him and the team, even when things did not go great.
We walked towards the shop as we talked and strolled by car haulers, used car skins, bent frames and more of Wayne's collection of racing history. Wayne can make anything... from anything! Some of the old cars were from ARCA and some were from NASCAR teams. The place look almost the same as it did about ten years ago when Wayne and his step son and driver Ron Cox allowed me to hang out for a season as I worked on my book Checkered Flag Cooking .
Wayne came around the corner and a big grin came across his face as he extended his oil covered hand out. I started to re-introduce myself since I had not seen Wayne in about eight or ten years. "Well, long time, long time... and we just ate dinner." Wayne knows that my volunteer skills around a garage are very limited, after all... I'm a writer and a chef with grilling and BBQ skills.
A quick look around the garage and row of cars reminded me of a fact in racing that is a constant in every level even in NASCAR's top series. Racing is a hands on, often family related, effort where the luxury of having a huge paid staff of builders and engineers is limited only to a few of the top teams in any given garage area at a track. Hixson Motorsports is basically Wayne, his love of racing, his knowledge, family, friends and volunteers.
For fans who come to the track on race day they see the drivers and crew in their fire suits with logos, sunglasses, sponsored drinks in hand. The cars are shiny and clean and ready to go. What fan's often don't see is the fact that probably up to an hour before the same drivers and crews in many race series were still turning wrenches and tweaking their rides before cleaning up to sign a few autographs and get a few pictures taken before the drop of the green flag.
Wayne sat on a stool in front of a portable computer and scale with a small notepad and pen in hand sounding off directions. Thomas, and shop worker Crystal Bates, moved around the car making adjustments as directed. Wayne noted that the car was the one Thomas would be driving in the ARCA Series race almost a 14 hour drive away in New Jersey on a road course and that they were shooting for loading and being on the road by 8:pm.
I looked at my watch. It was 5:30 pm. "You gonna make it?" I asked. "Aw heck, of course not." Wayne responded with a grin. Just then a huge bolt of lightning came down nearby as the rain opened up. "Now we have that to deal with!" Wayne said motioning over his shoulder with his thumb while never taking his eyes off the car positioned in front of him. Crystal bolted out into the rain and started closing doors on the haulers with a dog only steps behind her. Wayne and Thomas continued to work on the car explaining to me as he went.
What was amazing to watch was the interaction between a seasoned car builder and team owner and a younger driver working his way through motorsports. Thomas was soaking up information and Wayne was just not blurting out orders. Wayne would say to do something, Thomas would do it, Wayne would look at the info on the screen, make a few notes on the notepad, close his eyes and perform several math equations in his head. He would then say "OK" or ask for another adjustment on the car. When the adjustment was done Thomas would respond with a hearty "yes sir," or answer any question Wayne would ask about what the result was when measuring the car after an adjustment.
Many people would never see this side of the "shiny clean driver" and car on race day; or the interaction that many car owners and drivers have with their teams and machines in many garages involved in racing. Wayne would ask Thomas if everything was clear on why they made those adjustments. Thomas would respond yes or no or ask a question. The next few minutes were spent with Wayne sharing massive amounts of knowledge with both Thomas and Crystal about setting up a car that was light years above me.
The rain soon cleared off and I remembered that I had to meet a repairman at the boat. Wayne told me to come on back sooner than ten years so he could actually put me to work. Thomas thanked me for my coverage of his efforts as well as the ARCA Racing series as a whole. What a classy kid, he plugged the whole series and let me know in a small way that other drivers and teams in the series appreciate coverage of their efforts. Crystal said bye and headed off the dog while I dashed to my jeep between drops of rain.
I was once again reminded that the business, and fun, of racing takes
place in countless oil covered hours outside of the command to "start the engines" or when the checkered
Images: Shop - Kent Whitaker / Race - Tommy Praytor