Story and photo by Patrick Reynolds
… Three separate groups that frequently blur lines between them in auto racing. In both the grandstands and pit areas of superspeedway to local grassroots short tracks, people form close personal connections- the kind which bring high emotion to the surface and then bonding in their hearts.
The grid was already pushed into place when I arrived at Indiana’s Anderson Speedway for the Little 500. The high-banked quarter-mile oval was hosting its 70th running of this dramatic pavement sprint car race. The lineup staged 11 rows of three cars for the 33-car field, mimicking its main event in which it served as a Memorial Day undercard for- the Indianapolis 500.
Driver names popped to a short track nerd like me- Eric Gordon, Shane Hollingsworth, Jerry Coons Jr., and veteran Ken Schrader. National short track names rich in USAC history graced the grand event ready to unfold.
I walked through the turn-four gate, across the 17-degree banked corner, and up to the frontstretch where the Little 500 field sat in formation for pre-race ceremonies. Looking over the sharp-looking sprint cars, I made a leisurely stroll through all 11 rows. The front row is where I landed for some New England Modified lore.
Bobby Santos III qualified on the outside of the front row, a name well known to current fans of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. Santos was the 2010 series champion where he is still a participant and winner.
Being around the sport for over four decades, I remember as a young fan in New England, watching Santos’ grandfather race. Santos was not around his car at the moment that I approached the black machine. Some outgoing and friendly crewmembers were welcoming and eagerly talked about the Santos-driven car and upcoming 500-lap race within an hour of the green flag.
The team filled me in on their week of practice and qualifying at Anderson and how their race was shaping up. They moved the car off of the grid in an attempt to diagnose an unknown noise coming from the rear. The brakes, wheels, and rear housing were given quick looks. An uncertain but not overly concerned expression filled the team’s faces as the sprinter was pushed back to the grid.
The crewmembers’ friendly talk with me resumed without missing a beat. I had not met this group of guys before, but I was taken in as a team member and a friend.
I found Santos to say hello as he was dressed in his firesuit during driver introductions on the frontstretch stage. We spoke about me watching his grandfather race Modifieds at the Thompson Speedway in Connecticut in the 1970s.
“Wow, that’s unbelievable,” said Santos. “How old are you?”
I guessed I pulled off a younger age in my appearance to Santos.
Strolling over to Santos’ infield pit area for the 500, I continued to chat with crewmembers about the uniqueness of this event. His Dad describes their pit equipment and logistical setup.
The Little 500 features live infield pitting for tires and fuel. Stations are set up on the infield of the quarter-mile oval on the crossroads for the figure-eight track. Gravity-fed elevated tanks were used for refueling. Air jacks and pneumatic knockoff-style guns were at the ready for tire changes.
Sprint cars are not equipped with transmissions or onboard starters. The Anderson infield has a command center for push truck dispatches. When a pit stop is complete, the crew waves their arms and a truck is radioed to a car’s pit stall to push off and send the car back onto the track in action.
These aspects lend high value to the fans’ entertainment. Teams will easily go down a few laps during green-condition stops and there is a frantic attention waving from teams during caution stops where multiple cars hit pit road.
Santos ran near the front of the Little 500 throughout. The pit crew made sharp and quick work in their refueling and tire changing duties. They were about to connect with their driver beyond tires and mechanics.
Santos crashed on the backstretch just past the 300-lap mark. His crippled machine with its broken suspension sat in its pit stall where mere moments earlier, it was primed to make a charge for the 500 win.
Santos climbed up through the sprint car’s roll cage and out of his ride. He slammed his helmet and Hans device to the pavement. The look on his face was pure anger. His scowl was framed in sweat.
He marched with purpose out of the infield towards the racing surface near turn four as the field circulated under caution. The crash helmet that just survived Santos’ throw to the asphalt was back in his hand and about to take another ride.
He was clearly looking to launch the helmet at the car driven by what Santos felt was the offending driver who caused his crash. One of his own crew members ran out to him and grabbed his arm to prevent the obvious intent.
Santos snapped his arm and shook the grip of his teammate. With anger in his eyes, he threw the helmet at the car in his crosshairs. It ricocheted off the sprinter’s side and rolled back toward the infield. With the message delivered, the angry Santos and unsuccessful crewmember returned to the pit area, emotions and tension high within them both.
The crew wore disappointed expressions as the race continued. Santos cooled off. The team gathered their equipment. Smiles were nowhere to be found.
The guys talked among themselves. Bonding, connecting, and looking ahead to another race. The track bound crewmember sat in a lawn chair with his pursed lips and unhappy expression. Santos’ anger from crashing had subsided.
The Little 500 raced on as the sprint cars roared. Santos walked over to the lawn chair and exchanged no words with his friend. No words were needed. The two bumped fists and expressed camaraderie that words could not.
The team assessed the car’s damage, gathered their tools, and waited until the end of the race so they could load up and head back to the shop.
Kody Swanson celebrated his second Little 500 win mere feet away from Santos’ pit area as their equipment was packed into the hauler.
Disappointed on this night, the typical forward vision had the group’s looking ahead to another race.
In victory or defeat, racers’ bonds are as tight as the lugs holding the wheels on.
Patrick Reynolds is a former professional NASCAR mechanic who hosts Speedway Report live on Facebook Mondays 7:30 pm ET/ 4:30 pm PT and uploaded on http://speedwayreport.wpengine.com/ . Follow on Twitter @SpeedwayPat.