Living The Dream

This past weekend was one of those weekends that was too good to be true. I had thought about pinching myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming but when you're on a highly competitive pit crew you don't have the time to be introspective. But let's start from the beginning.

A few weeks ago a family member that I haven't seen in over a decade invited me to a race at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham Alabama. My older Sister, her Husband, along with my Niece and Nephew just so happen to live close by so I flew to the South for a mini family reunion.

The premise was awesome in-and-of itself but the distant family member just so happens to work for Riley Technologies and gave us paddock passes. In case you don't know Riley builds everything from Grand-Am GS series cars up to Daytona Prototypes, no small operation. Also, this wasn't just any race weekend. This was a joint event of Continental Tire Sports Car, Rolex, and Indy Car series. This was also my first trip to the South. I've had more severe cases of culture shock in the past but over the weekend I learned to speak a bit slower, that there really is a place called Tallapoosa, and they take their speed limits a bit too seriously.

Yes, that's real. I snapped that picture just down the street from the hotel.

The morning of the race seemed fairly standard. We were up early, parked incredibly far away, and shlepped to Barber Park. However, being greeted by the sounds of Indy cars qualifying wasn't expected. Once we reached the paddock I began absorbing the environment through my 50mm lens.

AAA's car at tech inspection after qualifying

The Target team at work post-qualifying

After Indy's qualifying session the production-based sports cars began preparing for their race.

Bimmerworld Racing's crew getting their drivers ready.

Behind the Bimmerworld cars was this lineup of Minis. It was a very diverse field of cars which made for some great racing.

As I mentioned before Riley preps many levels of race cars.

From grassroots drifters to Grand-Am racers, everyone has the people of Japan in their thoughts.

Grand-Am action at the beautiful Barber Motorsports Park. That building on the right is Barber's motorcycle museum which is five floors of over 1,200 modern and vintage bikes. It's an amazing collection!

Shortly after the sports car race I received instructions to hurry back to the paddock because there was a job for me to do. The vague message had me running half way around the track in gorgeous yet humid 80-something degree weather. The whole time I was running I wondered what the job was. Did someone need their picture taken? Did I score an interview that I could use in my journalism class? Or did an umbrella girl need a massage? I was entirely capable and willing to do all three but I wasn't prepared for what was actually in store. 

My run slowed to a jog as I approached the paddock. Sweating and breathing heavily I flashed my credentials, continued down toward the pits, and saw my host waiting with a black Sparco fire suit in hand. 

"Hurry and suit up. One of our teams is short a man and they need help with refueling during pit stops."

It took me a second to comprehend what that meant. I did as instructed and listened closely as my duties were explain while we weaved through the crowd in to the pits. I was then introduced and handed off to Starworks Motorsport's Crew Chief. I still hadn't fully grasped what was happening so I listened intently through his thick accent as he explained how this was going to work. Apparently I was going to be working the deadman valve on the fuel tank during pit stops. It was an easy but important job. If that valve wasn't all the way open the fuel didn't reach the car. If the valve was held open too long fuel would spray everywhere and possibly start a fire after the fueler on the other side of the wall pulled away from the car. 

I couldn't believe this was really happening. People were actually relying on me. My performance directly affected the team, the driver, the car, and the race. Upon realizing that I put my serious face on.

That guy with the beard and Ray Bans, that's me.

The pit stops were intense. Seconds lasted minutes and minutes didn't exist. Our stops were under thirty seconds. Within that time period fuel was added, tires were changed, aero was adjusted, the windscreen was cleared, and we did one driver change. Listening to the communication between the drivers and the team through the headsets solidified how real this actually was. Tire conditions were discussed. Suggestions for changing the handling of the car on the fly were given. People were reprimanded for seemingly insignificant mistakes. This was not the attitude I associated with the grassroots-level racing I know. These were professionals.

I stood around watching everyone move in silence because their sounds were drowned out by the roar of V8's flying down the straight at over 150 mph. The crack of a microphone engaging came over the headset and the call was made, "Pit this lap. I repeat pit this lap." It was go time. Everyone around me quickly checking their equipment, got in position, and stood motionless like statues. I was the only one looking around in anticipation until I saw our marker drop over the wall and a split second later there was our car sitting still. I blinked and everyone that I was standing around had leapt over the wall. Air guns were spinning, people were shouting commands, and I was the only one not moving. I didn't realize it because I was distracted but I had instinctually began doing my job, which was a relief. Like I said, it wasn't a terribly difficult job. Just hold the valve open and make sure it closes once the fueler pulls away. Before I could settle down the stop was over and the car was gone. I finally took a breath.

All of our pit stops went extremely well and after three hours of racing the checkered flag flew. Our cars finished 3rd and 8th which equated to lots of smiles, congratulations, and hand shakes all around. In fact Bill Riley himself approached me afterwards and thanked me for my help which was an incredible honor for my microscopic roll. 

Yours truly with the #8 car that finished 3rd

That evening I wasn't myself. That's not to say I'm not usually a happy person but this level of happy was unbeknowst to me. Although it's trite to say my head was in the clouds and my smile wouldn't take a break. The plan was to fly across the country and watch a few races that I would normally watch on Speed Channel. I had no idea I'd be playing a role in one of the races, let alone a Daytona Prototype team. These are the kinds of cars that I had posters of on my wall growing up. The kind of cars most of us will only race on Forza. The kind of cars us fanatics wish we were driving when we're weaving through traffic during rush hour. 

This was a weekend for my personal records book.