Sunday, November 14, 2010

Schumi and Me (Part 2 of 3)

Race days kept me going. After my diagnosis I was depressed and alone, except on Sundays. My world revolved around those days and I put all my effort into those days. Starting in 2004 I started directing Saturday practice so it was now race weekends instead of just Sundays and it was great.

I loved getting up on Sunday mornings, really early, to catch the start of the F1 races. I only had time to watch the starts and the first few laps, but it was always somewhat motivating to watch a race the world was watching, and then go to a kart track and flag. The world may not have been watching the kart race, and Michael Schumacher may not have been there, but I treated each race as if it were an F1, NASCAR, or IndyCar race.

Then, in March of 2006, I got a phone call from someone I had never talked to. A local kart shop owner, Greg Yocom, was starting a new regional series called the Central States Super Series and he wanted to know if I wanted to be the flagman and race director.

I didn't know what to say initially. I loved to flag, but I never had been in the role of being the race director. There is a difference between the two as the race director is essentially the executive decision maker of the weekend and the primary enforcer of the rules. Also, the race director must give the driver's meeting which entails talking in front of a group.

I told Greg that I would get back to him. I liked my role as flagman because it was very impersonal as I communicated through my flags, but once in the pits I was invisible. Becoming race director would mean I would have to interact with many more people and make decisions that some would find great, while others may find to be protestable.

After a day I called back and said I would do it. The deciding factor was the travel aspect because I would get to travel around the region and be paid for it. It was a win win!

My first race as race director was in March of 2006. I drove to Greg's house as I would ride with him to West Quincy. I had seen Greg at the track during the Saint Louis Karting Association races, but I had never had a conversation with him so the 90 minute drive started out a bit awkward.

There's no better place to get me to talk than a moving vehicle and once we were halfway there I opened up and we talked racing. I was at ease, until we made the turn into the track. I realized, right then and there, that I was in charge, but I did not know how to be in charge. I had seen for over a decade what the race directors do, but now it was my turn to do it and I was clueless.

When it came time for the driver's meeting I was in a state of panic. True, unfiltered panic. I didn't know what to say, or how to say it, or whether I should say it. Thankfully the track owner stepped in and prevented a disaster.

If anyone thought I was unable to do my job I quickly put those thoughts to rest once I started to flag. People from the region that had not seen me quickly made the usual comments of, "wow, you're the best flagman..." and the meeting disaster was quickly forgotten.

My first race director crisis came when, in qualifying, a kid kart managed to flip all by himself and an ambulance was needed. The track had an on-site ambulance arranged for Sunday, but one was not required on Saturday due to the fact that it was just practice and qualifying.

The crisis was that neither Quincy, Illinois, or West Quincy, Missouri had any ambulances availible. And when they did, each side of the river thought the other side would make the run. We had an EMT on site that was tending to the kid and it wasn't serious (the kid raced the next day) but there was some neck pain so transport and immobilization was needed. Eventually, 55 minutes after the accident, an ambulance arrived.

During those minutes I was a race director that could do nothing. I felt shattered and wanted to do something, but there was nothing I could do. This was a fast initiation into the world of race directing, but I survived it and at the end of the weekend I anxiously looked forward to the next time I got the chance to race direct.

The next race was outside Kansas City and future NASCAR Sprint Cup driver David Ragan was in attendance to race. It was during this race weekend that I found my stride in my role as race director and was developing my alias. It was also this weekend that helped me come up with the title, "Finding Kansas" as my book title because after the race when I was out of my role as race director, one of the racers, when trying to talk with me, asked me, "Are you sure you are the same person as the race director I saw earlier?" That night I wrote the chapter, "Situational Handicap" and the concept of Kansas.

That same year I became the race director of the Saint Louis Karting Association and I loved the challenge that came with it. I kept my position as flagman as well because that's what I loved the most. Eye contact is a challenge for me, but as karts drive by I look the drivers in the eyes. When I want to illustarte that I mean business when I am upset at a certain driver's aggression level, or when I want to relay that there is danger ahead, I communitcate this through my facial demeanor, and the level that I am waiving my flags.

I survived my first year as race director and was invited back for a 2nd. The awkwardness of my driver's meetings disappeared and I loved every minute of the local and regional races. These regional races may not have been a touring series like the USAC National Midget Series, or other seires that people pay to see, but to me it was everything. Every race I do is the most important race I have ever been at, and these races kept me motivated while I was jobless and an aspiring writer.

In 2008 the Central States Super Series morphed into the SKUSA Central States Challenge. Tom Kutcher, the owner of Super Karts USA (SKUSA) was re-estabilishing a regional program and our series started flying the SKUSA banner.

Tom was on hand for our first race that year and this made me a bit nervous. Greg was still the runner of the series, but now Tom was the man. These nerves didn't influence me and if anything it made me more passionate because perfection had to be.

It was a perfect weekend and at the end of the day I was ready to go home, but Greg told me to stay around for the trophy presentation. This race was here at the local track so I was ready to
go home. Flagging and directing take a lot out of me because it is very physical and, with standing and walking for 10 hours each day in the extreme Saint Louis heat (and opressive humidity), I can't get home fast enought. I insisted that I was ready to drive myself home, but Greg insisted even more so that I was essentially given no choice but to stay. There was an ultimatium given, stay or I won't be at the next race.

Given the two choices I stayed, and I was confused as to why. I stood by the trophies expecting to be a person to hand out awards, but I stood there awkwardly and had no direction. I then started to panic. Was Tom mad at the way the race was ran? Had I made a bad call or had someone told him something that defamed me?

That position meant the world to me and I was worried I was about to lose it. Halfway through the awards Tom mentioned that he had a "special announcement" to give at the end. I thought nothing of this as I was in a world of self-induced panic.

As the awards came to an end Tom took the point and said something along these lines, "I've been in karting for many years and have never seen something like I saw today. I've seen passion at races, but today, well, I have found my new chief starter for the SKUSA Super Nationals!"

I was in shock. I had been to the Super Nationals the previous two years as a photographer and it is the largest kart race in North America, if not the world. There is no race bigger, and out of nowhere I was named the chief flagman for it. I went from thinking I would never flag again, to having the dream position of a karting flagman. It may not be the Indy 500, but it is the Indy 500 of karting, and five months after those words were said, I headed to Las Vegas for my first SuperNats.

The story of my first SuperNat, as well as the 2009 edition that Michael Schumacher was at, will run tomorrow.

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