My day as a backmarker

Permit me for a few moments to digress from matters related to IndyCar.

Let me take you back to a moment when I was staring at a scoring pylon, eyes burning because I didn't want to blink and risk taking my eyes off of it for a second. A moment when I was standing on pit road unable to move... afraid to move, as if movement would break the spell.

The pylon showed a car number. My car number. Or, rather, the car number of a particular driver who I worked for. We had shared laughs, we had shared frustration. Right now, though, we weren't sharing anything. He was behind the wheel of his race car, and I was riveted to the pit road asphalt in shock.

The car number wasn't at the top of the pylon. It wasn't even halfway down the pylon. It was towards the bottom, squatting underneath over thirty other car numbers like Atlas sagging under the weight of the world.

I didn't care how many numbers were above his - ours. All that mattered was how many were below.

There were enough. By God, there were enough.

The team my driver and I were associated with for this particular weekend was not our normal team. Normally, we were on our way home at this particular point of the schedule, because we were regulars in the minor leagues and when the big boys ran, our racing was already over.

Not this weekend. This weekend, we were encroaching on rarified air.

We didn't even merit our own garage stall. Rather, our car was on jackstands next to Hauler Row along with the rest of the have-nots. While the regulars sauntered around the paddock in freshly-pressed, bright crew uniforms, sharing waves and laughs and knowing gestures, our group huddled around the beaten sheet metal of our race car.

The other guys were all in the show. We were not. But we wanted to be. More than anything, we wanted to be.

Even some of our fellow castoffs in the Jackstand Lot were part of the club. Bill Elliott, once called NASCAR's Fastest Man Alive and "Awesome Bill," was parked close by with his past champion's provisional, his curly ginger hair greyed by age but still acknowledged with deference and friendly camaraderie by the boys.

To call our group "ragtag" was understating matters by quite a bit. The crew had uniforms but we were saving them for raceday... that is, if we even made The Show in the first place. The latter task was going to be Herculean.

These were the days before the Top-35 rule, but it was as hard then as it is now to overcome the weight of R&D, testing, and resources that the regulars could bring to bear on a given race weekend. Add to that, here at Phoenix International Raceway, a group of West Coast ringers was in town for their once-annual attempt to take the Big Stage. We were not the only Don Quixotes tilting at this particular windmill.

We had no illusions of winning. Hell, we had no illusions of even finishing. Our car was a castoff, our parts worn and second-hand. Our handful of volunteers, friends, and acquaintances which comprised our crew were trying to milk two good laps out of this machine for our driver.

It was a losing proposition, let's be honest. It raised the question, Why bother? We had no fans in the stands, we had no sponsors to entertain, and at best we'd be taking someone else's points and prize money. We weren't even going to be around next week.

Why bother, indeed.

I had an answer, and I believed my compatriots felt the same way even though they wouldn't think of vocalizing it the way I did. We were racers. We wanted to race. It was that simple.

Still, the odds against us were so severe that when the lap times came over the radio during qualifying, I had a hard time believing it. But there it was.

It was by the skin of our teeth, but our times would stand up to withstand even Bill Elliott's past-champion's provisional. We had made The Show on speed.

Nobody in the stands cheered. But afterwards, members from other teams - the deserving ones - stopped by and congratulated our driver and our crew chief. Even a star driver or two flipped us a quick wave in passing.

On Sunday, as the anthem played and the airplanes flew overhead, I lined up with the rest of the crew and drank it in. There was Tony Stewart and Greg Zipadelli. There was Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. And we were on the same playing field with them.

That the closest we got to them was on the pace laps was ultimately immaterial. We had won our race in qualifying. For us, the goal was lofty - for others, it was more of a formality. The gulf between those who were in the club and those on the outside yawned. But for one brief moment we had bridged it, and during that moment we were validated.

It is a memory I think back on often these days, every time I see someone criticizing "go or go homers" or small teams or backmarkers. I think of that experience when I see drivers pull off the track after a lap or two, pass along the "Reason Out" for the week, and go to cash their checks.

I think of that all-consuming desire to compete - even if it was on a totally different level than the top teams and drivers, we still had it. And the sense of accomplishment, of pride, even, that I felt as a member of that backmarker team on that glorious day resonates across the years, even as I have moved on to other things and left those days behind.

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