Editor’s Note: Matthew Sharon is a long-time racing enthusiast, and grew up watching anything with a motor including Formula 1 and IndyCar as well as local short-track midget and sprint racing. After retiring from the United States Air Force, he finally had time to pursue a life-long dream: to be a race car driver! I had the great pleasure of helping crew for him on his debut race night at the Valley Speedway in Grain Valley, MO. The article below are his thoughts on the process of finding a car and making his way through his first night of competition. While we love the glitz, glamour, and high level of technology and performance of Formula 1, racing and its enjoyment happen at every level and is far more accessible that many realize. There’s no reason to sit on the couch and wish that you could race. Get out there and do it!
Words by Matthew Sharon, Photos by Doug Patterson
This I hope will be a series of short articles about my experiences getting into a Sprint car from a relative novice on all things automotive. That is not to say I am not mechanically inclined, I have been an armorer in the United States Air Force so I know my way around a tool box. It’s just that I don’t know nearly enough about cars and engines as I should, and yet, I have always had this desire to race and race sprint cars on dirt.
The Big Search
I spent countless hours, many at work, searching for a car. The right car escaped me. They wanted too much, or there wasn’t enough there, and so on. One guy said he would only take cash for what he had. I mean, who carries around that much cash besides drug dealers and such? I suspect it was stolen but didn’t see anything on the web about a missing or stolen car so I just moved on. Finally, I found one. It was just a few hundred miles from me and the price was right. After a few phone texts, my father and I hooked up the trailer and headed down to see it. A note here; my dad is a real gear head. He has forgotten more about cars and engines than I will ever know, and so I ask his opinion on a lot of things. He laughed at me when I told him about this car and said I know nothing about these cars. “You know more about engines than me,” I said. “I can identify parts and put them in the right places but you can make them sing.”. So off we go, three and a half hours later we meet the owners. Nice guys, very busy guys we interrupted their work day on the day jobs, but they were happy to see us none the less.
Long conversation short, after a lot of talk about the car and what all it has been through, we made the deal. At this point, I am so excited that it takes a lot to contain myself. I mean I am so close to my dream I can barely take it. I want to get into the car and race it this weekend but the realist in me knows I must take some time to go through the car and see what we actually have.
Going through the car is a long process. I am not a terribly patient person and I force myself to take my time. I don’t want to miss anything. As I am doing this, I am setting the car up for her first race. I put her up on jack stands and block her as I go through all the suspension parts, and write down what I have where. This is the easy part. Checking all the heims and rods, as I go through things, the torsion bars, torsion arms and stops, making sure things are in good condition and not cracked, bent, or broken. Next, I start going through the fuel and oil systems, making sure they are in good condition and functioning properly, and checking the lines on the power steering unit. Power steering on a sprint car you ask? Yep, it really makes a big difference. the weight to benefit ratio is huge and I like it. Lastly, we push the car off to make sure it runs, and the engine runs well. Oh, how I love the smell of methanol on any day!
I have been impatiently waiting this day for a while now. The car is prepped and loaded as best we can with our limited knowledge. All of our supplies for the night are loaded in the truck as well. My crew of volunteers are patiently waiting on me to calm down. I checked things three times before we decide to roll on our 2.5-hour journey to the track. We get there early, did I mention I am impatient to race? After waiting on the track to actually open the pits, we checked in. The nice folks in the shack at the entrance talk me through what they need from me and my crew for the evening and where to place the transponder for the cars. Oh, I should mention I am running two cars tonight. A friend of mine has an extra midget so I am pulling double-duty.
We get in the pits, unload the car, and start prepping for the night. I check in with my car owner of the midget and find out what he needs from me as well as put the transponder on the car. Fortunately, he needs little from me in the way of help and all I need do is get in and drive. I think I can handle that. Back to my car and last minute checks.
My biggest take-away from the Drivers’ Meeting: DON’T get out of the car unless told to. You would think this would be obvious, especially after what happened in NY a few years ago, but some people just don’t get it yet. I mean a reasonable person would want to be out of the car when seven other 1500-lbs machines are coming by even at idle. If you get hit, it’s going to leave more than a mark. A note here, I have the highest respect for the track and safety crews that show up every week. These folks do a dangerous and incredibly important job. Thanks guys and gals without you we couldn’t do what we love. Hot laps go well, and I just need to calm down and remember what I learned at driving school. I have Jonathan Henry in my head saying, “Be smooth dude. Don’t force it. Just relax and be smooth.”
I get out for the heats and run pretty decent. I find that after the heats I have the pole in the midget, slow car to the front to make it a better show, and I start outside Row 5 in the sprint car. I didn’t do as bad as I thought I would.
The midget main goes well, except that I spun out on the top of the hill in Turns 3 and 4. I got it going again and ran hard, finishing the night in 4th. To be fair, only four of us finished the race running. I still feel good about it, I finished with the car intact and still running. My car owner prepped a great car I just need a lot more seat time.
Now to race my car. We get going in the sprint car main and there is a lot of wheel banging. I mean a lot! A car spins two cars in front of me, and the car in front of me is hard on the brakes. With nowhere to go, I slam into the back of him and we keep going. we get back to green flag for some more racing. I get passed. No surprise there. No, really, I expected it. I wasn’t happy about it but knew it would happen. I get impatient and almost loose it again but manage to keep her going and on the track. I catch the tail end of the field again, trying to figure out how to get past this car. They hear me coming and take my line from me. I have to get this figured out soon or the race will be over. Then, another caution and we continue on. Long story short, we finish 8th for the night. I am exhausted and we still have to load up and drive home.
What can I say about this whole thing? It was awesome, and I loved every minute of it. If I wasn’t hooked before, I sure as heck am now. Money aside, I am not giving this up anytime soon.