Fairytale in Racing: Not Just Another Princess

When Caitlin Siem set out for Michigan Speedway that June morning, she only knew that she was going to go meet Nathalie Bijeau with BJ McLeod Motorsports. Riding a tornado for the next two months was not on her list of “to dos” for the summer. As with all great adventures, the main character never knows what is in store.

Her next race would come at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the most historic of tracks in this great nation. A complicated weekend with XFINITY and Cup series competition challenges the most seasoned of all NASCAR veterans. Through the hustle and bustle Caitlin found calm and serenity that enabled her to do her job, to put her nose to the grindstone and learn all she could.

“I definitely bonded with some of my team members right away. They didn’t make me feel unwelcome in any way and I felt like a part of the team even though, at that point, I thought this was a temporary endeavor. In a way, I felt comfortable. The race weekend was so unbearably hot (Honestly, Indianapolis in July does not play well with others) and you have to walk what feels like hundreds of miles to get anywhere inside that speedway (I’m being a little dramatic). But none of that seemed to matter. I mean, it did on some scale because there was never a moment I wasn’t sweating, but I was with the team and it felt so right. When the team left after the race Saturday (I was sticking around for the Cup race Sunday), I felt like a piece of me was missing. I’m pretty good about not feeling lonely, but I did that night.”

As quickly as the IMS weekend ended, Iowa Speedway began. With just two days to do laundry, reload, and prepare she was tested. She let up from her home in Michigan to continue chasing her dream. Pinching pennies and working on borrowed time, determination pushed her forward through a great weekend at the stand alone event in Iowa.

“Time. My time was so limited. Between work starting back up in August and only being allowed to go to so many races on credentials, my time was running out and it’s all I could think about, it seemed. I’d known this was what I wanted to do for ages, but within one weekend working with the team, I knew they were the crew I wanted to be with. It was like love at first sight, but with a race team I wanted to work with. When I left Iowa, there was only one more race left for me if I wasn’t hired in. Imagine reaching your dream, something you’ve wanted since you were a kid, but knowing there was a deadline to it. It was like looking into a black hole where my future was.”

Caitlin had a clock ticking. August 21 was coming quick, the date meant she would have to return to her life in a school library. Though she is a writer and loves books and loves the library, it was far from her dream. A dream 15 years in the making was at grasp and she knew she had to make things happen.

“I loved working at the library, I loved the staff and the students there. Writing and books are a huge part of my life. But it wasn’t racing, it wasn’t NASCAR, it wasn’t my dream. It wasn’t so much my feelings toward going back to the library as it was the thought of losing my dream. I honestly think I would have been completely miserable. I would’ve bounced back at some point, I wouldn’t have given up on my dream if I had to walk away from BJMM after four races with them. The recovery time would have been a long one though. My dad half-joked that I would have been impossible to deal with if I had to go back to the library. And he was probably right. I think I wouldn’t have been all there come August 21.”

Her first objective was finding a caterer for Watkin’s Glen International. This combined with preparing sample paperwork and all while she had just 3 days to get home and back on the road.

Life on the road quickly became a series of stops to do work, make calls, visit friends. As the days ticked down she learned she had to get a “Yes” from two different people if she was to join a team, join the crew, and live the dream she had been chasing.

I was lucky enough to be on the phone when the first of the two “Yes” answers came. An explosion of happiness and excitement. Emotions raced and overwhelmed us both. While I am easily moved, I’ve not seen this from Caitlin, not like this. This was something special. Then came the realization, that was only the first answer needed.

“I mean, I technically knew I needed more than one yes to get in. But sometimes the mind plays tricks on you and that part slipped my mind briefly. I half blame you, Couch, for that one. It sucked for a minute but I eventually pulled back together and focused on the next yes. In racing, you always need to be looking forward. Then again, that works in most aspects of life.”

Watkin’s Glen came quickly and so did her second “Yes” that she needed. Friday afternoon she called. Hiding between tire stacks, fuel cans, and a truck those words she spoke will be forever memorable to me, “I made it!” Three simple words held the weight to move the world, change the stars.

As the weekend flew by, Caitlin would have just 3 days to prepare to move from Michigan to North Carolina. We talked through the night as she drove for home, making tracks and setting plans as she drove through the dark to a destiny she had been chasing.

It is only fitting that she chased the stars through the night to make it home Sunday morning. Having chased those stars of destiny, she now ran them down on the horizon to give herself the time it would take to prepare. The days clicked off as she visited with friends, with family, visited those places that meant the most before she said her final “good byes” to that which she’s known for her lifetime.

Wednesday came as quickly as the last weekend had left. With her family, friends, work, and former life in the rear view mirror, Caitlin turned her wheels to Mid Ohio. With one last deep breath and asking tears not to fall, she left Michigan for the last time of the summer. As darkness fell she once again chased her stars onto the next horizon.

Having hopes, having dreams, that is something we all possess. The willingness to chase those is what truly epic stories are made from. Caitlin’s story is just beginning and only a few weekends have passed. The sky is the limit for those who give it all for that which they want. I believe we all have the ability to chase our own stars, but sometimes you have to work to change those stars for yourself.

“It kind of feels like I was at sea, enjoying life but I knew I was missing something. Then the fog up ahead clears and right there was the land I was searching for. It’s still my life, I don’t feel like a different person, but I stepped off my ship and onto land and it feels right.”

We can all learn to live more in the moment, to fight for that which we want. Only by doing that, can one achieve greatness.

“You need to learn to be invaluable. Don’t put yourself in a box. The more you have to offer a team, the better off you are. You have to be passionate about this sport or it’ll eat you alive, but if you’re a fan, you have to contain it. When you’re at the track, you’re at work. You can’t be freaking out about seeing a driver if you’re there to work. Don’t bad mouth anyone. The sport might be big but it’s tightknit. And because of that, the key to getting in, is knowing someone. It’s all on who you know in this sport. At the end of the day, just don’t give up. It took me years to get in, but I never stopped reaching for my dream. And here I am living it. Pursuing your dreams takes persistence. Never forget that.”

By doing this, one day… maybe…

I’ll see you in the box.

Living With the Ghosts of Racing

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Darlington Raceway (photo courtesy of Caitlin Siem)

The sun climbs high in the sky as the humidity creeps above the mercury, shadows shrink and grow again as teams work on their cars. Men and women gather around mighty machines, some have computers, some have tablets, and some have an old notebook with a pen. Hand tools are still pulled from the box and the same old cuss words are uttered a thousand times. This is Darlington; one of the last great citadels of racing that stands the test of time.

This 1.366 mile oval opened in 1950 and has been a legend since the start. The two ends are different in radius due to a farmer’s minnow pond, it’s banks were once used to pull onto when there was an issue because the cars raced on the flat surface. The old surface was once said to be so coarse that just pushing the car onto the grid took the “good” off the tires. Darlington is the only place that not touching the wall will have your car owner asking, “Why didn’t you try harder?” Yes, this is a place of legend.

Once again we return to the Southern 500, the end of summer classic, the true throwback weekend. Cars will take to the track with paint schemes and colors made famous 25+ years ago. Paint schemes that harken back to an era when there really was a chrome horn to use and it wasn’t just an old adage used by men moved by nostalgia. This was an era of legendary drivers. Earnhardt. Allison. Petty. Pearson. Gant. Wallace. The names go on forever.

As these history inspired cars take to the track you can feel the drivers of the past rise up to watch their battle wagons take to the banks one more time. The old men today stand up and remember being a child, dust on their cheeks, the smell of bias-ply rubber in their nose, fingers wrapped around the chicken wire fencing as the original cars drove by. Long before the corporations opened wallets, the blue collar workers traveled to this site to open their’s. This is the history of NASCAR. Family, friends, coworkers, racers. Everyone gathered to celebrate the last days of summer, together.

As the red, white, and blue flies high overhead and the national anthem plays again; drivers will prepare to do what so many have done before on this track. Each will sit in their cars alone, strapped in and they must make a choice… Race the competition or race the track? The track is the ultimate competitor and those who learn from the past will know that you don’t need to beat everyone, you just need to beat the ancient one, “The Lady in Black.”

As I watch Austin Dillon pull his 1987 Dale Earnhardt, Wrangler Chevrolet inspired SS onto the speedway I can’t help but think of the years I watched this race with my grandfather and my parents or listened to it on the AM radio. It is history, a history so recent and yet so long ago. It was a time before splitters, before wings, before universal bodies. That was when a manufacturer could make the difference between dominating a race season and merely watching from the sidelines.

I often wonder what those drivers back then would think of the sport today. A sport that has blown up and come back down. A sport that looks for heroes and still needs a villain. These ghosts of racing past surely still race down these historic straights, still slide through these ancient corners. These ghosts live on in every memory, every legend, every inch of this track.

The old saying is, “Those who forget the past are bound to repeat it.” While many call for those days past, I like to think that we are writing history of our own. Who will be the next legend to win here? Who will be the next driver people only remember winning? Who will be the next driver that people love to curse? I don’t know the answer to any of that, but I do know that Darlington will still be here when they take their place in myths and legend.

This is Darlington. This is where the ghosts of yesterday meet the drivers of today, who write tomorrow’s past. This is Labor Day weekend. This is where we remember days gone by.

Enjoy the show.

Make Your Last One Your Best One

This weekend my father and I returned to the beautiful Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Every year since NASCAR has raced there, we have had made sure to go. It wasn’t just another weekend for us, it is possibly the last one we will share at this facility.

Every year when we go we bring a cribbage board, we have kept score through the years. We have always played to break ties when they have occurred, so we know who won the year. This year we started 3-3. This morning we ended it, 3-3-1.

Every year I would buy and event program and he would buy an event t-shirt. We each have our own collections. It makes for just an interesting novelty. This year, neither of us bought our keepsake.

This year was no ordinary year. In January I will move to North Carolina. The plan has been set in motion and it is just time for it to happen. If I want to get any further in the sport that I love, I have to make this change. This change that literally changes everything.

After a weekend of joy and fun, happiness and celebration, work and relaxation, my world has changed forever. Good people make the world move. At least they make my world move. Many of the best people I know are in NASCAR at some level, being around those good people is what life is all about to me.

I could go over all the great times that were had this year, but too many don’t belong written down, only remembered. Just as in years past, the best times are always treasured and remembered and shared face to face, the way great stories should be told. This year, was the best year. Wins are great on the track, but wins in life are even greater.

As I move forward with this journey in life I will always look back to this weekend and think to myself, “That is how I want every weekend to be.” Good times. Great people. Lots of fun. Living in the moment.

Thank you Road America for providing the soil for these roots to grow. I started the first year as just a fan, I leave this year knowing I will always be something more than that. I can truly say that Road America is a magical place, a place to learn, a place to live, a place to grow. As I pulled out today knowing there is a chance that I may never be again, I smiled away what could be tears.

As Chris LeDoux so wonderfully sang, “Make your last one your best one…” That is just what I did.

May we meet again, old friend.

Small Team, Big Family.

In life we are all blessed with certain things; friends, family, people you know and love. Sometimes we get lucky and we fall in love with something so much bigger, a sport. I speak of course about NASCAR, today. Something that has given me years of fun and laughter, friends aplenty, and great times.

My father and I have come to the NASCAR XFINITY Racing Series event at Road America every year. The past three years we have been welcomed by multiple teams. First, Derrike Cope Racing. Then Derrike Cope Racing and Richard Childress Racing both welcomed us in 2016 and we were fortunate enough to be with the 2 team when they won.

This weekend I have the good fortune to be attached to BJ McLeod Motorsports for the Road America weekend. This small team is bigger than most realize. Not just in heart or in passion or even work ethic. This small team treats everyone around them like you hope a big team would, with hospitality and grace, comfort and welcoming smiles.

When I first signed up with BJ McLeod Motorsports to assist with their social media, I didn’t know what I was in for. What I found was a family, welcoming and loving of all new members. A team that loves all people in their circle. This team doesn’t know negative, they look for positives, they take comfort in improvement and good runs.

Winning, it’s not just about trophies and money. No. That’s not always real winning. Real winning is going out there and knowing your purpose; to entertain fans and enjoy the moment. Have some fun and at the end of the day maybe you celebrate with a good finish. That’s winning on a small team. This team knows these things all too well.

This is a team that not only works together and lives together; they sacrifice together and they spend quality time together. BJ McLeod Motorsports is a team that forms a bond with their members, bonds forged in the heat of battle, at the height of stress and fatigue. It is a family that I can only compare to the family I shared in the Army; a family that is so close and tight but still welcoming of all who enter.

As I lay here in the infield of Road America, I realize one thing, one fact that actually kind of makes me sad. After the race is over, the Beast is put away, the truck is loaded, and the engine started… I will have to say goodbye to this team, this family who has welcomed us with open arms. You hear other fans talk about the team and the experience and how great it is, then you experience it and realize that when they head home and you head home, you will feel as though a part of you has gone missing.

There will be other races for me this year and I will still talk to them during the week, every week, but it is a sense of loss. How can one team make everyone feel like such a part of the family? The answer is simple, all of us who wrap our arms around this team, receive the same in return. It is a true family. One that I will love and remember for all my days. I still have some time left, though it is fleeting, I will enjoy every last minute of it.

And when they turn those wheels south and head back to Mooresville, only one song will play in my head.

“Oh won’t you stay… just a little bit longer…”
-Jackson Browne-

Paying With Passion: the True Price of Racing

As the sun rises on Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the gates open for the first time of the weekend, one can sit and watch countless hundreds of the most passionate people to walk the Earth enter the historic landmark. Talent, skill, and who you know can get you far in the racing industry. However, it is hard to outlast the grind. Not everyone can do it.

Much like the priesthood you have to feel a calling, you have to feel something deep in you to last here. Forty weeks a year you are away from your family, your friends, your home. This isn’t something that just anyone does, this isn’t even something people want to do for money, there is always something else burning in the soul. How do you know that it is your calling? Easy, something inside you breaks and it hurts to be anywhere other than the track. It is a pain that is only relieved by horsepower, fuel, and hot rubber.

Knowing that this is your calling is the easy part. Anyone can say, “This is where I belong.” The problem is, earning your spot in the garage. You can love the sport but you’ll need to find someone that believes in you, someone that can help you get in. Just remember, this is a “Pay-to-Play” sport and everyone will give their pound of flesh.

One such person trying to make it in today is Caitlin Siem. She’s had short stories published, won writing awards, is a school librarian, interned for Sarah Fisher Racing in 2009 and today she now finds herself with BJ McLeod Motorsports. Interning with BJMM and working in NASCAR is a culmination of life ambition and events.

“I was a teenager when I decided that I wanted racing to be my future career. I’ve wanted to be in racing for almost 15 years now. I would say the first time I was truly called to the sport was the first race I went to, Michigan International Speedway. I was in high school and went with my dad. We sat in turn four and once I saw those cars come around and got a whiff of the smell that is so uniquely NASCAR, I knew I was done for.”

Like many in the sport, her path hasn’t been a direct one. Having tested the waters on the engineering side of the sport, she found herself on the outside looking in. Passion never dies, it always bubbles up and pushes you forward.

“If you don’t love this sport to the very fiber of your being, it’ll eat you alive and spit you out. You have to be willing to work every day, bleed for a team, and do anything necessary. That’s what I’ve learned.”

“If you were able to measure the desire and love I have for this sport in a concrete way, like water for instance, it would fill the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as if it was a swimming pool.”

“Getting into NASCAR is a fight I won’t ever consider backing down from. It’s where I belong.”

Now Caitlin is willing to give it all to get into the sport any way she can. True passion means sometimes you have to spend your own money down to your last dime, you have to be willing to stretch yourself, sleep in cars, push yourself into situations you normally wouldn’t.

“Honestly, I don’t think I ever considered not being willing to do absolutely whatever it takes to get into the industry. That’s what you do to achieve your dreams, yeah? How far will I push? To quote Buzz Lightyear: To infinity and beyond.”

Any team would be lucky to have Caitlin working with them. People say it takes “Drive” to succeed. Drive is easy, it’s easy to be motivated. What this takes is true unbridled passion, that’s something not many find in their daily lives. In this garage area, it’s very important . Any team owner will tell you as much. BJ McLeod has a team full of passionate people. That’s why he brings them on board.

“Passion is everything, it’s your foundation. If you have passion you can do anything.”

Passionate people will go to new lengths and learn special skills, use their God given talents, and do anything to succeed. If you truly love what you are doing, you’ll do anything to keep doing it.

Caitlin Siem is a perfect example of that. I know whatever team she lands with, will be better for it.

See you in the box.

 

 

 

The Indy Experiment.

Welcome my friends to the experiment that never ends, making the race at Indianapolis as interesting as possible. A race that industry insiders, media, and Indy fans consider a “Crown Jewel” race. Indianapolis is one of the most historic race venues in all of the United States of America. That is why we all strive to make the racing as legendary as the track.

Before we meddle with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cups Series, NASCAR has decided to try a very interesting experiment with the Xfinity Racing Series which you will see this weekend. It could make the racing great, but could also make it worse. The changes are various and target multiple points of the car.

1. New aero duct to keep brakes cooler, will also add some downforce.

2. A larger front splitter, will add downforce.

3. A larger spoiler, similar to last year’s, will add downforce.

4. A restrictor plate.

What the intention of all this is, to create a larger hole in the air for a bigger draft that allows the car in back to suck up and slingshot pass the front car. The theory is sound, cars should get a large speed gain behind the other car and when they pull out the drag on the front car should multiply to slow it down. This should allow the back car to pull alongside.

The restrictor plate is an interesting addition. It effectively nullifies horsepower difference. By cutting all horsepower in half even the smallest teams will be on near equal footing, similar to Daytona and Talladega when they can run with the large fully funded teams. Also, this will allow the trailing car to keep the throttle wide open and duck out at the last moment with a higher speed.

Will it work? That is the giant question now. I believe there are three possible results. Each may have an up side and a down side.

Result One. Everything goes according to plan. It is a great race, fans love it, the industry is proven right and this is applied to the Cup series. You’ll see good side by side racing, maybe even three wide racing. The slingshot returns and most every car is on equal footing. Likelihood of this happening, I would say is about 25%.

Result Two. With an aero package that we have run in past years we have a similar race to years gone by. Tedious to watch, drivers complaining they are bored. The industry scratching its head on how to make this race as legendary as this track. Fans not embracing the Indianapolis race like they should. Likelihood of this, I believe is about 35%.

Result Three. By far the most likely at 40%. Cars will be able to catch each other, bump draft and shove off into the corner. That sounds great, right? No. If you get more than a half lane out of the groove only one thing happens, you find the wall. So there’s going to be a ton of give and take, drivers are going to get out of the way and log laps. With the giant holes in the air like years past, you can catch each other. When you all have half the horsepower available, you may be able to stay near each other.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a momentum track, that has not and will not change. The secret to the track is keeping your speed up in the corners. This is actually going to be worse with restrictor plates. Plates make the throttle response a lot worse. So if the car in front of you gets into the throttle 200 feet earlier than you, they are gone. If the car ahead gets back to the throttle even 50 feet earlier, they are going to walk away.

With the high downforce package the rear car will not be able to get back to the throttle earlier. It is a near certainty. Without clean air on the nose of the car and on the splitter, the car will be aero tight, it’s going to push, when you turn the wheel left, the car will want to go straight. So, you have to back out of the throttle more and wait for the front tires to gain enough mechanical grip to turn. The trailing car is slower, it’s off throttle longer, the lead car is walking away.

Yes, you may be able to catch the car ahead, but passing will be a terrible pain. If you stay in the throttle and dive off into the corner under another car, you will have brakes to stop you, if they are operating at the right temperature. Up and down pit road teams have had brake issues with temperature all year. The Cup teams have had issues and the Xfinity teams have had issues, all of them. Now we are changing their brake cooling system for one weekend only and teams haven’t been able to test it. So brakes may have issues. They may grip too quick or may not grip enough.

There are a ton of factors here. Drivers wanted a low downforce package which created better racing, but it keeps the field separated. This new package might bring the small teams closer to level on equipment, but you still have experience. Those who figure out how to keep the throttle up through the turn will prosper in Indy, like always. That’s the name of the game, it always has been and always will be.

I believe the best drivers will find that by letting off the throttle early, staying off the brake and letting the car set early in the turn and then pick it back up will be the best. The straights need speed, whether it’s the long straights or the short chutes, top speed is king at The Brickyard. If you can get the car to turn early in Turn 1 and Turn 3 you can hold the throttle open through the short chute and through Turn 2 and Turn 4. This will maximize speed down the long straights. With the restricted engines, this will be the winning strategy.

What can be done? If you don’t have a solution, you’re just whining. What would I do? Open up the existing radiator opening, tear off splitters, minimum ride height of 4 inches, go to a very small spoiler. Allowing the engines to cool while adding drag will allow you to tuck behind another car for extended periods of time. With higher drag on the nose of a car you will get the big drafts. Small spoilers allow you to upset the aero of the car ahead of you. By lifting the front of the car up, you get air under the vehicle which also adds drag. High drag, good cooling, ill handling cars will make for a very interesting race.

Those are just my thoughts. I’d love to hear what you think!

I’ll see you in the box!

Testing the Field.

Once upon a time there was a race hauler that pulled into the race track early on Tuesday morning. The sun rose gently over the stands, the car in the trailer was lowered to the ground. The mechanics prepared the car, just like any race day. The engineers, crew chief, driver, and spotter would gather around to go over the day’s list and together decided what the main things they wanted to learn were.

This is testing. It’s long days, lots of travel, junk food lunches, and a lot of guys watching 1 or 2, maybe 3 cars, circle the track. Teams were once allowed to test at will, then they were told only 4 tests on tracks that they visit, then, no testing. All was done in order to “level the playing field” and “save the owners money.” Well, I honestly think the verdict is in.

It has done, neither. Every team spends more and more money on wind tunnel tests and pull down rig testing and dyno testing. Teams look to gain an advantage. If they can find one one hundredth of a second, they’ve made a gain. In NASCAR that little margin is huge. The cars are so closely prepared and built to specification that it can cost teams hundreds of man hours in design and engineering. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in proofing, testing, refining every aspect of the car.

This is better, right? I mean, small teams are better off this way. No, they aren’t. If a small team sees a pull down rig, it’s likely once or twice a year. If they see a chassis dyno, it’s roughly the same. Wind tunnel? Never heard of it. Many small teams run second hand equipment, sometimes third hand, sometimes innumerable people have owned, raced, beaten, and repaired that chassis. There’s no wind tunnel testing here, in the second half of the field.

Would testing be any different? Yes. Small teams once had a chance to go “all in” on a certain type of track. Maybe they would invest in testing on a road course. Maybe they would invest on testing the Restrictor plate tracks. The point is, they had options. Maybe it would only help in four races, but it was something. This testing also gave young drivers and drivers new to the series actual seat time.

Simulators are great, they can help learn a racing line, they can help with reflexes, they can help with muscle memory for shift points. They cannot replace true “seat of the pants” data. How does the car feel? How does the car sound? How does the air pressure in the cockpit change? This is all very important for a driver to learn, to experience, to feel, and to see! If you need practical demonstration as to why this is better, look no further than licensing in NASCAR. You have to drive a real car, on a real track, so real NASCAR officials can watch you.

Doesn’t this help the big teams more? No. Big teams have plenty of ways to research and develop, incredible think tanks of men & women designing the next big thing. They can simulate and test it, send crews to wind tunnels, put it on the pull down rig. Would they test? Absolutely, but it gives the small teams a chance at some tracks. Right now, it’s a week in and week out struggle. If they knew that once they got to New Hampshire Motor Speedway they had a good set up, they’d circle that and say, that’s our week. Save money and save equipment, we are putting everything we can into that track.

When you give small teams hope, they can go to sponsors and tell them, “We have what it takes here. We need to get the best tires and best motor and best transmission money can buy because this track, we know.” Now they have a shot. They can potentially run in the top 5 when they go to NHMS year after year. Right now, most small teams are hoping to get a few top 20 runs so they can afford to get to a pull down rig test for the end of the year, if they have time.

Testing would allow small teams to spend a few extra days at a track they just raced at and prepare for the following race there. What would I like to see happen? Unlimited testing for any team not in the top 20 owner’s points but is running full time. Very simple reason, if only the small teams can test, some big team is gonna walk up to them and say, “Test this for us and we will give you…” It’s like a type of revenue sharing program like other sports have. This elevates small teams and allows big teams to continue to prosper.

But, that’s just my thought.

I’ll see you in the box.