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.