But every so often we get an unexpected surprise encounter, and we're reminded about another thing. That drivers all do this for different reasons. Some of them do it as a family hobby, some because they're addicted to racing (god bless them), many do it competitively..almost all of them for that matter. Some race as a tribute to former friends and family.
There's a reason why a particular driver's picture graces the top of this website. It's because he races for all of those reasons. So to start, I offer a personal approach to this piece which I feels it deserves just to give an insight into the atmosphere from whence it came....
So I'm at the World of Outlaws World Finals, and surrounding myself and my father ,who had joined me for the weekend, are a group of 8 to 12 people. They're packed in the rows below and to the right of us. For the better part of a chilly November weekend. At first one or two of the faces look slightly familiar as I'm enjoying all the action. They are a joyful bunch, sharing stories, laughter and an occasional adult beverage or two (homemade jello shots to be exact about it, and they looked awesome).
As they watch and enjoy I notice a hat on one of them. It is a Jeremiah Shingledecker hat. And his family make up the group sitting around us.
In a dirt racing facility that holds 14,000 assorted people, and with probably another 3-5 thousand in and around the pits and standing room only platform, I find this coincidence amazing. Not because two groups of folks from the same geography have arrived at the same place at the same time, but because I happened to be a huge big block modified fan and frequent the western Pennsylvania tracks where Jeremiah and crew are almost every other week.
The family gathered around me, a mix of middle aged, youthful and older adults who were youthfully enjoying themselves, made me feel at home, like I was back at Lernerville taking in a Friday night's racing action, where Jeremiah normally did battle every week. He's earned two track championships there and several more at Tri City Speedway which will soon be re-opened as Allegheny Motor Speedway in 2014....
"My first race was at Tri City,' Shingledecker remarked. "And if you know anything about the Shingledecker's, we're always running late so I missed hot laps, so I got in the car at the back of a heat race and we were off and running. We weren't the fastest car in the field but I managed to keep it in one piece."
And so began the adventure of driving, learning, and eventually winning. Shingledecker's reasons to race were put forth with a patient process. He didn't burst onto the scene as much as he naturally progressed, becoming more competitive year in and year out until he became a top 5 finisher with amazing consistency. And then, the wins began to pile up. In 2009 he won his first Lernerville title on the last night of the regular season, a night he went into in third place in the standings and came out the winner. And thus he found himself a fixture in the top echelon of area modified drivers.
He's done it with a blend of patience, and a opportunistic feel for the best time to make his forward charge. He's not one to take unnecessary chances, but picks great spots and stays out of trouble.
And he's travelled to some extent as well which is not realistic for many area modified drivers. Shingledecker has attempted Super DIRTcar Series events at far away places including Merrittville, Weedsport and even Syracuse. He admits it's not feasible to travel as much as he'd like to, but when he's had the opportunity, his sense of adventure be it for just a good time with family and friends leads him out of the area.
"We like the bigger tracks, like Lernerville and PPMS. We really miss Tri City too and hopefully it'll open up soon here. We tried our hands at Syracuse once, we were able to go when Brian Swartzlander lent us some stuff that enabled us to go to the track. And after we were there we ended up crashing and it actually cost us more to get home than to get there."
Back to some of that atmosphere..
It's Friday night now at the World Finals, and Jeremiah has held his own and then some with a decent starting spot in the night's main event. Other parts of the area modified contingent are there as well including Brian Swartzlander and 2013 Lernerville champion Mat Williamson. Shingledecker then proceeded to methodically move towards the front, surprising quite a few in attendance. His car seemingly kept getting better lap after lap until he found himself on the verge of a top 10 finish ahead of a good many legendary drivers in just his first feature event at the Dirt Track at Charlotte. And then mechanical gremlins reared their ugly face. An engine problem forced him to the infield just a handful of laps from the checkered flag.
As the action finishes up, some of his family members head to the pits and return later to watch the action, they introduce themselves and are happy to see someone from familiar territory. But what is interesting, is that unlike some fans who say hello and sit there, they're completely engaged as we trade stories and share laughs. And even 8+ hours away from home, I feel completely home in Charlotte.
It is clear that family, is another one of Shingledecker's reasons to race. Not just support in the way of arranging babysitters for his two small children so that the entourage could come down and compete and enjoy the event. Not for the technical support by way of his father's homemade engines or other family members who help in the pits. But by way of spending time together and making memories. It is safe to say that when all is said and done for him, Shingledecker may have some of the richest memories of great times with family members at the track of any racer around by all accounts.
Saturday night comes, and his qualifying run from Thursday has resulted in a bmain appearance. It is not a happy result as Jeremiah does not make the show. I had every expectation that his family may just head to the pits for some consolation, and some help getting everything together for the ride home as it appears that this will not be a happy night.
And then to my surprise and amazement, Jeremiah and his crew chief, and as it turns out his wife, Lex, have made it up through the cold aluminum stands to watch the races together. There is not one frown among them. Not one long face, in fact as Shingledecker and Lex spot the family, multiple exchanges of hugs and smiles take place. After seating themselves, they immediately engage in conversation with my father and myself, talking about the experience of racing there, about modifieds in the area, and about what it's like to have a wife who serves as a crew chief.
"Not every racer gets to go to sleep and argue with their wife and crew chief about how the night went before," Jeremiah says with a loving chuckle. "Lex is pretty much responsible for anything I want to blame her for." He says to his crew chief to which she responded with a face that indicated that he was in trouble for a second....then both their smiles emerge, and I realize that their relationship is special, and part of the experience. It's clear that it's just another reason to race.
The jello shots and beers flow back and forth between the family members, including my father who politely declined but later told me "If I weren't driving, I could use a few of those."
Shingledecker then offers up an evaluation of his first weekend at Charlotte.
"I thought the track was awesome and I can't wait to get back..(pause) and I'd like to come back with some more horsepower. We had an engine that weekend that had two seasons on it."
Later on he also offered his thoughts on the area modifieds and hinted at a benefit of the emerging sportsman modified series coming forth in 2014.
"I don't know what could help with the car counts. I think a purse bump might be in order sometimes, I mean you want to believe that it's the key, but I don't think that's completely true. I believe an underclass allows some of the higher level racers to have an outlet to sell some of the used stuff and upgrade to better stuff to be more competitive."
"I'd like to see the area tour get back to some places, I'd love the BRP to try to get back to Tyler County, it's a really fun track. We've only been there a few times and we've had a really good car every time we've been down there. It's one of the few tracks that you can walk away from smiling...even if you don't finish. The higher you go, the steeper the banking gets and the harder you can run the car. For several laps there one time, I thought I was going to cut a hole in my shorts (laughing), but I wound up being okay."
We watched the rest of the races...and it became clear, that beyond driver, beyond torchbearer for sponsors, and past the point of leader of the team of family members that support the family's favorite hobby, Jeremiah is one thing that I'd never once considered. A fan of the racing. Just like you..just like me. We watched the rest of the finals as fans seated next to each other, and had a blast. And it was one of the most rewarding weekends of racing I can remember.
"The reward factor is certainly there, it's sometimes hard to put all the effort into it that we'd like to. We've got a 3 year old and a 6 year old, so that certainly hinders some of our program. But it is a big family deal for us. We've got my wife, my children, parents and in-laws all help in this. That's where the MD in our number comes from, my older brother Michael that was killed in a tragic accident in 1993."
The MD, which stands for "Micheal's Dream" represents the two letters next to the number 37 on his car. And upon hearing his voice discuss it, you can hear both a resonant sad inflection, followed by an overwhelming sense of pride. It is clear that this is as good a reason to race as any for him, a tribute in loving memory.
"Our family is a huge part of this, and it enables us to keep doing this. At the end of the day, if we can't do this for fun, then for us it's not worth doing, the fun keeps us coming back."