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Saturday Night Speed – Going Trackside at the I-25 Speedway

Photo PULP 
Photo PULP 

Every Saturday night, just north of Pueblo near Beacon Hill, fans cheer for the thrill of racing. Just down pit road are the stories of men and women drivers who put up their own fortune for the chase of speed. Racing often has a stereotype, but every single driver at the I-25 Speedway will shatter everything you think you know about racing.

PULP spent two Saturday evenings with the drivers and the fans in the elusive chase for Saturday Night Speed.

Eight miles north of Pueblo perched in solitude on “Beacon Hill” sits a paradise for motorsports enthusiasts, families young and old, and entertainment aficionados in general.

The quarter-mile paved track, touted “I-25 Speedway,” hosts weekend events that are both memorable and exciting. Racers take to the track in a multitude of classifications, ranging from street cars to furious, modified cars.

The roar of the bellowing engines, squealing tires and gunshot-like backfires from cars rounding the corners turns a blaring whistle from a train passing by on the rails behind the speedway obsolete.

Jack Roberts and race fans watching the action at the I-25 Speedway | Photo PULP
Jack Roberts and race fans watching the action at the I-25 Speedway | Photo PULP

I-25 Speedway hosts events weekly from late May through mid-September, providing non-stop action every Saturday evening featuring anywhere from five to seven different race classes.

The classifications vary from week to week and can include Super Late Models, Grand American Modifieds, Sportsman, Street Stocks, Mini Stocks, Hornets, Charger Figure 8, Legends, Modified Coupes, Dwarf Cars, Bandolero and Super Modifieds.

Points are accumulated throughout the racing season for drivers in each of their respective categories. Points are earned by having the fastest speeds in time trials, placing in the 10-lap trophy dash race, or winning your division’s main event of the evening.

Photo PULP
Photo PULP

Drivers of the vehicles are as diverse as the fan base; ranging from men young and old, experienced veterans, rookie drivers, to girls aged in their teens.

The cars are plastered with masterful paint jobs featuring bright and unique designs that showcase the character and individuality of each of the warriors of the sport.

Even if a spectator doesn’t know much about cars while attending the races, it is very easy to learn about what makes the track, and the sport, so captivating.

It’s easy, for instance, to see why the Hornet classification is so named; the engines from this classification of cars make a tenacious buzzing sound while looping around the track at average speeds of almost 60 miles per hour.

The Super Modified cars provide high quality entertainment as well, reaching the fastest speeds on the track. The slim, Indy-style bodies of the cars are complemented by a tower-like back carriage, and the speeds reached on a quarter-mile oval are truly an exhibition to be experienced.

Super Modified cars average speeds of around 80 miles per hour–amazing when considering having to slow down to round the turns on the north and south sides of the speedway.

Fans, drivers, managers and owners of the track are very personable and knowledgeable when it comes to racing, and much can be gained from sitting next to a seemingly casual spectator in the stands.

The secret is this:  the spectators are rarely just casual fans. Many of them have racing in their blood, whether they are watching a family member race or sitting in the stands reminiscing about their checkered-flag glory days from years past.

One former, two-time I-25 Speedway champion explained to first time attendees how the heats in the divisions work. Normally, each division would have several heats, taking the 20 fastest cars from the qualifying heats and placing them into a feature race.

Lately, though, the track has had a tough time garnering enough participants to make that happen. The fan explained that the new owner and race director, Chris Cullen and Charlie Wilson, respectively, recently took over.

Charlie Wilson, Race Director at the I-25 Speedway | Photo PULP
Charlie Wilson, Race Director at the I-25 Speedway | Photo PULP

The change in the ownership has been a delightful one for the fans and drivers alike after seeing a decline in the participation due to what they called poor management by the previous owners.

“A lot of things that are different at this racetrack are that the attitudes of the owners, the attitudes of the staff that works here, and the attitudes of the racers have seemed to change,” explained Charlie Wilson, the track’s new Race Director. “We treat people with respect, and we get respect back.”

Wilson took over as Race Director last August after Chris Cullen acquired ownership of the track. Wilson started in racing on dirt tracks in Oklahoma in 1983. After moving back to Colorado in 1987, he became familiar with I-25 Speedway, formerly known as Beacon Hill Speedway.

Wilson won seven track championships in three different classifications during his time as a racer at I-25 Speedway, giving him an insight to what a racer needs from track ownership in order to have a successful relationship.

Now, Wilson handles the ins and outs of the racing side of things at I-25 Speedway. Maintaining everything from organizing practice hot laps to getting the drivers’ questions answered, Wilson is a busy man on race day.

“I do still get to enjoy some of the races,” Wilson said. “I’m here for the drivers, though. I told Chris when I started that I was going to be on the driver’s side of things, because I am a racer and Chris is a racer, and I think that’s why it’s working so well also.”

Wilson gets a majority of his help from the aforementioned Cullen, a native of Pueblo who has been involved in racing since he was a young boy. Cullen began by racing motocross as a kid and got involved in auto racing through his dad, a driver.

Cullen said he built his first race car about ten years ago and even has a brand new one sitting in his garage that he has been itching to get onto the track.

As for the ownership side of things, Cullen is striving to make the speedway into a bigger, better environment.

“I’m just hoping to make it a good, fun place to race,” Cullen said. “Hopefully it can become bigger than it is and we can get some more race cars in here.”

Cullen said they are already taking steps to improving the overall experience of racing at the track by following the rules, cleaning up the driving, and cleaning up the track.

Cullen and his staff make the race experience very fan friendly and interactive, holding raffle drawings for kids and adults in the stands, broadcasting commentary through the public address system and even allowing fans to test their own cars in a one-lap “street drag” competition. That is, of course, if they brought their helmets.

 

Shawn Johnson races the #90 car in the Grand American Modified class. 
Shawn Johnson races the #90 car in the Grand American Modified class. 

Driver: Shawn Johnson

Having a track isn’t about driving, it’s about the racing. That’s why fans turn out and that’s why the racing teams park next to the railroad tracks behind the speedway.

If you are a racing fan you know why. If you aren’t a racing fan, it’s foreign. The images you see on TV of drivers going 200 MPH then crashing and walking like it it was a movie seems fake and distant. It’s not there and it’s not here.

It’s hot on the pavement, just past the north side pit gate. To the left are the rows of teams, banging, hitting, tweaking, and thinking about how to get faster. To the right, is the pit road leading to the entrance of the track.

On any Saturday night, you might find drivers like Shawn Johnson here.

Shawn Johnson looks like he was built to race. Focused eyes, tight smile and a mechanic’s handshake – Shawn is the driver. If he was standing behind the #88 Chevy at Talledega, you wouldn’t question if he had the right to be there.

Shawn drives the #90 in the Grand American Modified Class. His uncle, Gary Johnson, is the team owner, sponsor and boss. His family and friends are the crew chief, mechanics, tire changers and supporters.

Most every Saturday night, fifty yards away from the railroad tracks, Shawn is thinking one thing: how to get the best out of the car. It’s also the day where he finally gets to see if his hard work from the week paid off.

Nathan Parson (11) and Brenda Fontaine | Photos PULP
Nathan Parson (11) and Brenda Fontaine | Photos PULP

His week, like most peoples’ weeks, starts with the morning commute on Monday at 6:30 AM. He lives in Colorado Springs and every morning he heads to the Ray Nixon Power Plant just south of the city. Here, he’s a power plant plant mechanic and his job is to fix stuff. “If there’s anything mechanical – we fix it,” Johnson said.  

If there are no hangups at work, he returns home, gets something to eat and then punches the clock in the garage. Four days out of the week he’s in the garage with the team, plotting. To the team it’s all about what happened last Saturday that determines how to get the car to the next Saturday.

Fridays are for the wives, says Shawn. “Have to give them some recreation.”

It’s almost an apology the way he says it. With working a full time job where the week is always longer than the forty hours in the written job description, racing is a full time “hobby.” There’s little time for much else — the team and their wives know it.

Come Saturday, that’s his day. It’s race day.

For the drivers the normal Saturday evening follows a similar pattern. Pull up with your car in what amounts to portable garages. Unpack the cars and get to work. None of the teams are sitting in lawn chairs waiting for the pit announcer to call them to the track. Every team is poking, tweaking, turning, bending, jacking, and inspecting. That small turn could be a tenth of a second off their time, or it could make the car loose and take you out of the evening.

This evening consists of a trophy dash: a 10 lapper of 6 cars, and two main events. The main events are 30 lap races with 10 to 20 cars on the track, depending on how deep the field is that night. Most evenings the race card is full with qualifying, then heats and the main event.

Shawn’s strategy most nights is to make the car fast, and if it’s not fast, do enough to be competitive.

“I just want to keep my nose clean,” he said referring to his goal of getting through qualifying and the early heats. It’s the simple racing strategy of, as he puts it, “Not doing anything stupid to take you out of the race.”

Tonight’s early trophy dash is a timely chance to get the competitive juices flowing.

With a third fastest qualifying time at 13.476 seconds, Shawn slots third on the outside lane. The outside lane at I-25 speedway has been trouble all evening long. If your car isn’t fast, there’s no room to overtake. On a small track like this you have to be crazy to go three-wide (three cars side-by-side).

The cars take a few laps around the track to get everyone lined up, and then the green flag is dropped.

Inside the car, Shawn’s actions are automatic.  For non-drivers a lap follows a pretty similar pattern.

Come off turn four, and push it to reach the top speed. Throttle down before turn one, massage the brakes and get the car into the right line going into the apex of the turn. Break too early and kill all your momentum. Brake late and your speed could result in your slamming into the wall on the exit turn.

After the apex, as Shawn describes, is like pulling a trigger. Pull the trigger too hard on a gun and it will cause a jerking motion and a missed target. In a race car, “it’s like there’s an egg between my foot and the pedal . . .  you roll into the throttle.”

If it’s a good turn, he’ll be “right up against the wall” coming into the backstretch of the track. Shawn accelerates for less than a few seconds before it’s into turn three and hitting the right line.

On a good lap these Grand American Modifieds will hit mid to low 13-seconds, or in speed terms hitting 80-plus miles per hour going into the turns.

Add in the rest of the cars, and the race turns into a high-speed guessing game wondering what the car on the outside is doing, not giving an inch to the guy in the back and always looking to see what’s going in front you.

In the Trophy Dash, Shawn is having a tough time. Right at the start the #99 car bumped the #67, though #67 might categorize it as a hit, forcing the #97 car to spin out. Shawn avoided the mess but clearly is disrupted in the flow of the race. In the short laps, the car didn’t have it. Once he was forced to the outside lane, with no help in front, Shawn was pushed to the back of the pack.

One lap to go and exiting turn two, the car is loose. “Loose” in racing terms is when the back end of the car swings wide coming out of turns. Shawn’s back end of the car swings out wide and he struggles to gain control. Into turns three and four and Shawns is not racing; he’s fighting the car. Finally, he spins out right on the front stretch and his trophy lap race is over. This is short track racing.  There’s not enough real estate to recover.

“I couldn’t recover once the car got loose. We’ll go back and work on it,” Shawn said after the 10-lapper.

He has two main events tonight, so there’s not much time to dwell on this one. But for the team it’s a frustrating end to a frustrating couple of weeks. With all the work they’ve put on the car it’s still not where they want it.

The 30 lap Grand American Main Event is the first race after intermission. It was a better race for Shawn, but not up to his standards. The #90 car isn’t fast and Shawn knows this. He finishes in sixth place and while it’s a solid finish, Shawn said that there weren’t many opportunities out there.

After ten laps it looked like the #90 didn’t have it, falling back and to the outside. At the halfway point, a yellow flag bunched up the racers and Shawn took advantage of the caution flag. This time he stuck to the inside and grinded out position against seemingly faster cars on the outside. He had the all important track position and worked his way to sixth. For the next eight laps he couldn’t gain any ground on the car in front but he didn’t lose any either.

The end of the race resulted much like the rest of Shawn’s night: disappointing. At lap 29, a car spun out leaving oil on the track and the checkered flag in the race official’s pocket. It was a white flag finish.

While the winner thanked his sponsors and “his smoking hot wife,” Shawn and his team were working on his car getting ready for the next race, though it would later be rained out.

“I couldn’t do much two-wide and you aren’t going to go three-wide here,” a frustrated Shawn said. “Handling of the car isn’t where I want it.”

As the moon chases the sun and night settles on the track, Shawn sits in the chair plotting his next 30 laps, then the next 100 laps, then the next qualifying heat, then the next season.

Shawn’s a driver and with the nights cooling off, he’s running out of evenings to tinker with the car. He’ll get a rest in the winter, but he will be back out here next season to see if he can get his car right.

He will spend three to five hours a night until the last race figuring out his car.  He will be at work, fixing stuff. His uncle will continue to sponsor the car, but with a sly smile tell you, “We expect better results.” The #90 car will be packed up and driven south. And Shawn will continue to pull the trigger out of the turns.

 

Kaley Cullen & Aurianna Jones | Photo PULP
Kaley Cullen & Aurianna Jones | Photo PULP

A Family

The Casters, Johnsons, Thayers, Cullens. The young boys with their dads wearing Jimmie Johnson caps. If there’s anything you feel once you walk into the speedway, it is that this is a racing family.

At every paddock, or in the stands, the fans at a track are family by blood, by oil or by car engine.

Pay a few bucks at the parking lot and you may run into Ed Thayer. His family races. Walk a few steps more and you may see Chuck Hawkins leaning over a railing. Mr Hawkins, originally from Crowley County, is the one of the tow truck drivers.

Though don’t ask him a dumb question like “How hard is it to tow a race car?”

Mr. Hawkins will say, “All you have to do is hook it.”

Tow truck driver Chuck Driver | Photo PULP
Tow truck driver Chuck Driver | Photo PULP

Chuck, with steel blue eyes, the poetic rural Colorado draw, isn’t going to mix words, “I wait all winter for this.”

All of them do. Few have aspirations to become the next Tony Stewart or Junior, yet they come back because this track is family.

The Casters, from Bennett, Colorado, run in the Super Modified Class and are a special breed in themselves. The class doesn’t have a lot of races in Colorado, only six this year, so they will take this evening at the track.

Super modifieds to the non-race fan are like “fighter jets in a gymnasium . . .  or however that quote goes,” said Rich Caster, Super Mod driver. “Half of the field [super mods] would have qualified for the Indy at Pikes Peak.”

Rich, who was the fastest in qualifying and won his main event on this evening, is a heavy equipment operator with Nelson Pipeline Constructors. He’s been around racing since he was two, “growing up in the pits” as he puts its. The term “growing up in the pits” should just be called “If your dad races you will probably race too.”

In 1983, Rich made a deal with his father that he could put rubber on the track if he graduated from high school. He did and has been out on the track every summer since.

Today, Rich is flanked by his fourteen year-old son Cody, who races Legends (think 1940’s mobster cars), wife Leigh and brother, Jason, a fellow Super Mod car driver. Like any father with a son in the same sport, Caster gets nervous watching his son because he’s not the one in control.

Still, he’s the modern dad with Cody. “I want him to want to do it,” Caster said.

Why spend so much time on the track and why so much money on a car? Rick tells it this way, “I have a friend who spends the same amount of money on his girl’s softball.”

In talking to the Casters, there’s only unwavering love for racing. But, if you hear their words, really listen, they are saying, they get to work on cars as a family, get to race as a family, get to be a family and enjoy every minute of racing.

“If you ever need anything, you just have to look around; someone will give it to you.” says Rich proud of the family he brought to the track that night.

Vanessa Simpson, driver | Photo PULP
Vanessa Simpson, driver | Photo PULP

The Unexpecteds

Walk past the concession stand, take a right, and you might find Andrew Fisher. He races the Hornets and Figure 8’s, the class where they cross in the middle. Yes, it’s the class where the name comes from making a figure 8 on the track; after turn two the cars cross and meet in the infield.

Do they meet? When asked if Andrew was ever involved in a crash in a race, he responded, “Yeah, but I never saw it. I was knocked unconscious.”

Andrew Fisher is your typical high school drama teacher racer from Canon City. At this point, whatever normal questions you are supposed to ask to a driver on a racetrack get thrown out the window, and the next thing out your mouth is, “Wait, what?”

Andrew is maybe 5 foot 7, maybe a goatee, maybe has a ball cap that looks like he went fly fishing yesterday. His clothes are maybe dirty; at least dirty enough to show that he’s been working on a car. He maybe looks like a drama teacher and maybe he looks like a driver.

“Students tell me, no way you race cars.” says the drama teacher. “Most teachers are surprised I drive cars. And most drivers out here are surprised I’m a drama teacher.”

Andrew’s car costs about $1,000, has street tires and pump gas and it is a piece of ju– work. Being a teacher, somehow the questions move away from driving and this can’t possibly be supported by his family.

What does his wife think? “My wife has been supportive. She’s bought me tires and buys gas.” Fisher said.

What’s harder: teaching or racing? He smiles and without flinching says, “Teaching is more challenging.”

Next to the drama teacher’s area is another unlikely driver.

Her name is Kayce Purcell. She drives a ‘72 Hornet, goes to Air Academy High School and can’t drive… legally. Kayce is 14-years-old and cannot drive a street approved car, but she can take the old junker for a few spins at the track.

If Andrew Fisher breaks every single stereotype of racing, then Kayce Purcell shows that women are breaking every single ceiling in racing. Oh, she’s your typical teenager who, in the middle of answering a few questions, will run out to grab the huge toad in the pits. She plays soccer, she swims, draws and just happens to drive 20 laps at 55 mph in the Figure 8 class.

Kaycee Purcell | Photo PULP
Kaycee Purcell | Photo PULP

“It’s not something I want to make a future career out of but I would like to move up.” says the 14-year-old.

Look over to dad and while one expects to see a father frothing at the mouth to turn his daughter into the next NASCAR superstar, what you get is the unassuming but wholly supportive and worried father.

“There’s a reason why NASCAR turns left,” says her father. “The wall is on the right side, the driver is on the left, but in the figure 8’s, the walls are right next to the driver.”

In Kaycee’s race corner every weekend is her grandmother and official sponsor, her aunt and the advantage of youth.

The surprise of finding the Fisher’s and the Purcell’s are less rare. The perception is that this is a male dominated sport. The reality is that women are racing because it runs in the family. Maybe their dad introduced them to the sport but they aren’t waiting on a man to help them.

Vanessa Simpson, is just one of these women. She’s the type of woman you want to have if you break down on the side of the road. The mini-stock driver, who works in booking at the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Department, is better at cars than most men.

“I can’t race, tonight,” said a disappointed Simpson with her race suit pants unbuttoned, black tank top, and soft brown eyes, “because of a broken tire rod.” Vanessa is the archetype of the modern woman.

“I dug dirt out of someone’s yard to get this car,” Simpson proudly claims. Her car is a mix of Pinto and Mustang called the Pintang.  The car on paper sounds like a horrific mix of a great car and the worst car but with the time and money Vanessa spent on it, it’s hers and has a quality most of these cars have — built by the driver’s own hands.

When asked the question, “Is it hard for women to be accepted in the racing world?” Vanessa is puzzled and says, “Out of the 15 or so cars on the track, 5 of them are women.”

Photo PULP
Photo PULP

Whatever you think of the stereotypic driver, you quickly learn there’s no mold. The family who came out to the track to support a granddaughter. The wife of the power plant mechanic. The tow truck driver. The girlfriend who came out to more races than her boyfriend. No one at the track can be put into a nice box. They are drivers and race fans.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than by the woman standing in the middle of the track’s infield — Kat Fidanza.

Kat is from upstate New York. She was the only person to refer to herself as a redneck. She’s here because her husband is stationed at Fort Carson. Before her husband transferred she saw there was a track in Pueblo and thought, “Yeah, I could move to Colorado.”

She has one job — track photographer. She doesn’t work as a receptionist, or a teacher — she is here to take photographs of the cars and racers and sell them to the racers. Coming to the track is family; her dad was a champion back in New York in Superstock; her family is heavily involved in racing.

On this Saturday, and most Saturdays, she is only I-25 track photographer and to her, “Nothing beats the thrill of getting killed in the infield.” She’s joking, of course, but she is the only one on the infield grass.

As another Saturday evening ended and a thunderstorm washed out the evening, Shawn Johnson pointed out, the “I-25 is an important mainstay of the region. There would be a lot of lost people if the track wasn’t here.”

In two nights out at the track, it’s clear that Chris Cullen is doing something special. The crowds were full and lively for a mid-July race and only threatening storms kept them away the week later.

Photo PULP
Photo PULP

From the pits the drivers are appreciative of the crowds who come out. They just want more people to be educated as Shawn puts it, “It’s a fun sport if you get educated.”

And right there, that’s the key, understanding racing. The cliche is a lot I-N-G’ing in the words of Chuck Hawkins, “I like the rubbin’, the shovin’, the fightin’, the grindin’, all for the lead of the competition.”

In all that shoving and fighting, there’s a strategy: money, pain, hard work, family, and passion. Understand a little of this and a little of how hard it is to get the car to do what the drivers want when they want, and you understand Saturday speed night at the local track.

by Nick Jurney with contributions by John Rodriguez

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