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Roaring toward self-confidence

Some find their groove in music, others do well in school. I found my world strapped into a race car.

By Doug Jenkins / February 28, 2003



I'm a chicken. You'd never think so if you looked at the sorts of things I've done. I moved out when I was in high school; I'm self-employed; I've driven dog-sled teams in Alaska's arctic, built log homes, skied all over the country, driven the Alaska Highway about 20 times (once in winter, twice on a motorcycle). I've raced cars; and worked as a logger, commercial fisherman, and in the North Slope oil fields. But I've had serious battles with fear and doubt the whole time.

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This I'm-scared-of-everything-I-do thing has not stopped me from doing stuff, it has just turned me into a real whiner. I get a fun idea, get started on it, and then I'm nearly overwhelmed during the planning and doing of it. Looking back is always great; I've had a ton of fun in retrospect. It's just during the thing that I'm bothered. My fear of money and of what others may think of me builds up this huge obstacle to my having a good time.

This situation came to a head when I began auto racing. My wife and I used to watch the Saturday night action at our local dirt track. After three years of never missing a night, Kerry told me that she was tired of watching races with me; she wanted to watch me race. I was nuts about racing; I sponsored a couple of cars and was buddies with some of the guys. But me, out there where everyone could see? We both knew I would be good at it; I've always driven as though I were being timed. But being good at it was not what scared me.

Then I figured out a solution: I would build a car for my wife to race. That's it! I liked racing. I could field a terrific car, work in the pits, be a part of the action, but I wouldn't have to get out there where I might make a mistake. It was a great idea. Except my wife didn't want to drive a race car. I did.

So we went to "look" at a car that was for sale. Kind of like the guy who takes his wife to "look" at a boat, only she was taking me. When we got there I felt pretty safe. The car was not much to look at, the young man selling it was not very convincing, and the car cost money, of which I had precious little. Kerry urged me to take it for a drive around the gravel pit, and the kid agreed. That was the end of it. I had never experienced anything like it.

I had never even imagined any sensation as exhilarating as going really fast in a machine that was designed to go really fast. I was at a gravel pit so it was even legal. I was going faster than I had ever gone in my life - safely, legally, and with my wife's blessing. I never wanted it to end. I could have made dust clouds at that gravel pit for the rest of my life and been happy. It was really loud, too.

Some people find their groove in music. Some do well in school. Others are involved in occupations that completely captivate them. I found my world strapped into a race car.

Dirt-track racing is simple: The bleachers fill up with people, a girl sings "The Star-Spangled Banner," and the yahoos go fast in circles and try to finish first. Oval tracks vary from town to town, but are usually a quarter mile (like a high school running track) to a half-milelong. The best ones are made of smooth, sticky clay. When everything is right, track, driver, and 24 cars mesh in perfect harmony at unimaginable speeds. During a race, each lap takes only seconds. A driver rarely looks at his gauges, it being unsafe to glance down for even an instant. The driver's helmet is leashed to his left shoulder because the weight of head and helmet becomes too great in the corners.

Worry put a big dent in my first season of racing, but early in the second year I had a great change of thought.

It was one of the three state championship races, and cars were there from all the tracks. The bleachers were full to overflowing. That night I realized for the first time that racing was one of the most beautiful examples of human interaction I'd been a part of. There were the people taking tickets, doing their part. The mechanics, the heavy-equipment operator, the announcer, the girl singing the national anthem, the spectators, the kids eating sand in the play area, the tow-truck guy, the security staff, and the drivers sitting in their fire-breathing monsters waiting for the green flag. It was a glorious event, everyone playing his part. And I felt fortunate to have a role too - with no worries.

I had a great night. Up until that race I had been a timid driver: I didn't want to do anything inappropriate. Get me in just the right situation, and I was as fast and graceful as could be. I always finished well, but I had never really given folks the show of which I was capable. Whenever things got tight, I backed off, not wanting conflict. But watching cars go fast isn't a show, racing is a show. That night was the first night I really "raced."

Seventeen laps into the 20-lap main event, Terry McGahan challenged my spot. We went into one turn very hot and he dove in front of me, knowing I would yield. I decided to make him work for it. We went door-to-door for several laps. It made the crowd go nuts. Dirt track stock-car racing is a contact sport, and we made good contact. I used his door for traction and held him off. After the race, Terry was all smiles and back-slapping. "About time you figured this out!"

My racing career took off.

After that year, I graduated up a class to some pretty serious competition in winged sprint cars: twice the horsepower and half the weight. The following year we left Alaska and raced with a professional series. It was brutal competition, and I was barely competitive. But I was happy to be a part of the show and all that goes with it.

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