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Speedway Scene - Victory tastes sweetest the first time

July 19, 1998|By MIKE SIRBAUGH / Staff Correspondent

"So, are you going to drive?"

That question was posed to me by Lisa Plessinger one evening as I entered her office at Hagerstown Speedway after that night's races were completed.

I was dumbfounded (which some folks won't find hard to believe). "Drive where?" I thought. It was obvious she and Glenn Presgraves, track announcer and assistant promotional director, were certain I understood.

I was quiet for a full five seconds as I scanned the occupants of the room for some clue as to what she meant. Finding no hint on their faces, I abashedly posed my, as yet unasked, question.

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"In the media race," Lisa responded without hesitation.

I looked to Glenn for help, and he quickly realized my dilemma and rescued me.

He explained that Lisa, as general manager, had an idea that she wished for him to build into a promotional event.

The format for the event includes a series of five races with representatives from the local radio, television and print media as drivers.

The first four races consist of four drivers in a five-lap race patterned after the Enduro Dash races, using cars from that class. The fifth race is a meeting of the four winners to determine the mythical champion of the Media Racing Series.

At the dinner table the next night, I shared the plan with my family. My four children thought it was great, and they were immediately full of enthusiasm and excitement. My wife, Beth, was less than thrilled.

"You're not seriously thinking of doing it, are you?" she asked incredulously. "You've never done anything like this before."

In my effort to calm her fears, I shot back, "But none of the other people have either."

Believe me, citing the inexperience of all participants in a potentially dangerous endeavor does little to gain support from your best friend. However, after a few weeks, she was resigned to the fact that it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up, no matter how foolish it appeared.

Friday, July 10, became the date for my auto racing debut with 14 members of my family in attendance to cheer me on.

I met with the owner of the car I was to drive, "Krazy" Kenny Thomas, an old friend. He showed me the ins and outs of the car, how and when to shift and throttle and, most importantly, how to strap myself in securely.

Kenny was leery of letting his car be used by an amateur but, when they mentioned my name, he agreed to the plan if I were to be the one to drive his car.

I took that as a vote of confidence, but it could just as well have been his way of maintaining control, because the first thing he said to me was, "Please, just don't put it up against the wall. That's all I ask." This coming from a man nicknamed "Krazy."

I assured him I would be careful by repeating my slogan since the beginning, "I'm just going to drive to survive." Yes, it would be nice to win, but not at all costs.

I expected to be nervous, but found that I was really quite calm, mingled with eager anticipation. This was going to be fun.

I was introduced to the crowd along with my opponents, Bob Vores from Area Auto Racing magazine and Chad Sokol and Jamie Arnsparger of WHAG-TV, with Glenn asking each us of our racing experience. Since we had none, that didn't take long.

Then we drew for starting positions. I picked third and drew the inside pole position, which is considered the most enviable spot. Hey, at least I would have the lead temporarily.

After a few warmup laps, one with the car owner in the car to make sure we knew what we were doing (and to assure them that they knew what they were doing), we were ready for the feature.

Coming out of turn 3 on the pace lap, I began looking for the green flag to signal the start of the race. I figured I might as well try to win since I was handed the lead position.

The green flag waved and I put it nearly to the floor, edging ahead of the outside pole sitter. Entering the first turn, I slowed considerably, remembering "Krazy" Kenny's words about the wall.

On the second lap, I was still leading when the yellow lights came on signaling a problem, such as an accident or a stalled car on the track. I thought, "I know that means to slow down, but I wonder if everybody else knows what to do." I didn't want to get rear-ended.

It turned out that one car had slid and banged against the inner guardrail, but driver and car were all right. On the restart, I followed the same strategy and hit the throttle hard.

On each of the remaining four laps, I went a little faster, feeling more confident and capable, and realizing what an adrenalin rush it was.

Surprisingly, I never felt scared, but I became aware of a strong desire to win. Entering the third turn of the fifth and final lap, I told myself, "Don't do anything stupid to lose or get hurt." (Notice, losing came first now).

As I crossed the finish line, taking the checkered flag, I had a strange sensation. "What do I do now?" I thought.

I started to pull into the pits so the regular show could begin because, after all, that's what the paying customers came to see. But they waved me to Victory Lane for my moment in the spotlight.

Glenn interviewed me again; they took my photo with the checkered flag and Glenn instructed me to return for the championship on Sept. 5.

It was quite an experience. I had a feeling of power, excitement, freedom and, oddly enough, security. I've felt less safe on some amusement park rides. So, when Sept. 5 rolls around, I'll be there, ready to put the hammer down.

Look out racing world, I'm undefeated.

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