Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Part 1 - Right on track

With the short tracks in full swing, here’s a three-part story examining the triumphs and struggles of local weekend racers. The story originally ran Aug. 12, 2007 in the Washington (Pa.) Observer-Reporter. Thanks to O-R photographer Celeste Van Kirk for the pictures.

By Mike Jones

Kicking up mud and rocks embedded in the dirt surface, Keith Rodriguez jerks the steering wheel violently while sliding his super late model car around the half-mile track.

This isn't a furious race to the checkered flag at Pittsburgh's Pennsylvania Motor Speedway, but rather just a few breathtaking hot laps in preparation for the main event later in the evening. Rodriguez, a 48-year-old US Airways pilot from Crescent Township, Allegheny County, soon pulls his car off the track and onto the pit road for service.

Rodriguez's nephew, Jason Fasone, helps direct the car into the team's stall, and the six-member homegrown crew – made up of family members and friends – immediately jumps into action. Fasone grabs a jack to lift the car, then whips out an air wrench, fires off the wheel's lug nuts and pulls off the tires. Crew chief Luke Ciarallo is already underneath the car and begins tinkering with the rear suspension while pondering what other adjustments are needed. Meanwhile, other crew members, including Cheryl Arbes, Rodriguez's sister, gather around and perform tasks that range from refueling the car to repairing battered sheet metal.

This routine is not unique to Rodriguez and his crew. For drivers and their teams across Western Pennsylvania and nearby states, the weekends are dedicated to chasing race cars – and their dreams – at high speeds. Finding money to race for the 23 events each year is tight, with a driver earning just $1,200 for a victory. But more important than the money is the time Rodriguez spends with his family and friends.

"These guys make it happen," Rodriguez says as he pulls himself out of the cockpit of the No. 29 car. "There's not a person down here that doesn't love this. We just come out and have a good time."

- This series continues Thursday -

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