Friday, June 20, 2008

Part 3 - Disappointing day

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

Back at Pennsylvania Motor Speedway near Imperial, Allegheny County, the No. 29 team and Keith Rodriguez gather on the roof of their trailer to watch the other races. Rodriguez usually carries a smile beneath his thick, salt-and-pepper mustache. On his right arm is a tattoo of his car number and a checkered flag around it. On the other arm is a bald eagle with a checkered flag lodged in its mouth.

Moments before the main event, Rodriguez, sipping a can of Diet Pepsi, discusses final adjustments with his crew chief. Then he climbs down the trailer and slips into his car. Even after years on the circuit, Rodriguez admitted he "sometimes gets a sick feeling in my stomach" before a race, but once in the car he is focused.

Of course, there is an element of danger. Two years ago Rodriguez crashed and flipped onto his roof, but he escaped without a scratch. "Sometimes when you're driving these things you don't realize what's going on behind you or beside you," Rodriguez said. “Your field of vision is so limited that it's tough sometimes."

Soon it's time for Rodriguez's race. A sparkling red pace car leads the cars around the muddy track. The green flag drops and Rodriguez roars from his 10th place starting position, but in just a few laps he begins to lose positions and is noticeably slower than some of the other cars.

After just five laps, his car drifts high in turn two while he searches for a faster groove, but the car smacks the wall. Coming down the front stretch, sparks and smoke billow out of the back as the right rear tire shreds. His nephew, Jason Fasone, slams a water bottle to the ground. The rest of the crew members standing on top of the trailer are stunned and scurry over to look at the damage.

The race is over for them. They repair the car just enough so it can roll into the trailer. With heavy sheet metal and suspension damage it's going to be a long week at the garage. Rodriguez, clearly dejected by the short night, indicates this setback won't stop them from competing again next week. "We'll be back," he says, still flashing his trademark smile.

So go the highs and lows of short-track racing.

- The End -

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