O’LEARY: Hoosier Pit Pass


STANFORD, Ind. — What does it take to become a successful sprint car racer? What is the most important thing that a young driver needs to learn in order to advance from the role of hoping to get a good starting spot in a heat, hoping to get an easy track, and hoping to make the feature, to one who not only makes the features, but is a threat to win every time they unload?

OK, fair warning. If you are looking for a nice, pleasant discussion about the easy road to becoming a famous sprint car driver, you probably want to skip this column. And also, you might not want to spend a lot of time talking with Hall of Fame racer Bubby Jones. However, if you want to know what it takes to become a winning sprint car racer, this may be a good place to start.

You can call it old school. That’s the only way Bubby Jones knows. He doesn’t sugar coat what he has to say, never has. Take for example, when asked if he was ready earlier this evening, Bubby pointedly replied, “If he’d drive it, the car’s perfect.”

It is only about 22 hours after his driver, Kevin Thomas Jr., scored the biggest win of his career. Wheeling his Blackjack Oil Spike, Thomas led the final 24 laps at Bloomington Speedway to capture the fifth round of Indiana Sprint Week, the premier mid-summer event on USAC’s AMSOIL national sprint car series schedule.

In the first five laps of the race, the young racer from Alabama passed seven cars, including Jerry Coons Jr., Damion Gardner, Darren Hagen and Shane Cottle. Then he outran Dave Darland by almost a straightaway for the win. Trailing behind him, Levi Jones, Jon Stanbrough and Bryan Clauson battled for top-ten positions. It was the kind of performance that good young drivers dream about.

Now a driving coach and one of the top crew chiefs on the USAC tour, Bubby relaxes in a lawn chair shaded by their hauler at Haubstadt, Indiana’s Tri-State Speedway, and admits, “It’s big. I enjoy it. They hire me to make them go fast, so I get enjoyment out of it, too.”

Jones has a highly respected resume. It’s been several decades since his days as a champion in the California Racing Association (CRA) (1983 and 1984, with 80 wins), one of the absolute toughest racing groups in the country, in its day. Then there are 22 USAC sprint car feature wins, a stint with the World of Outlaws, a 1977 Indy 500 start, and induction in Knoxville’s National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1998. After retiring as a driver, Bubby stayed busy, working with his sons, Davey, a successful chief mechanic, and Tony, the 2007 USAC/CRA sprint car champion, as well as a variety of racing related efforts, including track management.

After examining the track, he gave needed orders to his mechanics to execute, and now he is relaxing while they measure tire air and ready the car for the feature. A steady stream of visitors stop to talk with Bubby, some are friends and well-wishers, but there are also mechanics from other cars who want to talk shop.

Eight years ago, Bubby moved to Indiana and began working with Daron Clayton, coaching his driving and helping with car setups. In 2007, he was crew chief for Levi Jones when Levi captured his second USAC national sprint car title. In recent years, he worked with Blake and Braylon Fitzpatrick, before taking over Thomas’ team this year. (Bubby and Levi are not directly related, even though both are Illinois natives.)

He has an enviable track record. Davey once told me that his father was the best he had ever seen at watching a car on the track for a short time and knowing how to make it faster. What would Bubby say the most important thing that young drivers need to learn in order to improve? “Quit being a spoiled brat and drive the s— out of it,” he responds. “Most of them are spoiled brats. They throw fits and lose concentration real easy. If you’re going to do this, you have to grow up. Man up and want to do it real bad.”

Then he adds that some eventually do become serious and others don’t. “Usually it’s too late. This is a tough deal. A lot of guys want to do this and a lot of guys can do this. But you have to want to do it bad. This is a tough deal.”

You have to want to do it real bad. Bubby is right on the mark. There are many things to learn before becoming a top driver. There are techniques to setting a car up for different track conditions and planning for how a track will change. There is a lot to gain from learning how to drive different kinds of tracks and various situations. As Jones explains, “You have to keep up with the race track and there’s just a lot to it, shocks, bars, and stagger, there’s a lot that goes into it that people don’t realize.”

But it takes a lot more than laps on a race track and someone to point out what you should do differently. As much as anything else, racing takes passion and commitment. For the top racers, it is consuming. There is little time for partying and a social life, and when you are young that can be hard to give up. Most of the time sweat equity is more plentiful than cash, and a large part of the curriculum is doing maintenance and fixing what gets broken.

When Bubby agrees to take on a new driver, he takes over the whole operation. “We do it at my shop, that’s the only way I’ll do it,” he says. “It runs out of my shop and it’s my design. I have a couple of helpers, Jack and Ty right now. They do most of the work and I do most of the finger-pointing. Everything is done my way and, if it ain’t right, well it’s my fault.”

He hasn’t had to change a lot to keep up with the times and says that the basic design of the cars he sells is similar to a setup he had thirty years ago. “The thing that’s changed in this sport is that everything’s gotten safer and better. The motors are better, the cars are safer, and got better parts. You can go down and buy it off the shelf, but we make a lot of our stuff and that’s one of the reasons why we’re pretty fast.”

“The biggest thing that’s changed, and I’m just taking me for an example, I did it for a living, I had to produce or they’d fire you. Nowadays most of these kids have their own sponsors and they don’t really have to do it. I think that’s what makes it tough. Used to, there was a lot of car owners and you could get rides. But anymore, that’s pretty much unheard of unless you’re a real good shoe.”

Jones also sells the same design Spike chassis that he races. When you point out that someone could buy a stock Spike off the shelf, he replies, “Yeah. But I don’t know why you would, I’m convinced that mine is the best car out right now.”

As for the coaching, Bubby keeps it simple. The formula hasn’t changed much. “Basically, I just tell them that they have to drive the heck out of it and try to give me feedback on what the car’s doing. If you’re going to do this, you just have to drive the s— out of it. These things are hard to drive and to do it right you have to be on the gas pedal.”

Bubby Jones comes from a day when no one had haulers and you could seldom afford a motel room. You frequently went down the road in a well-used station wagon, with the race car on an open trailer behind. You slept in the back between a small collection of tools and parts. But times have changed. Ask how he measures success at the end of the year, and Bubby replies with a gentle laugh, “How much money I made.”

That is definitely old school.




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