COLUMBUS, Ind. — Indiana Midget Week was, until this month, something that had sat unchecked near the top of my bucket list as far as an event I wanted to go and experience firsthand.
It’s one thing to read about the six-races-in-six-days grind that makes up one of short-track racing’s most unique and highly regarded challenges, but it’s quite another to traverse it in person.
So, armed with my (slightly) beat-up Saturn SUV and a general idea of my road map for the week, I took the recent trip to the Hoosier State to add a check to my racing résuméand learn what Indiana Midget Week was all about.
The prevailing answer I got from everyone I met along the way? Passion.
Those seven letters were evident in every nook and cranny that I peered into over the course of my five-day sojourn. There was no moment when the passion of teams, drivers, officials and fans wasn’t easily observed; whether racing had yet to begin or on-track activities had long-since ceased for the night.
Why else would drivers from as far as Oklahoma, Nevada and California — or in New Zealander Michael Pickens’ case, overseas — come from hours or days away just to lose sleep and work tirelessly for a week straight at dirt tracks across Indiana — some squarely nestled in the hardest-to-find places?
Indiana Midget Week is rooted in a passion for the sport, and not just racing in general, but the purest form of the sport that still exists in the United States.
This isn’t NASCAR or Formula One, with millions of dollars of technology and equipment crammed into haulers and garage bays, and where drivers race at tracks more akin to palaces than sports stadiums.
No, this is grassroots competition at its finest, where family teams can race toe to toe with the bigger-budget operations and where you’re going to leave at the end of the night with dirt and grime on your hands, in your hair and stuck in places you didn’t even know it could get stuck.
Trust me, I found that out really quickly.
Indiana Midget Week is a place where, as a media member, you’re lucky if there’s space in some of the control towers to be able to set up a laptop and provide updates during the night, but as a fan, the old-school setup and feel allows greater access to the stars of the night than any national-level racing event anywhere in the country.
When some of those stars are nationally-known — like Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular Kyle Larson or Tanner Thorson, who spent time in the NASCAR ranks before returning to his dirt-track roots this year — it’s more proof of that passion I spoke of earlier, because why else would they come?
They, like everyone else in attendance, simply love the sport enough to keep coming back.
And make no mistake, these stars took the time each night to make sure the fans who came to see them compete went home happy, with an experience they won’t soon forget.
“It’s just about the enjoyment of racing and being able to come back at this level,” said Larson of his yearly returns for select Indiana Midget Week shows. “It’s a lot of fun … even though I only get to come in for a couple of nights now. It can be stressful for the teams running for the title, but the atmosphere is pretty special, with all the campers that come in and the fans that come out to support this deal.
“It’s got a big fan following and it’s a place where a lot of friendships are fostered.”
If you attend Midget Week for the first time, like I did, you realize by about the third day you’re going to lose sleep before it’s all over. That’s just how it is, when you combine late nights and work after each race with early wake-up calls to be able to get up or down the road to the next day’s race track.
It’s the same way for all the race teams. Whether it’s rooted in victory celebrations, routine maintenance or repairing a car from the ills of the most-recent race, each driver and crew member burns the midnight oil making sure everything is squarely in place for the next day. Then, the cycle repeats all over again.
But at the end of the day — pun intended — we all do so because we love what we do within the sport. And none of us would have it any other way.
Throughout the course of the week, this year’s Indiana Midget Week saw a different driver win the feature each night, with three different teams — Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports, Clauson-Marshall Racing and the single-car RAMS Racing outfit — triumphing during the five-day stretch.
But interwoven among those powerhouses were stories like Cannon McIntosh’s runner-up result at Gas City I-69 Speedway and Ethan Mitchell’s fast-time-to-top-five effort at Bloomington Speedway, both achieved with smaller, family-owned and operated organizations that took the fight to the big squads.
It didn’t matter who you were, or how you got there, anyone could succeed on Indiana Midget Week.
That theory was why more than 30 cars showed up every night, because on any given day, each driver knew he or she had a shot for something special to happen.
At its core, that belief is what the passion of auto racing is all about.
It’s what I found interwoven throughout Indiana Midget Week — and for that reason it won’t be my last journey to Midget Week.