Growing up, the world of professional motorsports seemed so far away. Most weeks, anyway, what I watched on television was taking place on the other side of the country, or planet. Depending on what kind of racing I was tuning into. In my youth, most of the time it was NASCAR that would be on TV, though IndyCar (at the time still split between the IRL and Champ Car), Formula One, and other racing series slowly trickled their collective ways into my life. They all, however, still seemed so far away.
In 2013, all the racing in the world seemed one step closer as I was invited as a High School Junior to join the Upper Peninsula International Raceway's crew as an announcer. That whole first year was a blast as I had the pleasure of working alongside Mike Schubert, you might know him as Mike Jr. from the radio. Working with Mike was fun every night. Aside from announcing at UPIR, Mike was, as I said, a radio personality as well as a DJ at events such as weddings. To say he knew how to be entertaining on the microphone is an understatement. I made a multitude of memories that first summer.
For example, for much of the summer, I was announcing using a microphone that looked like it was straight from the principal's office of any 80's high school comedy This way Mike and I could both have a microphone and banter with one another. Don't ask me where the microphone actually came from, though. From what I remember, it was the only one they could find at the Upper Peninsula State Fairgrounds. If it wasn't the only one, it was certainly the first. For better or worse. Probably worse as every time I held the talk button down too long, our fans' ears would be subjected to horrendous feedback. Why it feedbacked so badly, again, I don't really know.
When the 2013 UPIR Season came to an end, so did my time working alongside Mike. The next year, I would begin announcing John Kohler, the voice of Norway Speedway for a number of years, and the voice of all the nights I went to Norway as a kid. The first time we met was the opening night of a two-night season opener for the 2014 season. To say we had chemistry from the get-go does our relationship a massive injustice. To this day, I consider John one of my very best friends and someone I love dearly.
A detail you may have noticed in the last paragraph was our 2014 season opener taking place over two nights. It's not uncommon for local tracks to spread major events out over two nights, so maybe you didn't give it that much thought. However, this event was two nights long for one very important reason. One very important person, more like. Racing legend Ken Schrader.
Just like that, the world that always seemed so far away was making its way to me. Even for only one day.
Friday, the day I met John, consisted of, if memory serves me correct, heat races for each of the track’s classes excluding the Modifieds. Saturday would consist of the features for all the divisions, while the Modifieds would run their heats and feature as the Saturday night headliner. Even with one year under my belt announcing, I was still a tangled ball of nerves. Especially when it came to speaking in front of everyone at intermission. Hell, I still get nerves when going down in front of everyone.
With Schrader making his way to town, you can only imagine how nervous an 18-year-old kid was knowing he was going to be in presence of someone he grew up watching and announcing. By the time I was getting old enough to become fully invested in racing, Schrader's full-time days on the NASCAR circuit were coming to a close and he began to become part of more and more Truck Series and ARCA broadcasts on the Speed Channel. His wit and lack of hesitation to be himself made him an immediate favorite on-air talent of mine.
While Friday was business as usual, Saturday was everything but. Upon arrival to UPIR, a massive hauler stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the modest trailers of many of the local drivers. It was a sore thumb in the best of ways, though. It was Schrader's hauler. The only problem? There was no Schrader!
Now, just saying that sounds like a real issue. Rest assured, everything was going to plan. While we began our program of racing, Ken was in Toledo, Ohio qualifying for an ARCA race that would run on Sunday. Going off of memory, I'll fact check below (think of it like a quiz for myself), Ken qualified fourth for the race while his driver at the time, Matt Tifft, took the pole.
Was Todd right? No, Matt qualified fifth and Ken seventh.
After his qualifying run, Ken made his way to the airport where he began his trip to the Upper Peninsula. We were all eagerly awaiting his arrival. It's not every day people in the U.P. get to experience things like NASCAR Drivers coming around. In the booth, John and I went about our business, him maintaining his calm demeanor as I was freaking out on the inside. It soon became time to discuss plans for intermission, which included the normal festivities as well as trackside driver introductions. The biggest part of the intermission, though, was the interview with Ken Schrader. This fact only became more apparent, at least to me, as Ken's plane did a flyover on final approach to the Delta County Airport.
We had to figure out our course of action for the rapidly approaching intermission, so I asked John about what we were going to do.
"Well," he said, "I figured you go down and introduce the drivers and interview Ken....."
WAIT. WHAT? Me interviewing Ken Schrader, I couldn't possibly be capable of that!
"...I already interviewed him for radio earlier this week," John continued, "If I want to ask him something, I can chime in from up here, too."
Just like that, I was going to interview Ken Schrader. As you can probably guess, this newly learned fact did not help calm my nerves!
Ken arrived at the track as heat races were underway for the Modifieds, he would be running in the third. From the airport, to the track, and into his car to race all within minutes, I can’t imagine the strain that must put on someone. If it put any on Schrader, you would have never guessed it. He was allotted a few hot laps to familiarize himself with the new track. He then promptly won the heat race and made his way, along with all of the other drivers, to the frontstretch pavement between the dirt track and grandstands.
With a driver list in my hand wrapped around a wireless microphone, I made the long trip from the booth, up to the roof of the grandstand, then back down into the seating section, and eventually trackside.
When I got there, Ken was already by the metal gates that divide the pavement from the grandstands signing autographs. He didn't need to do this, either. There was a planned autograph signing under the grandstand following the conclusion of the Modified feature. This, aside from the trip itself, was the first selfless act Ken made that night. As you can see by the use of, "first," there were many more to come.
I made my way to the rear of the grid, where Ken would eventually start the race. For introductions, though, he would be last as the aforementioned interview was to take place following his introduction. With the driver sheet in hand, I began announcing each driver as excitedly as I could. Then, we had an issue. There were names missing from the list! The likely cause of this was late comers to registration. Regardless, I felt bad for the few drivers I had to ask their names, but introduced them just the same. Then it came time for the last driver. I didn't need a sheet for this one. I took a deep breath.
"And finally, rounding out the field. Driving the number nine Federated Auto Parts Modified, KEN SCHRADER!!!"
The crowd roared with excitement. I made my way to Ken's car where he was already surrounded by news cameras and members of the Delta County Chamber of Commerce who presented Ken with a gift basket. Again, I inhaled and readied myself for the interview. I clicked the microphone back on. With that singular motion, I was calm. It's hard to explain what I felt in that moment. Here I was, about a week away from my high school graduation interviewing one of my racing heroes. I lifted the microphone and asked Ken the first question. I wish I memorized every word he said, but I was mesmerized that he was just a foot or so away from me. Here are the few things I can remember of the interview below, not verbatim I should add.
Todd: So Ken, you took a few laps before the heat race. How long did it take you to get used to the quarter-mile dirt track we have here?
Ken: Well, they might want to re-measure it because that might be the shortest quarter mile I've been on.
In reality, the track was somewhere between the original eighth-mile length and fifth of a mile. Regardless, Ken's comment got a laugh out of everyone, including me. We continue.
Todd: Now, you'll be starting at the back for the feature, do you have a game plan ready to go? Will it be a hard charge to the front, or will you take your time?
Ken: My plan is to go out, run fast, and hopefully don’t hit anything too hard.
Again, there was a collective laughter.
I remember asking him about how things went in Toledo, and maybe a few other things. Like I mentioned before, I was so focused on the fact Ken Schrader was right in front of me and focused on not screwing up, that I can't recall the interview word for word. In the moment, that focus was the best thing ever, now, I wish I would have listened a bit better. But that's all beside the point, it was time to go racing.
From the drop of the green flag, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Ken would win, even though he was starting at the back. I say that with no disservice to the other drivers in the field. This was Ken Schrader who, I’d assume, had the most racing experience and best equipment in the field. But instead of flying to the front of the pack and dominating the race, Ken took his time. With every car, Ken battled with them for a corner or two before moving up to the next position. It would seem Ken made sure to battle with everyone in the race so everyone had their opportunity to race against him.
Ken went on to win the race from the back of the pack, as was expected. He then made his way beneath the grandstand to begin signing autographs. It was here he stayed until the stands were empty and everyone had their chance to stop by his table. Even I was able to clamber down from the booth and see Ken before he made his way back to the pits. I thanked him for the interview and everything else he did that day. I even purchased a race-worn visor from his gift shop. I had him sign it, even though it was already signed. I don’t know why I did that, but am I glad I did as the first one is starting to fade.
From what I’ve heard, Ken hung around for quite a while in the pits visiting with everyone after I had gone home for the night. After everything he did that day, it doesn't surprise me. I could try to explain the competitor and person Ken is from my interaction with him, but I think the below video does it best, with Ken’s own actions doing the talking. (Video uploaded by friskynixon on YouTube.)
To this day, I don’t why John had me go down and interview Ken. And John, if you’re reading this which you probably will, I don’t think I need an answer. That day, that moment, gave me the confidence that I belonged in the racing community, that I had what it took to be a part of this crazy sport.
For that, John, I can never thank you enough.
By Todd Rose