The Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done (Part 2)

Part 2:  STAGING LANES

Most drivers have a routine or ritual that they like to practice in the staging lanes.  Some sit in quiet isolation behind dark tinted glass, others listen to their favorite music on head phones, and a few folks even suck on oxygen tubes in order to help their reaction times.  My routine is to visit with other drivers, owners, mechanics, and fans.  The folks I race with are my friends and family.  We don’t have much opportunity to visit when we are all working hard in the pits to get our racing machines ready but once we pull into the lanes there is often a bit of down time.  Racers gather from all different corners of the country and we share a unique bond that unites us.  Social media sites have made it easier to stay engaged with their lives so the staging lanes provide an in-person opportunity to catch up and share a few jokes.  Sadly, as was the case at last years California Hot Rod Reunion, for example, it also might be the last opportunity to shake a hand or share a hug with a racing friend.

The guys that really bust their butts to make these cars thunder down the track are often found grouped around their respective cars.  These are the folks that make guys like me, the “monkey in the seat”, look good.  Apart from the professional teams, most these folks volunteer their time and often have a long standing reputation of friendship with all the racers.  I have incredible respect for all the crew guys/gals that wrench on each of these teams and I really try to get to know them when walking around the staging lanes.  Fans that venture into the staging lanes share their own personal stories while asking great questions.  It often presents an opportunity to  explain to them why it can be incredibly difficult to make the perfect run.  I usually equate it to how surfers say they never catch the perfect wave.  Children admire the machines in great fascination and it’s a great time to get a high five or take a photo.

The people I hang out with in the staging lanes are my family.  Most of them have known me since I was a young child, and some I have just met, but yet we are comfortable with one another.  At the end of the day, we are friends and share a common drive that is hard to find anywhere else.  I tend to be a friendly guy but not every owner, driver, crew person, or crew chief is that way, and that is ok too.  Just like any family there will be disagreements and heated arguments; sometimes driving an unfortunate wedge between people.  The staging lanes is our family reunion.  I don’t have much of a family and I look forward to this time to spend with them.  I find friendships with others outside racing to sometimes be difficult.  I’m not into any other sports, and my singular focus is racing a car on the track.  I rarely spectate NHRA events live or on television nor do I follow any other motorsports.  I will usually visit dragracecentral.com to view the results to see how my friends do, quickly reviewing the times and performance.  I often, in a snobbish way perhaps, relate that I’m a participant, not a spectator. 

Jim Campbell and Chris Bennett signing used parts for fans

At some point the track official comes down the lanes and tells us to get ready.  If my wife and children are attending the race I take the time to kiss each one of them, tell them I love them, and say, “cya on the big end”.  When the helmet goes on everything becomes business.  The good natured friendly side of me is quickly wiped away and I begin to focus in on the mission before me.  I have an order and routine that I like to put my gear on and my crew assists me with certain portions that are difficult (gloves, hans device, etc.).  I’m like an astronaut slipping on my gear as I climb into one of the most powerful machines on earth.  I slide between the rails of my machine and feel the cold metal snug against my 4-layer fire suit.  A crew guy on each side performs a well-organized symphony of moves as they find the seat belts buried below and around me.  Each one clicks into place with authority and each guy pulls down hard on the belts knowing that they are ensuring my safety.  I like the tight secure feeling of being clamped to my racing machine.  I look forward to the Racers for Christ chaplain reaching in and taking my hands as he prays for my safety and a good run.  I focus deeply and let my heart pray with his every word.  Once he finishes, I’m in my own world.  Most of my crew guys leave me alone apart from the occasional update about an oil down or car that got a cone.  They’ll look in on me to make sure I don’t need anything, but I remain quiet…and calm.  I slowly go over my routine in my head; time and time again.  I rehearse the run imagining success and mimic the actions from when the car starts all the way until it comes to a stop in the turnout.  I look over the portions of the motor I can see.  Throttle linkage, fuel lines, yep,…check, all look good.  I trust my guys and I know they do quality work.  They take pride in putting this machine together and keeping me safe.        

I think one of the reasons that I find the notion of fellow racers being family is I lack a large family.  In fact, it is fairly non-existent and I know some of you reading this probably feel the same way.  My parents were far from perfect, in fact, most would consider my childhood fairly dysfunctional.  Who has a family that isn’t?  My biological mother and father divorced when I was only 5 years old and one of my earliest memories was my mom shoving me into the back seat of a shiny black 1970 Challenger along with a few of our most important belongings.  We would bounce around a few different places but eventually landed in Southern California.  My mom eventually began dating and one particular evening that I was sick on the couch a guy by the name of Jeff Bennett showed up to take her out to Carlsbad Raceway to watch an evening of drag racing.  He was tall, wore cowboy boots, and had his own race car.  I was immediately impressed even though I knew nothing about him.

Jeff had a passion and dream of professional drag racing.  He would sacrifice everything, work long hours, forego vacations, and pinch every penny he had that would further his pursuit of his dream.  He embodied the currently platitudinous word “hustle”, as he would buy and sell cars, parts, or take on any small job that would bring in a little extra cash for the race car.  He raced an all steel Willys, 55 Chevy, front engine dragster, and eventually was able to purchase and build his first nitro fuel altered.  At one point he owned and began restoring Larry Dixon’s Fireside Inn dragster.  Not only did he work tirelessly to make extra money but he would also spend countless hours in the garage meticulously crafting his machines to perfection.  I’ll never forget the debut of the “JEFF BENNETT” AA/FA at LACR in Lancaster, California.  All the hours of working hard and constructing his dream quickly became little pieces of disaster after the blower exploded less than 50 feet off the starting line.  That would be enough to crush most men, but not Jeff Bennett.  He picked the pieces up, dusted himself off, and continued on racing a variety of cars and classes throughout the years.  He eventually became the three-time champion of the AHRA World Finals in his fuel funny car. 

Little did he know, but an impressionable young man was watching his every move.  Jeff was a hero to this young red head, buck toothed, freckled kid that never did fit in with most the kids in school.  Maybe it was the cowboy boots he wore to mimic Jeff, or the countless grease stained racing shirts, or the dirt under his fingernails from wrenching in the garage, but, I was always a little bit different than all the other kids.

A young Chris stands next to a dragster owned by a family friend

Jeff became my dad and my best friend.  I took his last name as my own and we forged a bond over everything car related.  He filled a much needed place in my life that was left vacant by my biological father.  His dreams became my dreams and I often fantasized about the day that we would turn on the pre-stage beams side by side for a championship race.  That fantasy would mostly become reality as we have both entered the March Meet when I drove the Bomb Squad NFC and my dad drove our Pure Heaven IV NFC.  Later, we would both qualify for the Fuel Altered class with him behind the wheel of the Pure Heaven III AA/FA and me driving No Mercy.

Jeff Bennett working a fuel leak problem on the Pure Heaven III Fuel Altered while Chris waits patiently

You see, this dream had been planted in me at a very young age.  Numerous times I’ve packed it up in a box, dug a deep hole, and buried it deep within my subconscious to be forgotten.  I placed a ton of reasons over the gravesite to remind me why it wasn’t reasonable; too much money, hard work, can’t compete with JFR or DSR, many others have failed, plus a myriad of other heavy weighted excuses.  Somehow, some way, I always found a way to push the excuses away, grab a shovel, and dig the dream back up to see the light of day. 

Jeff Bennett has taught his son through the years every aspect of a nitro car. Jeff is a talented driver himself with a wealth of experience and knowledge

As I sit in my racing cocoon I know it’s time to move forward when I see the tow vehicle tail lights flash.  One of my crew guys will look in to make sure I’m ready.  The tow line slack will slowly grow taut and the car will begin pulling forward.  I’ll begin to see the corner of the stands and all the fans waiting for the next chariot to fire.  My heart rate begins to elevate but I remind myself to take smooth even breaths and quickly bring it back to normal.  It’s just a machine, and I’m a machine….follow the routine.  The guys hang the starter on the front of the motor, I hear the cars in front of me erupt off the line.  You can hear a successful run, aborted run, and even runs that make you cringe.  We pull a few more feet forward, only one pair ahead of us now as I count along in my head and crane my neck to see where in line I am.   

It’s time to put your headset on, grab the prime bottle and get ready for the next section of this blog…….BURNOUT BOX.   

4 thoughts on “The Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done (Part 2)”

  1. I ENJOYED YOUR POST AS A DRIVER I NEVER MADE IT AS FAR AS YOU BUT WHEN I RACED I ALWAYS DID THE BEST I COULD DO AND WITH 103 WINS RACING ALL OVER SO CAL DID OK. BUT I NEVER MADE IT TO MY DREAM OF A NITRO CAR. SO I GUESS I LIVE MY DREAM THOUGH OTHERS NOW. BUT I DO FEEL LUCKY IN BEING ABLE TO WORK ON A THE SULLIVAN FUEL ALTERED. I WISH YOU AND YOUR TEAM THE BEST OF LUCK AND I’LL BE ROOTING FOR YOU.

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