The season was drawing to a close, and several USAC officials began a casual conversation about participants who might be worthy candidates for year-end awards. Some of these accolades are determined by objective measures, while others are a bit more elusive. At the time of the conversation, no one knew for certain if there would even be a banquet and, as it turns out, this annual tradition also fell victim to the pandemic.
Banquets are funny affairs as it is. I know this firsthand given that on more than one occasion I have been standing at the front of the room watching the behavior of all those in front of me. No one likes these things to go on for long, and some in the mix clearly cannot wait to get to the bar. I get it, but sometimes the event is about more than the driver. Families like to see their loved ones on stage, crews like their work to be in the spotlight for a moment, and there are sponsors who see this as a reward for their support over a long year. If you think about it, only a very small percentage of all those who lay it on the line are recognized at these moments.
If the USAC banquet would have gone off as planned at the end of the 2020 season, all three National champions would have spent time on this stage before. It would have been the first title for Justin Grant, and it would have been nice to have seen him get plaudits for his accomplishment. In 2019 he noted with a laugh that he was developing a collection of second-place trophies. So, while this may have been a lost moment in the sun, there may be more top prizes in the offing for Grant.
The driver I was most unhappy for may never get another chance to be applauded at the National banquet. That doesn’t mean he is any less important. When the loose confederation of USAC officials were tossing around candidates for Most Improve Driver the response was nearly unanimous. The winner was Brandon Mattox.
Mattox has raced here and there, with USAC and throughout the general Indiana region, for years. He is a steady performer. He works hard, rarely is involved in incidents and approaches his job in a professional manner. He is, in a word, a steady performer.
A funny thing happened in 2020. Brandon started showing up at all USAC races and all he did was make the show. Night after night after night. That seems so simple to some, but it is not. He was regularly sharing the pits with people who do this for a living, and because of their accomplishments they are paired with teams that are resourced to go the distance. Brandon showed up and made the show. In fact, he cracked the starting field in 24 of 27 events.
No, he didn’t do a hat dance at the end of the night. No, he didn’t reach the podium. What he did was get the most out of his car, load it up and head to the next race. It might have been a subtle matter to some, but to me and others it was very impressive.
I thought a lot about Mattox when I was reading an enjoyable new book by longtime racer Ned H. Fry. Ned raced sprint cars in the Midwest for years. He competed at Knoxville, he raced with the old National Speedways Contest Association and spent a fair amount of time at 34 Raceway in Burlington, Iowa. In an age-old tradition harkening back when race promoters and announcers drew inspiration from fairs and carnivals, the legendary car owner/promoter/announcer Dave Van Patten decided that Fry should be from Tarantula Flats, New Mexico. It was all a part of the show.
Playing right along, Fry’s team was known as Monkey Ranch Engineering. You haven’t heard of Ned Fry? That comes as no surprise if you live outside the nation’s heartland. If you think deeper, though, the fact is you do know a racer like Ned. And perhaps when you consider a national touring series you know Brandon Mattox too.
In his introduction, Fry makes the very case I am trying to express in this column. He writes, “Every race team (large or small, rich or poor) is vital to our sport. Not every team can be winners or champions. The teams that compete in each race are just as dedicated and have the same desire as the one in victory lane each race. Each team is competing as hard as their talent, equipment, time and finances allow them. Even the smallest team puts in countless hours to be able to compete. The smaller teams must endure many sacrifices to keep going. They are grateful to win enough money to almost pay expenses.”
There is a lot of truth in these words. What we are talking about are the racers I call “The Glue Gang.” These are the drivers and teams that show up every night and contribute to the show. These are the people every race track and every series depends on. You must have them. They want to win too, but they know what the odds are. They would have loved to have been able to devote all of their time to racing and make their passion a well-paying enterprise. Only a select few have everything fall into their favor and, often, it is a matter of to whom you were born.
Think about this the next time you’re a bit dismissive of someone who presents to qualify who you feel is not particularly noteworthy. Think about this when you think about grabbing a T-shirt after the race. Some of these folks need your help. Mattox made it down the road all year and I’m sure it wasn’t always easy. Fry did everything he could to stay in the game too.
One of his stories points to his own desire to get to the next race. He had suffered a very bad accident at Knoxville and was unconscious when he arrived. After finally waking up, Ned wanted to be sure no one else had been hurt in his mishap. No, he was told, he was the only one brought in. Then inexplicitly he asked the attending nurse how his car was. Indignant, the nurse said, “All you drivers are the same. You all ask about your car, and your poor wife has been in the waiting room crying for the last three hours.”
Unmoved by the criticism leveled at him, Fry said, “Damn lady. I wasn’t driving her, I was driving my car.”