A Weekend Like No Other

@ Watkins Glen International

BY: Tom Henderson (06/11/2016)

If you had to write on a piece of paper, right now, what fun meant to you, what would you say? Not the cliche “Webster dictionary defines…” or a general definition, but on a deeper level, what the word “fun” means to you. How would it be defined for your life? It may seem like a simple task, but the more you think about it, the more difficult it becomes.

 

Would you say that it is defined as a moment or event that brought a smile to your face? Maybe it is more along the lines of an activity that takes you away from your day to day life, makes you forget all about the stresses of work or school. Maybe you are a little less selfish than most and it means enriching the lives of someone else and allowing them to have “fun.” Before the weekend of the most recent ChumpCar race at Watkins Glen, I would have agreed with most of you reading this. I would have said fun takes me away from the stresses of my job and my normal day to day life, brings a smile to my face and hopefully, that of my family and friends. However, I now have a much deeper appreciation for what “fun” is now.

 

I have a lot of hobbies to keep myself entertained. Growing up as the typical ADD kid, my focus can dart from one thing to another, multiple times a minute, and nothing has changed to this day. So i balance my schedule accordingly as to avoid being bored whenever possible. In the winter you will find me bombing down the mountain at Bristol Mountain on my skis, or crashing on a snowboard, and in the summer you will find me on the racetrack logging laps around Watkins Glen at about 130 mph. I happily fill in the gaps between skiing trips and races with a round of golf or a frequent movie (I have gone to the movies on average every other week since 2007, yes I counted my movie stubs that I save) when I am not working, updating my fixer-upper of a house, helping 2 of my best friends build their storage business, making the occasional sale for my independent Amway business, spending time with my girlfriend putting away season after season of The Big Bang Theory and Game of Thrones, or spending 12+ hours each weekend preparing for the upcoming ChumpCar race.

 

I thoroughly enjoy having a busy schedule and always having something fun and exciting to do, no matter what. I mean that is why we are all on this planet anyways right? Do your part to keep society up and running and then spending the rest of your time trying to have as much fun as humanly possible without accidentally killing yourself right? Staying true to that statement, above all else, the time i have spent racing has brought me the most enjoyment in my life. So much so that I have pretty much sacrificed all of my other hobbies for racing. In the past two years I have only played one round of golf, 2 if you count putt putt, and have only been skiing once. I have even cut down on going to the movies almost every week to now once a month, maybe. Surprisingly, it is not from a lack of time or money that I do so, I have just found myself enjoying racing that much more than anything else.

 

I watched a little racing here and there as a kid with my dad (Go Ernie Irvan), but it wasn't until Christmas of 2001 when my parents got my brother and I a Playstation 2 and a copy of Nascar Thunder 2002 that it became an integral part of my life. My neighbor at the time, Rob Roessel, was a big Jeff Gordon fan. I mean like cardboard cutouts in the basement type of fan. The thing was, Rob also had a copy of the Nascar video game. So of course we raced each other nonstop, me racing as Dale Jr and him as Jeff Gordon, and we got pretty damn good. Rob is the true reason I graduated from video games to a real race car. I shared driving duties in his Honda CRX race car for my first ChumpCar race back in 2014 and he then connected me with Alex and Matt at PLC Racing, where I currently help build the car as well as drive, and I couldn't be more thankful to him. I have been lucky enough to have raced alongside Rob in 5 races plus Watkins Glen this season, and I have enjoyed the hell out of every one of them.

 

At the start of the race on Sunday, I found myself racing side by side with Rob about 20 laps in, but something was different. I found myself almost daydreaming, thinking about racing with my childhood friend, and it meant a lot to me this time. It’s not like I haven't been in that situation before either. I have lived through that exact same moment, running door to door with Rob in previous races, just like we did as kids playing as Dale Jr. and Jeff Gordon, just, this time there was something more, something else that I couldn't quite put my finger on.

 

All weekend I felt like shit. Like, wow was I ever sick. I wasn’t even up for the 2 hour car ride to make it down to the track with the team, I had to take all of Friday morning alternating between half-sleep and running to the bathroom to toss up what little I had left in my stomach. Even when I made it to the track later that day and got out on track, it didn't quite go away as i hoped. I mean, adrenaline is the cure-all drug in my opinion, but even that didn't stop me from throwing up in the car….yeah, gross. There was a borderline reason for me to be in a hospital getting fluids, not out in a race car with a cockpit temperature of 117 degrees (Not even joking, it got that hot), but there I was anyways.

 

Not only was my body not operating at 100%, the car wasn’t exactly there either. We had problems all weekend with our transmission leaking fluids, which prompted us to change to a backup. We had one hell of a time trying to diagnose why our engine would lose power randomly, changing a distributor, checking the fuel pump, changing a fuel filter, changing spark plugs and then finally arriving at the issue by changing our ECU. And if that wasn’t enough, our hood flew up and took out our windshield after the hood pins vibrated loose, I mean seriously watch this, is this not insane!?!

 

 

Not fun right? You couldn't be more wrong, it was fun, and that fact surprised even me. After the team made it back to Rochester, I spent some time really thinking about the weekend and that moment in the car, racing side by side with Rob, and why it really stayed with me. In past races, it was just cool to pass another car, and have it happen to be Rob’s team. My thought process was interrupted when Alex asked me if, despite being sick, if the weekend was worth it, would I do it again. And without hesitation i said “Yes!”

 

That was it! That was why that moment in the car meant so much to me. Despite being incredibly sick and miserable all weekend, despite all the issues we had with the car that lead to a poor finish, I still had the time of my life while i was in the car. That moment racing with Rob was a feeling of nostalgia for all the years I spent on those racing games, just hoping in the back of my mind that it was all leading to me becoming a race car driver for real one day. And little did my 11 year old self know, that it absolutely was. I have known that I was a real driver for the past years, even bragging to my friends how cool it was to do what I do. But it wasn’t until I was in the car, in that moment, that it felt real. For the first time, a part of my life came full circle. I had achieved the dreams i made for myself as a little 11 year old kid. And that feeling is nothing short of amazing. But to experience that moment at 130 mph, simply put, was just “fun.”

 

When something is truly and purely “fun”, it doesn't matter how much time, money and effort goes into it, the actual event is so purely enjoyable that nothing can get in the way of you doing it. To say that a race weekend, where almost nothing went according to plan, was still one of the best weekends of my life really speaks to how much I love racing with my friends and having my family around to share in the moment. I hope that everyone reading this has something that brings their life as much purpose and enjoyment as racing brings me. My understanding of what “fun” is has been elevated since Watkins Glen, and I cannot wait to experience that feeling again at the next race.

 

P.S. Racing without a windshield is awesome. Especially above 80mph when your helmet generates enough lift to start to come off your head! Insane!!

 

-Tom Henderson (06/11/2016)

 


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