Friday, June 12, 2015

A class not to be dismissed

Tom Isch was a champion fretter. It comes with the territory when you're the promoter of a racing venue without which there would be no NASCAR or IndyCar or maybe even the Indianapolis 500 itself, but which are devilishly hard to keep afloat and always have been.

And so Isch, the track promoter at Baer Field Speedway for some 20 years, would sit on his tractor and watch the Guard jets boom and zoom off toward the southwest a few hundred feet away, and he would fret. About car counts. About the weather. About the price of gas. About how to keep 'em coming out on those nights when the traveling series weren't in town, and it was just the local guys banging around Baer Field's fast, treacherous half-mile (or 3/8-mile).

And yet there was joy in what he did, as there would have to be in earning such a hard dollar. There was joy in it, because Isch understood, the way everyone understood who ran under those smoky Saturday night lights, that without that hard dollar there wouldn't be the big money. American motorsports drew its lifeblood from all those mean little bullrings scattered across its landscape; they were the grassroots incubators for the men (and women) who would one day run Indy and Daytona and every bright-light place between.

It's what kept Isch going, I like to think, even when he got sick. It's what kept Don Jones and Steve Minich Sr. and Steve Christman and Blaine Miller and Larry Harpe going.

That's your 2015 Baer Field Hall of Fame class, which will be inducted this weekend. There have been more than a few great classes, but this might be the one that best embodies everything that keeps small-track racing in America whole and vital and indispensable, hard dollar be damned.

Jones was a driver, builder and innovator who made Baer Field a better, more competitive place in the 1960s and '70s.

Christman was the direct local conduit between Baer Field and the big time, the man who used those aforementioned  grass roots to finish third in the rookie points in NASCAR in 1987.

Miller, another superior car builder, won more than 300 events and left an almighty big hole when he was struck and killed on I-69 in 2013 while helping a trucker with his broken-down rig.

Harpe was a multi-time crew chief of the year in ARCA, a stellar wrench whose mechanical gifts were behind an awful lot of winners at Baer Field across the years.

And Minich ... well, hell, who doesn't know Steve Minich? He was Christman's crew chief in his 1987 NASCAR run, and his talents as a builder, owner and fabricator have produced more than 650 feature wins and 69 track championships all over the tri-states.

As much as the Coes and the Millers and any number of others, he's an example of the strength of racing deep in the grassroots: family. I once spent a combustible Saturday afternoon hanging around Minich's operation, and it was a family deal from top to bottom. It was also no outlier. I could have stopped in on  any number of others in the pit area and found the same thing.

So you've got him and you've got Christman, and you've got Harpe, Miller, Jones and Isch, who passed in 2013 as well. And you've got every bedrock truth about small-track racing -- including, yes, the joy of its hard dollar.

You know that business about Tom Isch being a fretter?

I remember once in early spring I gave him a ring out at the track, and of course he was there. The new season was looming, there were preparations to be made, and there were all manner of things to fret about.

But the weather was gorgeous that spring day. You could believe, on that day, that everything was going to work out, that car counts would be up and crowds would be up and there would be an eternity of gloriously starry nights waiting just up the road.

And so, at one point in our conversation, Isch interrupted me mid-question.

"You know what?" he said, or words to that effect. "I gotta say, it's a beautiful day. I saw a robin out there awhile ago."

Joy wins again.



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