Monday, May 7, 2018

"With A Little Help From My Friends..." (Barber 2018)

As long as I've been going to IndyCar races, as a fan and as media, each trip has had its own song, that 4 minute or so anthem that encapsulates the emotion and motions of the trip. They're often random and wildly differing from genre to genre ("What The Hell" by Avril Lavigne for Barber in 2011, "Heart Of Glass" by Blondie for any year at Indy since 2011, "Ball & Chain" by Social Distortion for Mid-Ohio '17, to name a few), but as time passes they go on to mean something special. It doesn't take long to figure out I'm a very sentimental person, so as my most recent trip approached I couldn't help but ponder what the standout would be to define my 2nd year as media at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.
But as luck would have it, the question was answered before I even packed my bags.

To explain, let me back up. After Mid-Ohio last year, I was told I was invited back for Barber in April. So I spent the entire offseason and then some preparing for the trip. I bought new production equipment, relearned Adobe Premiere, studied up on my Road To Indy facts by reading every article on Racer, bought a domain (, designed new business cards, bought new prescription sunglasses, and even got a second job to pay for the trip.
But every force in the universe tried to keep me out of Alabama. Both jobs scheduled me to work, finances weren't as strong as I had thought they'd be, and worst of all, my media credential request for the race got declined. All that preparation, 9 months of planning gone down the drain, right?
Not as much as I believed.

Last year at Barber, I knew nobody. The only contact I had with anyone in the business was with Bob Varsha through DM on Twitter. (my fictional wrestling character's account, by the by.) But he put me in touch with Mike Kitchel, who introduced me to his staff. From there, I met Pat Caporali, with whom I became friends.
Pat actually saved me from what I believe would have been throwing/smoking my life away in a bone headed attempt to run from my problems and move to Colorado last summer. If not for a message she sent showing support for my media career that I read in downtown Chicago on my way to Denver, I'd likely have gone through with the move. Pat's a supportive person and a hell of a role model, needless to say I treasure our friendship and often look to her for help in various ways. This one happened to be professional.
Dejected at being declined, I messaged Pat and explained my situation. "Let me see if I can help," she said. Two days later, I received an email saying I was in after all. Great! But now how do I get the weekend off?
Thankfully, my restaurant job rescheduled me to have the entire weekend off. My hotel job, however, took some putting my foot down. I pulled the Hulk Hogan, "That won't work for me, brother," and was given the weekend off-at the expense of losing 21 hours as what I assume was punishment.

With a few days to go until the trip, things got even better as I bought one of my dream cars; a 1993 Mazda Miata. Ya know, the car you can start with in GranTurismo 3? I've wanted one since I was 8, and now I get to drive it to Barber.

Thursday morning came, and with it waves of excitement. I shot down I59 blaring a playlist featuring everything from Wyclef Jean to Metallica to Abba before settling upon the closest thing Alabama will ever get to paradise, the Whataburger in Trussville. I don't know why I'm so in love with Corpus-Christi's finest export since The Labonte Brothers, but that What-A-Chicken sandwich was heaven.

I finally reached the hotel on Rex Lake where you pick up your media credentials aaaaaand....
"Yeah hon, you're on my declined list. Sorry."
It took ten minutes for me to explain, name drop, and finally show email proof that my status had changed. It obviously inconvenienced the staff to have to go through this ordeal and add my name to the accepted list. But I got my media and parking passes! Time to head across the street and check things out!
Orrrrrrr not. My Miata wouldn't start. Damn.

I called another friend, occasional IndyCar dotcom writer Chris DeHarde, who was an hour away and had cables to boost me off. Chris is a damn good friend, helped me get my confidence up enough to stay on top of preparations for the trip. Throughout the weekend, he would introduce me to a rolodex of media members who may otherwise not have given me the time of day. I've never met someone so passionate about racing, nor so eager to help his friends like me find opportunities.
I didn't need the boost, that day anyway, so Chris and I went to the Barber Vintage Museum, which if you haven't been, is perhaps the most impressive motorsports museum south of IMS

My hotel experience was subpar to say the least. What was once a stellar place to stay just 3 years ago had now become an extended stay hotel, with rates cheap enough for constant loud parties, even on a Thursday. My bed had no linens, the microwave beeped uncontrollably. I complained to the front desk, and they moved me...To an already occupied room. When it was all settled, I got about 5 hours of sleep.

Friday morning came and it became apparent I was NOT going to shake the rust from having not produced anything in 9 months, racing or not. It doesn't help having spent the last year soul searching, struggling to find my voice as both an entertainer and a member of racing media, as well as beating myself up over lost love. Life got in the way of my dreams and I wasn't yet out of the fog.
I may have lost my groove, but I was determined to enjoy myself and do my best with what I had.
I had a more formal meeting with Pat, thanked her for bringing me in, and went to shoot video in the paddock. It was a gorgeous morning, albeit a bit cold, but the fans were out in full force and so was I, running from end to end in the paddock/pit lane, hitching rides all around the track.

I caught up with another pal, one who is always making sure I Stay Hungry and look for work. We met last year during pit practice at Barber and stay in frequent touch. But seeing Robin Miller felt much better than just seeing a famous confidant who believes in my work. After losing my Mom in 2016, "Cancer" is probably the most heartbreaking and terrifying word in the English language for me . Robin kicked cancer's ass and I couldn't have been happier to see him and give him a big hug. He's been a hero of mine since I was in 5th grade watching WindTunnel and realized some people can grow up to be blunt and unapologetically opinionated about racing on TV. He asked if I was finding work and suggested I hit up the folks at IndyCar about some production work, which I didn't exactly do thanks to the whole "losing my groove" thing. Sorry, Robin...

I shot some more B-Roll, walked the paddock (Where I learned autographed breasts are a real thing outside of Happy Gilmore, and the woman was just as old. You're welcome.), and decided to call it a day at 5PM. My Miata wouldn't start again, so Chris boosted me off and I decided to have a lonely man's dinner at Pizza Hut to end my night.

Saturday brought gorgeous skies and a record crowd of over 34,000 for Pole Day. From my media experiences, Pole Day is the most exciting part of the weekend. The prelim series run their major races (The MX-5 race was fantastic, and I'm not just saying that because I own a Miata), and teams scramble to give their driver the fastest single lap they can. It's a whirlwind of activity that takes immense focus to cover, but I was able to do have some peace and quiet, and to do some Blair Witch style 'splorin' in the woods, where I saw the best of Barber's quirks on display.

Qualifying came, and lo and behold, Josef Newgarden won the P1 Award. Josef won both races I covered last year, and now the defending Champ was well on his way to making it 3 for 3. Huh.

Colby Redmond from IndyCar helped me navigate the post qualifying media frenzy and trophy presentation, but she couldn't stop the #1 team from nearly running me over with their car on their way back to the paddock. Colby is great, though. Very kind and obviously loves to help those in need of it like me.

Chris and some of his colleagues invited me out to Rusty's BBQ in Leeds. I don't play around when it comes to BBQ and I was skeptical, but AJ Foyt was eating there when I pulled up, and if it's good enough for AJ then it must be good Q. Sho 'nuf it was probably the best BBQ that isn't from Bailey's in Ringgold, GA. Check it out if you're ever in the area.

Sunday came and the weather was flat out gross. Spittling rain when I woke up (don't you love that word? Spittle?), Pouring rain as the morning progressed, it never got any better. I lost sleep the night before, so I was exhausted. Most of my morning was spent watching Channing Tatum's police escort prepare to bring him into the press trailer as I was afraid of letting rain damage my camera. Riveting, right?

The rain let up, so I took a nap in the woods during Indy Lights. Then came time for the race, and man, was it soupy.
Normally I watch the start of an IndyCar race from the vantage point of a fan before going back to the media center to wait to shoot victory lane. But on this day I took refuge in the media center from the storm. It was a downpour, a deluge, easily the nastiest raceday weather I've ever experienced.

Unsurprisingly, the GP of Alabama was washed out until Monday, and THAT's when the real fun began. Everyone began to scramble to book a hotel for the night, and thankfully my fingers were fast enough to land a night at the nearby Hilton Garden Inn.
I was skeptical about my hotel choice after staying at the Sonesta the 3 nights prior, but when I walked in and saw the entire on air staff for NBC in the lobby (looking quite pissed as if there was a problem getting them another night), I knew I made the right choice.
After some succulent Chinese takeout, and $117 I hadn't planned to spend, rest for the busy Monday lay ahead.

Monday was stressful. I mean, stressful. It was cold and wet to start, and I was desperate for my car to start without flooding the hell outta the thing. Buuut she started right up, and I made the short drive to Barber. To enter the course with virtually no staff on hand was downright eerie. It felt lifeless, yet vibrant at the same time. Imagine The Wizard Of Oz, unrestored, on early era VHS, with all the colors muted and the sound subdued. That's what it felt like.
I was pointed to Lot C by a staff member, despite me showing him the email confirming media being allowed to park in the paddock. (Seriously, this HAS to improve next year. Knowing the rules and being debated on it only wastes everyone's time.)
So I parked in the swamp, walked my equipment to the media center, aaaaaaand then found out I could, in fact, bring my car to the paddock. Lovely.

After sorting that out, it was time to resume the race. I watched the first 30 laps or so of the resumption from the Alabama Rollercoaster section of the course.
After a bit more exploring, I decided to setup in victory lane, where things got a little tense with one of the photographers.
"Hey, who are you? You need a vest."
"I was told I didn't need one."
"Yeah right! By who? Who are you?"
I was in a panic, feeling like a child suspected of wrongdoing by a teacher that has never met you.
"P...PatCaporaliFromIndyCar!" I blurted, sounding like one word. Thankfully, that one word was enough.
"Good answer," he said, and backed away.

Rain was pouring by this point, and I faced a delimma: Pack up and go home with no footage of victory lane, OR shoot until the camera I can't afford to replace shorts out. After failing in every way possible to shield my camera from the pourage (is that a real word? Because I like it.), I decided to risk it and shoot.
I didn't get *as* good of shots as last year, but the shots were sufficient.
Josef Newgarden took home the checkers, sweeping all 3 races I've been media at in the process. Either I'm some kinda good luck charm, or he's just that damn good. Probably the latter.

After the brief press conference, business was ready to wrap up, and my boring life as a hack comedian/hotel night auditor was ready to resume.
As I sat in the media center, soaking in the final sights and sounds, I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed in how my weekend had gone.
I hadn't really made an impact, hadn't made as much of a networking opportunity as I had the year before, nor at Mid-Ohio.
It all just felt flat.

I made my rounds, gave my goodbye hugs,  hopped in the Miata, and drove back to Whataburger. While enjoying my meal, I got a message from Pat. It was a personal message, nothing to do with racing or work. It was a friend reaching out to a friend out of concern and encouragement. I began to think about what she said, how I'm considered part of the community, how "my time is coming." I began to think about how Robin implied I'm good enough for better work, how Chris was putting me over to everyone in sight, not only professionally but personally.
It hit me then as hard as it does while writing this: As much as I wanted the weekend to be about inching toward professional success, the powers that be had different intentions.
My soul has needed healing in the last year or more, and above all else, what I truly needed was a uniquely human experience; to be around positive people who not only want to see me succeed, but don't mind giving me a push along the way.

It's been almost 3 weeks since the race weekend, and I've only barely looked at what I shot. But it wasn't about that. I'll make something of the video soon, I'm not worried. It was about needing to be where I belong. To feel a sense of community I haven't felt since I worked in pro wrestling.

As I pulled out of Whataburger's downhill slope of a parking lot, the song of the weekend came up in my driving playlist.
"What would ya doooooo if I sang, outta tuuuune?," the voice of Joe Cocker belted over my overmodulated speakers.

As I turned onto I59 towards Chattanooga, I realized the story of the weekend matched the song's title. I Got By With A Little Help From My Friends.
And my, how special that was.

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