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Thursday, May 23
The Indiana Daily Student

Pressure valve

Brady Short keeps a spotless car and an untarnished reputation. Tonight, he's looking for a clean win.

Brady Short, a pair of square-rimmed sunglasses covering his eyes, is watching over a three-man pit crew scrubbing his fire-engine-red No. 36 racecar for the first of several times one Friday evening in September. It’s still warm under the dwindling afternoon sunlight at the Bloomington Speedway. The pits are filling fast. Brady’s wife, Ashley, is chatting with Brady’s family. Brady’s father, Don, isn’t throwing dirt clods yet. He is just strolling around the pits, shaking hands with all who have come to see his son.

Brady Short is the hottest racer in his modified sprint racing division as the season nears its end. He’s already won eight races these past few months, more than at any other point in his career. What began in earnest at age 15 has morphed into a full-time, albeit modest-paying, job for the now 20-something. It’s been a successful season so far, but the chances for big paydays are dwindling as the season nears its end. Ten laps around a quarter-mile dirt track is a race he’s won countless times before. This evening, $5,000 is on the line.

When you race around a dirt track, the task of keeping a car clean is much like keeping a fish dry. Brady stands watching his crew, not saying much. The principle scrubber is a middle-aged man who’s missing most of his teeth. He’s on his knees dusting the exhaust pipe. The car itself appears something like an oversized go-kart, with huge back tires that cause the whole vehicle to slant. Don Short’s company, Indiana Stone Works, is the featured sponsor on the side of Brady’s car. Don bought the cars – Brady also has a backup racer at home, just in case – for his son a few years ago for about $40,000.

Sam Probasco has known Brady since the pair went to Bedford High School together a few years ago. He leads the crew, and only superficially wipes down the red racer’s hood. Like Brady, Sam is sinewy. He doesn’t have down the Top Gun-strut, which seems to run rampant among racers in fire-retardant suits. Rather, he’s quicker than Brady to show emotion. He clasps his hands behind his head when Brady races poorly. He spits tobacco more fervently as frustration grows throughout the evening.

Brady, on the other hand, says little either way. If he loses a race, Brady will return just the same to face his family. He would slip off his racing helmet and walk away to be by himself, of course disappointed he wouldn’t leave the track a few thousand dollars richer.

But as this night starts out, everything here is casual. No cars have flipped end-over-end yet. No one is in the hospital. Brady knows most of the racers from years spent in the local circuits. They shake hands and chat while the sun sets. Each appears the center of his own world. Brady’s good friend, Jeff Bland Jr., is his biggest, and often only, rival.

Autumn nights like these are to racers what smooth seas are to sailors and Saturday afternoons are to football players. Amid the diesel fumes and the baritone engine roar, it’s another day at the office for Brady, for Sam, and for the missing-toothed man who’s now inspecting the inside of a wheel well.

***

Some racers find themselves drawn to the need-for-speed adrenaline rush. Others just want the fire-retardant jumpsuit, which they can wear with aviator sunglasses. For Brady, blood seems to be mixed with high-octane gasoline. Brady’s father, Don, raced for years when Brady was a kid. It was nothing serious, just something to do on weekend nights. Brady bounced around in the pits as Don raced. More than a decade later, it’s Brady’s turn. The man in the driver’s seat has changed, but for the Short family, racing remains a close-knit affair.

When Brady was a kid, his favorite racer was Dale Earnhardt Sr. Then the legend died after a crash at Daytona in 2001. For Brady, like so many racing fans, the rise of Earnhardt’s son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., as a top-notch racer, helped fill the void. Brady could relate to the young driver, who, despite expectations, had a reputation for staying out at bars and clubs all night.

“You know, I like to go out and party sometimes, too,” Brady says. He knows he’s a fan favorite for local racegoers, down home in the Bible Belt. Whenever he’s given this-or-that award or honor, he’ll thank his parents, he’ll thank God, he’ll thank the fans who turned out. This night, in a pre-race ceremony, he’s honored for winning a series of races over the past few months. Brady takes the microphone. The fans are watching. He speaks politely, parents by his side. He thanks the fans who turned out. He says there’s no way he could do it without them.

Just as families did then, today they hang in the pits on Friday or Saturday night, as Dad tinkers with a torque wrench or takes a rag to the hood of the racecar or just leans back with arms folded against the all-too-familiar red tool chest. Wives, girlfriends, cousins – anybody, really – chat nearby. It’s a casual scene as the night begins.  No doubt as races progress tension will build with money on the line.

Brady’s father is always there as Brady races. Don stands by himself in the pits on top of the family’s semi-truck trailer. His eyes fix on the dirt track many weekends as Brady’s No. 36 car zips, zoom, zags around the track. Thirty-six was once Don’s racing number, too. A desire to win still fills his eyes.

***

The man with the missing teeth has finished dusting the tailpipe. Ashley and Don stand near the car as Brady straps himself in and adjusts his helmet. Sam, Brady’s longtime friend who now heads the pit crew, is around, too. Sam runs maintenance on the car, and his heart is invested in his best friend’s racing. Clasping his mouth with two hands and squatting like a catcher are among the only clues when Sam is upset.

Brady races a few warm-up laps. He comes back, whispers something to his dad, and disappears for a bit inside the trailer. The middle-aged man grabs his rag and begins to scrub a fresh coat of dirt off the car. This time, Sam steps in to help, too. It’s an odd obsession that Don has, Brady would later explain: Everything has to be spotless. That’s no easy task for a dirt track. Brady’s couple of warm-up laps result in a half-hour of work for the man with the missing teeth.

“He’s all over them!” Don says of Brady after his son finishes warming up for qualifications over the ear-pinch of revving engines across the pits.

If anyone is more anxious than Brady this night, it’s probably his wife, Ashley. She and Brady have been married for a year or so. The couple spent a long weekend recently in Nashville, Tenn., to celebrate their anniversary. They used some of Brady’s racing winnings to finance a small house near his parents in Bedford. On this night as Brady prepared to race, however, the couple broke tradition. At Brady’s encouragement, Ashley drew the number, which determined Brady’s starting spot in qualifications. It was a 28. By chance, that stuck Brady nearly last in his qualification heat.

Like Don, she would watch from atop the semi trailer as Brady struggled to qualify for the championship.

It’s not easy being married to a guy who wears racing suits and T-shirts that bear his name but whose salary, in quite literal terms, is based on performance. Being married to Brady is like being married to a gambler, an athlete, and an auto mechanic. There’s no doubt she loves him. Brady will spend many weekdays working in the garage with Sam. On race days, local fans wear shirts with his face emblazoned on the front and call out for autographs. Then, in part, luck of the draw determines whether race day will be payday. Ashley wants kids someday. Not right now, though. There’s just not enough money. Brady can’t be a racecar driver forever. One day, he’ll have to grow up.

“I think he knows that,” Ashley says. She just doesn’t know when that day will come.

***

Brady’s a bit hesitant to admit it, but he’s sure he’s the best racer on the track most days. Don makes the claim first. When posed with the question, Brady backs off a bit, trying to find the words to fit the God-thanking, parents-loving, altogether humble image he’s worked hard to maintain. Then he concedes: He knows he is the best.

It’s going to be a tough race tonight though, he repeats several times throughout the night. The track isn’t groomed properly, he says. It’s a slow course tonight. A low starting spot won’t help him either, he says.

Brady finishes getting ready, Sam fiddles with a tire, and the one-toothed man again cleans the exhaust pipe. Ashley is around, but doesn’t say much.

With a rev of his engine and a final nod to his family, Brady backs the No. 36 car away from the pits and heads for the starting line.

Don sits alone on top of the trailer, nearest to the track. His head ping-pongs like a typewriter – back and forth, side to side as the cars from another heat race past. To not pay attention is to risk missing the action. Just a 10-lap race on a quarter-mile track awaits Brady as he looks to qualify for the main event and a shot at the $5,000 prize.

With the green flag for the second heat comes a swell of engines, screeching tires, and a cloud of dust left in the car’s wake. Brady’s in the back, fighting for space, looking for a hole to make his move. Lap one, two, three, four. The track is tight and no one is passing yet. Five, six, seven, eight. Don’s head is still bouncing like a rubber band as the No. 36 car zips past a few more times.

The race finished nearly as quickly as it had started. Brady was left in eighth. He’d have another chance to qualify for the main even later, but he’d fail to make the cut then once again. Don, mumbling beneath his breath, climbs down the ladder from the trailer’s room to meet Brady as he returns to the pit.

“He’s gonna be pissed,” Ashley says of Brady to Sam. Sam is squatting like a catcher. Two hands are covering his face.

Don is quiet when Brady returns. Later they would complain how the track was too narrow and the race too short. It never allowed a racer like Brady to show off his speed. For now, there’s only disappointment. Brady unstraps his helmet, hoists himself from the car and disappears for a moment inside the trailer. Ashley watches him from the top of the trailer. She gives Brady space when he needs it. Ten laps ago, even the car’s exhaust pipe was clean. Don grabs a dirt clod from the hood and heaves it to the ground.

There would be other races. No one doubted that. But on this night, as Ashley watches and Don sulks and Sam crouches and Brady says little, a sense of wasted time falls over Team Short from Bedford.

In the pits, mud cakes the No. 36 car. The man with the missing teeth is scrubbing once again.

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