From the start, there were the obvious concerns. Crashes, injuries, cars flipping over, broken bones. “You know,” Dustin McCrea said. “Parents being parents.”
True, what Bethel High started three years ago was unique. So unique that as far as Bethel principal John Bailey knows, no other high school in the country is doing it.
But Saturday night at Richmond Coliseum, the school’s six-member team will finish its third season on the Arena Racing USA circuit. And, if all goes as planned, the Bruins will crack the top 10 in the final standings for the second consecutive year.
Things have come a long way since that first flyer went up in Bethel’s hallways back in 2009.
“I was really surprised to hear nobody else has a team,” driver Austin Jefferson said. “We’re so lucky how in an area not known much for racing, we end up with a team at our school.”
Jefferson, whose father, Clyde, used to race at Langley, is in his first year behind the wheel. McCrea, who also grew up around it, is the crew chief. Tymere Raynor is the director of marketing. They are the three seniors on the team.
The rest of the crew is made up of sophomores Ryan Morris and Zach Brickhouse and freshman E.J. MacDonald.
Shawn Balluzzo, who has won five of the last six Langley Modified Division titles, serves as the team’s coach. “Or director of competition,” he said, keeping it in racing terms. Balluzzo has been with the team from the start.
“It’s been really cool mentoring and helping the kids along,” Balluzzo said. “It’s a lot of work, though. There’s no break from racing. As soon as Langley stops, arena picks up.”
McCrea said Balluzzo’s help has been invaluable.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do anything without him,” McCrea said. “He came in from the beginning and showed us how to work on the car. He’s the reason I know so much about it, though I don’t know half of what he knows.”
Bailey’s job is to drive the hauler up I-64 to Richmond and back.
Though the minimum age for an arena racer is 14, the average age is 20. The drivers wear helmets and full fireproof uniforms and are strapped in with a five-point harness. The cars are 3 1/2 feet in height but can accommodate a driver who stands 6 feet tall.
As for safety concerns, Bailey said the worst he’s seen is a sprained wrist.
“The cars get to about 50 miles per hour on the straightaway,” Bailey said. “They can flip over and they do ram each other. It’s a tight track. But I’ve never seen a major injury since I’ve been doing it.”
After the team finished 10th in the standings last year, it had to break in a new driver this season. And though Jefferson grew up with racing in his blood, he was essentially a novice behind the wheel.
In his first race, starting from the back, Jefferson climbed a spot to finish sixth in the 50-lap B Main. A week later, he took the lead on the 41st lap and held on to give the No. 68 car its first win.
“I had confidence before the season was over we’d at least win one race,” Jefferson said. “I wasn’t expecting it to happen in the second race. That was really exciting.”
Anyone who knows anything about racing knows the importance of sponsors, and Raynor’s job is lining them up. His big score was getting a $5,000 sponsorship from the Chick-fil-A on Mercury Boulevard.
“Primarily, I get sponsors,” said Raynor, who has been accepted to the NASCAR Institute in Mooresville, N.C. “I’ll get dirty and help out if something goes wrong, like anybody else on the team. But my primary job is to make sure everyone is dressed right and looks nice.”
And for the whole operation, it’s been a fun experience.
“Even when we do have a bad day, at the end of the day, we still enjoy what we’re doing,” Morris said. “Whether we’re doing it good or bad, it’s still pretty cool to be doing it.”
Bethel's arena racing team hopes to crack top 10 again
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