|Photo Credit: Keenan Wright|
Rich is a second generation Midget driver. In 1968, his father Bob won the last Midget race ever run at Soldiers Field. Rich remembered that race and recounted memories of watching his father drive it in shirtsleeves, a helmet and no roll cage. His father owned one of the first midgets with a roll cage in 1970. It was the beginning of an era of development for midget racing that also saw them go to 13-inch front wheels. Rich was there to see it all and learn what made the finicky, twitchy little cars go fast and drive smooth.
Today, Midget racers are taking a look at their cars yet again and many are calling for a removal of the roll cage. They want to move to a roll bar instead citing more injuries after the cage than before in the series.
In 1979, Rich took over the driving duties from his father. He bought his own car and his father made him build as well as work on it himself. His father would check his work but Rich learned to build speed from the ground up something many of his younger competitors can’t say or do.
“My dad showed me the right way how to do it and how to work it out myself. I look at these young guys now and they are just all talk and get in the car and go fast. They have a crew chief making a good amount of money to set the car up for them. And they seem to struggle and don't get any further because they don't know the whole aspect of it and learning it doing it hands on. Like in my generation, I had to learn it hands on. We weren't paying crew chiefs. We towed the car on an open trailer and we had to do it all ourselves. Now you have young kids with big sponsors and they pay guys to put tires on, pay engine builders, and my theory was if I couldn't do it myself I didn't do it," said Rich.
Those skills have been an advantage and a disadvantage admits the 53-year-old Corson. “Sometimes I get bogged down in the little details. I can be too much of a perfectionist. It's nice to do it. But sometimes I get carried away with it. I guess it's just the way I was brought up, small details make things that don't break or fall off. I have never had anything like that on my race cars.”
Rich doesn’t view the younger, better financed and bigger team youngsters as intimidating. Instead, he welcomes the challenge they bring to him as a driver. “I always figured that was the best challenge in life. Knowing you can go, take something out of a little garage and beat the big teams. Because to me, that meant more to me than anything else in the world. Because it's me myself doing it and maybe my brother in law or my dad helping me at the time, I could run second, third, fourth didn’t even have to win just knowing that we were able to compete at their level, that was a win-win deal to me. Just knowing we made the feature and run maybe in the top five; a lot of people might not have thought that was very good, but when you do it on your own and don’t have the money that a lot of these other people have then it was a win a win situation. It felt good to know in myself that I could do it myself and didn’t need anybody to help me do it.”
The family has 51 years of Midget racing experience, 34 of those belonging to Rich. In that length of time there have been many wins, but none compare to the race he had with David Thompson. “I don’t know what year it was, but me and David Thompson, me and him went in there side by side for the feature, I mean actually side by side for 25 laps till I finally beat him at the checkered flag. It was the most awesomest thing you could ever possibly do. It was probably the best race I ever had. He’d pass me half way down the straight away and I’d pass him back in one and two and he’d pass me back through three and four and we actually did that for 25 straight laps under green. At the end he pulled up next to me and we shook hands and the people in the grand stands gave us a standing ovation for it. It’s a good highlight,” Rich recalled proudly.
|Photo Credit: Kevin Lillard|
No matter the racer or his level of competition there is always that one race that he says if I could go back and do it again - Rich Corson is no different. His came at the night in 1986 before the 500. “I’d say it was about 1986 and I ran a night before the 500 and there were like 60 some cars and we qualified ninth and for the feature I second guessed myself, we got driver of the month down there that year, so I second guessed myself all through that race so if I could go back, and take the things back that I second guessed myself at and race against the big teams I’d love to redo it over. I just never had the opportunity or chance to do it over again.”
Did he think it would change the outcome? “I went from third to first with about four laps to go, and they put me in a couple of bad spots and I didn’t like the spots I was in I thought I was gonna wreck. If I could take the chance back again, I think I would want it or wreck it instead of finishing third or fourth like I did, I mean it was great doing that well, but if I had a chance to do it again I think I would rather wreck it trying to win it then settle for third or fourth. But to me, at that time I had only been racing about 6 years at that time, and I figured a top five in the night before the 500 was a big accomplishment.“ Indeed it is a huge accomplishment to get a top five at the Night Before the 500 which is one of the toughest races still today and has seen winners like Foyt, Stewart, and Jones to name just a few.
Rich Corson’s favorite track is Shady Bowl Speedway in De Graff, Ohio. This track is the world’s fastest 3/10-mile asphalt speedway. It has played host to many big name drivers including Dale Earnhardt Jr. “I love Shady Bowl in De Graffe Ohio. I mean I broke the track record there I started last so many times (Midget fields invert fastest to the rear). It’s a place I’ve grown accustom to. I wish we could go back there and race again. And I like Orland Speedway in Florida, we were pretty successful the few times we raced there and I don’t know it’s kind of like a De Graff. That size of track for some reason always kind of suited my driving style where you had to be smooth and carry speed through the corners and those two places you really have to carry momentum through the corners and be aggressive getting into the corners it fit my driving style," stated Rich.
So, how does a driver go from a 3/10-mile asphalt track to Fort Wayne Indiana’s Rumble? How different are the tracks? According to Rich Corson, the tracks are like night and day. “I think the biggest difference is at a place like Shady Bowl you really relax and get a smooth rhythm there and can really focus on your line, you are getting around there about 15-16 seconds. Whereas Fort Wayne you’re doing 7-8 second laps to where you’re mentally thinking so much all the time there is just so much traffic it’s hard to get in a good rhythm to where every lap you can do it the same. At a place like Shady Bowl you can get in a good rhythm and pass cars and know what’s going on cause you have so much room to work with where with Fort Wayne, you can get in a rhythm like when I lead the one feature the whole thing and the second one lapped up to second place when you’re leading you can get a good rhythm but when you’re back in traffic you never do find a good rhythm because you in so much traffic and it’s just too small. It’s a lot of fun but it’s more demanding mentally wise than it is physically wise at Fort Wayne versus like a Shady Bowl where to me it’s a little more physical.”
Everyone has a dream, racers are no different. But what would a driver like Rich, who has won in Sprint cars 10 times, Midgets 34 times, Indoors as the Fort Wayne Rumble Champion as well as six feature events as well as Outdoor asphalt tracks dream of driving? Hold on to your seat because you might be surprised. “I like racing the midget but I’d like to go back to racing dirt. I ran it a few times, like maybe 10 years, and I found myself actually running pretty good with some of the bigger teams on some of the local tracks here. If I had to do things over, I’d like to race the midget even now as we speak. I’d love to go race the Chili Bowl try it and see if I could be competitive. I know I’m 53 years old but I have a big heart and I’m still a young kid that still wants to prove myself I guess.“ When it was pointed out that Sammy Swindell (56) is actually a couple of years older than Rich, he laughed and said, “I know and he still gets the job done very well at the Chili Bowl. People say it’s a young kids sport but to me it’s only as young as it makes you feel. To me, do I feel like I’m 53 years old? No! I am still a young kid at heart I wanna show that if your hearts in it and your desire’s in it, you can still be competitive at what you love to do."
What keeps Rich Corson where he is? He says, "It’s an affair of the heart. I ran a sprint car, I really enjoyed doing it. We ran in the asphalt series at Grundy County it was fun. But it was something that my Dad never did and when I started doing it I was a little too old to jump back and get in to doing something like that. It was just never cost efficient for me it would be like me starting over. I understood it and I liked it very well but my heart was always in midget racing and that’s kind of where I always left it in. I mean my Dad started off racing stock cars and I always had a dream to go there but maybe I started off racing, I started when I was 21 years old, maybe I started off too late. After 10 years of doing it, yeah you’d like to go racing sprint cars or stock cars when you are 30 years old, you can’t get rid of old habits I guess you could say.”
Nothing is all roses. There is good and bad in everything, even racing. The highs and lows can be a roller coaster ride for the driver and their family but the best things in life always have two sides.
“The best part is friends. I’ve been hurt several times and it’s all a family. My family is so close to me and the support you get from people that you don’t even know or people that step up. It’s hard to replace a family that goes out of the way help you any time you need it you can be out of state or whatever and it always seems that people step up to help you when you need help. My family itself, has always been there if at any time I’ve needed something; they've given up a lot for me sometimes just to afford a lot of times to do what I do. I don’t know there’s a lot of commitment to it and you can’t take away from that."
"The worst part of it is financial. It’s hard to go against money. We can talk for hours about how nice it is to beat the bigger teams and this and that but it still all comes down to the money. Without money and sponsorship you can go out and instead of racing 20 times a year being competitive 20 times you cut your schedule down 10 times and you cut your money that you can spend instead of spending all your money, in 20 shows a little here a little there, you spend all your money racing 10 shows trying to be competitive for at least 10 and you miss the other 10.”
What kind of sponsorship do small race teams who run part time need to be successful and comfortable? It might surprise you how very expensive the racing game is. Rich explained what an adequate sponsorship would require. “If you are talking 20 races, I figured it out on paper, to do it the right way if you are counting your engine wear, your tire bill, pit passes and not going within 3 hours of the house; it costs between $1500 and $2000 by the time you figure your engine rebuild at the end of the year. So say go with the low side $2000 a race is what it would cost you. You are doing 20 races at year you gotta get at least $40,000 to cover your expenses. That’s not counting if you wreck, crash or anything else that comes in between that. To me in order to do it comfortably you got get $1500 dollars a night to where you can put three tires on your car a night which anymore is right about 700 dollars a night. Pit passes and fuel in there it costs right about $1500. At the end of the year your motor rebuild costs $6000 so you break that $6000 down. $2000 a night and tracks like Grundy pay 1000 dollars to win so it’s not really a money making venture that is why you need a sponsor to help you. You just can’t do it out of your pocket anymore.”
Luckily, real true racers don’t race to make money. They race because they love the competition. When asked if for the most part with those kinds of costs, if small teams weren’t really racing for the trophy Rich chuckled, “Yes you hit it directly on the head there; that and just to do it. Because money wise there is nothing there for me to better myself. Am I going to move along? Or are half the guys at Grundy ever going to move along? No it’s just being a competitor and going out and trying to beat your friends on a Saturday night and when the USAC boys come in you try to beat as many of them as you can and go home with a smile and a few good laughs about it.”
In June, Rich Corson will take to the track again in his familiar blue and white No. 15. He will be running about 15 races this year, maybe with a couple races off for son R.J. to climb on board at Grundy County Speedway in Illinois. He will do it with his family at his side and with the same fire and determination he has always raced with.
Rich is an old school hero. A self made man with exceptional driving skills and a lifetime of learning what makes speed. He and racers like him are fading from the scene, they are being replaced by youngsters who have driving skills not speed building skills. Fortunately for all of us, Rich is not ready to hang up his helmet just yet. When he does he will pass it on, just as his father did to him, to his son R.J and the circle, much like a race track, will begin again.
Writer’s Note: I interviewed Rich on Feb. 6 and I received word from his daughter Nicole that he had suffered a heart attack on the Feb. 7 as of 5 p.m. He was listed in stable but critical condition in a hospital in Markham, Ill. Please keep Rich and his family in your thoughts and prayers at this very difficult and frightening time.