“Most of the time you are sideways. You are always trying to achieve traction. There are 23 other people out there. There is always bumping. You are trying not to wreck each other but you are going as fast as you can around this little bullring of a track.
“Dirt and mud on your helmet, working your way through traffic, especially if you have a bad starting position because you qualified poorly. Constantly scanning ahead – way ahead and close – trying to plan where you can make a pass.”
“There’s a lot of intense emotion but you have to keep it all in check while some guys are getting a little too excited.”
Lansing’s Tommy Collins talks the way he drives, and the man wins a lot of races.
About 60 times a year, he straps himself into the number 713 Crate Sportsman car and drives it 20 or 25 times around dirt racetracks in the northeast U.S.
“This year, we got 12 or 13 wins in New Jersey and New York State. Last year, we won the points championship at Thunder Mountain racetrack near Whitney Point. We won the series at Outlaw Speedway and we were second in the GRIT series – we gave that away a little because we were scheduled to race at another track,” Collins said. “This year though, we were more calculated. We got five championships under our belt and we still have five or more races. We will be at Outlaw this coming weekend for their season-ending race. We’ll go down the Georgetown in Delaware and that will wrap up the southern region. We’re about 28 points out there and probably won’t get the championship unless something crazy happens. We won the northern region though. We had a win in the southern series in New Jersey – it was totally unexpected.”
If you couldn’t tell by now, Collins races because he loves it. It’s in his blood.
“I got involved because my father raced when I was a kid. It’s in my DNA. Some families go boating, some go hunting – we went racing. It’s kind of a curse. A love-hate relationship. It’s addictive to some degree,” he said. “We spend lots of hours in the shops – even in the winter. A lot of time away from home – weekends at the racetracks. This year, we raced 58 times from March until now. We do it because we love it.”
Collins is passing down his passion to his kids, just like his father did for him. “Now, my oldest son, Gavin, is 17 and my youngest is going to be 12. They go to the track. Gavin competed this year in his first race in the rookie division and he won it. He loves it. I have to teach him priorities – school, college, an education first.”
While his racing has become a large part of his life, it didn’t start out that way.“I started in 2007 when two guys asked me to drive their car. It was really hit or miss, three or four races a year. It really took off in 2015 and in 2016, I started racing for J&J Racing and really hit it hard.”
Driving for an owner like J&J Racing (Jacqueline Payne and James Traphagen) is the key to making racing affordable.
All drivers run the same engine – a Chevy 350 that comes sealed in a crate and costs $7,500 to $9,500 each. The all-aluminum chassis comes from Bicknell, a shop in Canada near Niagara Falls that ships around the world. It sits on a steel frame. The front axle is a simple straight suspension but the rear axle and its quick-change gears can run $5,000.
Seats, brake lines, wiring, and instruments finish the machine. A sheet metal body makes it look something like a car, although Collins admits his car looks a little like an alien ship.
“All told? If you want to buy a car brand new? A complete car, minus the engine with wheels and tires will cost you $25,000 to $32,000. So probably over $30,000 and closer to $40,000 altogether. You can get a used car for $5,000 to $15,000.”
Not that he is spending the owners’ money unwisely.
“You got to finish the race to win. I drive to conserve the tires. If they overheat, you lose traction. We are still on our first two engines from the last two years,” he said. “Our maintenance program is great. We are constantly working on the cars, tearing them apart to catch parts before they fail. We have very few mechanical failures. Knock on wood, none this year.”
Staying safe while racing is also an expense that drivers and owners must think about.
“Once, I got hit in the head with a rock while racing. It fractured my helmet. I thought ‘geez, that was a close one.’ Safety is the priority – I have a $1,500 helmet, a neck brace, a full containment seat,” Collins said. “I am not really worried about getting hurt – I turn my head to it. I don’t get nervous – I get excited.”
A regular win pays the team between $750 and $1,000, so very few drivers make a living at it. For the past 14 years, Collins has made his at the Cayuga Operating Company’s power plant.
Weekends are about racing though.
“The pit crew is made up of very close friends and the car owners. We enjoy all the traveling, the atmosphere at the track. You meet a lot of friends there from all over the place. It’s good family entertainment,” Collins said. “I remember, as a kid, the racers who would take the time to talk to you. Let you sit in their car. So, I try to do that as much as possible. We give out our body panels free. I drove one down to Whitney Point – a dad said that I was his son’s favorite driver. A bunch of us took our cars down to his birthday party. Drivers can be pretty rough and tough and still have good hearts.”
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