Archive for the ‘Track Staff Interviews’ Category

“The Leading Ladies of Cherokee Speedway” — A Three Part Series — Chan Conrad McGinnis

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

This is the final part of a three part series on “The Leading Ladies of Cherokee Speedway.” The first interview was with Kelli Norris who is the Track Photographer, the second interview was with Sandy Ellis Cooke FlagPerson at Cherokee, and this third and final additionof the series is with Office and PR Manager Chan McGinnis. Three females in leading roles usually filled by men at “The Place Your Momma Warned You About!” .

 

Chandra Conrad McGinnis  “…..can’t race in gladiator sandals!”

 

Chandra McGinnis, better known as Chan to most folks, is 43 years old, was born in Gastonia, NC, and raised and currently resides in Ellenboro, NC. Chan is engaged to Randy Henson.  Chan has no children of her own but raised her niece Lauren, who is 21 years old and is attending Western Carolina University studying Criminal Justice with a minor in Forensic Anthropology.

 Chan is not a nickname but a short call on her full name of Chandra.  However she smiled as she tells this, “my Nana always called me ““Chandie”” which is funny now because Sandy Cooke and I are best buds and a lot of the kids around Cherokee Speedway have started referring to us as Sandy and Chandie. Also, lots of people think we are sisters and most of the time we just let them keep thinking that. LOL! People always get us mixed up too, calling me Sandy & her Chan. We just roll with it, answer them & keep going.”

 While discussing Chan’s education and work history I found her to have a wide and interesting range of experiences.  Chan is a licensed cosmetologist and has been doing hair for 21 years now. “I originally went to Limestone College in Gaffney for Elementary Art Education with a minor in Journalism, but (just between you & me) I spent too much time ““studying”” Partyology and the male species so I ended up back home at the Community College. LOL! I also work for Jeremy Clements Racing in Spartanburg SC. I’ve been with JCR since his Super Late Model days, through his ARCA era, and now into his Nationwide career. I am the team accountant, processing and paying all the race shop bills and tracking and paying all the race expenses for every race. I think I’ve been with him for about 8 years now. I am also an educator for a skin care and wax company, traveling and teaching classes and working beauty shows. In February of this year, I was also hired on by the US Postal Service, and I am a substitute rural carrier in Shelby NC. I deliver the mail on Saturdays & anytime the regular carrier is off.” She is one busy young lady, wonder if I can get a loan. LOL!

 Chan I usually ask folks about their spare time activities but I’m not sure you have any after hearing all that. “I have very little free time for sure, but when I do have it, I enjoy reading, beach trips, visiting other race tracks and working in my little ““craft”” building in the back yard making stained glass creations.”

Chan let’s talk about racing now and just how it all began for you. “My racing fixation started when I was 5 years old and my Daddy took me to Charlotte Motor Speedway. Back then you could basically get in free with promo tickets or if you couldn’t find any, the admission price was nearly nothing. I remember being the little “”tom-girl”” going with him and his buddies, watching the likes of the Allison’s, Baker, Yarborough, Petty and Pearson and my Daddy pulled for both of those two. For some reason I latched onto Darrell Waltrip, LOL go figure, I picked the loud mouth. When Awesome Bill Elliott came on the scene I made the switch and was a die-hard fan until his retirement from full time racing. I was totally hooked on NASCAR until one Saturday night round 1991. Me & my husband at the time went out to eat and then went to Harris Speedway to see our neighbor Barry Huntley race in the Baby Bomber’s. After that night I could really care less about asphalt at all! I loved the smell, the sounds, and the excitement! Ronnie Buff really knew how to pump that little bullring up, and you left seeing some good racing and some good fighting as well. LOL! We decided that this would be our new Saturday night thing! They had a women’s division that ran weekly and every week and I would tell Curtis, “”I could do that.”” It looked like it was so much fun and I just kept saying how much I wanted a car.  Of course he’d grunt and mumble and nothing happened. Well, one Saturday night Barry came up to the stands complaining about one of the cars in his division and said “”I’d have a good shot at the win if he didn’t make it to the main.”” Ever observant me pointed out that particular car also ran in the women’s division and if he’d get Skip the car owner to let me race, I could assure him he’d have nothing to worry about come main event time. Skip, reluctantly agreed. Now if you knew me back then, I was the true picture of a hairdresser, full make-up, not a hair outta place, big earrings, and dressed just so! I jerked them earrings out, borrowed Dennis Trulucks driving jacket, and Barry’s wife’s sneakers (can’t race in gladiator sandals!) I started in the rear, took a few laps getting used to the car and off I went. I finished like 5th or so, and the car Barry was worried about didn’t make it to the main event, just as I had promised. Unfortunately, neither did he because I didn’t know how to “”wreck”” somebody without damaging the car I was in. Skip? Wellllllll,l he wasn’t too happy about the whole outcome. LOL Needless to say, within a few weeks I had a car of my own, a little yellow Pinto number 4. When we bought it, it had Harris Septic Tank Service “”We take S### off anybody”” on the right rear quarter and Cliffside Barber Shop on the left. My brother thought it funny to take the business names off but failed to remove the little slogan! Didn’t take me long to figure out that Easy-off was good for more than just cleaning the oven LOL! I won my third race out with Lennie Buff flagging. And I guess you know the story from here. Oh yeah, my little moniker on the back of the car, you know, the one everybody got a kick out of and also followed me thru my whole racing career, well, that was Daddy’s idea, kind of fitting since he had introduced his little “”tom-girl”” to the sport many years earlier!” 

 Chan, how many years did you compete and how many wins did you have? “I had around 68 career feature wins over 13 years of competition. Was the original “Lady Driver” out of Ellenboro, so named by Walter Faulkner. Now, Brayden Pruitt carries the title. Her Daddy told me that when she moved out of go karts and into cars, she wanted to adopt the saying off the back of my car. But he thought she was a little young at the time for that. Up until Brayden, I was the winingest female in 4 cylinders around the area. Now, she’s breaking all my records, which I actually get a kick out of. She is a really smart, well rounded girl with a good head on her shoulders and has a plan for her future not based totally on racing. You should speak with her sometime.” I will, I have been wanting to interview Brayden all season but have yet to catch up with her. Why don’t you help make that happen? “OK, I’ll do that!”

Chan, with all of that and 13 years of competition, surely you have some exciting memories to tell us about.  “I have quite a few, too many to name. Some good, some bad, but aren’t all memories? I won the first time I ever went to Metrolina Speedway, I loved that track. I’ve seen lots of kids grow up and they are now young adults, some with kids of their own. I raced at Harris, Thunder Valley, Cherokee, Green Hill, Riverside, Metrolina, Carolina, and the Talladega Short Track. Guess the funniest thing was going to a new track and watching the guys adjust to racing a girl.”

 Ok, so how about the Office Manger\PR position at Cherokee, how did that come about? “Sandy Cooke and I together were the half and half girls at Cherokee for 2 seasons. She was the half and half girl around different tracks in the area for years. We also free lanced and worked Series and Memorial races at other tracks in the area, and had a ball doing that. I also filled in on scoring for a while when Danny Estep had health problems. At the end of the 08 season, we approached Ronnie, Lennie and Gail Buff about letting us fix up and open the concession stand in turn 4. Our plan was to have it as a concession/souvenir stand. We got the OK and worked on it in the off season. Right before the start of the 08 season, the Office/PR Job came open. Lennie asked me to take the job and after much thought I decided to run with it. Sandy kept the concession stand and I transferred to the office. My duties are: Driver sign in and registration and I work up the heat race line-ups and running orders. I am the legs for the track staff when they have a problem or need, I’m available to the race director to double check the rule book on calls, I over see Kids Meeting and any other special activities for the track. I also oversee half and half girls, hospitality and fan relations, driver relations, keep track of weekly finishes and point totals. In addition, I get payout ready and distribute it to the drivers. During the week I post finishes and information on forums and Facebook, and I am the contact person with Fastrak on CLM, sending them the official finishes for their point totals with that Series. I’m also the secretary for the Hall of Fame committee. I guess I am Lennie’s right hand, and he regularly bounces ideas off of me and calls on me for things he needs done.” OMG, how can you possibly keep up with all of that and the many different jobs you have? “I keep a little notebook that the staff refers to as “the bible” and I keep notes on important issues that are discussed or decided on. LOL I was looking through it the other day and I still have notes from 09 season in it. One of the biggest compliments I’ve gotten was from Mike Duvall. He attended a special meeting with one of the divisions, and he said he watched me writing in my notebook and at the end of the meeting; I read back what had been discussed and decided on the rule in question and was amazed it was word for word. He asked why I did that, I told him ““so at a later date there would be no question on what was discussed and decided.”” He was very impressed, said he even went home and told his wife Pam about it.”

 WOW, that is a ton of things to do and keep up with each week. I don’t even know how you show up at the right place at the right time myself. I have been around this sport myself for over 50 years and had no idea how much work went into putting on a weekly show and running a race track until I started this Blog this year. Tell me about the transition and maybe the first night in this new position. “I had one weekly race to get my office and organization in order. The very next week we hosted the 2009 March Madness with the SAS East Series. Talk about nervous, it’s the biggest race of the season and my practice run at the same time! Lennie held my hand as much as he could and East Director at the time, Kelley Carlton was very understanding and helpful as well.  The first race I scored the season before was a SAS East race also and Kelley helped me a lot on that too. Everything went well, and all problems were handled quickly and smoothly, and at the end of the night the event was declared successful and I slept like a rock that night!!!!

 Chan, you listed one of your duties as driver relations. Can you give some insight as to how you handle situations or problems that the drivers approach you with? “Well I’ve been on that side of the fence before and I know racers and their mindset. I mean really, you’ve got to have a few screws loose to begin with!!! LOL!! But being a former racer helps me deal with them a lot better than someone who has never driven. And they also feel like I can relate and see their side of the story. I get a lot of “Chan, you remember, you know how it is!!” Yep I’ve been there, done that!! I listen and let them vent, then I try to give them an explanation, straddling the fence on the competition side and the track management side. I’ll pull out the rule book and give them specific rule number’s to refer to on certain things. I’ll validate their point but also present a valid point from the tracks perspective. I try to be helpful and compassionate at the same time, but bottom line is I have to back up the call my staff has made. We are a team also, and we have a pact that we all stand behind each other and the calls that are made….until the end of the night, and then we’ll have a pow-wow and discuss the issue. Right is right…wrong, well we’ll talk about it and learn from it. To maintain our integrity as a team, we have to have consistency on every level. Back to the drivers, I’m really pretty mellow when dealing with the drivers, car owners or crew… I’ll let ’em yell & cuss and snort as long as they want, until they actually cuss or offend ME (i.e. – the “B” word)! Then the halo disappears & the horns come out! Loud & pissed doesn’t look good on me, and it’s actually only came to that point a couple times. Usually by that time Lennie has been alerted and shows up on the scene, and then it’s really not a good day!!!! They think they’re going to get a different response from him, but are really surprised when his response is the same as mine…plus some!”

 Chan you mentioned that the drivers come to you as a former driver expecting the compassion and understanding of their side. Just how has being on the management side changed you or, maybe a better question is what do you see differently now than what you did as just a driver?  “Now that I’m on the track management side of the fence, I see a lot of things differently. I now am fully aware of the costs involved in operating the track. I know this is a sport that we all dearly love and enjoy, but it is also a business for the owners. To keep a business running, it has to have an income after expenses. There are a lot of costs that I, as a racer, had never stopped to think about. Before the gates are ever opened on race night, you have a major expense in track prep. Fuel, fluids, oils, tires & equipment maintenance really add up the cost factor to a track. If it’s a rain out before the gates are opened or early in the event, that cost has to be eaten, because the prep work won’t last until the next week. The cost for insurance alone every time the gates are opened is $800.00. Electricity bill, water bill, staff pay, “mortgage” payment or whatever it is called for a business. Just office supplies alone add up: paper, ink cartridges for printers, batteries, pens, paperclips, everything a functioning office needs supply wise. Payout is a huge expense, roughly a little over $12,000.00 for all 8 divisions we run. That’s only counting 20 finishing positions in each division. Some nights you have less than 20 cars running a division, some nights you have more than 20. Business wise, you have to have the total figure in your mind. Then you throw a SLM Series race into the mix, and payout soars thru the roof!!!! Plus, figure in the sanctioning fee to the Series! I know peeps complain about the higher admission costs on big race nights, Heck, I used too also. But that payout has to come from somewhere, and if you want to see the “”Big Boys,”” they come with a price! Have you ever stopped to think about the expense for toilet paper to service the butts of let’s say, 800-1000 people a night?” LOL! No Chan, I can honestly say that I haven’t gone three. LOL “Little things like that never really come to mind but they add up to be a big expense throughout a season of the sport we love & enjoy! I also see the “politics” of racing now. I won’t get into that much, but let’s just say people will cry, whine, beg and try to ““buy”” their way or their view, to have success on the track. Does that make sense? I can’t think of any other way to put it! Terry Harris has told me over and over, “”the racer is their own worst enemy and will out price their racing and their division, wanting the next best thing to go faster and come out on top, when really they haven’t put the time and effort into the basics of handling, correct car prep and maintenance. And if you let them go wild, and don’t keep them and the rules under control, they will ruin themselves and their division, and payout can never be enough to make up the difference.”” This is evident to me in a couple divisions that are suffering today!” Amen Sister, I could not agree more!

 From time to time when Cherokee isn’t running I have seen you at various other tracks. How and why? You have so many different jobs and so much going on; one would think that you would just love a Saturday night away from all this. “Keith, I just love racing! Yeah, if we have a night off and free, you’ll probably see me and Sandy wandering around at other local tracks spectating. We don’t get into the club scene, fishing, hunting or really anything else for that matter. She does loves to shop…I don’t’! We don’t actually get to watch races while we’re working. She’s in the flag stand and ““sees”” the races but is overseeing all cars on the track at once. I am in the office or running errands around the facility, and don’t actually get to watch the races. When I get up to the office after drivers meeting, and I get everything in order for the tower and tie up loose ends, I sometimes get to watch a little of the heat races, but very little. When we go to other tracks, we actually get to watch and enjoy racing, and spend time visiting with competitors and staff at these tracks. I see things that go on at other tracks, and I do compare, to myself, our way of doing things with theirs, that’s just human nature, not judgment. Sometimes I borrow ideas from other management teams, sometimes, if asked, I give suggestions as to what could improve their way of doing things more efficiently. When spectating, Sandy now tends to ““oversee”” the on track activities and pays attention to the calls that are made (or sometimes not made), guess that’s the flagperson coming out in her. I do that too, but when spectating, the former racer comes out in me, and I’ll tend to watch lines or notice moves that racers are making to set up a pass. I also watch how cars are handling or listen to how they are running engine wise. Guess that’s my thing! These nights are when we actually get to watch racing and enjoy the competition and comrodery of it!”

 Chan is there anything else you would like to add?  “People have asked me about my favorite drivers? I have favorites in every division, and I quietly pull for them. In my position I have to maintain an un-biased opinion when it comes to all the drivers. I’d love for each and every one of them to win and have success at some point in time.”

 Chan, is there anyone you’d like to thank? “I’d like to thank my Mama and Daddy who gave me so many opportunities growing up which has shaped me into the person I am today, and also for instilling in me, by their example, a solid work ethic. I also would like to thank the Buff family for giving me the opportunity to stay involved in the sport I love. To ““My Little Shadow”” Lauren, for being such a great girl and never giving me a moments trouble. Thanks to Randy for putting up with me, my racing addiction (he doesn’t care for ““round and round””, he helps Lennie on that ““go straight”” stuff) and for loving me & my busy life. And thanks to you Keith, for being interested in ““The Leading Ladies of Cherokee Speedway”” and all the work you do on DirtRaceFans.com and promoting the sport that we all love, Dirt Track Racing.

 

This has truly been a fun and very interesting series of interviews for me. I hope you all have enjoyed them as much as I have enjoyed doing this. So with that said, I write the final closing to this series

 The checkered flag has fallen on the last main event of the night and the flags safely tucked away till the next week. The victory lane photo is a captured memory in time. The last race car is pulling out the gate from the pay window and the fans are all gone. The track lights are off, in fact the only light left is the dim lights from the tower office and a few street lights out front.  Suddenly I hear a female voice shout, Harris had a red flag condition and have three more mains to run, and Lennie’s Angels scream in Unison, LETs GO!

 

Comments are welcomed on the Blog itself. Just click on the read comment below to do so. If you have enjoyed this interview and would like for you friends and family to see it as well, just click on the Facebook like button below the article.   If you prefer, you can email your comments to SCRacefan@DirtRaceFans.com and I will gladly forward them on.

“The Leading Ladies of Cherokee Speedway” — A Three Part Series — Sandy Ellis Cooke

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011
 This is the second part of a three part series on “The Leading Ladies of Cherokee Speedway.” The first interview is with Kelli Norris who is the Track Photographer, this second interview is with Sandy Ellis Cooke Flag Person at Cherokee, and the third and final addition to this series will be with Office and PR Manager Chan McGinnis. Three females in leading roles usually filled by men at “The Place Your Momma Warned You About!

 

 Sandy Ellis Cooke – Waving from the Best Seat in the House!!!!

 Born and raised in Gaffney SC, Sandy Ellis Cooke is 35 years old and currently separated. She graduated from Gaffney Senior High School and studied Graphic Arts at Cherokee Technology Center. Sandy began her working career at the young age of 15 at Harvey’s Drive In, located in Gaffney, and actually still works there helping a couple nights a week.

 Sandy adds, “When I got out of school, I went to Progressive Screens Drawing and Graphic Designs.

I also worked at Inman Animal Hospital, starting out as receptionist and worked my way around to helping with all the other things as well. I am now the receptionist and travel coordinator at Phoenix Racing in Spartanburg, and I have been there for 5 years now.”

 Other than racing Sandy loves to cook and make desserts, and quickly added that she loves to experiment with new recipes. She also enjoys working in the yard and doing projects in and around the home.  She lives in her Maw Maw Ellis’s home place, which is the house her Daddy was raised in. She estimates the house is close to 70 yrs. old, and is the process of re-modeling and modernizing it, which shows her strong ties to family. As for other sports, she tells me that she loves volleyball and played in school. She says that she is glad that her niece is going to play volleyball so now she will finally have someone to play with, and hopes to build a court on the land behind her house so she and her niece can spend time together.

 As for her interest in racing she, like so many others, gives the credit to her Dad. “He was always into racing whether it was cars or go carts. Guess it grew on me and of course Cherokee is where I started going. I sold half and half tickets there for years, and when Chan was racing, that’s where we met and became friends. I also went to Metrolina Speedway and sold them there as well.” She stopped doing that for a while when she married Jeff Cooke, because of all the travel involved in his racing endeavors. Later, she returned to Cherokee and picked up selling the half and half tickets again along with her friend, Chan McGinnis.

 “I then decided I was going to attempt to race go carts. My Daddy and I were planning to race together, me driving and him as crew-chief. We were both so excited!!! And on September 17, 2008 I bought my cart. The next day, while I was going to pick up my motor, my Mama called and told me that something was wrong with my Daddy. That was the day my life shattered in millions of pieces. My Daddy had suffered a fatal heart attack. “

 “Daddy had been so excited about me and him racing together. I debated on whether to follow through with the racing after that. Mom encouraged me to go on saying “”That is what your Daddy would want you to do.”” Even though my Mom or either of my 2 brothers would come watch me race, I just always kept it in my mind that he was there with me, although his body wasn’t, I knew he was looking down and watching over me. For a while, Scott Fegter helped me work with the cart until his son, Daniel, started motor cross racing. Later, Bruce Coyle pitched in and helped me. Also Joseph Mintz, his father and his uncle helped me a lot. And of course the Cooterman, can’t forget the Cooterman!! If it weren’t for those guys, I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to race the carts. I raced for about 2 years, won about 8 races, had a lot of fun but I always felt like I was a burden. So I just quit.”

 Sandy then returned to Cherokee Speedway providing some homemade desserts, tea, and lemonade in the turn 4 concession stand. “I just wanted to try and have a little something different for the fans to choose from, more than the normal track food. Plus I enjoy making them.   At first, Chan and I were going to do this together, but Chan was offered the opportunity to do the office and public relations work for Cherokee. So I just kept going with the concession stand myself.”

 I asked Sandy to recall some of her favorite memories thus far in racing. “I really can’t pinpoint any “favorite” memories. Whether it was Cherokee or traveling with a series with Jeff, we knew there was always something interesting going to happen. Chan and I always had fun selling tickets, and we met a lot of interesting people. Guess I’ve always tried to make everything enjoyable. You could say I have had a lot of great memories and really wouldn’t change any of them- whether they were good or bad.”

 Sandy the real reason for this interview is to talk with you about your current job at Cherokee Speedway, that of waving the flags during the race. While not unheard of, it is a very unusual position to find a female in. How did this come about? “Chan called and asked me if I would be interested in flagging. I laughed and said sure, thinking that it was just a thought she and Lennie Buff had fun tossing around. I figured that to be the end of it. Well then I started getting texts and calls about it, and I was like, “I thought it was a joke. LOL “I am sure some still think it is. Then we get to the Cherokee banquet last year and Lennie and Ronnie Buff say something about it. So then I knew it really wasn’t a joke anymore. So I was just like ok guess I am going to try this.”

  I know you had to be excited and nervous all at the same time about the prospects of doing this. Tell me a littleabout some of that and how it went on your first day atop the flag stand. “I was very nervous about it at

Waving from the Best Seat in the House!

 

first but I have to say, when those cars are flying by and you are looking down at them, it is the coolest feeling ever! I was like, all these years I have been coming to the races and I have officially made it to the best seat in the house. When people started hearing I was going to flag I got a lot of different responses. “”You won’t be able to do it, you won’t be able to handle it, you won’t last 2 weeks, you will be fine, and of course, you going to hook me up, right?”” You can probably figure out who that last one came from. LOL”

 So now with a half of the season under your belt, how is it going? “People need to understand that the final calls are made in the tower.  I do have input if something is questionable but again, the tower makes the official final call. I know that there are some who do not like me doing this, but I pay the guys fussing about it as much attention as they do me flagging. I enjoy doing it, and I have had compliments from people. However when things don’t go their way then the say “”I suck.””  Guess it’s all about how you look at it. I am someone who likes to try things and if making an idiot of myself doing it is what it takes, well so be it….at least I try. I respect everyone’s opinion about my flagging duties, whether it is good or bad. The bad ones just drive me to prove myself more. I am of the opinion that just because you’re a male, it doesn’t make you any better than a female. Although most look at flagging as a man’s job, that’s probably because that’s all they have ever seen do it.  I always knew there was a lot of work that was put into running a show each week but I now have a lot more respect for all involved. It definitely makes you look at things differently.”

 Sandy I have seen you at other tracks when Cherokee isn’t running. How has what you do now at Cherokee affected you as Sandy, the Fan? “If Cherokee is not running, Chan and I will make trips whether it’s to Cleveland County on Friday night or Harris on Saturday night or another night they may be racing. Very rarely do I do anything else during racing season. I am constantly scanning cars on the track to make sure everyone is still running, nobody slowing down, or putting anyone else in danger. There are times I do miss stuff but I try really hard not to miss anything. So when I go to the other tracks to where I used to be chatting or mainly watching the leaders, I now catch myself focused in and scanning the field watching and paying more attention. I really look at everything going on from a different view now than what I had in the past. I have enjoyed everything from the beginning. Getting chances to do different things involved with the track has just been awesome!!”

 So there you have it folks, regardless of whether it is a male or a female, it is still the green flag that waves and the checkered flag that falls. And at Cherokee Speedway, Sandy Ellis Cooke has the best seat in the house!!!!!

 Comments are welcomed on the Blog itself. Just click on the read comment below to do so. If you have enjoyed this interview and would like for you friends and family to see it as well, just click on the Facebook like button below the article.   If you prefer, you can email your comments to SCRacefan@DirtRaceFans.com and I will gladly forward them on.

 

“The Leading Ladies of Cherokee Speedway” — A Three Part Series

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

This is the first part of a three part series on “The Leading Ladies of Cherokee Speedway.” The first interview is with Kelli Norris who is the Track Photographer, the second interview is with Sandy Ellis Cooke Flag Person at Cherokee, and the third and final addition to this series will be with Office and PR Manager Chan McGinnis. Three females in leading roles usually filled by men at “The Place Your Momma Warned You About!”

 

Kelli Norris       “…..I stopped by Mike’s grave on the way for some encouragement.”

Kelli Norris was born in Greenwood SC, raised in Laurens SC and graduated from Laurens District 55 High School. She currently lives in Shelby NC. I asked Kelli about any nicknames she may have and she responded by saying “I don’t consider it a nickname, but a lot of people refer to me by my Racing Forums screen name, CherryPie. Had I known that it would become my name in the racing world, I would have just used my real name.”

Kelli is the track current photographer for Cherokee Speedway.   In 2009 she did driver sign-in and drawing, and also helped with payout at the end of the night, among other things.

Kelli what do you enjoy doing when you are not racing? “This question makes me realize how dull my life is outside of racing. Because the truth is, I don’t have many hobbies outside of racing. Racing does, and has for some time, almost completely consumed my life. But I guess I’m a pretty average girl: I enjoy spending time with my Josh Dawson who is my boyfriend, my family, and friends. I used to like to go coon hunting some. When I’m in the mood for it, I like to take pictures of things besides racecars. I love to take photos of animals and children….because I can capture really unique and random moments and make them special. I enjoy simple things, like sitting on the porch drinking sweet tea and watching cars go by.” Kelly says she likes to help Josh with his racecar but admits “I ain’t really good for a whole lot, but I like to help when I’m needed.”

Kelli and I discussed how she got started into racing and again she like most of us gives the credit to Dad. “My Dad got me started in dirt racing. I forget how old I was. Daddy was really involved with the 88 car of Bobby Tucker at Laurens Speedway back then. I remember vaguely the first night he took me to the track. I think my Mama was going somewhere and I wouldn’t stay with a babysitter, so Daddy got stuck keeping me instead of going to the race that night. I was little, and back then you had to be 14 years old to go to the pits. Daddy wasn’t sure how I would like it anyway, and didn’t want to pay to take me inside if I was going to be scared and want to leave. So we pulled up and watched from outside the fence in the parking lot. This was back when Fred Cogsdill still ran the Laurens Speedway, and he is well-known for being a hard-nosed businessman, and tight as it gets. He caught us and several others watching from outside. Everybody else ran. But Daddy told him, “”Fred, you know I’m here every week. I had to keep my little girl tonight, and I just wanted to see if she would like it. And I didn’t want to pay for her to go in there and scream to leave.”” Fred looked at Dad and told him to follow him. He took us to the gate and told them to let us in the stands for free. Pretty good business investment, if you ask me, considering all the money he’s gotten from me every Saturday night since then. “

Kelli, all of us have our favorite moments that come to memory from time to time. Share some of yours with us. “I have a lot of favorite memories. Some of the dramatic ones, I won’t mention. There’s a lot of stuff that used to happen between rival drivers that I remember having me on the edge of my seat, but I’m not sure if that should go under the favorite memory category. However, one of my favorite memories is of Chris Lyons winning the Super Late Model championship in 2004. It was a hard-fought battle between him and Franky Coates, and Chris came out on top. Another is Phillip Wilson winning the Super Stock 4 championship at both Laurens Speedway and Buffalo Speedway in 2009 after a stellar year. I believe Phillip had 17 wins that season, 14 at Laurens and 3 at Buffalo.  Phillip Wilson and Chris Lyons are two drivers I consider a part of my ““racing family”” in Laurens, and just about anything they do is memorable to me.  Franky Coates winning the Laurens County Shrine race a few years ago in Super Late models. Always great to see a local guy outrun the series guys. Watching Brayden Pruitt in the 2009 World Crown 4 Cylinder Nationals at Cherokee Speedway when she got her Street Stock 4 win was special. Possibly the race of her life, and I will never forget it. Bradley Weaver winning the Laurens County Shrine race this year (2011) in 4cylinder. I was really proud of him for that one, with that being his first time at the track, and the place is a tricky one for most first-timers. Johnny Bell winning a Pure Stock race BACKWARDS at Cherokee several weeks ago after a wild race that left him the “last man standing” and it was awesome. The crowd loved it, and so did I. Ok….so maybe I WILL mention one of the dramatic ones. Dennis ““Rambo”” Franklin and Chris Madden going head to head on the front stretch at Laurens one year was just priceless. You don’t often see the “”big boys”” show out like that, but it goes to show that they are human and still have some of the same emotions that the support division guys show more often. And the fans love the on-track drama, most would be lying if they said it didn’t excite them.”

 Tell me now about how the racing photography thing got started with you. “I used to love to look at Mike Butler’s pictures. Being from Laurens, we didn’t really have anybody who did much action photography there at that time. I thought what he was doing was good for the track and the fans. People that didn’t go regularly got to see what it was all about through his photos. I wanted to learn a little bit about it, so that maybe I could do some of that for Laurens. I never wanted to make a business out of it. I just wanted to do it for fun and to give people some insight to what Laurens Speedway was all about. So I went to Mike to learn some about what he did. He and I became great friends, and I will always consider him one of my very best friends. He taught me a lot about taking pictures of racecars. But there is so much more I needed to learn. And still need to learn. I used to like to take pictures at tracks all around here. I will say that racing photography is a whole lot more fun when it is just for that….FOR FUN. This business is not as glorious as a lot of people think it is. It is more work than people think it is, takes up a lot of time, and is not very profitable at all (especially now, with the economy hurting everyone like it is). It also takes a lot of dedication, particularly being a track photographer, because it requires you to be at one track every Saturday night. For someone who is a race fan more than they are a photographer, that can be HARD. Back at the beginning of the season after Mike Butler’s passing, the staff at Cherokee asked me if I would like to take on the job. But because I wasn’t ready to be dedicated to that track every week at that time, I turned them down. Later on in the year after the photographer that was doing it had to quit, they approached me again and I decided to help them out. But it’s tough sometimes when I want to go watch my friend’s race at Laurens, or I want to go with the Ultimate series somewhere, and I have to be at Cherokee. I oftentimes don’t get to see much racing. A lot of times by the time I’m done doing victory lane pictures for one driver, the next division is done racing and pulling across the scales, and I’ve missed it. It can be tough. “

Kelli describe that first night, the jitters that must have been there out so near the action on the track, also knowing that you were standing and doing the job formerly done by your teacher and best friend. “I had jitters the first night as Cherokee’s track photographer, but it wasn’t from being so near the action on the track. It was because I literally dreaded stepping up to fill Mike Butler’s shoes. Which I knew was and still is completely impossible, by the way. He did SO much for the track, and everybody there still feels the effects of his loss every week. As do the drivers and fans. He offered a whole lot more as far as merchandise and such, than I am able to offer. A lot of us have had to split some of Mike’s other “duties”. Not everything gets done in as timely a fashion as he got it done because most of the rest of us simply don’t have the time. I will admit to shedding a lot of tears on my way to the track that first night, and I stopped by Mike’s grave on the way for some encouragement. He was truly one of my BEST friends, and I loved him very much. As far as my camera and equipment goes, I simply don’t have the equipment a lot of other racing photographers have. I don’t have the money to get all that stuff either so I just do the very best I can. Some weeks I’ll have good action pictures, and some weeks I don’t. I usually only take action photos during hot laps because I don’t have a big enough flash to support taking them after it gets dark. But one thing about that is that most of the money is made off of victory lane photos anyway. And I must thank the management at Cherokee Speedway for having such a well-lit victory lane. The regular flash on my camera is good enough there.”  Kelli, do you ever have any threats or comments about being a female in this business. How about complaints of things like the flash? “I don’t really get any threats as a female in this position. I will say that it is very easy to get stepped on or stepped over in this business.

 Kelli, I know being in this position, you see more of the inside to putting on a weekly race show and you likely see and hear more than you did when you were “just a fan.” So, tell me what you may have once thought about the sport that you now have a different opinion of since taking this position as a track photographer.   “The answer to this question has nothing to do with photography. It has more to do with being involved with the track and seeing what all actually goes on behind the scenes. I also gained some experience with that while helping Ray Storay and family at Buffalo Speedway when they owned and operated it. It’s easy to sit back and complain and make statements about how you think things should be. I’m guilty of it. But it is NOT easy making ANY of it happen. I’ve learned that when I have an idea or suggestion, I have to put a lot of thought into it to make sure it is REALLY reasonable, and fits into the big picture of things, and is not just what I want. I’ve learned that a lot of the decisions track promoters make may not be well-received at the time, but years down the road people will understand why it was made.”

 Kelli I’ve notice that when you aren’t racing\working, you visit other tracks. Seems you would want to do something different that go to a race on your once in a blue moon Saturday off. Why do you do this and has what you now do at your track, changed the way you look at things when you go to watch a race elsewhere? “Racing is the major enjoyment of my life. That may sound odd, but that’s the way it is. Since I don’t get to see a whole lot of racing while doing the photography thing, it makes sense to me to take as many opportunities as possible to go and just WATCH a race, and enjoy it. Plus, because I’ve been going racing all over the place for so many years, I like a lot of racers that don’t come to Cherokee often and some not at all. It’s always good to go watch and support them whenever possible. Being the track photographer at Cherokee has not really changed the way I look at things when I go watch a race elsewhere. I’ve always been one to observe staff at other tracks and watch how they do and handle things, and form opinions, gain ideas, and just take it all in. I’m pretty sure everybody involved with a racetrack in any way does that. Besides, I get too much time off in the off-season.  Hahaha!!“

 Kelli is also the Moderator for the Cherokee board on the forums of DirtRaceFans.com and a valued member of our Team. Thanks Kelli for all you do! Keith

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