Behind the checkers by Joel Thorne


(Joel Thorne returns as an annual Indy 500 First Super Speedway guest blogger, as he has the past two years.)
Behind the checkers
(a human back story of vision and success)
Envision yourself as an elementary school-aged kid, in the springtime, in the mid-60s....fresh blooming flowers, brilliant sunshine, and the sound of race cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  The screaming of those powerful beasts known as the Offenhauser and Novi roadsters (among others) are drowning out your teacher's you, trying to jerk you back into reality.  It works only for a moment, until she believes she has wrestled you back into the lesson.  Moments later, your best Walter Mitty mind takes over, with you manhandling your race car, not caring about flowers blooming, or anything else but only piloting one of those cars behind those wonderful sounds. Finally, the bell mercifully rings, and you and your best friend mount your bicycles and make a bee line for the Speedway that is only a few blocks away.  Upon arriving, you greet your adult buddy, one of the 'gatekeepers' at IMS, and he as always, promises to watch your bikes while inside the track. 
And so it begins, your love of an iconic race track, visited only once a year by the beautiful cars, their teams, countless vendors of all things, and....oh, about 300,000 of the race drivers' closest friends....the fans.  Some 60 years later, you are still, first and foremost, a fan, loyal to a sport that makes absolutely no sense to many folks (like chasing a small white ball around, trying to rest it in a hole).  If all friendships could only be as loyal.  Today, you are still best friends with your neighborhood race loving buddy, literally 'living the dream'.
Back to your neighborhood. After you and your buddy would set up your race track, rigging up green and yellow lights, the green flag would drop, and old Walter would kick in was a close race through the final corner!  It was the closest race ever!  Every other race, the checkers dropped for each of you....what a great win it was for you!  The crowd, all 300, 000, were cheering for you!!!  (Heck, I can feel my adrenaline kicking in!!) 
I hate to burst your dream bubble, but....this is a true story of
two boys, growing up in the same neighborhood, with racing mechanics, various crew members, and even the drivers themselves, when they would make the mid-western trek to Indianapolis for the annual chance at fame and fortune. I mean, can you even imagine Swede Savage, the handsome, California all-American, racing sensation waving back at you, and talking to you???
Are you with me?  Feeling the dream, the all-encompassing passion of these two young boys who never knew exactly how their dreams would come to fruition?
Hanging around the Speedway paid big time dividends.....boy, did it!! Meeting a kind 'gate keeper' would lead to meeting drivers, and racing personnel of all types, thus flaming that fuel that still drives them today. That same kind of fuel that would drive them to the snow-covered Speedway grounds, where they would sit in the ice-cold bleachers, dreaming of warmer weather when those fantastically loud machines would streak across the yard of bricks, as    Tom Carnegie, public address announcer, would proclaim, “It’ RECORD!!"
Besides their past memories of May keeping them warm, they would stay cozy warm, thank to some Reed's hot cinnamon candy.  Oh, if only someone would have captured that scene! (That would have made a great commercial!)
Our two young subjects have lived their dream for several years.  They have both worked on several racing teams over the years, so many in fact, that I can't list them all here. Most of the time, they did not work on the same team, but a few times they have.  For example, in 2011, they worked on Takuma Sato's Lotus team, the green, ill-fated #5 Lotus throwback paint scheme car.  
One late night, at the track, the only lights on were the #5 car number on the huge scoring pylon.  Seeing Takuma's number, the ONLY number blazing through the darkness, Brian announced it to be a 'sign'.  It was.  Just a handful of laps into the race, the #5 Lotus planted itself against the wall, ensuring 33rd place. It was a sign alright.
Scott and Brian found themselves teammates again....2014, and Townsend Bell was a true dark horse, in the avant garde schemed Robert Graham entry. Running through the field furiously, until lap 191, while in 2nd place, he wound up against the wall in turn 2.  He finished 25th.  So close, yet so far away.
In 2021, Brian and Scott found themselves on the same team, this time Helio Castroneves's Meyer Shank Racing team. A favorite driver of IndyCar fans, a 3-time winner, Helio, was hungry for his 4th win, which would put him in some rarified air territory.  Only AJ Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser, Sr. had accomplished that heroic feat.  Brian and Scott didn't see Helio's  #06 on the pylon before the race.  No sign this time. 
Weirdly enough, yours truly had the NCIS Gibbs 'gut' feeling the entire month.  Seriously. It was so weird, I hesitated sharing that at the time. As history verifies, sign or no sign, Helio did win his 4th Indy 500, not only fulfilling one of his dreams, but also Brian's and Scott's.
Of course, when Helio wins, he climbs the fence close to the yard of bricks, hence his nickname of 'Spiderman'.  Those of his crew who dared to follow Spiderman did the same.  Brian never hesitated. (he would be the tall skinny gray-haired crew member in the videos) Scott was content to open his bottle of strawberry milk (the team and car colors were bright pink and black) and drink in the blissful taste of their success.
This very moment was the culmination of their childhood play dreams, bicycle jaunts in the snow to sit in frozen bleachers, and hard work.  Yes HARD work, and A LOT of it. They would work endless hours at the track, deep into the night, to assure their team that everything would meet the toughest of standards.....a winner at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
This day came only after a few hiccups.  Brian decided to step away from racing for a few years, pursuing his occupation outside of Indiana,
while Scott continued to carry the flame of their boyhood dreams.
Life happens.....have you ever heard that? Life interrupts our biggest
momentum jumps at times, and Scott’s life is and has been no different than any other Indy fan.
In the earliest stages of Covid-19, Scott posted on Facebook, his view of the inside of an ambulance, after being persuaded by his girlfriend, that if he didn't go to the hospital, he might very well die (thus missing the next Indy 500, in his mind...) That was the first motivator.  The second one came when "boss man" (Scott's affectionate nickname for Michael Shank, co-owner of Meyer Shank Racing) visited him and simply asked, "Are you going to be ready to go by race time?" There was no time for hesitation....or
'No, I'll get back to you' moments. "Yes I will boss!".....And he obviously was. 
You see, anyone can dream.  Anyone can wish for success, fame and fortune.  Anyone can hang out at a race track.  I'm not so sure that anyone would hang out on ice cold bleachers, sucking on Reed's hot cinnamon candy in the snow though.  Anyone could buy a mountainous stack of lottery tickets, and pick out the color of their new Lamborghini while waiting to hear their winning number to be called.
BUT...and, as you can see, it's a big one (no song references please)....It is a rare breed of individual who puts forth the efforts that are truly needed to make the  dreams reality.  There would be nothing, short of death itself, stopping these efforts from pursuing the high hanging fruit that eludes most everyone else.  Despite the naysayers...."you'll never do it", "you're too young", whatever they may say (usually because they are jealous, or they just aren't willing to work as hard) the winners plug through the deep muck and mire with that one goal in mind....winning. 
Scott Gauger and Brian Kassler not only grew up together in the same neighborhood, around 32nd and High School Rd., but they were unknowingly goal setting as they dropped the green flag on their home made race track.  They followed their passion through the tough teen years, as well as adulthood, despite their occasional setbacks (like life),and as they drank that pink winner's milk on that hot, surreal Indiana day, in the winner's circle,
Scott turned to Brian and said, " This beats the Hell out of riding our bicycles in the snow!!!"   
From this 60-year fan of Indy, I want to thank Scott and Brian for sharing their story of most importantly......being a fan. Here's to #5 boys!