Webbers enjoy driving around in circles
Across the board in auto racing, whether its in karts, Saturday night short tracks, late models, Infiniti Racing League (IRL) or Nextel Cup, the youth movement is firmly planted in the driver’s seat of the sport.
Why the change? No one really knows, but sometime during the mid-90s, the trend began: greys and canes were out and spiked hair and sunglasses were in.
With the average age of Cup drivers dropping from just over 37 in 2003 to just over 34 last year, it doesn’t look like the baby boom is slowing any time soon.
For 15-year-old Jacob Webber of Corydon ‘ and his family ‘ that’s just fine.
Webber is entering his second year of dirt track racing on the United Midwestern Promoters (UMP) Modified Circuit at Salem’s Thunder Valley Raceway. He’s joined by his father Mike (owner and crew chief), his mother Tracy (public relations) and little sister Paige (timekeeper and account manager), making the endeavor a true family affair.
Webber’s first season was just about testing the terra. And though the undertaking was under-funded compared to some of the other long-time racers at Salem’s quarter-mile track, Webber was able to log several solid finishes.
In seven outings, Webber had a third, three fourths and a fifth. In the final race of the season, Webber made a do-or-die move trying to go from fifth to second and wound up getting bumped from behind. The resulting spin gave him a 13th-place finish, but it also served as a rite of passage for the young man, who wound up ninth in points, and was the Rookie Of The Year in the division.
‘He spun out, but that showed me that he was ready,’ Mike Webber said. ‘There were 17 cars in that heat race and that night he earned the right to make a move like that. Last year was just about being nice, learning and staying out of the way. This year, I think things will be different.’
Things will be different
The number 83W, which comes from Nextel Cup driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 8 and the late Earnhardt Sr.’s No. 3, will be about the only thing that’s the same from last year’s ride.
For starters, the car will sport a peppy Automotive Machine Shop (AMS) engine that sports 620 horsepower. That’s a huge jump from last year’s Tim ‘Cheeseburger’ Donohoo power plant that put out 350 to 400 horses. Some may chuckle, but the ‘new’ motor was purchased off of eBay from fellow UMP modified driver Jeff Elliott, who races in Kentucky.
‘I was just looking in different places for a better engine and found that one on eBay. The starting bid was $5,000, so I put a bid in and didn’t tell my wife for two hours,’ Mike Webber said. ‘I couldn’t believe it when no one else bid on the engine. The parts alone were worth a lot more than that.’
Tracy Webber said she had no problem with the winning bid, adding, ‘I trust his decisions.’
The car also received a fresh skin and a paint job in the off-season. The canary yellow is gone and in its place are the familiar red, white and blue of the team’s new title sponsor, Lucas Oil.
Tracy Webber sent out nearly 90 applications to local businesses for sponsorship and heard back from just a handful, including H & R Block of Corydon and Corydon Chiropractic.
That’s when Lucas Oil came through with the title sponsorship.
‘It’s an honor to have them with us. They don’t just go out and give money away to anyone,’ Mike Webber said. ‘They want us to do good, so we can make them look good, but by the same token, their products doing good will help us look good. We’re using their products in our car and our truck, and we stand by their products from the air tool oil to the rear end oil to the wheel bearing grease.’
Two weeks ago, the Webbers got the car back from Wildside Graphics and took a trip to Lucas Oil to show it off to Tammy Vanlaningham, Forrest Lucas’ daughter.
Vanlaningham wasn’t there, but Forrest was.
‘They said, ‘He’s here. He’d probably want to look at the car.’ He came out, we shook hands and he was just a super, down-to-earth guy just like everyone says he is,’ said Mike Webber. ‘The guy probably sees a million race cars, and for him to come out and take time from his day to take a look at the car meant a lot.’
While Salem will be considered the Webbers’ home track, they are looking at visiting other speedways later this year when Jacob Webber turns 16. Due to age and insurance regulations at other tracks, he can’t run other circuits until August. He’ll test at North Vernon’s 3/8-mile speedway this weekend, then will hopefully see his first action of the season next Friday at Thunder Valley. Then, later in the summer, it will be on to Brownstown, Bloomington and Fairbury American Legion Speedway in Fairbury, Ill.
‘We figured it was God’s way of protection. We were really bummed about not going to all those tracks this summer,’ Tracy said. ‘But things are always on His plan. Not ours.’
Youngster ready for action
Mike Webber’s love of the classic American automobile is what eventually led to his son’s racing endeavor. Mike purchased his first car, a 1972 Monte Carlo, when he was 12 and was always around cars and drag racing where he and Tracy grew up, in Henry, Ill. He works at Noveon (formally BFGoodrich) in Louisville, where he took a pay cut and stepped down from a managerial position to focus on his son’s racing.
The family attends Harrison Hills Baptist Church in Lanesville, which is where the modified racing bug first bit.
‘Dan Beasley goes there and was into racing, and we just talked about it and wanted to see if Jake would be interested. We went (to the races) a few times, and I asked Jake if he wanted to do it,’ said Mike Webber.
Jacob’s response: ‘Yeah!’
The first plan was to try kart racing; however, the expense is almost of that of a modified, so the Webbers went with the bigger cars.
Not legally being able to drive a street car wasn’t much of a hurdle for Jacob Webber to overcome. As an avid player of video games, including the NASCAR Thunder series by EA Sports and Infrogames’ NASCAR Heat: Dirt To Daytona, driving came naturally. While the modified cars in the video games races on asphalt, the setups for the cars are similar.
‘The changes you make to your car in a video game will have the same affect in your race car in real life,’ Jacob Webber said. ‘Learning the different lines on the track has been the most difficult thing to learn. Also, learning throttle control on the track, like where and when to give it gas so you don’t spin out.
‘Also one thing I’m really going to have to concentrate on this year is telling my dad what the car is doing instead of just riding along and thinking that the car will fix itself. I need to be able to describe everything so he can help me get the car right. Going from doing 70 miles an hour to doing 120 is a big step and things are going to be different.’
The youngster admitted there are always butterflies in his tummy prior to a race: ‘When I get in the car, I’m shaking. But as soon as I start that motor up and I’m sitting in line or whatever, I calm down. When I’m on the track, I’m fine. I’m in my own world.’
Mom, sister offer support
Father and son aren’t the only cogs in the Webber racing organization. Tracy and Paige, 11, are just as important to the enterprise.
Tracy Webber, who homeschools Jacob and Paige, is responsible for acquiring sponsors, running the video camera at the track, keeping the racing Web site ‘ which is www.webberracing.com ‘ up to date and getting her son additional exposure any way she can.
‘I’ve done trading cards and hand out information at the track. We’re not looking at this as a hobby. If that’s what it was, we wouldn’t do it. We’re trying to give Jake the best chance he can get of succeeding at auto racing. We want him to get all of the way up to NASCAR if that’s what he wants to do,’ she said. ‘I’m not a shy person and I embarrass his sister sometimes with the way I approach people. We just want to get his name out there so people know who he is.
‘Also, anyone that helps us is put on the website. Those people who support us or give us advice, even, I want people out there to know who they are.’
Paige Webber’s job is to keep a record of the racing expenses, and while at the track she logs lap times.
Sometimes, Paige says, the family’s focus is on Jacob’s endeavor, but a recent horseback riding trip proved to her that her interests are just as important.
‘Horseback riding showed me that they want me to be happy, too. They want it to be fair,’ Paige said, adding that she’s planning on holding her parents to their promise of buying her a horse in the future.
‘Yeah, but that probably won’t be fair,’ Jacob joked. ‘I’ve got 600 horses (in the engine) and she’ll only have one.’