Kenneth "Jake" Jacobs
peered through the double bifocals of his glasses to study the picture
he held in front of him. His breathing has become hoarse and raspy over
the years, and the round stomach that precedes him hasn't always been
there. His memory however is clear and precise. At least when it comes
to sprint car racing. "Racing sure has changed," he muttered under his
breath. "The racing they do today is nothing like when I raced." He hurriedly
handed the picture over to me. Two men were smiling at the camera, one
a driver and the other Jake's father. The black and white photo was old,
"around 1965" he thought. Jake pointed out the driver's uniform and he
chuckled a bit as my eyes widened. The flimsy two piece "uniform" definitely
grabbed my attention.
Yes, racing sure has changed.
Three generations of Jacobs' have spent time in the seat of an open-wheel
sprint car. Jake was the first. As Jake's racing career began to slow,
he helped buy his eldest son Kenny's first racecar.
The millennium debuted
the family's third generation sprint car driver, Kenny's son Lee. Following
the tradition of his father, Kenny purchased Lee's first sprint car. Three
men born decades apart, but all holding the same intense love for thrills
and speed that can't be found elsewhere. When the three of them talk,
the conversation always revolves around racing. Though they often times
argue, all three will agree that change is constant. The biggest change
they've seen in sprint car racing is the power of money.
Jake's first sprint car
was a gift from his wife, Mariann. Once the entire machine was assembled,
the pair had less than $1,000 invested. The motor cost a mere $30 at the
local junkyard. The tires that Jake used were the exact same as what everyone
used on their street cars. "We really never had any expenses," Jake explained.
"Of course, we raced for nothing too." During Jake's time behind the wheel,
the nightly purse was never the same.
The local race track owners
had come up with a plan to create the nightly purse from 45% of the ticket
sales, which only charged $1.50 for each adult ticket. If the crowd was
large, the drivers knew they were competing for a relatively large sum
of money. If only 100 fans showed up at the track, the drivers were racing
for nothing. Mariann quickly pulled out gold aging envelopes from a trunk
in her living room. The envelopes had at one time held Jake's winnings.
Written on the front of each was the amount he was paid that particular
night. The average feature event paid $40 to the winner, with the entire
purse being approximately $400. The heat races also paid the participants.
A second-place finish in one of Jake's heat races earned him $3.50. "[We
racers] spent more at the local bar after the races than what we made,"
Jake recalled with a chuckle.
Jake's father, Pete Jacobs,
got involved with his son's racing career a few years after Jake started.
Pete wanted the best of everything, for winning was very important to
him. When Jake found a truck carrying hard-to-find soft tires at $20 each,
Pete told him to buy them all. When Jake needed a better motor, Pete spent
the extra money, approximately $2,000 to get a custom-motor built. "I
remember my Dad used to hide all of the racing bills from my Mother,"
Jake said grinning. "Mom would find them and throw a fit!" Jake did, however,
have a little help from a local sponsor. Morris's Gulf Station provided
free gas to Jake's entire race team for a whole season. In recognition
of this, Jake's car proudly displayed the Morris's Gulf Station logo.
"Racing was different
back then," Jake remembered. "None of us cared about the money. Everyone
just raced for fun." Fun is exactly what Kenny was seeking as well. Jake
bought Kenny his first racecar in 1973. Well, this car wasn't exactly
his first. Kenny wanted to race so badly, that he built his first car
from rusted out parts in the weeds behind his home. But the car his father
built for him was a good, winning car. The total cost: $1200.
Kenny began his career
racing at the local tracks. One particular track was Wayne County Speedway
in Orrville, Ohio. In 1965, Kenny's grandfather, Pete, had built this
track along with three other investors for less than $50,000. Jake raced
on the clay of the speedway. Kenny began his career at the speedway, as
did his son Lee. It was family tradition. The track was sold three years
ago for the price of $350,000.
Kenny cites the cost of
living as the main reason behind the increased expenses in racing. While
motors and tires have increased in price the most, Kenny claims that the
entire sport has tremendously outgrown the costs of 1973. A ready-to-race
sprint car in the year 2002 costs approximately $65,000. A striking figure
compared to the $1200 of his first racecar. Motors alone have increased
from the $30 junkyard piece to the current $40,000 lightweight, high compression
motors. Even admission prices have risen astronomically. An adult ticket
to a sprint car event this year will cost anywhere between $15 and $30.
"But everyone has to remember
that back in the early days we raced for only $100 to $200," Kenny stated.
"Now we race for $5,000 up to $100,000." Kenny currently travels with
the All-Star Circuit of Champions, holding an average of 50 events each
year. To competitively race with this series, he estimates that a brand
new team would cost $500,000. This estimate includes the $8,000 per year
spent on gasoline for the hauler and the $6,000 per year that is spent
on hotel rooms. With all of this money being spent, a really good season
with the series could possibly earn the team $200,000. This, of course,
is $300,000 less than what the team originally cost. While Kenny tries
not to worry about what his race team costs him each season, the bills
are constant reminders. Kenny claims that budgets aren't feasible in the
sport. Accidents and crashes are never expected, but are bound to happen.
A race team could compete an entire year on two or three cars, but it
could also experience hard times when they use two or three cars in one
With the unexpected and
ever-rising costs of his career, Kenny is thankful that he had found Tom
Honecker. Tom served as a partner for Kenny's race team, and also helped
support Lee's racing career. "Tom spent $160,000 on my race team the first
year he was with us," Kenny claimed. "He never expected to spend that
much. He told me that. But, he just loves the sport." These individual
people and companies that have a sincere interest in sprint car racing
and sponsor race teams are who keep the sport alive. However, more is
needed than the free gasoline that Jake was given during his career. A
major sponsor, whose name is boldly displayed larger than any other words
upon the car, donates from $300,000 to $500,000 each year to a race team.
"The sponsors do this because they love the sport. Now there is not a
single race team that can survive without [a sponsor]," Kenny stated.
Kenny and Lee Jacobs both
know that Lee couldn't have started his career without the partnership
of Tom Honecker either. Twenty-seven years after Kenny first hit the track,
he paid the price of $35,000 to help start his son's career. Running two
sprint car teams is hard on the checkbook, as Lee is well aware. Kenny
allowed Lee one racecar to compete his entire first season in. "Dad just
told me to think more along the lines of having 18 spare cars waiting
for me," Lee said with a slight laugh. "He wanted me to run my hardest,
and I did." In his first year of racing, Lee kept his car in one piece.
In fact, he won his first feature at the very track his great-grandfather
With his grandfather,
Jake, by his side, and his father, Kenny, on the telephone (Kenny was
competing in a race in Tulsa, Oklahoma) Lee was all smiles for his first
night in victory lane. The 2002 race season will see the Jacobs family
counting parts and cringing at bills again, as Tom Honecker has decided
to leave the team. Confident that he and Lee can survive another season
together, Kenny has decided to continue running his own team all the while
searching for the proverbial sponsor.
"Hell, getting free gas
for a year doesn't sound too bad anymore," he said. The three men agree
that the sport they so dearly love will continue to become more expensive,
however they are positive that race teams will earn more money in the
future as well. Jake still loves the sport as he is constantly in the
stands cheering on his two sons (Kenny's younger brother Dean also competes
with the All-Star Circuit of Champions) and grandson. On the other hand,
the sport has grown too astronomically expensive for him. "There is no
way that me or my son could've race if it would have been this expensive
when we both started," he claimed.
While Lee believes that
the only way to stunt the economical growth of the sport would be to ban
lightweight components, Kenny does not feel this would make a difference.
In Kenny's mind, the sport is all about speed, and that, therefore is
where the costs are increasing. The only way to slow down the increasing
costs in Kenny's opinion would be to enforce stricter rules and limits
on the current motors' horsepower.
The three men share the
same name. They have the same speed-driven blood coursing through their
bodies. They may not always share the same opinions, but they all hold
a family-rooted love for sprint car racing. This sport has tied them together
for decades and has provided a heritage to be passed on for generations
to come. And no price, however high, is too much to pay for that bond.