Joe German has found a simple formula to drive his modified race car around Grays Harbor Raceway, one that has served him well over the past couple of seasons.
The formula — spend one hour working on the car off the track for every one lap run on the track — was perfected last season when he captured the Elma track’s modified division championship without winning an A-main event feature race. This is a rare accomplishment in auto racing.
This season, German has a new car to drive around the three-eighths of a mile clay oval, is currently defending his track championship atop the overall standings and is one of several drivers who have turned the modified division into one of the best shows in Elma.
“We’re still getting used to the new car and figuring out all of the adjustments to make on it,” German said. “It is very different (from my old car), but this car is a lot faster. Getting the adjustments down has been the trick. It has so many adjustments. Every corner has multiple shocks and bar angles you can use. It has been different (than in years past).”
New car, old lessons
There was some good fortune in German’s racing garage this season. Regardless of how the 2011 season turned out, the 37-year-old Wishkah resident was going to replace his first modified chassis and car with a new manufactured 2009 Sky Rocket chassis.
It is the equivalent of a baseball player who won the MVP and Silver Slugger award the year before changing his bat and glove manufacturer that the player had used to win those awards. There is a bit of superstition attached to winning and German acknowledged that.
“There was (some concern), because last year, the old car was so consistent,” he said. “(The old car) is an Ellis chassis copy that I bought from Ron Martin in Southern Oregon. It is less forgiving than the new one and it was a strong car. It is heavy, rigid, a tank. It is 250 pounds heavier than the car we have now. That’s quite a bit when you are talking race cars.”
The old 75x modified that German piloted for three seasons, earned him Rookie of the Year honors in 2009, a top-five finish in 2010 and the track championship last year. From 2002-08, German drove in the hobby stock division with a car he found in a field with some help from fellow Wishkah driver Greg Dineen and Bill Carter.
Carter still helps German with his motors. Dineen is now competing with German in the modified division and shares some of the same crew members when Dineen is driving.
“Joe was living in (Wishkah) and I’ve been racing for a long time,” Dineen said of German’s start in racing at Elma. “I moved from hobby stocks to modifieds and he got into it. He didn’t know too much that was going on, but he was eager to learn. He listened and the guys who were helping me helped him. In a couple of years, he was winning races.
“He beats a lot of guys in the shop before he gets to the track,” Dineen said. “He’s one of those guys who gets into something, he’ll go off the deep end with it. He’s in it to win. There was a learning curve when he got into the modifieds, but he won the title last year.”
Time in, time out
The 2011 championship season for German was a unique one. From opening night in April through championship night in September, he didn’t win a single A-main event race. But what he did to get atop the standings was finish every race he drove, finish in the top three or five to maximize his points and work hard on the car both on and off the track.
German credited the season and the championship to a racing philosophy he learned when he raced on asphalt in California — “for every lap you turn on a race weekend, you should put in one hour in the shop on the car.”
“A lot of (that season) came from how I was taught in racing — you’re going to beat a majority of the guys on the race track before you leave the shop,” said German, who grew up in the Redding-Anderson area in Northern California before moving to Washington with his parents just after high school.
“The maintenance we do on the car is unparalleled,” he said. “My winning a championship without winning (an A Main Event) took a lot of help. Some of it was other people’s cars breaking down. I didn’t have any motor failures and the car ran flawless. The (old) chassis never broke, we only had a few flat tires and my worst finish was eighth, because I blew a tire on the last lap in a main event.”
Taking that guideline, there’s a lot of car work every week of the race season. German noted that he does much of the work himself during the week. He asks his crew to come in when they can, which includes Friday nights before the race and all day Saturday before driving out to the track. Most nights, however, it is just him and the car.
With the new chassis, there are more things to look for during the week, especially since the entire crew knew every nook and bolt on the old car.
“Our maintenance gets better every year,” German said. “You learn more things to check and almost every week, you add something else to the checklist. Last year, we stripped (the old chassis) down to the bare frame and refinished every inch of it. Any time you do that to a race car and you have every nut and bolt off the car and you put it back together, you’ll get the best performance out of it.
“From the off-season work, I think I’ve won in my career four opening nights,” he added. “That attributes to making sure the car is right before you go to the track. It makes the year go better, too. My crew guys, they’re really good. They’re out at the shop at least one or two nights a week, depending upon what is going on. You try not to get their wives and girlfriends to hate you. So when we have barbecues, I don’t have to worry about forks being stuck into my ribs. They have lives, too.”
Dineen added that German’s hard work has been paying big dividends.
“This year, he’s got a different car, more money behind him and he’s put in more effort into all of it,” Dineen said. “He’s working hard at it and reaping the rewards. If you look at (Shelton’s) Scott Miller, he’s won multiple championships. He’s good and talented and he works very hard at it. Joe’s done very well and I respect what he’s done. Joe has good help and he no longer needs advice. It is probably reversed now and I need advice from him.”
Part of the work that goes into the car starts in the pits during the races. Once a part is replaced, German and his crew mark it down on their checklist. On Sunday, the car is taken out of the trailer, inspected and the parts list is compiled. Other essentials, including lube and fuel additives, are also noted and a laundry list is sent to parts distributors in the Midwest to help replenish what was used.
“You can always pay for overnight shipping, but if you want to be efficient, you start the list Saturday night,” German said. “We run Top Lube with our ethanol and you can’t find Top Lube anywhere around here. One of the bad things being here, everything you need to order for the car is coming from the Midwest. You need your order list done and ready to be sent off Monday morning, so you can get it by the middle-to-the-end of the week.”
Expense and sacrifice
With all of the parts coming in and the tires and fuel used at the track, auto racing can get expensive. For German, it is the case for him as a racer and as a family man.
“It is expensive,” he said. “I don’t know how long I’ll sustain what I’m doing. I have a 4-year-old daughter. One of these summers, I’d like to take her and the family to Disneyland. My wife is very understanding and my family loves going to the races. As a racer, you have to have a very understanding family and I do.
“I have a lot of good sponsors,” German added. “This is the most sponsors I’ve ever had. With my hobby stock, it was pretty much by myself. With the modified car, it is different. I have two cars, three motors, need 20 tires and wheels, spare transmission, spare everything. Time is the biggest thing. Yes, it does cost a lot and you have sponsors, but the time … you can’t buy time. Time is the most crucial element. It adds up.”
German noted that if he wasn’t racing, he’d spend more time with his family, as well as hunting and fishing. To him, racing has been worth the time and effort.
“Yeah,” German said. “I think there will come a time when it might not. I don’t know how much longer I’ll keep racing as long as I am or at the level I’m at. When you are in a points race, that balancing act of what am I going to do — go to my cousin’s wedding and lose points at that race or not?
“There are guys who have been running for a long time and they tell me, ‘You can only points race for so long,’” he added. “They tell me that the best way to (not points race) is don’t go to opening night. If you miss that one, you are one race down. So, you don’t have to worry about points. With that said, it won’t be next year. I’ve kept on saying it would be, but if I’m fortunate enough to win the championship again, I will defend it over the full season.”
Racing in Elma
The modified division, sanctioned by the United States Racing Association, has grown at Elma over the past several years. Drivers like Seabeck’s Craig Moore, Aberdeen’s Dineen and Shelton’s Scott Miller, along with Kris Asche, Zack Simpson, Jim Oien and Leroy Lawhead, have all moved up through the hobby stock division to lead the modifieds. This group of drivers, both new to the division and longtime fixtures, have been joined by other drivers from around the Northwest to bolster the best division driving in Elma on a track once dominated by and built for sprint cars.
German has been the latest driver to take charge of the division, using a measured and experienced line at driving the clay oval every weekend. The track changes every weekend and what works one night may not work again the rest of the season.
“Our track, we have the best track around,” German said. “It is nice to hear that from out-of-area drivers, too. Other tracks are a lot smaller, a lot tighter. When you get out of turn 4, you drive like you are turning into your closet. At Elma, you can come off turn 4 and you can be five-wide. There are multiple ways to race each groove. You can enter high. You can enter low. You can round out the corner. The track is different every time we race, depending upon the track surface, of course.
“(Former Grays Harbor Raceway promoter and track builder) Fred Brownfield and the sprint cars built that track,” German added. “It was his vision and he knew what he wanted. The support with the amount of sprint cars helped all of the classes. We benefited from them trying to make the facility better for sprint cars. We were able to sit back in the shadows and race on this phenomenal race track that was envisioned for 360 and 410 sprint cars. All classes benefited from that.”
With just under one month left in the season, German is in a prime position to defend his division championship. Nevertheless, driving the new car — and all of the adjustments, tricks and turns you can make to tune it to the track conditions — German and his crew are still learning how to dial in the chassis, while winning main events.
“You can adjust yourself out of the box right from the get-go with the new car,” German said. “You can make a few changes, go out there and never feel right on the track. We don’t get warm-up or practice laps. The way a dirt track works is you show up and race. You better have the car do what you need it to do beforehand or you’re in the back of the field.
“We’re getting better at it as the year has progressed,” he added. “As the year progressed, going to other tracks during (the Northwest modifieds) Speedweek, you learn a lot about the car as you drive it. I didn’t think we’d hit the ground running like we did. With that said, it is exciting for next year, because we’re going to chassis school in the winter and learn the latest stuff. We’ll be better next year than we are now. So, there are no excuses now if we’re not.”
Rob Burns is a Daily World sports writer. He can be reached at (360) 537-3926 or via email at email@example.com