Beside, not behind: Drivers' wives finding fulfillment in racing
Beside, not behind
Being the wife of a racecar driver has its benefits and drawbacks.
They have the thrill of watching someone they love chase victory and get fulfilment from their passion. They have the fun of traveling and seeing different parts of the state and country. And, let’s be honest, they have the party afterwards.
But they also sacrifice. They hold their breath when their driver wrecks. There are the long hours their drivers spend in the shop working on their racecars. They give up nights and weekends all through summer. They chase someone else’s dream first.
The dynamic between a racecar driver and his wife varies, obviously, from couple to couple. But in Eastern Iowa, these women are becoming far more than any stereotype that precedes them.
The old, “behind every good man is a good woman,” saying hasn’t totally left the pop culture lexicon yet in 2016, and while motorsports have long been less progressive – politically or otherwise – that phrase doesn’t hold much water anymore.
It might not be a feminist movement, but that dynamic has changed. Contrasted with the way things were decades ago, women are now an active part of their loved ones’ racing. Gone are the days where the whole family drove to the races, the women sat in the stands and the men went to the pits. Gone are the days where women didn’t have a voice in the decision making.
That’s true across the country, and it’s true at Eastern Iowa racetracks and race shops. Wives, girlfriends, sisters and moms are down in the dirt right with the men. They stand beside, not behind, their drivers and have as much institutional knowledge as anyone.
“The way I grew up was a little different. My mom didn’t listen to that. We were in the pits. Once we hit that age where you could sign the waiver and be down there, we were in the pits all the time,” said Megan Kay, wife of Late Model racer Justin Kay. “A lot of men get mad because my sister and I know more about the racecars then some of them. And that’s a touchy subject as it is.
“I think it’s good, though, because I think a lot of women are starting to get into actually racing. A lot of guys are going to say it’s not good – look at all the people who hate on Danica (Patrick) – but go for it. Why not?”
So much of it now has to do with the women in these relationships having either grown up in the sport or having been around it for years.
When Nathan and Steph Ballard met in high school in Marengo, racing became part of what they did together, and she’s not missed much of his career. Kay grew up going to races with her dad, Doug Nigh, and was as familiar with this world as anyone when she met Justin. Maggie Brown met husband, IMCA Modified racer Kyle Brown at Newton High School, and given that her dad worked on a racing team when she was young, she knew the world, too. IMCA Late Model racer Andy Eckrich and wife Courtney, who now live in Oxford, met through racing.
For a growing number of women, feeling an active part of things – whether over time or not – gives them the fulfillment from going racing that might not always have been there.
“When we first started, it was hard because racing always came first,” Maggie Brown said. “But it becomes your dream, too. Not just his.
“It’s fun, getting to travel around and seeing how passionate and excited he gets about it. It’s fun for both of us. It gets our whole family involved.”
Away from the action
Marriage as a partnership is a concept that’s widely acknowledged, and that’s part of what makes these women feel as connected as they do to the sport their husbands take part in so passionately.
From things as simple as Facebook pages – Brown, Kay and Eckrich all run their husbands’ racing pages – to actually being part of their day jobs, the partnerships extend to all parts of their lives. Brown, for example, is the Parts Manager at Harris Auto Racing, the chassis manufacturing company. Kay is tied directly to the family’s livelihood of farming by working at Kay Farms Elevator.
Mixing work and life wasn’t always in the plan, but it has strengthened relationships in many cases.
“It’s the lifestyle we lead, and I like it,” Brown said. “Sometimes it’s hard, but a lot of times it’s not a big deal (working there). It’s fun because, like a couple weekends ago, we were able to stay at (Benton County Speedway in) Vinton, and we stayed with a couple customers. It’s fun, all the people we get to meet (doing business together).”
Racing has been a family affair for many since its infancy, and as these women and their husbands grow into their mid-20s and 30s, it’s certainly become that for them on an immediate level.
Nathan and Steph Ballard have a daughter Emery, who’s nearly 2 years old. Justin and Megan Kay have Kayleigh, who’s just more than a year old. Andy and Courtney Eckrich have three kids, Bryson, Kendall and Drew, who was born just two months ago.
Having children changes priorities in a hurry, and that’s most certainly been the case for these three couples. The Ballards don’t go more than a few days without taking a picture of Emery at the shop with Nathan, and Steph said Emery will beg to go to the shop almost daily. Like Emery with her parents, Kayleigh is at the track whenever Megan is.
And in all those cases, the racecar driver took a backseat to the dad in those men.
Perhaps the best example was with the Eckriches. Both of their youngest children, Kendall and Drew, were born premature, and had to spend weeks in the NICU. While Courtney spent time at the hospital, it was her husband, Andy Eckrich, who played “Mr. Mom.” She said he refused help from either sets of parents for a long time, insisting on taking care of his family while his wife attended to their son.
While Andy had farmland and Precision Performance to take care of, he adjusted. Seeing how he juggled it all before Drew got to come home reaffirmed the choice Courtney made in a husband and father for her kids.
Even though racing is life – as the saying goes – it’s not everything.
“Andy hasn’t been racing a whole lot because of all that, and has put family first. I know he missed it,” Eckrich said. “It means a lot that Andy was there. I sat in the hospital with Drew for two weeks on bedrest before he was born. Andy had to step up and he was Mr. Mom at home.
“He was so good. He wanted to do everything on his own. He was able to, and I’m very proud of him for that.”
Faith and fear
Racing demands faith – and not just in the invocation that often serves as the preamble to racing events. It’s the faith involved in watching a loved one strap into a racecar with the idea of going as fast as they can around a group of other cars doing the exact same thing.
Injury and death are a part of the sport, unfortunately, and it takes a lot for many to put aside those nerves and the fear that their husbands won’t be OK.
Granted, that depends on the individual. Some take solace in the safety inside the racecars. Brown, for example, said “(Kyle is) safer inside his racecar than he is on the street” and added she doesn’t spend a ton of time in worry.
For others, time on track builds the nerves and the worry. Kay mentioned “big tracks” specifically because of the speed of the Late Models and so many of the wrecks she’s seen over her years of going to the races. There’s the pacing and the hand-wringing that comes with it, but like the others, she knows the car he’s in is as safe as they can make it.
“I guess part of it is the bigger tracks make me nervous,” Kay said. “I used to be a wreck, especially when my dad and Justin raced each other. By the end of the feature I’d be a wreck; couldn’t even stand I was so nervous. But I’m a lot better about it now. I get nervous when he’s in lapped cars or starting deep in the field.”
While it might fulfill at least part of the wife stereotype, Brown, Kay, Ballard and Brown all have been on their husbands about the safety aspect, and have pushed each racer to wear updated suits, gloves and helmets. And yes, the HANS device (or an equivalent) is well-covered ground.
Kyle, Justin, Nathan and Kyle have each balked at wearing one in the past – each come from the old school driver mentality – but acknowledge its necessity. And it’s not as though their wives are pushing them to use one just to hear themselves talk.
They’ve all built this life together, and are in it all together. They want to enjoy watching their children grow, go camping and go to – and win – more races.
“I just want (Nathan) to be safe. As long as when he comes off the track everything is OK and he’s in one piece, that’s OK,” Ballard said. “Winning is just icing on the cake, I guess. It is nice to know his work is worth the time and effort and money.”
l Comments: (319) 368-8884; firstname.lastname@example.org