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One For The Little Guy

By John Chuhran, MetroSports Magazine March 2024


It was a phrase heard for almost a century – “just once before I die.”

Those words were muttered by literally thousands of New Englanders after October 1918 and for the next 86 years as they watched baseball’s Boston Red Sox find more new ways to lose than most people thought were possible. Finally, in 2004, the Fenway Faithful exorcised the Curse of the Bambino by claiming another World Series Championship.

That is the fate of the athlete and, by extension, the sports fan – invest countless hours on getting bigger, stronger, faster and better; suffer until finally scaling the mountain; endure until reaching the summit. Repeat.

It doesn’t really matter what sport you are passionate about, dark times and disappointments are integral parts of competition. Nobody wins them all. But one of sports’ greatest gifts is teaching that persevering – pushing ahead when the odds are stacked against you, struggling for more when your body is exhausted and aches, committing to the work when it all seems hopeless – will often produce success. And when it doesn’t, it still makes you better than you were before you invested the time and effort, the work, the sweat and the pain, regardless of the outcome.

Measuring victory is a personal matter. Whether it is vanquishing all opponents or performing at a new personal best or merely doing better than the last time, winning is in the mind of the competitor.

Which brings us to Daytona, Florida, on Friday, February 16. Competitors in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series had gathered at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway for the season opening Fresh From Florida 250, part of the undercard leading up to the 65th Daytona 500.

Above: 2024 Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. Photo credit - JazzyJoeyD via Wikimedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

NASCAR has changed drastically from the days when the Daytona track first opened. The vehicles now are stock-appearing rather than stock-based, and that means that running on the race track is severely limited because every lap completed costs hundreds if not thousands of dollars. But for the first race of the year, the teams were given a one-hour practice session to make sure everything was operating properly and to help newcomers get comfortable with the high speeds and unexpected sensations of lapping at 180 mph on a track where the turns are banked at 31 degrees. For the local racer who has toiled on flat tracks half a mile long or less, Daytona is another world.

At places like Indianapolis and Daytona, that change in sensation has always been a problem for racers with little or no high-speed knowledge. The experts said you can’t race at Daytona until you’ve got experience, but how were you supposed to get high-speed know-how when fewer than two dozen tracks in the land enable a driver to gain that familiarity?

NASCAR recognized the problem and created or scheduled several lower-level series – The ARCA Menards Series, The Craftsman Truck Series, The Xfinity Series – to help younger drivers get comfortable with what happens when you race at speeds so fast that air moving out of the way can cause airplanes to fly.

Above: The FDNY Racing truck at the pre-race staging area before the start of the 2024 Daytona Craftsman Series NASCAR Truck Race. Photo credit - Steven Quat, Studio City, CA

The moving air is the challenge. At 180 mph, the wind buffets the cars (or trucks) on top and from all sides. When it hits the vehicle and spoilers as intended, the  “draft” is a tool that adds downforce and grip. When it does not hit the vehicle as expected, the car loses grip and the driver must fight to control his speeding chariot. And while grip is decreased, if it happens when closely following another vehicle, the trailing car has less wind to move as it rides in the “draft,” so it can achieve a greater top speed to pull around and pass the car ahead.

Where the other competitors are positioned on the track can also have a massive effect on the air, so having a chance to experience the “draft” and learn how it affects vehicles differently depending upon where you line up is essential for rookies. The problem is they generally learn by making mistakes and those errors can have drastic consequences – possibly completely destroying vehicles and severely injuring drivers.

One Truck Series team owner who knows this well is a resident of Mamaroneck, NY. His name is Jim Rosenblum, a lifelong racing fan who was a college student back in 1959 when he bought a ticket to the first Daytona 500. Rosenblum followed the sport as he built some local businesses through the years, and he started to sponsor a part-time Cup Series team from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. in the 1980s. Costs escalated faster and faster and staying competitive became impossible with a small budget, but NASCAR noticed that there were quite few teams that needed help, and so in 1995 the Craftsman Truck Series (originally called the Supertruck Series) was born as the smaller teams cut some tubes off the car roll cages and slapped on pickup truck bodywork. Of all those who competed at the inaugural event at Phoenix, Ariz., three decades ago, Rosenblum is the only team owner still in the series.

Above: One of the "Little Guys" in NASCAR racing. FDNY Racing Team owner Jim Rosenblum (blue shirt) posing in the little village of Mamaroneck, NY (3.2 square miles in size) with his brother, Norm, them mayor of Mamaroneck back in 2019. Photo courtesy of Jim Rosenblum

Currently, many drivers in the Truck series are teenagers, blessed with natural talent but little real-world experience. It is a destructive situation that has made the Truck Series a crashfest where youngsters push to the limit and beyond, losing control and colliding with anyone nearby.

Now retired, Rosenblum does not have the resources to constantly rebuild his unsponsored number 28 truck – called the FDNY Racing entry in official stats and sporting decals, emblems and words of support for first responders and the military – after being caught in wrecks more times than he can count. It’s the reason why he is a kindred spirit with his driver, Bryan Dauzat of Louisiana, who, at age 64, is the oldest driver in the series and is more than three times older than some of those he races against. Both Rosenblum and Dauzat believe that to finish first, you must first finish.

Unlike the top teams which have a specialized truck for every length track, Rosenblum has just two – one set up to run fast at Daytona and its slightly longer brother, the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, and a second truck built for “intermediate” tracks with sharper and less banked corners. Comprised of volunteers who are mostly members or retirees of the NYPD and FDNY, the team races a maximum of just three times a year when Rosenblum has the money to refresh the equipment or can fund modifications needed to make the field at the race closest to his New York home, the CRC Brakleen 150 at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania on July 12. But the Daytona event – at the track where Rosenblum saw his first race – remains the focus of his racing dreams.

Above: The #28 FDNY Racing Truck undergoing pre-race inspection prior to the race. Photo credit - Steven Quat, Studio City, CA

Coming into 2024, Daytona had not been kind to Rosenblum. After qualifying for 10 previous Truck Series races in the Sunshine State, the FDNY entry had crashed out five times and recorded a best finish of 17th in the other five events. But with a powerful motor from Ilmor Engineering  and a chassis fine tuned by Bob and Dick Rahilly (of RAHMOC racing fame), this year Dauzat ran just five laps during an hour-long practice session, stopping after checking the number 28 truck’s handling in traffic while posting the 10th quickest time. There were 40 trucks battling for the 36 starting spots and Dauzat ran a strong and steady qualifying lap, posting the 29th fastest speed just 0.8 seconds off the pole winner’s time.

Above: FDNY Racing pit crew preparing the #28 truck for competition. Photo credit - Steven Quat, Studio City,CA

For the last few years, Rosenblum and Dauzat have followed a simple strategy – drop to the back of the pack at the start of the 100-lap race, let the overly aggressive kids crash and take out the trucks surrounding them, and race in the last five laps. It took just seven laps for the strategy to pay dividends as a 13-truck wreck sidelined just three involved but crippled most others. Seven more caution periods followed before the eighth yellow flag came out on lap 74 for a three-truck crash. In quick succession, the race saw a three-truck crash on lap 80, a single truck incident on lap 87, and another three-truck collision on lap 95.

Above and Below: Some of the sponsors supporting the FDNY Racing Team appear as logos on the truck. Photo credits - Steven Quat, Studio City,CA

Dauzat sat 18th when the green flag came out for a two-lap trophy dash on lap 100. On the final lap, another Big One happened entering Turn three as a dozen trucks hit each other and both the inside and outside walls. Sensing the impending  collision, Dauzat slowed slightly before jumping on the gas and weaving through the carnage. While winner Nick Sanchez, runner-up Corey Heim and third-place Rajah Caruth (all 22 or younger) battled for the win, Dauzat closed up to the back of  the reduced pack and crossed beneath the checkered flag in ninth position – the best ever Daytona finish for Dauzat and Rosenblum.  

Everyone involved was glad that the race – which had a ridiculous 12 yellow flag periods (involving a whopping 41 vehicles) and embarrassingly had more than half its laps (52) run under caution conditions – was over. The following week, NASCAR officials said they would speak to the young drivers about reducing collisions. But Rosenblum, Dauzat and the FDNY Racing team weren’t complaining too loudly – it had all played into their hands.

“It could have been even better,” Rosenblum said by phone from Florida. “The only thing he hit was a piece of flying metal from one of the other trucks. If he had kept on the gas we might have had a top five. But I’m not going to get too greedy. He was ninth – a top 10 (finish) – and it felt great.

“We didn’t have much time to celebrate – NASCAR wanted us all out of there as quickly as possible because they had to get in a lot of safety and parade vehicles for the Xfinity race and the (Daytona) 500. All the restaurants were closed by the time we were done, but we had some beers and got some burgers from Steak ‘n Shake.”    

A sense of satisfaction and pride could be heard in Rosenblum’s voice. He knew that, like the title character Rocky Balboa in the original 1976 Rocky movie, he had astounded the critics and achieved his personal goal by going the distance – in his world, by taking a top-10 at his sport’s national shrine. And achieving it after 65 years of dreaming and trying made it all the more satisfying.

“Yeah, it really felt great,” Rosenblum said with the enthusiasm of a winner. “Everybody worked really hard and it finally paid off. We’re already excited about next year and Pocono in July.”

For the 84-year-old Rosenblum, the definition of winning has changed. Now, a top-five finish is the goal – maybe even an outright victory. Perhaps… just once before I die? There’s still plenty of time; even using Red Sox standards, he has more than two full decades to go.



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