On land or water, veteran driver having time of his life
August 27, 2009 06:49 pm
— INDIANAPOLIS — John Shewbrooks Jr. might be the only race driver who wouldn’t mind seeing a puddle of water on the track. If nothing else, it might make him feel at home.
For more than 35 years, Shewbrooks has competed in the rough and tumble world of hydroplane racing, capturing five American Power Boat Association national championships. But that’s nothing, he quickly discovered, compared to wrestling a UMRA three-quarter midget car around the bullrings of Indiana.
The 54-year-old Ohio resident fulfilled a lifetime dream two years ago when he purchased one of the open-wheel, open-cockpit cars, intending to drive it a couple of times, then sell it.
Instead, as the United Midget Racing Association visits the Indianapolis Speedrome on Sunday, he’s still behind the wheel of his yellow No. 7, gamely trying to master a sport that never seemed so difficult from the grandstands.
“I’ve had a lot of fun racing,” Shewbrooks said from his home in Waverly, Ohio. “But I found that driving a three-quarter midget is a lot more difficult than driving a hydroplane. A hydroplane is very difficult to drive at 75-90 percent throttle, because they want to blow over.
“Midgets are difficult at about any speed. Even when you’re driving around on a yellow-flag lap, you have to pay attention to what you’re doing. They’re hard to drive on a short track. They’re hard to drive on a long track. It’s a very big challenge on any kind of track.
“I get out of the car, and I’m soaking wet. I’m worn out. Then I look over at these 20-something kids, and they’re like, ‘Let’s go again.’ “I’m not complaining. I’m having the time of my life.”
Shewbrooks, whose late father, “Capt. Jack,” raced both hydroplanes and midgets, owns five national championships and more than 60 wins in the APBA’s 2.5-liter modified inboard class. He still races three or four times a year in his 18-foot boat, “Sho nuff III,” and is planning to compete in New Zealand and Australia in early 2010.
He’s still looking for his first UMRA feature victory, although he’s a career-high 12th in points heading into Sunday’s race at the Speedrome, a nearly flat, fifth-mile paved track whose tight confines require a combination of patience and aggressiveness.
“I find the dirt is a bit like driving a hydroplane,” he said. “The pavement seems really foreign to me. That’s where I struggle the most.”
Shewbrooks has been upside down a time or two in his midget, but he’s shown an ability to avoid serious accidents — perhaps a carryover from his day job. He’s a quality assurance audit manager at the nuclear power plant in Piketon, Ohio.
He became interested in TQs through his next-door neighbor, Roger Ramsey, who owns the car that Tate Martz has atop the standings in the new Midwest TQ Racing League. After ruefully discovering he couldn’t squeeze into Ramsey’s car, Shewbrooks bought one for himself before the 2007 season and quickly embraced the sport. He’s a member of the UMRA Board of Directors and a goodwill ambassador for the organization, whose alumni include NASCAR star Tony Stewart.
At least eight drivers have raced both hydroplanes and in the Indianapolis 500 — Salt Walther is among the most recent — but Shewbrooks knows that window of opportunity has passed him by.
“My regret in this thing is I didn’t start racing cars when I was a lot younger,” he said. “At 54, it’s hard to contend with these kids who are starting out in their 20s.”
Shewbrooks plans to turn his car over to one of those youngsters next season. Jon Steed, a 17-year-old high school senior from Milroy, is scheduled to run for UMRA rookie honors while he takes the year off.
“At my age and the nature of this sport,” he said, “I think we’re going to have a whole lot more success with a younger driver.”
Not that Shewbrooks is ready for an easy chair — or inner tube. He’s eying USAC Ford Focus midgets or even winged sprint cars for 2011.