Published in The Bellingham Herald on June 25, 2016

In 1989, when Steve Beitler was racing in the World of Outlaws — the most prestigious sprint car series in the country — he once pulled up to a racetrack gas pump with two dollars to his name.

“Here’s the keys to my quad,” he told the fuel man. “Keep it. I promise you I’ll pay you for the fuel.”

The man looked at Beitler.

“Are you serious?” he replied.

The man told Beitler to fill his fuel jugs, take his quad and pay when he could. That night during the race in Holts Summit, Missouri, Beitler finished seventh and won $1,500. He paid for the fuel.

The story is one of many in the increasingly difficult quest of independent sprint car drivers across the country, trying to make the jump from local competition to national success.

Beitler, now owner of Skagit Speedway, competed full-time on the World of Outlaws circuit from 1989 to 1996, finishing seventh in national points in 1991. His passion and respect for the sport keeps him going today, as it did when times as an owner-driver were tough.

“There were several times I’d pull into a pit area and have less than $100 left, and I’m 2,000 miles from home,” he said. “But you know what? It never bothered me. It’s like, ‘Where’s the next race?’”

Past and present

Beitler grew up around Skagit Speedway. His father raced in the track’s first event in 1954, and Beitler sold programs at the track as a kid. He built his first race car in Sedro-Woolley as a high school project.

After racing locally for years, he finally moved up to the World of Outlaws at age 30, and encountered no shortage of problems trying to make his driving career work.

There were shortages of money, homesickness from months on the road and simply the grind of just trying to survive a grueling season featuring 60 to 70 events a year. Sponsors occasionally fell through, and young mechanics he’d groomed would be lured away by better teams who could pay more.

The pitfalls of being a full-time owner-driver are something that Seth Bergman, 28, knows well.

The Snohomish native grew up racing motorcycles and mini-sprints before moving to full-size sprint cars at age 16. He’s been racing full-time on the American Sprint Car Series circuit since 2011, winning a handful of marquee events and finishing fourth in points last year.

While Bergman said making a living running sprint cars is a dream he’s had for many years, the rewards are tempered by the never-ending hard work.

Bergman’s team consists of himself and two other full-time mechanics. When he competes locally, he has additional help from longtime friends and his father. The team has some funding but sticks to a strict budget. Just being consistently competitive, he said, is a huge accomplishment.

“I think a lot of people think, ‘you’re a race car driver and you live this glamorous lifestyle,’ but I think that only exists up in the NASCAR levels,” he said. “Because if you’re going to be a sprint car driver for a living, you’re going to have your work cut out for you.”

Getting schooled

Fellow driver Trey Starks, 20, has been running 360 and 410 sprint cars across the country since 2012.

The Puyallup native began racing mini-sprints around age 9 and moved up to full-size sprints by age 14.

Starks’ path is a unique one, as he splits his time between his family’s car in Washington and Oregon, and driving for two separate car owners in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. He’s also a community college student, and since high school has been hopping on planes for race weekends, before returning in time for classes.

Starks sometimes has plane tickets paid for by sponsors or car owners, but often his airfare is covered out of pocket.

“It’s an expensive sport,” he said in a phone interview. “We’re aware it takes a lot, and we’re ready for it.”

When it comes to money, Starks said that while drivers like NASCAR’s Kyle Larson and Rico Abreu have risen through the ranks based largely on skill, the opportunities to advanced based solely on skill are few and far between.

“It can still be done on sheer talent these days, but you definitely have to be in the right place at the right time, and have the right people behind you,” he said. “It seems like it’s a lot easier for guys to just get their checkbooks out and get up there that way.”

Bergman has a similar view, but believes one element makes all the difference.

“When you get to a certain level of competition in any sport, you find a reason for why you’re winning and why you’re not,” he said. “I believe that hard work leads to opportunity, and if you put in the work, the opportunities come and you’re prepared when they come, and that’s when you capitalize, and you call that success. I don’t think any luck comes without hard work, and I don’t think any success comes without hard work.”

The future

Steve Beitler said things have gotten even more difficult for drivers since his days in the World of Outlaws, mostly due to rising expenses in everything from fuel to hotel rooms to the cost of buying and maintaining engines.

Beitler estimated the cost of running a 360 sprint car to be around $800 to $1,000 per night. Engines, he said, are particularly costly, gauging the cost of “freshening,” or maintaining, a 410cc race engine at $10 to $12,000.

Still, Starks said if you can afford it, running all over the country is essential for expanding a driver’s skill set.

“When you travel all over the place, the competition varies so much,” he said. “You definitely have to be on top of your game if you want to be the best.”

When drivers pull into Skagit Speedway for events like this weekend’s annual Jim Raper Dirt Cup, Beitler said he hopes visiting racers feel that they are appreciated for their effort — just like he wanted to be when he was driving.

“I respect them for what they’re doing, because I’ve been there,” he said. “It isn’t the glamorous life that people on the outside (think it is). It isn’t ‘race all day and drink and chase women all night.’ You get done racing, you work on your car, you head to the car wash, you go to the hotel and try to get enough sleep (because) you gotta go the next day. It’s a very, very grueling lifestyle.”