Even Maryland can lead to pits

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A father goes to the Indianapolis 500 and brings back a small toy for his son. It is a little red plastic race car. On another day, another father decides to take his son to a road rally.

The results are the same. Both boys decide they are going to be involved in motor racing when they grow up. But, unlike most small children who are enamored of the sport, Scott Michael and Jeff Simon didn't want to grow up to be drivers.

Michael and Simon wanted to grow up to be the ones who make the race cars go fast.

They wanted to be motor-racing mechanics.

Years later, despite being born in Maryland, a state without major auto racing, both have achieved their childhood dreams.

Not only that, but they have wound up working for the same organization - Team Kool Green, a two-car team in the Championship Auto Racing Teams' Fed-Ex Championship Series.

They will both be in the pits today when the CART teams roll into Nazareth, Pa., for the rescheduled Bosch Spark Plug Grand Prix. The race was postponed from April 9 because of snow.

Michael, 36, is responsible for taking care of the engine of car No.27 for driver Dario Franchitti, who finished second two weeks ago in the Twin Ring Motegi in Japan. Simon, 30, is the front-end mechanic and fueler during race-day pit stops for CART points leader Paul Tracy.

"I'm living proof that you don't have to be from Indianapolis or North Carolina or Florida or California to be in racing," said Michael, who grew up in Thurmont.

"I knew no one in the motor-racing world. I worked real hard and people responded. It was a matter of determination, desire and stick-to-itiveness. It took me 15 years, but I got here."

Simon, a Baltimore native, was lucky enough, after being around race cars since age 14, to have a friend in Owings Mills who got into the business before him. That friend made it possible for Simon to make it to major-league open-wheel racing in a hurry.

"I'd be lying if I said luck didn't play a part," Simon said. "Scott took a completely different path. He came up through a lot more less high-profile way. He took the harder way.

"But, either way, if someone in Baltimore or Maryland is really looking to make a career out of racing mechanics, it can be done."

Michael said he has loved cars - race cars - since he was 5, and he can pinpoint the moment his love affair began.

"My dad went to the Indianapolis 500 in 1969 and he brought me back a plastic red race car," Michael said. "I pushed that little red car around and around. My mom said I played with that little car more than any other toy I ever had."

When he was 14, he was working on a friend's car. When he was a senior in high school, a neighbor in Thurmont, Dave Lawyer, raced a dirt track car at Hagerstown Speedway and let him help.

He enrolled as a mechanical engineering and design student at West Virginia University, but was out of money after two years and had to quit. From there, it was on to working on cars for drivers he didn't always know at Summit Point.

"I'd go to the track and tell them I'd work for free, "if you buy me lunch," he said, adding he still plans to finish his education some day.

Word got around, and so did Michael. He spent time with teams in the Sports Car Club of America Trans Am Series, in NASCAR's Busch Grand National Series and the International Motor Sports Association's Firestone/Firehawk sports-car series.

He worked as a free-lance crew chief in 1996 and developed a relationship with car builders Riley and Scott, becoming their factory technical director two years later.

"They hunted me down and I moved to Indy," Michael said. "We did the 24 Hours of Daytona and Le Mans and I was in on the initial building of the Corvette that General Motors is taking to Le Mans this year."

All of the experience added up. Team Green hired him as the lead mechanic for driver Jonny Kane's Indy Lights car. During the ensuing season, Kane won two poles and one race - the first ever for Team Green's Indy Lights program.

The performance earned Kane Rookie of the Year honors. It earned Michael a move up to Team Green's top program.

"I couldn't pass up the initial opening on Team Green," Michael said. "I was looking for something real secure. I wanted to settle down, buy a house, have a family.

"Being asked to move up to the Champ Car program is like nirvana."

Now, he has a house, is dating someone and spends his days putting headers and oil lines on the team's Honda engines and inspecting them all again at race's end.

"It's like having a big set of Legos," he said happily. "The only way I'd leave this job is to get out of the sport."

For Simon, it was a much shorter journey. His interest in the sport started at about the same age as Michael's. He was 6 when the National Security Agency transferred his father from Fort Meade to England for five years.

And it was in England that he really caught the racing bug. Jack and Barb Simon took their son to the vastly popular local road rallies and, by the time the family moved back to the area, Simon knew what he wanted to do.

He, too, worked on local race cars from the age of 14. And he, too, went off to college to major in mechanical engineering. But during Simon's junior year at the University of Pittsburgh, he was asked to become the first mechanic on Phillips Motorsports Formula Atlantic car and he did.

"Maybe it's not the brightest thing I've ever done, but it's worked out," he said.

The offer came because his Owings Mills friend, David Pace, had gone to a mechanics school and been hired by Phillips. When an opening came, Pace thought of Simon. In 1994, Simon was given a chance to prove what he could do.

He proved himself well enough to get hired as the lead mechanic on Juan Fangio II's All American Racers team in 1996. Two years later, he joined Penske Racing as the second mechanic on Al Unser Jr.'s car.

The next year, Penske momentarily downsized its operation and Simon, one of the newest hires, was one of the first to be let go. But his luck held. Even before he knew he was out of a job, his boss, crew chief Rick Rinaman, put in a call to Team Green.

Simon walked out of one top job right into another.

Since working on Tracy's car, Simon has experienced victory three times, twice last season and at Long Beach this year.

Today, they will both be in Nazareth. Their families will make the drive to see them, but won't see much of them during the race.

During the morning practice, Simon will be focused on making sure nothing on the front end of Tracy's car has come loose or is in need of any changes and then, during the race, he'll be in the pits, waiting to help fuel the car.

Michael, meanwhile, has it easier early in the day -- as long as the engine doesn't blow. But when the race starts, he'll be a man with keen responsibility.

"I'll be high in the grandstand, working as Dario's spotter," he said. "I'll be the one trying to keep him from running into things."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
63°