I’ve been pretty fortunate throughout my supermodified life to meet some very interesting characters. Many have become wonderful life long friends that I can depend on for advice, comfort in times of distress, and more often than not, a major amount of amusement and laughter regardless of any situation.
One of those people is named Rodney Rothgarn. I can’t say for sure the exact moment that I got to really know Rod, but we’ve been friends for a good while now. I’m sure our first point of contact came from my curiosity over west coast supermodified racing and it more than likely came from a phone call I made to Rod after learning about him from Curt Kern.
While the details are a bit sketchy, I can say that we became close enough friends that with a little cajoling and the blessing of my roommates Mike and Rob Tynan, that he became convinced that he needed to experience the cornfields and trailer parks of Goshen, IN.
In the spring of 2004, Rod loaded up “The Mighty Ranger” with his open trailer, drove across the country from California to Massachusetts, purchased an old Grave’s chassis from Howie Lane, and showed up on our doorstep looking for a cold beer and a place to lay his head.
What was originally planned as a stop along the way, became an all out effort by a few beer drinking buddies without a machine shop and only a car port to shelter the race car, to get Rod’s new ride ready to race with the Midwest Supermodified Association and the International Supermodified Association.
Thankfully, our neighbors across the street saw our plight and opened up their garage to give us a place to work. I think RIch and Sherry Grote got as much of a kick out of seeing us bust knuckles with not much more than hand tools so much, that it was as much for their entertainment as it was to help a racer in need.
That was in the beginning of the adventure, in short time they became enamored with Rod’s story and would pitch in to help as well as lend moral support. So often they had heard me talk about supermodified racing, but never had a seen one or really understood why I loved the cars as much as I do. By the time Rod was ready to head back to California, to get his old Mark Eckberg “X-Car,” they made it well-known that he would always have a place to keep his race cars when he came back.
In due time, Rod was ready to fire the super. We all decided that if we wanted to continue to live our comfortable “trailer trash” lives, that we’d best not fire a big block up within the confines of the trailer park. Ever the astute racer, Rod had noticed a track not far away. He asked me about it and I told him that it was New Paris Speedway, better known to those of us that had grown up in the area as New Paris International or “NP International.” Now it was known as that because, quite frankly, it’s what most would call a “dump” and really wasn’t, shall we say, the most pristine example of modern short track facilities.
Nonetheless, Rod determined that it would suite the purpose on hand. In its heyday New Paris Speedway had hosted many supermodified races. It was also the place in the spring of my first year that i was exposed to the division I have come to love.
Many times growing up I would watch my fellow “Goshenite”, ( a tongue in cheek term used as much to show the amount of Amish and Mennonites in the area as it is an enduring nickname for those of us raised in this town), Willie Stutzman win more often than he lost.
We loaded the car up and with our ragtag crew in tow, made the short trek to the track. It was decided that Mike would be the push truck driver, a chore he relished and had some experience at, albeit, very little. We strapped Rod in, Rob ‘ran’ the wheels and Mike pulled up behind to push. And push did he ever! Given the amount of tire smoke Mike polluted the pristine farmland air with, we began to wonder if maybe Mike was envisioning pushing off Eddie Bellinger at Oswego Speedway for the start of the International Classic 200 and not just trying to get Rod going.
The car sputtered to life after a couple of tries and Rod pulled away from Mike’s truck. We felt like kings! We had accomplished something as friends and now legitimate crew guys. Our joy was short-lived though as Rod pulled to a stop in front of us. We rushed to the car and were greeted with a fine shower of methanol spraying from the injection as the car idled.
All I could see was a disaster in the making. I ran to the “Mighty Ranger” grabbed the small fire extinguisher we had brought, and stood ready to douse anything in site with a perfect blanket of foam.
Luckily, the car didn’t catch fire and I never had to squeeze the trigger on the red bottle. Rod climbed out, tinkered with the injection and instructed Mike to pull in behind for another go. This time Mike, after a bit of gentle instruction from Rod, saved some of his tire tread and pushed the red roadster off in a more controlled fashion. The car fired on the first try and we were sure we were all headed for supermodified glory.
It wasn’t to be though. Rod never really did get either car running, but it sure wasn’t for lack of effort. The nagging fuel system issues left us all scratching our heads and longing for a trip back to Rich and Sherry’s garage where the cold beverages awaited.
Being involved with him, along with Mike and Rob and Rich and Sherry, and really the trailer park neighborhood that we lived in, hearkens back to the old days of the division. Back then someone down the street owned a super and the neighborhood kids would ride their bike down just to get a glance. In time they would end up cleaning body panels or maybe mounting tires. On down the road, many would become full-time crew members and eventually racers or car owners.
Rod taught us a lot that summer including how to have a good time and not let troubles get you down. You can see by some of these shots that we did our fair share of sorrow drowning and we always had a good laugh as we nursed our bloody knuckles.
It’s not that we didn’t take the task at hand seriously, because we did. We just understood that the happiness that came from the friendships that were cemented that summer were more important than any amount of first place prize money could give you.
Rod is back in California and he no longer races. He has had his fair share of bad luck and is struggling with health issues. Through it all though, he’s kept his sense of humor, a smile, and a great outlook on life. Just like he did when people laughed at him for coming out here or any time he pulled up to the track with that open trailer behind “The Mighty Ranger,” he’s still the type of duck that always has the water running off his back and in the words of our good friend Curt Kern, “drinks more Kool-Aid than anyone I know.” Here’s to always looking at the bright side and making great memories and friends.