EVERY PIECE BELONGS
By Mike Sopko Jr.
Photos by Mike Sopko Sr., Mike Sopko Jr, Michael K. Sopko
Drag racing has a unique way of bringing people together. Stepping into the racing facility is kind of like stepping into an amusement park of speed. And just like an amusement park, people from all walks of life come to enjoy the entertainment value presented at the racetrack. For this reason, drag racing has long been able to boast that it is a leader in diversity compared to other motorsports. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a racer, a car aficionado, someone intrigued by the mechanics or the science of the sport, or just someone that is impressed by the spectacle that drag racing presents. Whether people are racing their daily driver or a 300 mph nitro fueled land missile there is something for everyone to feel like they belong and can take part in. Combine all of this with the unprecedented accessibility fans have to the cars and the racers and it is easy to see that there is something for everyone at the dragstrip.
This is part of what makes drag racing so attractive to potential sponsors. Dating back to the beginnings of the sport sponsors have seen value in placing their company logo on the sides of the racing vehicles. Initially, most of the sponsors were automotive related and performance on the track correlated with sales. “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” I believe is how the cliché’ went. Though the cars may be on the track for only a couple of minutes at a time from start up to turn off, there is also the nearly unlimited time of seeing the car in the pits and forming a connection with a team or driver. This has then attracted sponsors outside of the automotive industry. From aftershave companies to fast-food chains to energy drinks and more, businesses have seen the value in being involved in the straight-line sport.
Drag racing also has a way to create a unique awareness about worthwhile causes. Look no further than the recent sponsorships of the Infinite Hero and Make a Wish programs in the NHRA. These programs were lauded not as a way to fund big show funny cars, but instead used the big show funny cars as a tool to bring awareness and support to these worthwhile causes. These are just two examples, but I’m sure you all can think back to additional examples of ways drag racing has been used to raise awareness.
Have you ever had one of those chance encounters that was kind of a right place, right time, and the stars aligned and the pieces fell right where they belonged? Well, that’s what happened at US 131 Motorsports Park in Martin, Michigan during one of their premier events last summer. Let me introduce Kiley and Brian Ramer. Kiley and Brian are from the South Bend, Indiana area and were not involved in motorsports or came from a racing background. Brian had gotten tickets to the somewhat nearby event in Martin and after the Friday evening portion was rained out had an extra ticket and asked his wife, Kiley to join him. Kiley had never been to a race before. Both Kiley and her husband were amazed at the sights, sounds, and smells, but also the accessibility of a drag race. They were very impressed with having the ability to simply walk through the pits and meet the team and their drivers -remember those things I included at the beginning of the article that make drag racing so enticing.
During this first outing and after watching numerous cars race down the track Kiley astutely began to notice the sponsors on the side of the vehicles. What she most particularly noted was that the vast majority of the sponsors were automotive related, whether it was an oil company or tire company each seemed to be directly related to the racing vehicle. It got her thinking what would it take to put her business on the side of the car.
Now here is what makes this partnership so unique. See Kiley doesn’t own a tire store, oil refinery, or even an auto parts store. She and her husband are co-owners of Horizon Behavioral Consulting in South Bend, Indiana. Kiley is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst that has been working in the field for over a decade and when she noticed a gap in the needs of the children she was working with decided to go out on her own. Shortly thereafter she took a chance and Kiley and her husband, Brian, opened Horizon Behavioral Consulting in 2016. Kiley and her team specialize in behavior management and assist children with Autism Spectrum Disorder from the ages of 18 months to 10 years of age. Autism Spectrum Disorder, is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.” She and her team work closely with the children and their families to identify the behavioral needs of the children and target those areas. Just like any good crew chief has a baseline tune up and a particular method to tuning a fuel burning motor Kiley and her team have a systematic approach. Kiley and Horizon Behavioral use Applied Behavior Analysis and a naturalistic approach while working hand in hand with families. Again, just like a crew chief reading data after a run the team at Horizon are constantly using data and research to best assist their clients. They then evaluate the data and make adjustments based on their findings. Their first and primary goal is Functional Communication and from there move onto Social and Motor skills.
Now enter Joe Haas and his “American Way” 57 Chevy Funny Car. The veteran nitro wheelman has been in the seat of a number of entries owned by the likes of Justin Grant, Frank Ousely, Tom Motry, and most recently John Lawson. After taking ownership of his own ride, Joe began barnstorming the Midwest in 2021 with his unique fuel coupe. Speaking from firsthand experience Joe and his team have always taken the time to welcome fans, sign autographs, and enhance the spectator experience. Joe doesn’t just do it at the track either. Joe and his wife, Charli, have received awards such as the Good Neighbor of the Year Award and Mentors of the Year from Community and Support Systems for the work they do in their community. So, when the question was posed to Joe, “Hey what would it take to get my sticker on the side of your car?” the conversation and relationship began. The process went smoothly, and Joe and Kiley agreed on a sponsorship that put the sticker on the side of the car. You may be thinking, “Yeah that’s great that a business that helps children and families is being showcased on the side of a 290 mph funny car, but what are they really getting out of it?” In fact, some may even be thinking that a sponsor focused on the Autism Spectrum Disorder would be in direct contradiction with a sport that literally assaults all of your senses let alone a car that registers on the Richter Scale when it leaves the starting line. So, what is the return on investment or as it is often abbreviated, ROI in this case?
This is where the idea has somewhat of unique twist. The return on investment here is more than about dollar signs. The goal of this sponsorship is not necessarily to increase foot traffic at the Horizon Behavioral Consulting facility in South Bend. Return on Investment here is about helping kids and families find the resources that they need. According to the CDC, Autism diagnosis are on the rise, with “1 in 44 children in the United States being diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.” According to 2018 data from the CDC, “1 in 27 boys are identified with Autism” and “1 in 116 girls are identified with Autism.” Utilizing Joe and his “American Way” funny car allows Horizon Behavioral Consulting to get literature and contact information to another demographic that may have someone in their family or know someone in need of such services. So now another question. What good does it do for a family in Iowa at race say in Eddyville to receive a business card from a company located in South Bend, Indiana? And again, that is what makes this relationship unique. Anyone with this information can reach out to Kiley and her team and be connected to resources near them. This can help lead families to a diagnosis and potentially a team of therapists.
Even as early as last year, it is easy to see what makes Joe’s “American Way” funny car a fan favorite. From its patriotic theme to the fact, you are witnessing a nitro burning ’57 Chevy Bel Air plow through the traps at nearly 300 mph, and a driver and team that make connecting with the fans a priority there is a whole lot to be impressed with. And though at first glance this seems to be an unusual pairing, upon further review you can see how these pieces came together. Keep an eye out for Joe and his team at several events this year. So far, they plan to attend the Eddyville Night of Fire, Nitro Chaos at Mo-Kan, the Northern Nationals in Martin, MI, the World Series in Cordova, and the Funny Car Nationals back at Martin. Lastly, if you happen to be in attendance and need information about Autism Spectrum Disorder or know someone who does, stop by the “American Way” trailer and pick up a card.