Off the Path Fall 2013

Race days are family affair

by Nate Hoekstra photo by Bernadine Carey-Tucker

Saturdays in the summer are special for Mark Nawrocki, because Saturdays are race days, when he spends time turning wrenches and adjusting the tire pressure on the 1988 Chevrolet Monte Carlo that his son Tyler, 23, races at Berlin Raceway in Marne.

Nawrocki, assistant facilities manager for the Recreation Center and Fieldhouse, is the de facto manager of his sons racing team, and owner of the No. 20 car that Tyler is driving for the second year in the Sportsman division at the track. The three main sponsors for the car are Kaczmarski Hearing Services, Nawara Brothers Home Store and Direct Fitness Solutions.

Nawrocki said that while Tyler handles most of the mechanical work on the race car, he helps when he can, including working on tires and maintaining the car throughout the season. The brunt of the work comes from planning and organizing what will be needed for races, and driving to specialty shops to buy new springs, shocks, carburetors or body panels when they need to be replaced. He also works hard to recruit sponsors for the car.

Upkeep is pricey; Nawrocki said it costs about $10,000 to keep the car race-ready during the off-season, including refreshing the motor, rear end and body, and at least $5,000 during each season, including racing tires and special 110-octane racing fuel that sells for about $7.60 a gallon.


Mark Nawrocki, left, and his son Tyler are pictured in front of their race car on pit road at Berlin Raceway in Marne.

Nawrocki said that hes always looking for sponsors, and added that it is a mutually beneficial relationship. He and Tyler patronize their businesses, advertise for sponsors, and will bring the car to locations for special meet-and-greet autograph sessions. Another sponsor is Earthtone Landscape Management and Services, a lawn care, landscape and snow plow company owned by Tylers brother, Eric. Tyler works for Earthtone when hes not working on the car or racing. Nawrocki said getting sponsors is all about asking. He approaches restaurants, apartment complexes and other businesses.

Sure, its a lot of hard work, but I help Tyler as much as I can because I love to do it, Nawrocki said. Im a big family man, and racing cars is just one way I get to spend more time with my kids, with my family.

Race days at Berlin often turn into family affairs, with Nawrockis wife, Kay, a teacher at Grand Rapids Public Schools, their three other children, and Tylers two nephews, Mason and Jack, ages 4 and 2, sitting on pit road watching the race. Friends and neighbors come to the track as well. In fact, it was a neighbor, Chris Anthony, who first got Nawrockis son interested in racing. Anthony raced in the Sportsman class and now races in the Super Late Model division at Berlin; he and Tyler used to work on his dirt-track car.

He worked on the neighbors car for several years, helping clean the chassis and learning about the mechanics of the car and how to adjust things if the car was running loose or tight. One day about five or six years ago he came to me and said, Dad, lets get a little four-cylinder and have some fun, Nawrocki said, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Nawrocki bought a Dodge Neon and helped Tyler put in a five-point safety harness, customize it with racing parts to be competitive, and add paint and stickers from sponsors. Over the next three years, Tyler finished 19th in points, then second in points, then won the four-cylinder division in his third year.

When he won the track championship his third year, we were approached by a guy who owned a Sportsman class car who wanted Tyler to drive it, Nawrocki said. His first year in Sportsman he won Rookie of the Year, and thats when I bought the car.

Tyler is in his second year of the Sportsman class, where the cars thunder around the half-mile oval at speeds that average about 83 mph, with top speeds hitting more than 100 mph on the straights. It doesnt sound as fast when you compare it to NASCAR, Nawrocki said, but short-track racing is a whole different animal. Youve got to see it to appreciate what those drivers are doing out there.

Nawrocki said people take racing seriously, but the prizes awarded for winning are not a huge motivation. First prize in a race is $500, with awards going to the top five finishers, but the costs offset any winnings. If youre lucky, its a break-even proposition. People are out here because they love to race, and they love the atmosphere, Nawrocki said. Sometimes people get heated when someone drives crazy and smashes up a body panel, but thats just because you know how much hard work went into getting that set for your driver.

Nawrocki said people ask his wife in the stands during races if shes nervous that Tyler will crash, but the general consensus is that with the crash helmet, roll cage, and specialized HANS (Head And Neck Support) device, hes likely safer in the race car than driving a car down the highway.

I get nervous sometimes when you see stuff happen, but he races because it makes him happy, and Im glad to work on the car with him and help him win because it means I get to spend time with him, Nawrocki said. If I could go to work and hang out with all three of my other kids as much as I do with Tyler, Id be the happiest guy around. They grow up too fast.

I love to win, but the biggest win on race day is being able to spend time around my wife, my kids, and my friends. Theres no better finish than that.