Race. Wreck. Fix. Repeat
Going into the last race of the Granite State Pro Stock Series at New London Waterford Speedbowl on a recent Saturday night, Devin O’Connell knows he has to combine his love for speed and his ferocious ability to concentrate with the patience and wisdom he has accumulated over more than a decade in the cockpit of racing cars.
This 20 year-old Speedbowl crowd fan-favorite from Madison is so far ahead in points from his stellar 2018 season that he just has to finish 14th or better in a field of 21 cars to win the overall series championship.
But then, 16 laps into the 100-lap race, in the aftermath of a three-car crash, the front end of his car gets clipped. Hard.
“You’re OK? You’re OK?” Sydney Clark demands.
Clark is talking to O’Connell over the headset that connects her, in the spotter’s booth at the top of the Speedbowl grandstand, to O’Connell in the cockpit of the car. Clark, 17, from Clinton, has a lot invested in the answer. A key cog in the Devin O’Connell racing team, she is the spotter, helping Devin, who has only a very limited view of the track from his cockpit, navigate around his competitors with her view from above.
“I hit it square! I hate these...idiots!” Devin shouts back into his headset, confirming that he is, in fact, OK. His car?
It is not.
The crash, not Devin’s fault, quickly becomes his team’s problem, one that threatens to put the championship trophy out of reach. The engine temperature begins to soar.
Devin has to pull off of the track, jeopardizing his position in the race, not once but twice. When his sleek super late model race car finally limps back on to the track, it’s a mangled car with an engine held together in part by duct tape and zip ties. The front of the car’s body, the nose, has been sawed off entirely leaving his engine and radiator completely exposed.
“Good!” says Clark into the headset, as she spots Devin’s car pulling back on the track, to the delight of the announcers and crowd alike. “Go! Go! Go!”
“Guys, I don’t think it’s good,” Devin says.
With his intense focus momentarily broken, his mind wanders back to other races—not the ones he won through merit or lost due to his own mistakes—but the ones he lost when he got caught up in someone else’s mess.
In the spotter’s booth, every inch of Clark remembers those life-is-not-fair losses as well. She feels like screaming.
Her voice comes over Devin’s headset.
Clear. Calm. Insistent.
“Just run your race bro. Go!”
Learning at Lightning Speed
Devin’s journey to that point started when he was nine. He had been asking, demanding, for four years to race Wild Thing Karts. His parents finally said yes, thinking it would be a passing fad.
At the same time around the same age, the family also was trying to figure out the best way to work with O’Connell’s recent diagnosis as someone with Asperger’s on the autism spectrum. Devin struggled mightily both at Polson Middle School and, later, at Daniel Hand High School in Madison, where he did not conform to the norm on the playground or in the classroom, in a community where it sometimes feels like a stiflingly high value is placed on what is commonly viewed as normal.
For Devin, the racetrack was a different world.
His vast and encyclopedic knowledge of cars, engines, racing history, and the intricate and detailed mathematics involved with dialing a car in to perfection before a race, and his ability to remember every twist and turn of every race, and his endless, obsessive desire to talk about all of that, all the time, was quickly noticed. Before long, when the O’Connell trailer would pull into the pit area, within minutes there would be 8 to 10 boys running up and then standing around, impatiently waiting for the door to open just so they could talk with him.
In a sport where an adjustment of fractions of an inch can help make the difference between a winner and a loser, Devin swapped tech secrets, traded war stories, and developed friends like family, and a loyal following.
His father Sean O’Connell, initially armed only with a pocket Leatherman multi-tool, eventually acquired a car trailer and a 12-drawer pit box almost five feet high packed with tools and parts. The team invested thousands and thousands of dollars in O’Connell’s career, and eventually attracted sponsors. They became conversant in terms like inverts (a tactic used by race officials to make the start of the race more interesting), lucky dogs (when the first driver who has been lapped gets his lap back during a caution flag), and stagger (the difference in tire circumference from one side to the other, an essential and critical calculation that allows drivers to take tight corners on an oval track).
Even as he mastered these details, Sean wondered how it was his beloved son, who struggled in school, learned at lightning speed at every single race.
One day, Sean realized Devin was taking a ton of time in the shower. Sean was about to tell him to speed it up and get on with the rest of the day, when he heard Devin mimicking the sound of engine shifting from one gear to the next. He later asked Devin what he was doing.
Devin explained he was visualizing an upcoming race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, having calculated how many times he would have to shift and at what points.
In his head, Devin was going through every brake point, every turn-in point, every shift point, he told his dad. He was 17.
“Visualization. And he was doing it all on his own. This is something some drivers pay sports psychologists to train them to do. And here he was doing it on his own. It wasn’t the only time. His ability to practice the course in his head made him so good,” Sean says.
He was better than good. That same year, when he was 17, in 2015, he picked up a world championship, a national championship, and several other championships. The following year, he was super-speedway Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) Racing Series approved after testing at Daytona International Speedway, with an average speed of 185.993 mph, and, also at 18, he was named American Canadian Tour (ACT) Rookie-of-the-Year.
While racking up these honors, Devin also won sportsmanship awards and became an advocate for others who weren’t a perfect fit in a traditional school system. He was once invited as a special guest to an event sponsored by the Madison Special Education Parent Teachers Association. While attending, the O’Connells met Charlie Cohen, also on the autism spectrum, and learned of Cohen’s intense interest in cars and ability with all things mechanical. Cohen became part of Team O’Connell, working with the pit crew.
Clark, who studies automotive technology and service at Vinal Tech in Middletown, found out about Team O’Connell from a friend, started hanging out with the team while they were working on the car, and was quickly recognized as someone who would be an asset. She endured teasing from friends, and doubts from family members, puzzled by a girl who loves everything about cars and their engines, but her interest never wavered.
A gifted mechanic-in-training, she was recently accepted to attend the University of Northwestern Ohio to study automotive and high performance cars, along with automotive business and management. She also became Devin’s girlfriend several months after they met.
Rounding out Team O’Connell was Jake Matheson, and his father Keith Matheson, from New Hampshire. Devin is both coach and mentor for 15-year-old Jake, who also is a driver.
Having Cohen, Matheson, and Clark as part of the crew makes Team O’Connell among the smallest and youngest. Cohen’s mom, Lisa Nee, who says her son’s participation on the team has been a life-changing event for him, likes to call the crew “The Little Team That Could.”
A successful outcome at the Speedbowl, could help lead, at some point, the team hopes, to NASCAR, which will involve a huge commitment in terms of time, resources, and money, requiring millions of dollars rather than thousands. In the meantime, Devin just focuses on what’s next. Some days it feels like race, wreck, fix, repeat.
A Desire to Stay out of Trouble
On the Saturday morning of the championship race, over in the grandstand, which is a bit rickety and in need of updating, the fans start to trickle in as early as 10 a.m. They situate themselves on the wooden bleachers, set out their coolers with sandwiches, snacks, and Gatorade, plunk on their sunglasses, and settle in to watch the early time trials and heat races. Some of them will not move, except for an occasional pit stop to the restrooms or snack bar, for a good 12 hours or more.
The fans range in age from toddlers to people as old, or older, than the track, opened in 1951. Many of them have been coming here since they were kids, and now bring their kids and grandkids. The family section in the center of the grandstands is designated as profanity free, smoking free, and alcohol free.
While the future of the Speedbowl itself has been threatened, first by financial problems and then by the sordid personal and legal problems of its current owner, and while it’s had disputes with the town over a variety of issues, the fans and drivers are pretty happy tonight because the current general manager has just announced there will be a 2019 season, something that was in doubt.
The atmosphere, as the sun begins to drop and the flood lights come on, feels like a raucous high school football stadium on a Friday night in any small town, America.
While the fans settle in, Devin’s crew continues to prep and tinker with the car through the time trials and heat races. The dads, Sean and Keith, calculate the air temperature, the ground temperature, the tires’ temperature, and take three measurements off of every tire.
The team is talking stagger.
Should it be 3 inches? Or 2 and 11/16ths?
There is a polite, yet heated, debate.
“Two and 11/16ths,” Sean ventures.
“Three,” says Clark.
“Three,” says Devin.
“That’s what we had last time,” Sean concedes.
“Let’s do it,” says Devin.
The team feels ready. Rather than trying to make things happen on the track, Devin knows it will make sense, tonight, for most of this race, to let the race come to him.
Minutes before the drivers and the cars line up for the championship, Sean is under the car installing a final drive, a gear in the rear differential.
“We’re not getting high enough RPM off the corners,” he explains.
Devin, standing nearby with Clark, chats with members of another team. He’s calm and tense.
“The last 100 laps of the season,” he says. “I can’t wait.”
As the moon starts to make an appearance after 6 p.m., the announcers start to discuss the championship race.
They reflect upon Devin’s career.
“In 2017 he was a bit out of control, wild and crazy, not quite with it,” one says. “He was really, really, really fast. But he didn’t have racecraft.”
Now, they say, “he’s on fire.” As the race gets underway, they discuss his 30-point lead.
‘We Need All The Help We Can Get’
When that lead, and what looked like an almost-sure-thing championship, is threatened several minutes into the race, Brian Norman of Clinton, who runs the NAPA auto parts store in Guilford where the O’Connells shop for parts, is sitting in the stands. He’s just about to take a sip of the beer he just ordered.
He sees Devin slide into the crash. Norman is one of Devin’s biggest fans. He knows the team travels light when it comes to a pit crew.
Norman hands his buddy the beer and, grabbing his brother to go with him, runs over to the Team O’Connell pit.
Norman and his brother are not the only ones. Following the crash, there is a small exodus from the stands as others race over to the O’Connell pit. Team O’Connell’s pit crew has swelled from less than a half dozen to more than 20 people. After the first fix fails, and Devin comes back to the pit for another try at a fix, there are so many people that Sean has a hard time even getting to the car.
Someone yells for zip ties and the pit crew uses those to tie the radiator hose on to part of the chassis. Someone else yells for duct tape. Someone named Phil—Sean thinks his name is Phil—wraps length after length after length of the duct tape, taping the hose to the chassis on the other side.
The damaged front end of the car was choking air off to the radiator, making the engine temperature spike.
“We have to rip everything off. We need all the help we can get,” Devin says from the cockpit.
Norman, who knows the car, has a solution. Armed with SAWZALL reciprocating saws, Devin’s dad cutting right and another guy cutting left, they rip off the nose of the car and try to stabilize the radiator. If it isn’t stabilized securely, it could fall back into the engine.
The seconds are ticking away.
“You’re OK. You’re OK,” Clark tells him over the headset. “They’ll give you as many laps as they can.”
Then just after that, she says, “Devin, two more laps, dude, you have to hurry up.” And then, Clark again, “You have to hurry up! Now! Your point lead! You have to hurry up!”
“They are trying to secure the radiator,” the announcers tell the crowd. “But there is going to have to be no contact. He does not have any buffer between him and the other cars.”
Team O’Connell sends Devin back out on the track. He has been in the pit for less than a minute and a half.
Sean has confidence in his son, and he is worried. About the other drivers. About vapor lock. About the car overheating. About his son.
Norman, having already directed the surgery on the car, stays beside Sean for the rest of the race, and drawing upon his knowledge of these cars, whispers into Sean’s ear with guidance for Devin.
“Just keep your RPMs low every chance you get,” Sean says, prompted by Norman.
Devin is worried about his position in the race.
“You’re perfectly fine,” says Clark. “Just run your race. No contact.”
“I don’t have a bumper!” says Devin.
“Just don’t hit anything,” says Sean. “It’ll bend the frame and the engine and everything. Then the race is done.”
Sean takes a look at the front of the pack. One of Devin’s main competitors for the championship is going for the win, hard. “He’s going to wreck...He’s going for it. Like there’s nothing to lose. He’s going to drive as hard as he can, to get up to the front. He has to win.” Clark says: “You need to go a little harder.”
Sean tells Devin not to worry if he gets lapped. Devin gets lapped. Then there is a single car spin out and another caution flag.
Clark sees that the other spotters in the spotters booth are looking at her and circling their hands.
“You got lucky dog,” Clark says to O’Connell, grateful for the prompt from the other spotters. Devin has never been lucky dog before. He’s never been lapped.
With the single spin-out cleared, the race starts up again and Sean again warns his son that “it’s really rowdy up front” and to just keep up his steady pace. Devin focuses back in on the race, driving lap after lap after lap brilliantly, fearlessly, and faultlessly, just like he has so often this season. But then he, just for a second, wonders if this day, which he thought would be the best day of his life, will instead be the worst day of his life.
“I don’t understand what I did wrong,” he says.
“Right now what you’re doing wrong is you’re pouting,” Clark says. “Now, go! Go! Go!”
Then she says “Go low! Go low! Grass! Grass! Grass!” There’s a seven-car wreck up ahead and Devin has to, absolutely has to, avoid it.
“Just stay away from the other cars,” Sean says.
As cars are hauled from the track, the team does the math.
“Devin, you are set,” Clark shouts jubilantly. “If nobody comes back out, you win. Even if three come out, you’re good.”
Devin still has to finish and stay clear of trouble.
“Breathe. Breathe,” says Clark. “It’s just another race. There will always be more.”
There are still 70 laps to go.
The crowd starts to come to their feet. There is clapping, cheering, and they are pointing at Devin’s car.
Devin crosses the finish line.
“You’re the champion,” says Clark. “Dude, you’re the champion.”
Visit zip06.com and search for the headline on this story for a link to more information, more photos, and a video from the cockpit of Devin’s car during the race.