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Lightning's last dance

The dream didn't last for one Ontario racing team, but prize money from a previous outing means their beloved Lightning can take the track one final time on Labour Day

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

Before every race, Tom McConnell steals a moment to caress her smooth red fenders and whisper a prayer for a safe and successful day. Beneath his grease-stained hands is 1,360 kilograms of fibreglass and steel — a 500-horsepower stock car its crew affectionately calls Lightning.

"Have a great race, Lightning, and take good care of Nik," says crew member McConnell.

Nik is Nik Lapcevich, the driver of bright-red No. 13, which is competing in NASCAR's Canadian Tire Series. Soon he will coax Lightning to more than 225 km/h in the 2008 season opener, the Crown Jewel 200 at Cayuga Speedway in Southern Ontario.

This could be Lightning's last race, or as the team has dubbed this season, "Lightning's Last Dance."

"Let's take her to the prom!" shouts team owner and crew chief Rob McConnell, Tom's kid brother. He freely admits that for his struggling, shoestring-budget team, finishing any race would be a rare accomplishment; a finish in the top 10, a dream.

This season is Lightning's last. Her 10-year-old chassis — a skeleton of steel tube and rod — is outdated and, according to Rob McConnell, too expensive to update to new NASCAR standards.

"We have the oldest stuff out there for sure," he says. "I'd have to spend eight to ten [thousand dollars] just to make this car competitive."

The Crown Jewel 200 was held on May 24, and it would be the first of 13 races to be held in Canada this season. Lightning's next, and likely last, scheduled race will be in Cayuga over the Labour Day weekend.

The Canadian Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (CASCAR) began in Canada in 1981, when Tony Novotny created the first professional touring race series in Canada. In 2006, Novotny, then the organization's president, announced its sale to NASCAR.

"We have 6.8 million fans — almost a quarter of the population here — who consider themselves to be NASCAR fans," says Richard Coughlin, series director for the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series. "NASCAR brings stability and resources to have a stable series, and one that is well-recognized by the public, one that gives the racers the opportunity to go out and get corporate support."

But crucial corporate sponsorship is something No. 13's team doesn't have.

Racing budgets vary but the numbers are "significant," says Coughlin. "If you took a poll through the paddock you'd probably be around $250,000 per year, and that doesn't include the race car, the hauler and the capital costs you would need to operate in the series."

But for this team, which is made up primarily of plumbers, some of whom work for Rob McConnell — Lapcevich, the driver, is an electrician — the budget is much smaller. "Two races a year is all we could muster up the money for," says Rob McConnell. "Mostly my money, or the plumbing company's money."

He estimates that his plumbing business, Hal-Nor Plumbing & Heating, has contributed more than $100,000 in the past three years, but says he hasn't done an exact tally. "I don't want to know how much it has cost, to be honest with you, because perhaps I'll scare myself out of it."

All the team members have day jobs. On evenings and weekends, the all-volunteer crew gathers inside the weathered red barn at the back of Rob McConnell's property near St. Williams, Ont.

"You can sit back and enjoy a beer and feel proud of what you've built because it's something you've literally built from the ground up," he says of the racing team.

The dream began five years ago in a local hotel bar. McConnell remembers hearing a story on the television about some of the "big boys" from NASCAR coming up to Cayuga to race in that year's Canada Day Shootout. "Boy, it would be nice to rub paint with those boys one day," he shouted to nobody in particular.

The memory brings a big smile to his face as he delivers a gruff impersonation of his brother's good friend Nik's enthusiastic response: "I'll drive that car, Robby. Let's do it — I'll drive it."

Lapcevich, who began racing at 16 and retired from the track in 2000, comes from a family of racers, and he was named national rookie of the year in 1999. (His uncle Joe Lapcevich's team also competes in the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series, with the backing of Canadian coffee giant Tim Hortons.)

Back at the track, the Crown Jewel 200 gets started in the glow of the evening sun. Twenty-three cars are racing today.

But first participants must watch their cars being weighed, measured, poked and prodded by NASCAR officials. "It's tough for us because they put us through the same technical inspections, and meanwhile I don't have the money or the brains to even know how to cheat in this sport," says McConnell.

His team, like many others, have run into trouble in the past. One year their carburetor was confiscated by officials who referred to it as the "cheatenist carb they'd ever seen," McConnell says with a wry smile.

As Coughlin says, "You can get yourself crossways with the rules without trying to cheat." But the tighter rules, and the stress they cause crew chiefs like Rob McConnell, have a benefit.

"The poor guy like me can now run with these guys because before we never could," McConnell says. "We were getting lapped 50 laps in. Now that they're checking everybody, we're all on the same playing field."

Before this race, Lightning's best showing has been 17th place, although during the Labour Day race in 2007 — the team's first with NASCAR — Lapcevich was in sixth place late in the race before getting into a wreck with cars exchanging paint in front of him. Lightning didn't finish, but the promise of that event gave the team hope.

"Everybody has a little glimmer that we can get a top 10," McConnell says. "So everybody is just busting their butts, putting the hours in, just to get the chance, just to get Nik up there to run with the big boys. It's worth all the time."

The team's most frightening moment came in 2005 when an oil line ruptured and the car burst into flame as it sped along the back stretch. Lapcevich's face was burned, and the incident shook the team.

In 2006, the team blew two engines in a three-week period. "That was a horrible, heartbreaking year," McConnell recalls.

At the Crown Jewel 200, unlucky No. 13 finally finishes a race on the lead lap. This after the car lost power; Lapcevich has to grip a wiring harness leading to the ignition to bring Lightning back to life. He speeds to the finish, under the harsh tungsten lights, with only one hand on the steering wheel.

Lightning crosses the line in 14th place (but will later be bumped up to 13th when the second-place finisher is disqualified).

The prize for its showing is $1,350 — a little more than half the team's earnings from last season, which at $2,000 wasn't enough to pay for the crew's food, McConnell jokes.

But for him, the prize money isn't what's important: "If everybody's not having fun, I'm not doing it, 'cause there's no money in it."

Finishing well gives his ragtag team the enthusiasm to enter more races this year than originally planned.

There may not be enough money to do so, but No. 13 has at least one more race in her, one more dance.

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