Today i have the pleasure of having a conversation with 358 driver Chad Criswell. Chad races locally here in central pa in the 358 division at Williams Grove and Lincoln speedway. Chad was gracious enough to sit down with me and we discussed his racing carrier starting in go carts and going all the way to his first win at Williams Grove this past season. here is the very informative and very candid conversation i had with Chad.
Your father drove sprint cars in the 70's and early 80's here in central pa. What are you earliest and fondest memories of his racing career?
Chad -I remember the smell of methanol. I read a study that showed our first memories are attributed to a smell, (i.e. Mom’s cooking, Ocean Air), for whatever reasons, my first memories are the smell of Burning Methanol. I have a bunch of random memories, I remember cheering for my Dad at the Grove and Port Royal, and I remember getting very upset after watching him flip one night. When I was little, I would sit in the stands, and watch from there…I never made it into the pits..or the racing shop for that matter. He was worried I’d drop bolts into his injectors. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure I played football once with Billy Dietrich while at the races, if I remember right, he was a lot bigger than me. The one thing that still stands out the most after all of these years, was standing in turns 1 and 2 at the Grove, and seeing the bright colorful cars, the drivers with the vibrant helmets… to this day it’s a pretty awesome sight. I remember being 15 and telling my Dad that someday, I’d be out there doing that.
When did you decide to get into racing, and how did your father react to the news?
Chad- When I was young, I wanted to race. My mom still has the drawing I brought home from Kindergarten that said, 'When I grow up, I want to race sprint cars' Dad stopped racing sprints when I was 6 years, and they kind of kept me away from racing. I wasn’t allowed to start racing until I was 16 (1996), because they wanted me to be able to sign myself in. The thought was, if I got hurt, I wouldn’t be able to say it was their fault because I was old enough to know the dangers, and I signed myself in. My Dad has been a firm believer that there is a certain maturity that goes with Racing. It was a late start compared to a lot of guys, but, it made a lot of sense. Also, Racing is expensive…and I had to get a job and make money to put into the Kart. My Dad wanted me to realize at an early age that you don’t just wreck and forget it…so he paid the majority of the bills, but I still had to help out where I could. My Dad was fine with me wanting to race, and his Rules were simple: 1. we raced if we could, 2. if I wrecked a lot (stupid stuff), the car would sit till it was repaired, 3. He would work in the shop as long as I was out there working, 4. There would be no arguments between us, 5. I had to be dedicated. (All 5 of those rules still apply to this day!) At first, My mom was not too crazy about me racing. I think she and my Dad had some discussions, but I don’t know… However, one of the things he told me before we started was… 'Don’t get hurt racing.. if you break your leg, you walk in the house, walk up the stairs, kiss your Mother and tell her you’re fine… and then, the next morning.. you can say you fell out of bed… just DON’T get hurt racing… or we’ll both be in the Hospital'
You started in go karts in 1996 racing them for 2 years. What type of carts did you run?
Chad- I ran the Mediums and Heavy’s at Hunterstown, PA; ; and located in . The first kart we had came from Mr. Clyde Little, the same man that my Dad got his first go-kart from way back when. Over the years, Mr. Little has helped a lot of the drivers out there today, at one time or another...the Gobrecht’s, Leppo, and a bunch of others.
How big was winning the motorama show for you as a youngster?
Chad - That was a pretty neat deal. We actually almost won two of the races, but I lost my brakes while in 2nd during the Heavy’s feature, and ended up getting caught up in a lapped traffic wreck. But, winning the mediums was pretty cool. I kept that trophy… it’s big. I know it’s not the size of the trophy that matters…, but I did keep that one.
While you went to college you ran 270cc micro sprints. what was a typical week for you as a student/driver?
Chad - First off, there is a pretty long off season, So, needless to say, I had a lot of fun up at WVU… I don’t remember a lot of it, but it was a good time. Although, I keep hearing there are some pictures floating around that I’ve never seen.. I’ll probably never be able to run for Political office in Morgantown if they exist.. but, oh well. Regardless, during the fall and spring, I would get pretty serious, and get all my work done during the week. I’m not that Smart of a person, so I probably had to study a little harder than the other Engineering Students… but, I passed ( 'a D+ is not a grade they like to give out, I can tell you that much') No, Honestly, I did pretty well in school, had a couple of academic scholarships, and the deal was simple, I kept my grades up, and my scholarships, I could keep racing.. otherwise, racing funds went to college tuition. The weeks I was at school and still racing, my Dad would take care of all of the maintenance on the car, and I would leave Friday after class, and meet him at the track. My younger brother Derek actually went to WVU too. He isn’t big into racing, so he doesn’t come around the races a whole lot .. but between the two of us, he’s got more 'natural' talent than I’ve ever had. Honestly though, he just never really got the racing bug. I will state for the record, that he could 'hang' with the TOP 10% of the guys on Beerhill… no question. He’s a Criswell…so he’s competitive… just in a different type of sport.
How hard was it to get off school and make the trip to pa to race every weekend, and still keep up with your studies?
Chad - It was pretty tough, and I’d leave after the Saturday night race at , and get to Morgantown at about 4 in the morning on Sunday. Normally, there were still some parties going on. But, I’d wake up around 10 on Sunday, and then get started on school stuff. It was worth it though. A few people know this story but during 1998 National Open, I came home from WVU to go and watch it. That was the year that the Outlaws got rained out, and they rescheduled the Open as a true National Open. Billy Pauch won running a Zemco car, with a motor ( I can still remember the way it sounded). Any ways, after the race was over, we walked the track, and I found a quarter in the race track surface off of turn 4, that was bent at a 90 degree angle. I handed to Dad, and never really thought much more than, it was cool that a racecar did that to it. That , when I came home from College, my Mom and Dad had the Quarter polished, and put on to a pendant. As it turned out, the date on the Quarter was 1980, the same year I was born. He told me to wear it up at school, as a reminder of what my ultimate goal was, and hopefully to deter me from doing anything to take me away from that. (Ignore my answer to question 5 … and remember that it’s not polite to judge!) Honestly though, he told me that if I ever got to race in the National Open, during the pace lap, I’d have to drop the Quarter in turn 4, and give it back to the track. Obviously, I’ve still got the Quarter… not really a good luck charm, but definitely a reminder. By the time I was in College, I should probably mention that my Mom had turned the corner, and was fully on board with me racing. She saw a lot of my friends out on the weekends, but she knew I was hanging out with my Dad, at the race track. A lot of people don’t know this, but we would have never gotten a micro sprint had my Mom not suggested it. The same person I was going to have to hide my broken leg from, was suggesting that we get a micro… that was pretty cool. In all fairness, I still to this day would have to hide a broken leg from her, and my wife as well…so, I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same. Darn Bed’s, so easy to fall out of!
What was your favorite track to run micros on?
Chad - In the 270’s, Shippensburg… I learned a lot from Cory Haas actually while racing there. He was the class of the field, and he helped me out some when I was first learning. He taught me that you could move the inside tires with your left rear, under caution, and make another lane to pass on. That actually changed how I started looking at the actual driving part of racing. I later got pretty good there, and really learned how to run lapped traffic. In the 600’s, Path Valley. There was a stretch of 6 weeks where we finished First or Second and Jimmy Brookens would finish in the other spot. Jimmy taught me a lot about intensity, and when to turn it on, and when to lay back.
In 2003 you stepped up to the 600cc micros. How steep was the learning curve going from the 270's to the 600's?
Chad - The learning curve wasn’t too bad. We had always run a Probe Chassis, which is a great car built by Barry Livelsberger out of New Oxford. He pretty much got us competitive right off the bat, and other than engine problems, we did really well. Barry is probably one of the greatest 'unknown' mechanics / builders in the area. I believe he was turning wrenches on Leppo’s car when he won his first race at Susky. He’s helped Kevin Gobrecht way back when he first started, Steve Owings, Jim Siegel in the micros. A lot of people don’t know how sharp he is with Sprint Cars.. The fact that he built and set up our 600, made the learning curve pretty short though. Speaking of Barry, while in college, I would always spend a few days of WVU’s Winter and Spring break at my friends Frat house at Gettysburg College. I’d work at Barry’s shop during the day, and then , well party at the Frat house at night. I worked for free, normally hung over, but I gained a lot of experience and had a lot of fun during those days working for him. He still picks on me to this day about some of those stories from the night before, though.
How trying for you as an owner/driver was the 2003 season?
Chad - It wasn’t too bad actually, I had a job, was living at home, and basically, other than a $10,000 loan for two engines, I had things under control. My parents and grandparents still helped me out, but that was the first time I really paid for the majority of the car. I actually finally paid the loan off during my second season of 358’s in 2006! Talk about being annoyed at a Note.
Is it difficult to keep the two different sides of you separate while racing?
Chad - Honestly, I don’t keep them separate … they are very much the same. Normally, I won’t make a move if I think it would wreck the car. Or, if I’m not comfortable, or it doesn’t feel right, I probably won’t run the cushion. But, to answer you question, even if I was driving for someone else, I’d probably race the same. Some guys just don’t care, and they probably learn quicker than I do, but it seems like every time you wreck, it puts you behind for the rest of the year. That, and then instead of maintaining the car, you’ve got to rebuild it. Unfortunately, I’ve learned how to rebuild them a few times. But, when the car is good, it’s working, then it’s all about racing, and you tend to make a few more riskier moves. But if something is wrong, or something sounds weird, or is breaking, I’m probably going to pull in and save the car. Now, two weeks ago, I lost power steering at the Grove.. it made the car impossible to control on the cushion, but it wasn’t too bad on the bottom groove, so, I stayed out and kept running. Obviously, it wasn’t going to hurt anything, I was in 5th… why pull in, but say the engine started overheating or something like that, yeah, I’d probably shut her down, and hopefully live to fight another night .
How much do you think about money when you are on the track?
Chad- Never while on the track… unless I wreck, then… it’s like a calculator going off …$200 front axle, $ 300 in wheels, and on down the line. But never while racing, just in the aftermath! Normally, those nights are a pretty long ride home!
In 2005 you made the jump to the ultra competitive 358's. what was your rookie season like from and owners perspective?
Chad- I’ve always wanted to race a full size sprint car, and we were looking into the 305’s.. and the opportunity arose for a 358 in mid 2004..so, with help from my family (both Parents and Grandparents), we got a 358, and got ready for the 05 season. 2005 was a wake up call on how much these things cost. Everyone kept saying they were close to a 600.. Well, Everyone was wrong! I mean REALLY wrong! But, we ran where and when we could. Ran a lot of used tires, and had a lot of fun.
How bout from a driver's perspective?
Chad- I actually ran 3 races in 2004 right after we bought the car… basically just to see what we would need in 2005. In fact, I timed 24th at Lincoln’s 04 358 championship, and was supposed to start on the pole in the heat race… but, ultimately started last after talking it over with my Dad… I later found out that Mr. Wayne Harper announced to everyone at the track that 'I’d been sent to the rear by my father'.. it was kind of funny, but it was the smart thing for me to do, and I wasn’t ready to haul in to that first turn with all of the other guys behind me… I’d have probably torn up the car, and a bunch of others for no good reason…maybe not, but we opted for the rear. The speed wasn’t hard to get use to, but the power steering was… I had to put in about 16 degrees of caster just to feel the front end. We even put a piece of white tape on the wheel so I could figure out when the wheels were straight! Seriously, I couldn’t feel the front end.. I’d be going down the straightaway looking for the tape to make sure the wheels were straight! But, as I got more races, I got use to it. These things move around a lot too, the way the slam into the ground in the corners.. it takes a little bit to get used to that. When I first started in the 358’s , Steve Siegel told me that it takes 3 years to really learn how to drive a sprint car.. not that you couldn’t win within the first 3 years, but to really learn how to drive one, it takes about 3 years. I can’t say that he was wrong.
Explain what winning the rookie of the year award at Lincoln speedway meant to you?
Chad- That was cool, and actually I finished 10th in points that year…so that was pretty neat deal as well. I knew I had a lot to learn, but it was nice to get recognized. I kind of figured going into the year that Carber and Owings were going to be tough in that category… and Carber left to do the 410 deal. So, we ran pretty decent and it worked out. It was definitely a goal, and nice to achieve it.
How difficult is it running against 40 to 45 cars every week?
Chad- It’s tough. I mean, we use to do it in the micros, but, it was different… I had a lot more confidence there. In the 358’s, there are a lot of good cars, and when we’re on the track during the course of the night (the first heats) with a green track, it makes passing difficult. But, it is what it is, every one’s got to deal with it, and you can complain about it or just keep trying to get better at it. I probably do a little of both, but mainly I just try and get better.
What kind of a mind set does it take to start 12th in a heat and try to finish in the top 3 so you can make the invert for the feature?
Chad- Confidence.. easily mistaken for stupidity. According to my crew, I’ve been prone to both! Honestly though, Confidence in knowing when to push it, and when to back off, and knowing what the car is going to do. A disciplined Controlled aggression.. I’m still kind of figuring it out. But, I basically know who’s in the heat, and normally have an idea of what I want to do before we even line up. Back to the time I opted to start in the back of the heat, if a pretty green driver is in front of me, I’m probably going to scare him, or move by him quickly.. cause the chances are good he’s not in tune with what the other 11 guys behind him are, and he’s going to cause a wreck.
What goes through your mind as you are strapping into your car for the feature? how do you prepare mentally for a race?
Chad- I have pretty much the same routine getting into the car. I’m listening to my crew.. and they know me well enough by now to know that if I say I’m probably going to run low, I’ll end up on the cushion…of if I’ll probably run the cushion, I end up running low. I don’t do anything real special I guess.. just focus on what is at hand. I’ll tell you though, it’s an awesome feeling to know that you’re getting ready to run the thing hard.. I’m grateful every time I buckle in to a sprint car… there’s a ton of people that will never get the chance.. and that is something I don’t take for granted. While riding around before we line up, I’m normally looking over the track, seeing if there is anything special I should note. I probably don’t start getting mean until we’re getting lined up… then it’s go time.. NOTHING, and I mean NOTHING else matters just before we hit the green flag… leave the women and children at home, and lets go looking for some supper, cause no one out there is going to give anything to you.. .The best quote I’ve ever heard to describe the situation ' Hammer down gentlemen… Hammer down'.
You won your first race at the grove in 2007. how big was that for you and the team?
Chad- That was a pretty big deal. I was happy I had won, and not that it matters, cause a win is a win, but I started 6th and came forward. So, at least I passed some cars, ya know. Now, I’ll take every Pole Start I can get… That was the first time my Grandpa got to go to victory lane at the Grove, that was probably the most emotional thing for me.. he got to see me win at the Grove, and stand in Victory lane. My dad won pretty much everywhere but there…so, he and my Mom were excited, and seemed proud. Van Thorpe of American Ceramic tile owned the engine in the car, and it was his first win at the Grove.. so he was happy. Todd Smith, the new crew chief on the car had a bunch of wins there before…but, I think he was pretty happy with the progress he was making, and seeing some of the results of his work! The rest of the crew was happy.. I still remember seeing Chris Rudloff running towards the scales, arms in the air, jumping up and down… something I’ll never forget. Honestly though, my wife stayed home that night… and I was thinking, she’s going to kill me for winning when she’s not here! But, she was excited.. although, in all fairness, she did get teased pretty good about 'staying home' from more races… Driving home though, once we hit Chambersburg, it was on to thinking about the next night at Lincoln. (the last thing I wanted to do at Lincoln was wreck…cause, how many times does a guy win on Friday, and then wad it up the next night… well, lucky me, I am now part of this Cliché, Of no fault but my own, I stepped on something in the cockpit, and flipped at Lincoln the following night… to this day, I’m still a little irritated by it)
You led the 1st part of that race only to be passed by Gerard McIntyre jr. walk us through what you thought as he passed you and how you kept your composure to not only catch him, but pass him back as you came past the flag stand for the white flag?
Chad- After a red flag, our car got real tight… I actually almost went for a ride when he passed me, cause I jumped the cushion pretty good coming off… He was gone…well up in front of me, and doing a really good job on the restarts, but.. it’s racing, you never give up. Dale Hammaker showed me his nose on the bottom in ¾..and my crew had signaled me to head to the bottom, and I just moved down the track. I had been wrestling the car on the cushion, and it worked a lot better on the bottom. After a couple laps, it kept getting better and better, and then it was a matter of slowing down to go fast. It wasn’t easy, but he did a good job, and only messed up in one spot. He kept me low going into 3 the lap before, and stayed in front… the next lap, he did the same thing, but instead of trying to race him into the corner, I lifted, let him slide up a little bit, and then drove under him. He did the same thing I would have done, and it just happened to not work the second time on that night. It could have gone either way, and I’m definitely glad it worked out for me, but he’ll get his first one soon. I did tell him it’ll eat on him forever. I finished 2nd to Jake Radabaugh one night in 2006 at the Grove, and I had one shot at passing him, and didn't try it… that one still eats on me. As far as giving up, I’m normally pretty aggressive in the car, almost mean ya know?.. And you just never give up. You can’t give up… why do it if your not going to give it your all? I love racing, I’ll race you through a car wash… I don’t care, I just want to beat you… and if I can’t beat you, I want to beat everyone else.. that’s it.
Besides the obvious answer of Williams Grove, what has been your favorite track to race at and why?
Chad- Port Royal… For some reason, in 2005, I just really was comfortable at that track… I like it there… But, my favorite track has always, and will always be 'where ever we are running the best' Speedway. They are all unique..
You had a bad flip at speedway what goes through you mind as the wreck is happening?
Chad- I don’t remember the actual impact… I was racing for a final transfer spot, and 07 of Bill Schoffstal broke a radius rod, and came across the track and hit me. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, just a victim of circumstance. He was on the bottom, I was on the top, and that night, I was the bug… instead of the windshield. I came to about mid flight, 'luckily', before the first impact on the ground. It hurt. I broke a bone in my hand (the next morning while brushing my teeth, of Course), but the funniest two things happened after the wreck. While getting out of the car, and coming out of La La land (it was nice there that time of year), I hear this heavy breathing, I see the track crew is running towards me , and of course my first thought is… 'I landed on someone'.. well, here, my 5’-4' wife, ran past the corner man, scaled the wall I just flew over, and was the first person beside me. To this day, I swear she was speaking a different language, or maybe I was still in la la land, I don’t know…but I did pick up a 'don’t ever do that again', and some other obscurities, that I later had to look up in a dictionary. In all fairness, a lot of husbands age their wives over the years..and I’m proud to say I aged Amy about 10 years that night. Like I said, I’ll race you in Anything! The other story is pretty funny, I’m back in the trailer, and talking to the crew, and my one crew guy is wearing safety glasses (cause it’s Selinsgrove, and never dusty up there) Any ways, we were talking after the wreck and I see my image reflecting in his glasses, and I notice this brown ring around my neck… so I ask him, what the heck is that brown ring around my neck… He looks at me and goes, 'that’s your @$$ hole… remember when you were inverted, and hit the ground… yeah, that’s what happens'. Needless to say, my face went blank… and I began a new respect for the amount of G forces under gone in a wreck. All joking aside, it wasn’t fun, I don’t recommend it.. but, we’ll be back to Selinsgrove . All in all, it was just one of those unlucky deals. It happens, we all move on.
What changes would you as a driver like to see changed for the 358's?
Chad- Maybe a little more structure for the division to control some of the rules/schedules. The purse is close, could be a little more, but if we could reduce the operating costs, even that would be fine. I really like the 358 division, and don’t have major aspirations of doing anything bigger on my own. One of these years, I would like to try a 410 just in the National Open… just to say that I did it, and kind of close the book on that goal. I could go on about my thoughts on how the 358’s are viewed, but I’ll keep them to myself, cause we all know that opinions are a lot like that brown ring that was around my neck after the Selinsgrove wreck. But I will say this, at the end of the day, it’s , from Karts , micros, thundercars, late models through ‘410’s’ this state has some of most competitive racing in the Country and by far the best and most dedicated fans… everyone should be proud of that.
From an owners perspective, what rules do you think could be changed to help the division maintain the car counts they have, and help bring even more teams into the sport?
Chad- Rules are tough, because regardless, they will always cost you money up front..Always. But, if in the long run they’ll help, then it’s worth it. Karl Kinser said the most important thing about a racecar is motors and tires… they’re also the two most expensive things. There are a lot of things that could be done, but again, unless all the tracks do it, we split the division, and that would hurt everyone including the fans. I think without a governing body though, we are at the mercy of tracks, which.. is not always a good thing. But, brown ring again.. I’ll shut up.
With the economy the way it is right now with gas being so expensive, how do you continue to make the tow from West Virgina all the way up to pa?
Chad- It will definitely effect us…and could reduce our proposed schedule, but I’m fortunate in the help I get. I’m not the only car owner… it says Criswell Racing, and that is what it is. Everyone on our team puts in money at some place, and we all have a vested interest. From my Wife and myself, to my Parents to my Grandparents, to my mother and father-in-law, all of my Sponsors and even my crew. Somewhere, we all spend money on the car. That’s how we do it. I’m very fortunate to have the people around me that I have…
How does it effect the team as a whole?
Chad- Right now, it hasn’t hurt a whole lot, but if it keeps getting worse, it will effect everyone…from fans, to the teams. But hey, none of us make a living doing this… we’re happy to do it when we can, and fortunate at that. Hopefully, it will get better before it gets worse.
On weekends when you run 2 nights here in a weekend, what does the team do? where do you stay and sleep as well as work on the car?
Chad- In the past, we’ve always come home. Chris Rudloff would come back to WV with us on the 2 night weekends last year, and that was a huge help. We are looking at possibly changing that around this year due to the fuel and time issue. We’re only 1.5 hrs from the Grove / or Lincoln… but, we are still working on how we are going to approach this season.
Who are all the sponsors who help pay the bills on the car?
Chad- Van Thorpe of American Ceramic tile, Bill Gawler of Quality Collision Repair, Jason Walls of WRT web designs, Scott Shaffer of Keizer wheels, Brian of Wings Unlimited, Pro Shocks, Simpson, and a slew of other individuals and companies that help keep us on track. I have to include Bob and Clint Kriner for there help over the past two seasons… giving us strong engines, and willing to go the extra mile to keep everything in tip top shape. Like everyone else, we are always looking for some additional help. The whole living in WV thing definitely does not help the sponsorship thing.. If I ran a late model..it’d probably be a lot easier.. Really though, everyone involved with our team works hard, and again, puts in money somewhere… I’m just the guy that gets to drive it.
How about the guys and gals who help get the car on the track every week?
Chad- My Dad, Amy (my Wife), and I do most of the work here in WV. My Mom takes care of most of the race track specialties (food, etc). Todd Smith, who came on at the beginning of last year as crew chief, and made a big difference. Chris Rudloff, who’s been with me since 2006… we’re both the same age, learning together, and having a good time. Lester Spidle, who came on board with us this season..and brings many years of experience. Spencer Putney, (Fred’s son), who has been with us since 2005, and is finally graduating from college, and will be able to help out a little more with the team in the coming seasons, and last but certainly not least, Patty and Don, who were crew members of my dad’s original team (bringing years of experience and opinions). Finally, they are part Sponsor/Crew/Motivators, but Deb and Dar for some reason or another, liked me, and have supported and helped me in my career as much as anyone. Couldn’t have asked for two nicer people to join along for the ride. Back to my wife working on the car… her Dad stopped over one evening, and saw her packing the rear birdcage bearings… he flipped out. Here she had never changed her own oil once while living at home. She then (showed a major lapse in judgement and ) married me, and here she was working on a racecar. He was an Extra proud Dad that day, for his little girl was working on a racecar. For some reason though, he keeps begging me to teach my Mother-in-law.
How can people get in tough with you?
Chad- Either at the track, by email , or through our website www.chadcriswell.com.
Last question.... last lap you come out of turn 2 side by side with your father. who wins and how does it happen?
Chad- Hands down, he wins. No one intimidates me on a racetrack, I don’t care who it is, but my Dad would. If I can be half as good as what he was, I’ll be happy, and consider my career successful. I’ve had opportunities that he couldn’t have dreamed of when he was racing… and without a single doubt, had he had a few more breaks, the record books would have been different, a Lot Different. That’s not a brown ring either, that’s a fact. He’s an extremely competitive person, but he has such a control over his aggression and emotions, and then he concentrates it into something productive on the track.. that is intimidating. He wouldn’t wreck me, because that’s not his style… but he’d push me to within a half inch of it…no more / no less… and while doing that, he’d already be setting me up for the next corner. There’s no friends or families on the racetrack… just helmets and other objects you want to beat to the finish line.
i would like to thank chad for taking the time to speak with me. he was vary honest about his history in the sport and i hope that you all will take the time if you see him at the track to say hi and say thanks for making you night just that much more fun. i hope you all had as much fun reading it as i did hearing it. see you all at the track very soon.