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Son pursuing racing career is chip off dad's ol' engine block

Posted: Sunday, July 18, 2004

Since Kenai's Cameron McGahan was born 18 years ago, his father, state champion sprint car driver Jackie McGahan, has always had a wealth of knowledge and experience to pass on to Cameron about racing.

Late this summer, when Cameron starts pursuing a career in race-car driving, suddenly Jackie, who makes his living at Tesoro, will have little knowledge and even less experience for Cameron.

"It's a tough thing to do," Jackie said of making a career out of driving. "I don't know how to help him other than support him.

"All he can do is start at the bottom and give it a couple of years. If that doesn't work, he can come back and go to school."

Cameron's first foray into the big time will come Aug. 11 through 14, when Jackie and Cameron travel to Knoxville, Iowa, for the Knoxville Nationals, the World Series of sprint car racing.

"Everybody who's everybody will be there," Jackie said. "We'll go down there and start networking and get an idea of how hard it is."

While Jackie and Cameron don't know how difficult achieving a career in driving will be, they do know the odds are stacked against Cameron.

 

Cameron McGahan comes out of a turn on his way to winning another race at Twin Cities Raceway.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"There's no set pattern," Cameron said. "You look for opportunities as you go.

"I would have no problem working on somebody's car for four years if it meant I ended up in racing."

If Cameron is able to beat the odds, it will be because of the way his talent has been honed by the tight relationship with his father.

The name McGahan is to racing on the Kenai Peninsula what the name Earnhardt is to NASCAR.

Jackie's father, Jack McGahan of Nikiski, owned a Polaris snowmachine shop while Jackie was growing up.

"As kids, we grew up on snowmachines and motorcycles on the gravel and dirt back roads," said Elton McGahan, who is Jackie's cousin and an area sprint car driver.

With the guidance of his father, Jackie went on to race snowmachines, motocross bikes and stock cars.

 

Following the win, Jackie McGahan, center, helps son Cameron out of his safety gear as A.D. Meeks offers congratulations.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"The key thing I learned from him was preparation before going to the raceway," Jackie said. "The car must be in top-notch condition.

"There's no waiting until the last minute."

After dabbling in so many methods of racing, Jackie found his preferred method in 1981, when Kenai's Randy Barnes purchased a sprint car.

"I knew the day I saw one that that's what I wanted to run," Jackie said. "It took me a long time before I was able to afford one."

Sprint cars differ from stock cars by being lighter and having wings on the top and nose of the car.

The winged cars weigh around 1,300 pounds but deliver between 800 and 650 horsepower, depending on the size of the engine.

This power-to-weight ratio lets the cars reach high speeds in a short amount of time. The oval dirt track at Twin Cities Raceway is just three-eighths of a mile, but the cars can reach 100 mph at the end of a straightaway.

 

Jackie McGahan lifts Billy Morrow out of the cockpit of one of the family's sprint cars as Billy's mom Kristin waits for the youngster to fulfill a nightly obsession. "He's one of my biggest fans," McGahan said of the neighbor boy.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Sprint cars have gotten around Twin Cities Raceway in less than 15 seconds because of the power-to-weight ratio and the tremendous agility the wings give the cars in the corners.

Jackie said the wings generate 1,500 pounds of down force when the car reaches speeds of 100 mph. All this extra weight on the tires helps the car turn the corner.

"There isn't anything on the car that isn't made to go in a circle, as long as it's a left-handed circle," Jackie said. "There isn't any other thing like it."

After working in Elton's pit crew for a few years, Jackie finally got a sprint car in 1994 and an engine in 1995.

Despite sponsorship from Tesoro, the purchase of a sprint car marked a huge commitment from the McGahan family. Jackie's wife, Wendy, also told her husband to buy a motor home so there would be a comfortable place to watch the races with kids Cameron and Cody, 16.

"When we decided to buy that motor home, we decided what kind of family we were going to be," Wendy said. "We wouldn't be a family that took fancy vacations to Hawaii.

"It's been a good thing. The boys have enjoyed a lot of good times at the racetrack."

 

Cameron and Jackie McGahan help Doug Brewer, at right, and Brewer's son Duncan at a quarter midget race last week at Jason Peterson Memorial Ice Rink in Nikiski. The tiny cars replicate the experience of sprint car competition. The McGahans said they enjoy helping others as they learn how to experience racing.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Jackie enjoyed immediate success with his sprint car, winning state titles in 1995, 1998 and 1999 before the state series dissolved in 2000.

Watching his dad collect checkered flags had an intoxicating effect on Cameron.

"Any project he's ever had to do in school, he's always found a way to include racing," Wendy said.

When Cameron was 10 or 11, Jackie began letting his son drive quarter midgets. Quarter midgets have 5 horsepower engines, reach speeds of 35 mph and look like go-carts.

The vehicles give children an opportunity to learn car setup and control and have helped many great drivers, such as NASCAR's Jeff Gordon, get started in racing.

Cameron instantly took to driving his quarter midget.

"I remember sometimes I would let him drive by himself and I would come back and he'd need a new tire," Jackie said. "He'd drive so much he would completely blow out a tire in one night."

Cameron said the tiny tracks used for quarter midgets helped him hone his reaction skills.

"The tracks I drive on now are so much bigger," Cameron said. "On those little tracks, there is less time to react.

"As soon as you get out of a corner, you're already in the next corner."

Cameron's precociousness behind the wheel convinced Jackie that his son was ready to practice in a sprint car at 14.

"It took him 30 laps, and after that he was hauling it in," Jackie said. "He was driving well enough to stay in the middle of the pack.

 

Cameron McGahan, at top, and his dad Jackie clean up one of the family's sprint cars in the driveway of their Kenai home.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"I know guys that have been trying for years and they still aren't anywhere close to where he was in that practice."

Cameron was racing sprint cars by the time he was 15. By the time he was 16, Cameron was already good enough to beat a state champion like his father.

In July 2002, Cameron topped Jackie in Heat II and the Main Event at a Kenai Peninsula Racing Lions-Circle Track Division race at Twin Cities Raceway.

Jackie knew Cameron had arrived as a driver after that evening's Main Event. Knowing it was easier to learn to drive from the front of the pack, Jackie let Cameron take the lead early in the 10-lap event.

It turned out Cameron didn't need to learn as much as his dad thought.

"My intention wasn't to let him stay in front," Jackie said after that evening's race. "I wanted to pass him back. I couldn't get around him."

In August 2002, Cameron endured a big test of his commitment to racing when he lost control coming out of a corner at Twin Cities Raceway and smacked into a wall going 80 mph.

Jackie himself had never endured such a major crash, but Cameron emerged unscathed and did not miss a beat during the 2003 season.

Cameron ended his 2003 season by taking the most points among 360 cubic centimeter sprint car drivers at the Morrie Wilkins Memorial Sprint Car Invitational at Twin Cities Raceway. The race drew drivers from all over the state.

With all that racing success under his belt, Cameron told his parents he would like to pursue a career in racing after graduating from Kenai Central High School in May 2004.

This racing season, Jackie has let Cameron use his 410 cubic centimeter engine in addition to letting Cameron drive the 360 sprint car. This assures Cameron a ton of seat time, but it also means Jackie won't see much time on the race track.

"I get as much enjoyment watching him as I do driving myself," Jackie said. "He's so good. He drives a real smooth line."

Cameron's driving has caught the attention of Anchorage's John McDonald. McDonald said he made a stab at driving on the World of Outlaws circuit but was relatively unsuccessful.

"Cameron's doing really good," McDonald said. "It looks like he has a good feel for the equipment. With all the right circumstances, I'm sure he could do well on a higher level than we have here in Alaska."

McDonald quickly added that finding those right circumstances is the problem. It can cost $500,000 a year to run a car on the World of Outlaws circuit. Since Jackie and Cameron can't pony up that cash themselves, Cameron has the difficult task of finding a ride in somebody else's vehicle.

Cameron also has made a believer out of Palmer's Dale Snelson. Last summer, Jackie and Cameron drove Snelson's race trucks at Northstar Speedway in Wasilla.

"They look for young blood just like Cameron," said Snelson, who has more than 50 years experience racing cars. "Cameron's been born and raised in racing by Jackie.

"It's like a little kid growing up on a horse farm just knows certain things about horses. Cameron knows certain things about sprint cars.

"He's one of those that keeps his mouth shut at the track and listens. Those are always the ones that make it a long way."

Even if Cameron doesn't make it, area racers like Elton McGahan and Barnes agree it's worth a shot.

"I envy him," Barnes said. "I wish I could have done it when I was his age.

"While he's young is the best time to do it. With me and Jackie, we're too old. It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks."



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