EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part one of a story that first appeared in the June 2009 edition of Sprint Car & Midget Magazine. Part two will follow on sprintcarandmidget.com on Friday.
Jesse Hockett steers a sprint car into his pit stall at Eldora Speedway, trailed by a long plume of white smoke. You can see in his eyes that he isn’t a happy man; he has just finished his heat race out of a transfer position, hampered by a major oil leak at the right side valve cover.
The car is covered with a slimy, greenish-blue tint, and as he rolls to a stop, dark puddles of oil immediately form under the car.
Hockett crawls from the seat and steps onto the concrete, tugging his oiled gloves from his hands, fumbling with his helmet straps as his crew begins removing the hood.
They lean over the engine, and the source of the problem is obvious. Hockett slips his helmet from his head, revealing a dark circle on his face in the exact shape of an open visor. His crew quickly begins wiping the oil from the car, preparing to pull the valve cover.
Hockett is normally a gregarious, smiling fellow, but there are no smiles now. He didn’t qualify well, and now he’ll have to race his way into tonight’s USAC feature through the B-Main. He walks into his empty trailer, and just as the next heat race roars to life you can hear Hockett let go with an angry shout of frustration.
Now 25 years old, Hockett has emerged over the past few seasons as arguably the most versatile driver in sprint car racing. He splits his time among a wide variety of series – USAC, ASCS, 360, 410, World of Outlaws – and on any given night, you’re liable to see Hockett anywhere there is a sprint car race.
In a sense, Hockett’s success is one of the most refreshing things to happen in sprint car racing in a while. His diverse schedule defies conventional wisdom, and he has earned a reputation as a guy capable of coming from deep in the field to win races.
It doesn’t hurt that outside the car he’s a pleasant, well-mannered man with a disarming smile and good people skills.
He’s the kind of guy with whom fans tend to strongly identify. Race fans typically look past the hype and glitz and quickly figure out who has the ability to get it done on a consistent basis; with his unorthodox schedule and spirited drives from the back, Hockett has created a growing legion of fans that enjoy watching the stocky redhead get fired up.
He’s exciting, he’s entertaining, he’s likable, and he wins races. Plus, when the engine falls silent, you don’t have to worry about him saying or doing something to offend your wife or young child.
In and out of the race car, Jesse Hockett has got it going on.
There is no grand plan that has put Hockett where he is; it’s been a series of life events and happenstance – along with a genuine desire to be a driver – that brought him to Eldora on this night.
His father was a co-worker with Sedalia, Mo., sprint car racer Kevin Whitworth, and when Hockett was a child he tagged along with his father to watch Whitworth in action.
From the very first outing the child discovered a passion for sprint cars; not just race cars, but sprint cars. He would go to sleep or play with his toys when the other divisions rolled out, but the moment the sprint cars came to life, so did little Jesse.
It was only a matter of time before the kid wanted to make his own noise, and at age 15 Hockett began racing a 215-hp, four-cylinder sprint car near his Warsaw, Mo., home.
Two years later he moved to a winged 360 sprinter.
It was along this wandering path that Hockett happened to meet Lenexa, Kan., builder and land developer Tom Vankeirsbilck.
It was a life-changing encounter.
“It took every dime my family had to keep our 360 going, and when we blew up three engines in one year we were pretty much done,” Hockett recalled. “We were parked, and we went to Sedalia for an event where they had carbureted 360s during the day and full 360s that night.
“They were short on cars for the night race, so they came around to the other division asking guys to run with the full 360s to fill the field. One of my dad’s friends had raced in the first event, and wanted to get start money for his car that night. But he had drunk a few beers and couldn’t drive it himself, so he asked my dad if he wanted to run the car.
“My dad explained that I had run a car for a while, and why not let me have a try? The guy was kind of skeptical, but he finally agreed and I got into the car and ran 10th,” Hockett continued. “Tom was a sponsor on the car, and that’s how we met. The next year they put a car together and Tom asked me to run maybe eight or 10 races for him. After that he kind of went all-out, and we’ve been together ever since.
“It’s kind of ironic, because that afternoon at Sedalia I really felt like I was finished. It was like the end of the world; our engine was blown up, we were out of money, and I didn’t know if I’d ever get another opportunity. Then by pure chance I met Tom that very night and everything changed. It was just one of those good things that happen.”
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