If you’ve made it this far through my story, congrats! Now, welcome to my version of hell: Gateway.
In the industry, World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway is known as the St. Louis race, which is weird because it’s actually in Illinois. You, the reader, might be asking yourself: why, Stephen, if you have limited races, did you pick St. Louis to compete at? Well, that’s because I needed a 1.25-mile track on my resume in order to get approved for bigger racetracks (hello foreshadowing).
On the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series schedule, there really aren’t that many tracks that fit that criteria. As I have mentioned in another part of this series, my goal for 2023 was to gain approval for a superspeedway event to drive in. In order to do that, Gateway was a non-negotiable. Especially because we needed to progress to the top in the fewest possible amount of races for financial reasons.
For this particular race, I struggled to find sponsorship. However, I managed to put a few things together with a construction company and with Aramark, my dad’s company. Even so, it was not nearly enough cash to hit the track. In the end, I sold my car, my beloved 2021 Dodge Charger, to find the funds to do this race.
Some internet comments had respect and admiration for what I did. Others showed disdain. I was called a “rich white kid” using “daddy’s money” to race. These comments really sucked, especially because I have been funding my racing entirely on my own since entering stock cars.
One of the most difficult parts of being a small-time racing driver is people absolutely shit on you on social media for things that are mostly out of your control. For example, despite the fact that I owned a 2021 Charger (which was in fact part of a late-model sponsorship deal), I am likely one of the poorest drivers in the entire Truck Series.
Many drivers have dads who literally sign blank checks to top teams for rides, where they go on to underperform. And yet, some people online still go even a step further and elect to bash my finishing positions as well, despite racing for one of the lowest budgeted and smallest teams in the garage.
Anyways, rant over. Back to the car, because this is an important part of my story.
Since I was in high school, I have always had bright orange Dodges. My very first car was an ’09 SRT8 that I bought 50/50 with my dad. Oddly enough, I sold that car in order to move to Charlotte originally in 2021. Owning one of these machines was a part of my identity. It kept my sanity. No matter how bad my day was, at the end of it, if I could hop behind the wheel and turn gasoline into speed and loud noises, I’d be okay.
That was always a comforting feeling, especially in a life riddled with uncertainty.
These cars were to me what a family dog is to most people. Selling the car to keep racing broke me. And yet, at the end of the day, I asked myself if I wanted to be the kid who lived his dreams, or the kid who owned a bright orange Dodge. I ended up buying a dirt-cheap 215,000 mile, 2012 Nissan Altima from the piano teacher who’s been living in my basement for eight years (again, that is a story for another day).
So, not off to a great start already. My car is gone, and parts of the internet are really starting to get to me. But who cares? I was living the dream; I had a race to focus on.
Behind those unfortunate developments, there was indeed some good news! With only 35 trucks entered for Gateway, I’d not only guarantee myself a better finish than Martinsville but would also be entered alongside my racing father figure Josh Reaume in the RBR No. 34.
Now on Thursday, I was under the impression that none of my family or friends would be joining me for Gateway, not even my dad. The old man had a cancer radiation treatment that very day, and would have to isolate due to a compromised immune system. So, imagine my surprise when I get a text from him on that Thursday saying he had booked a flight and hotel to join us in St. Louis on Friday. At first, I was excited. But then I realized what had happened.
My dad never got his treatment.
I had no way of confirming the bad news, but very clearly something hadn’t gone the way we had hoped. That would end up hovering over my head the entire weekend. And, as it turned out, I was correct. The cancer had spread, indicating a change in treatment to a more aggressive one would be necessary. I wouldn’t find that out from my dad until days after the race, but I knew his appearance, while welcomed, was inherently not a good thing.
As if I didn’t already have enough to focus on, now I had this weighing on me as well.
Friday brought heat like I had never experienced before in my life. Luckily, practice and qualifying were later in the day, so it cooled down a little. I picked up a ton of speed over the course of the practice session, getting faster and faster each lap. Near the end of the session, however, I scraped the wall. Fortunately, there ended up being no damage.
We actually did half-decent in qualifying and showed some speed. Perhaps more importantly, Michael Waltrip and the Fox booth made a point to mention the fact that maybe Outback Steakhouse should sponsor me (this becomes very relevant in our next chapter).
I had never felt like I had the opportunity/equipment to race other trucks heading into a race day before, but that’s exactly how I felt Friday night. Josh and I went to dinner together and peeked at some SMT data before going to bed.
On Saturday morning, after a quick McDonald’s stop with the crew, we bolted over to the racetrack. I had an early autograph session where a number of people commented on the fact that I had sold my car. It was pretty cool that people outside of my bubble were getting to know my story.
Before I knew it, we were lined up on pit road and ready to go.
I’ll skip right to the chase: on lap 26 of a race that I sold my personal car to run, just like at Martinsville, a battery issue caused me to stall out on the front stretch. I absolutely lost it. It was a 160-lap race, and here we were not even a sixth of the way through with a major problem. Fox cut to my audio just in time:
“EVERYTHING IS DEAD. ALL THE GAUGES ARE DEAD. I HAVE F**KING NOTHING RIGHT NOW”.
Thank the Lord that is all they caught. Sure, I didn’t swear at all after that (some people were not happy with my radio etiquette after Martinsville). But, I absolutely leveled everyone who was listening. It was a total freakout. I ripped into NASCAR’s first million-dollar (and Cup champion) crew chief Todd Parrott, reeling over how I had brought up concerns about the voltage in practice.
My anger was uncontrollable. This was my dream. I had committed everything that I had for these opportunities, and now I watched another one slip away.
People who tuned into my audio were disappointed in the way I had treated my crew. What those same people do not realize is, Reaume Brothers Racing has been family to me. I take the shop guys out to eat every time I visit. I frequently call and text the guys to check-in. And most importantly, I work and pour my heart into the team as much as they do.
At the end of the day, was my fit justified? Yes, it was. Yet, that doesn’t make it right, and I know that. These things happen in racing, and it wasn’t anyone’s fault. But, I feel as if all of my RBR peers understood my frustration at the moment, especially Todd.
After a push to pit road, we scrambled to replace the battery. By the time it was done, I had lost thirteen laps. The culprit turned out to not even be a dead battery. In fact, the positive terminal cable had split clean in half.
I’d spend the rest of the day riding around, faster than a lot of the backmarkers but unable to do anything with my speed. I was beside myself. It was a miserable experience. The inside of my car boiled, reaching temperatures of 140 degrees.
Near the end of the race, Keith McGee, my spotter, called me to pit road and informed me there were no more positions to gain. I responded to Keith, telling him there was no way I was quitting this race.
It all goes back to my dad.
Having my hunch about my dad’s condition and knowing he was listening, I hopped on the radio and told Keith that it was a matter of pride to see the checkered flag at this point. Just like my dad, the situation wasn’t ideal, but that doesn’t mean I was just going to quit. I was going to see this freakin’ race until the very end.
We would finish in 31st.
When I got out of the truck, I immediately apologized to Todd and the rest of the RBR crew. I dejectedly helped to load up the hauler and then bolted for the airport with the guys.
My dad and I had to fly back to Charlotte before getting on a connecting flight to Philadelphia that would get us in well after midnight. We boarded that second flight around 10:30 PM We were still sitting at the gate four hours later at 2:30 AM It was a complete disaster.
A combination of storms and a lack of a crew meant the flight just kept getting delayed over and over again.
Sitting on that grounded airplane is where the final Gateway gut punch occurred.
Stranded on that mechanical bird, at around midnight, a girl who I had totally and unequivocally fallen for unlike anyone before in my life broke my heart. She told me she had entered a relationship with someone else, and had “100% unfallen for me”. I truly thought she had the potential to be the one. I never saw it coming.
To give you perspective on just how intense this situation was, we had plans to go to Nashville together just nine days after the race. It was totally out of left field and left me gutted sitting on this plane alone.
It was a scene out of a slightly above-average romantic comedy.
Being a racer is amazing, but it also requires sacrifice. I never wanted to have this conversation with this girl who meant the world to me 500-plus miles away from her on an airport tarmac. Sometimes being away so often means not only do you sometimes miss parts of life you would rather not, but it also means you have to have conversations, and difficult ones at that, through a phone.
This was not the first of those conversations for me, and I sadly doubt it will be the last.
This situation would go on to not only result in the loss of said girl (who was also one of my closest friends), but it would spiral out and cause me to lose my best friend and former spotter too. The entire friend group who re-ignited my love of racing just a chapter earlier in this story fell apart as quickly as it came together, in a possibly permanently irreparable way.
A small part of me honestly believes I would give up racing to bring those people and memories back. But, in reality, it is a moot consideration: if it is meant to be, it will be.
Despite full-well knowing how corny this whole paragraph is going to sound, I am going to follow through with writing it anyways. The girl ripped me and my heart to shreds. Meanwhile, my best friend simply never had my back when I needed him the most. You need to trust your spotter, and I no longer did by the end.
Sometimes, like a broken battery cable in a NASCAR Truck Series event, even if you can get the truck running again with a totally new battery, it simply doesn’t change the outcome of the race.
The disappointing race, the girl, the embarrassment on national TV, my dad, the flight home; all of it was just a lot to handle. I was mentally and physically exhausted. The blows just kept on coming.
What people don’t seem to realize about racing is, it is about so much more than just physical racing. Motorsport is a full-blown lifestyle commitment that drains energy from each and every aspect of our lives. It has everything to do with the people we surround ourselves with and the situations we find ourselves in, both on and off the racetrack.
My dad and I ended up getting delayed until the following morning. Did American Airlines have hotel rooms for us? Absolutely not. So, my cancer-ridden father and I slept at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport that night.
We wouldn’t return to our house in New Jersey until after noon the next day. I immediately went upstairs for a nice shower (which I hadn’t had since the race), and slept, hoping to wake up and realize that all of Gateway was just a nightmare.
It had driven me to again consider stopping my pursuit of racing. But, you don’t ask a boxer whose just been knocked out when he wants to schedule his next fight. And low and behold, just a short few weeks later, I began chasing what was literally my biggest obstacle of all: Pocono.