We have all had those moments. We should be fast asleep but are instead pondering what’s next in life. Or equally maddening are the days when one awakes with a mind flooded with the tasks to be done. Jerome Rodela knows all about this.
The former racer and current constructor/mechanic felt pressed to make a difficult decision. Last August, he beamed with pride as he watched Kyle Larson drive his midget to victory at Indianapolis Raceway Park. It was made special by the presence of his daughters and the joy that came with working alongside one of this era’s all-time great drivers. He could still be basking in the glory of a satisfying memory, but instead something was eating at him.
“It was just one of those things,” Rodela explained. “I woke up one morning and thought what am I doing? You win a race with Kyle Larson and how can you achieve something better?”
After some deliberation, he put his midget up for sale.
Many miles away, Tim Bertrand was relaxing in Mexico when he saw Rodela’s post. It grabbed him by the throat. The last time Bertrand got so excited also came during a southern sojourn. On that occasion, Kevin Swindell proposed joining forces for the Chili Bowl Nationals. That ended with Logan Seavey clutching a Golden Driller.
Rodela’s post spoke directly to another of Bertrand’s elusive racing goals. He desperately wanted to win a midget race at IRP.
Bertrand is a successful businessman and salesman. He is charismatic and results oriented. When Rodela thinks back, he believes it took Bertrand 22 minutes to contact him and make an attractive offer.
“I have always admired Jerome’s car,” Bertrand said. “It is probably the nicest midget built by anyone. I thought that was a car that would never be for sale.”
Yet, he was quickly reminded of a time more than two decades ago when he learned that “Liquid” Lou Cicconi’s offset Drinan car was for sale. Bertrand purchased that car, which had been successful in the NEMA midget ranks, and it provided the template for the cars he runs today. It truly was déjà vu all over again.
Reason suggests the story would end right here. Rodela would add to his bank account and Bertrand would be confident he had acquired the missing piece needed to visit victory lane at IRP.
It wasn’t that easy.
Rodela had second thoughts. This was not just another race car to him. It was 15 years old and Rodela, Courtney Crone, Kody Swanson and Kyle Larson had all carried it to victory. Rodella was caught in a struggle between logic and emotion.
Getting nostalgic, he realized that over the past decade and a half he had only replaced a panel or two, and even the radius rods were original pieces. How does that happen in today’s world? It helps when a car has never been crashed and really has only spun out a time or two.
“When I first built it, it was in the Toyota Motorsports livery, so it was black, white and red. Then I redid it. The pearl white on the top was my tribute to Steve Lewis and Nine Racing,” Rodela explained. “For the bottom, I wanted that shade of red that was on Andy Granatelli’s STP cars. I called Ed Pink Engines and asked them to go through Ed’s old rolodex and find someone who worked on those cars. I found the color code and started spraying it on the tank and thought, God, this looks awful.
“This is not going to work on a midget and I just spent $400 on paint. I got every type of red I had in my cabinet and poured them together. Dark red, light red, metallic and put them all together. Once I sprayed that on and added a clear coat it was magical. Today, there are only about two teaspoons left of that color.”
The investment of time and energy and the memories tied up in this midget made this business decision deeply personal.
“It was like selling your childhood home,” Rodela said. “That car was a part of my life and it was what was keeping me in pavement midget racing.”
Despite a substantial offer, there was more to this story. Rodella and Bertrand were far from friends.
“Every race I ran out here Tim was the guy I was hiding that car from,” Rodela said. “Because he was like a Russian spy. Out of everybody there, Tim was the one guy I was keeping the car covered up for.”
The Swanson Matter
Then, there was the matter of Kody Swanson. Rodela had won with Swanson, and Bertrand hired him away. Swanson is an IRP master, but he is also more than just another good racer. Swanson is meticulous in everything he does. He keeps copious notes and he measures every tire. He is far from an arrive-and-drive racer.
Bertrand did not need to do a check-in with Rodela to know how he felt about losing Swanson. He knew why Rodella was still angry, but was also confident he could appeal to his rival’s pragmatic side.
“I told him the reason I hired him is that we are such similar people,” Bertrand recalled. “I just want to win. It is a dream of mine to win at IRP. I never thought I would win the Chili Bowl, but to win at IRP is still a bucket-list item.”
Despite making a very generous offer, Bertrand could not convince Rodella to pull the trigger.
“It was the first time in my life I was trying to sell someone on selling something to me,” Bertrand said with a laugh. “And, of course, I am in the sales business and pretty good at it. This guy really needed to be convinced we were the right guys to have this car.”
Bertrand pointed to his history as an owner, his maintenance program and his attention to detail. He also had Swanson. When it was clear Rodela was not going to give up his baby lightly, Bertrand called upon his interpersonal skill set.
Still, something about this whole deal had a familiar ring for Rodela. Then it hit him. It all reminded him of one of his favorite movies.
“I told my girlfriend there is a movie called ‘Heat,’” Rodela said. “It stars Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Pacino was an LAPD detective and De Niro was the brains behind a bank robbery that took place. De Niro kept eluding Pacino until finally Pacino scoped him out and chased him down.
“He nonchalantly pulled him over on an L.A. freeway but has a gun behind his back ready to shoot him if he had to. Robert De Niro also had a gun in his car. So Pacino says, ‘Hey why don’t we get a cup of coffee?’ Now the two of them, complete arch enemies, are sitting across from each other with their pistols sitting on their lap in a coffee shop. It is funny because they are like-minded and have a job to do.
“During this deal, Tim said, ‘When everything is done, I will take you out to dinner.’ The first thing that popped in my mind,” Rodela said with a laugh, “is that I’m probably going to be sitting at the dinner table with my gun on my lap.”
While all of this was sorted out, Rodela leaned heavily on his friends and mentors Steve Lewis and Tom Malloy. Rodela still managed a team for Malloy and his relationship with Lewis was decade’s deep.
Lewis counseled Rodela on the details he should consider and Malloy, as a racing history buff and collector, understood and appreciated what this race car meant to his friend.
The deal was made with the caveat being that at least in the short-term Rodela would remain involved post-sale. It was agreed Rodela would install the engine and set up the car all for his normal fee on top of the sale price. He would be there with the team at least for the first race.
“Since I built that car, it’s had a Toyota engine and I fine-tuned it. I refined every aspect of it from the balance to the way the engine ran, the way it accelerated, and how it decelerated in the corner,” Rodela explained. “It was just such a fine match. If I put his engine in it, it is going to be a different weight and different RPMs. There is a real difference between a Toyota and SR-11. It will be interesting if we can get it going.”
Rodela is still talking himself through the transition.
“It is going to be OK because I had to start thinking like a grown up,” Rodela said. “With what I got for that car I can put my first daughter through college.”
When he takes a deep breath, he knows one thing for certain. Bertrand treated him fairly.
As for Bertrand, does this new combination of machinery and talent guarantee a victory? It does not. Swanson knows this as well as anyone but says he is “cautiously optimistic.” He remembers his first test with Rodela and recalls “from the first five laps I knew Jerome’s car was different.”
Yet, he also knows that it took years of work to make this car a winner and he is acutely aware that a change in the engine package is significant. He relishes the challenge because he would love to help his owner check this important item off his list.
“I find a lot of joy in being a part of big moments with individuals and race teams and helping them accomplish something they are after,” Rodela said.
For Rodela, one of his peak moments was winning at IRP with Kyle Larson.
“I will tell children this story because it changed my life forever,” he said. “I kid you not. Kyle was so calm and levelheaded. We tested the morning before the race and he was running a little slow. When he pulled in, I asked how the car was and he said, ‘Don’t touch it. Right now, the car is faster than me. Let me come to the car.’ The next session was like somebody turned on a light. He was running pole speeds and it looked effortless.”
Rodela knows that winning at IRP is special and he knows firsthand how everything must fall into place to get the job done.
“People look at IRP and think it is just a standard pavement track,” he said. “So, how hard could it be? But I think about the Indy 500 and how it has eluded so many great drivers. All the trials and tribulations that go into that race. You go through qualifying and then you must be there at the end. On a smaller scale that is how IRP is.
“One cloud passes in front of the sun and it can screw your life up. That is why IRP is like the Indy 500. I had been trying for years and finally got the right package that the car needs,” Rodela noted. “It is blistering fast and there are only a select few who are worthy of winning there. Your stuff must be perfect. There is a huge difference between winning and finishing second.”
Rodella understands Bertrand’s motivation.
“I know how much he wants it and I would be happy if I was a small part of that,” Rodela said. “I know what it took for me to get a big win at IRP. There was the time I spent lying in bed thinking about it and then all the work fine-tuning the car.”
Swanson can see the possibilities.
“I am really excited,” he said. “I loved racing with Jerome and I have liked working with Tim. This is potentially a terrific opportunity to work with people I have called friends and who have a real passion for midget racing, especially midget racing at Indianapolis Raceway Park.”