FORT WAYNE – The first time I remember talking to Tom Isch, he was at full stop.
It was 20 years ago and spring and the world was greening up, and Isch was looking out his window while talking to me on the telephone. And suddenly he noticed what an incredible day it was.
Blue skies. Sunshine. The whole nature deal.
All kinds of robins out there this morning, ... he said suddenly, apropos of nothing.
And so, yes, I have proof positive that Isch actually did stop and smell the roses once in a while, if only for a nanosecond. The rest of his life was a blur ... and a roar ... and blue smoke going up to dim the lights on a warm summer night out at Baer Field, or up at Avilla, or over at Plymouth.
Isch promoted races at all three places once upon a time, and so here’s to him. He passed away Tuesday morning at the age of 74, family and friends at his bedside, and if you’re one of those gearheads who thinks Chanel No. 5’s got nothing on the pungent aroma of oil and gas and burning rubber, you might spare the man a thought. You got nothin’ without the likes of him.
What you get at Indianapolis in May and Daytona in February may be the finished product of American motorsports, see, but the raw materials come together at places such as Baer Field and Plymouth and Avilla. And there are no raw materials without the Tom Isches of the world.
They’re the ones who scrimp and save and pinch every penny till it cries uncle.
They’re the ones who ride out the hard times, because if the doors close and the lights wink out at the Baer Fields, soon the doors close and the lights wink out everywhere.
Half of NASCAR passed through Baer Field on the way up across its 50 years, and a fair amount of IndyCar, too. That half-mile of asphalt – and, later, the three-eighths-mile configuration Isch added by shortening the south turn – was a breeding ground and a trampoline all at once for every weekend warrior who dreamed of something more.
Isch understood this, which is why 20 years ago he found himself running Baer Field and Plymouth and Avilla at the same time, while simultaneously running a pair of traveling series (AVSS Sprints and IMSS Modifieds). Plymouth got sold and Avilla went away, but Isch stuck it out at Baer Field for two decades, helping develop the open-wheel modified and pavement winged sprint classes that have become staples of area small-track racing.
And, yeah, there were hard times. Back in 2008, when racing fuel topped out somewhere north of $7 a gallon, car counts dwindled and Isch fretted even more than usual. But on Saturday nights he’d look up into the stands and see both his salvation and his purpose.
Crowds haven’t been bad, he said that day in ’08. I think people want to stay local. That’s what might pull me through this year.
It did. And, of course, pulled so much else through with it.