By Jeff Wolfe
It seems James Swanson is always going somewhere.
A Clarksboro resident for the past five years, Swanson has admittedly been a bit of a nomad for much of his adult life. And he still is in an organized way, for about seven months of the year as a driver in the ARCA racing series, which is considered one of NASCAR’s developmental leagues and a place where many current NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers gained experience on the way to the top series in the sport.
Swanson, who is 34, isn’t quite sure if he will reach that top level. What he is sure of though is that he certainly loves what he is doing now, which is driving the No. 06 car in the series for long-time car owner Wayne Peterson.
“Wayne pays for my food and gives me a place to live during the season,” Swanson said. “So, basically, I do this for food and money. But I am doing what I want to do. It’s like an addiction. Once you get hooked on that adrenalin rush, you can’t get away from it.”
But Swanson knows he can’t make enough money in racing to live on year-round. So, it was about five years ago when he found a job as a welder in the Philadelphia shipyard and after looking for a place to live, settled in Clarksboro.
“In the last 20 years, I have traveled a lot,” he said. “I have been in Louisiana, Texas and South Carolina. This is a lot better than Philadelphia. When I went driving around looking for a place to live, I saw horses and some chickens and it was just more of what I liked.”
What Swanson knew he liked while growing up in the Midwest was racing. He raced in the World Karting Association in go-karts with the likes of Sam Hornish and Danica Patrick in the early 1990s. Hornish went on to win the Indianapolis 500 and has also raced in NASCAR. Patrick raced in IndyCar, where she did win one race, and has been full-time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series the past two years.
“They just stayed with it a little harder than I did and they made it full-time,” Swanson said. “I don’t think they were any better than me. Sometimes you just get the breaks.”
Swanson grew up driving for his family’s team, until his father put the brakes on being a race car owner, something that can get pretty expensive pretty quickly.
“When I was about 16 we started driving street stocks and we traveled around with them,” Swanson said. “We did that for years until my dad decided he had had enough of racing. I started doing it on my own and I knew I was capable of going places. I helped with teams before, but never had the opportunity to drive again until I met Wayne.”
Swanson met Peterson at a race in Alabama five years ago. Swanson offered a helping hand that Peterson apparently needed. He began working on cars for Peterson, and then a few months later had a major job to do in a short amount of time. It involved replacing several key parts on a car that had been in a fire so that car could be ready for the next race.
That turned out to be Swanson’s big break.
“We had a fire in our car and it had burned up pretty bad,” Swanson said. “We had four days before the next race and we had to bring the same car. We changed all of the electrical lines and hoses and got it back on the track. It was one day before the race and it looked like we were going to be ready. Wayne told me to go over to the ARCA trailer and get my physical and license because he wanted me to drive the car.”
Swanson hasn’t set the series on fire in terms of top finishes, but he has helped the team improve. The team has become more competitive since the halfway mark of this season with two 12th place finishes. Swanson thinks he might have had his best finish in a race on the dirt in Du Quoin, Ill., only to run out of gas.
“I thought I was going to get in the top 10, but we must not have gotten all the fuel in on our pit stop,” Swanson said. “As for the performance of the car, in the second half of the year we have been qualifying better, up in the top half of the field, and we have been racing in the top half.”
Part of the challenge for Swanson is that Peterson does not have the deep pockets to fund the team that some other owners do. That means having to cut corners wherever they can to survive. Which in turn means using a pit crew of students from the University of Northwestern Ohio, which offers a high performance motorsports program. Swanson said some of the students are learning a completely new thing by changing tires, jacking up the car, and putting fuel in the engine. While pit stops on NASCAR’s top level, the Sprint Cup Series, take anywhere from 12 to 15 seconds, a fast stop on the ARCA series is about 18 seconds. However, Swanson’s crew sometimes takes as much as 40 seconds to change four tires and put fuel in the car.
“We’re struggling on pit road, but it’s an all-volunteer crew,” Swanson said. “They are college kids and they get school credits for doing this. We feed them and put them up in a hotel room. They are not full-time guys, but they are learning. Sometimes they don’t get enough fuel in or they will put tires on the wrong side. They are just college kids learning.”
Part of the issue too, is that even if the pit stops improve by the end of the season, Swanson and his team will have to train a whole new crew at the start of next year. The Peterson cars are usually entered in the season-opening Daytona race, but Swanson has been the crew chief for one car for those races the past couple of years. That’s because if a driver comes in with a sponsor for that one race, it’s a chance for Peterson to bring on extra funding in what is known as a one-race deal.
“It’s worked out where the team was able to make some money,” Swanson said. “If anything, it helps me prepare the crew. I am doing everything and showing them things and helping them learn. That way it helps me when I am back in the car.”
While Swanson has not raced at Daytona the past couple of years, where speeds can reach about 180 mph, he has raced at another superspeedway at Talladega in Alabama, where similar speeds are achieved.
“The first few laps I took on a superspeedway made me question if this is what I want to be doing,” Swanson said. “It was fast and intense. By about 10 laps in I was getting more comfortable, and then by about the 12th lap, I was like OK, let’s do this.”
Along with the high speeds, what is also different at the Daytona and Talladega tracks is that cars race in tight packs, called drafting, which can cause some surprises for a driver.
“When you watch it on TV I know it just looks like the cars are going around in circles,” Swanson said. “Especially when you are in the draft, it really moves the car around.”
Another area that has a direct effect on just how fast Swanson can make his car move is the engine’s horsepower. Since Peterson’s team is not considered high budget, Swanson has to use the same engine for at least four or five races, while the more well-funded teams can change engines after one or two races.
“Our engines put out about 850 horsepower, while the leaders put out about 890,” Swanson said. “We put about 1,500 miles on our engines, and they put on about 400 miles. We are just not quite as high dollar.”
It’s probably not a coincidence Swanson’s finishes began to improve the addition of some dollars from an all-important sponsor midway through the season. Great Railings, based in Williamstown, has been the primary sponsor for several races.
Also this season, there have been several ARCA races on TV, including Fox Sports 1 and CBS Sports. That type of attention helps attract sponsors, too.
“They haven’t been able to fund us 100 percent, but they have helped us enough so we can be competitive,” said Swanson, who was 10th in the season point standings with one race left. “They’ve been sponsoring us for the last three seasons.”
Just where Swanson will end up next season, he’s not 100 percent sure either. But he certainly hopes he is driving for Peterson again.
“A lot of teams come and go,” Swanson said. “They spend a fortune real quick, and crash a lot of cars. Some guys will come and run mediocre and then go to the (NASCAR) trucks (series). I’m content running ARCA. I’ve proven I can be a winner and contend. This is a full-time racing series and I’m happy right where I’m at.”
Which for a big part of the year is at or on the way to a racetrack somewhere.