Montana Race Car Driver Headed for Indianapolis
BY LISA BARIL
Spend a night at a Las Vegas roulette table, ride the Full Throttle roller coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain, or watch the season finale of the Walking Dead and you feel what every thrill-seeker feels: a racing heart, quickened breaths, sweaty palms and a heightened sense of awareness—so intense that all else fades into the background.
That’s how race car driver Trey Coon of Livingston feels when he gets behind the wheel of his fiery red Spec Ford Racer. “It’s the only place where I feel like I am truly in the moment” Coon told the Pioneer.
For thrill-seekers like Coon, the rush from the intense buzz of speeding headlong down a racetrack triggers the dopamine-making center in the brain. According to a 2008 study by David Zald, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, the brains of thrill-seekers have fewer dopamine-inhibiting receptors. That means thrill-seekers get an extra rush of dopamine—the neurotransmitter responsible for the great feeling we have when we do something exciting, and the feeling is addictive—motivating “speed addicts” and others to do it all over again.
But auto racing is different than watching toothy zombies from the comfort of your living room or screaming your way through a ride on an upside down roller coaster. Traveling at speeds of up to 150 mph in an open cockpit race car, inches from dozens of other competitors, is a real life risk—the pursuit of which may be hard-wired into Trey Coon.
Auto racing in the Coon family began in 1916 with his grandmother, Louise Dowdell, who lived near the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway. At the time, women were not allowed in the pit or garage areas of speedways, not to mention in race cars, but Louise was driven by the thrill of auto racing, and maybe the excitement of being caught out on the racetrack. So, she spurned the conventions of her time, dressed like a mechanic and slid in to the passenger seat of a Frontenac racing car with her then fiancé, Gaston Chevrolet. In those early days of auto racing mechanics always accompanied the driver.
Gaston was the brother of Louis Chevrolet, founder of the Chevrolet car company. Gaston and Louise raced a few practice laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before being caught. “They got into a lot of trouble for that stunt” said Coon.
Despite the thrill, no auto racer ever loses sight of the real danger that looms. Tragedy struck Gaston and Louise just four years later. A few months after winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1920, Gaston was killed in a racing accident. “It’s a high risk sport” said Coon. Cars are racing so close together that accidents will happen.”
Louise accepted that kind of danger. She knew Gaston had as well and understood the life of race car drivers. She grieved, but didn’t give up her passion and remained a racing fan.
Louise later married Trey’s grandfather, Owen Coon, introducing him to the sport of auto racing—a passion that was passed down to their son and Coon’s father, Owen Jr.
Coon’s father taught him much of what he knows about the sport. He remembers racing down his suburban Chicago driveway in his quarter midget when he was just a kid. Although Coon’s father had retired from racing before Trey was born they went to many races together. His father was involved with racing during what is known as the Golden Era of Motor Sports, during the 1950s, and because his father knew all the bigwigs in racing Coon had the inside track.
It might seem a straightforward matter, but driving a race car requires extraordinary skill. It’s not just about how fast your car can go, but how well you handle the vehicle. “It’s like doing the Texas two-step,” said Coon. “When driving your left foot is on the clutch and the other is working the break and throttle, heel and toe, at the same time. One hand is shifting and the other is on the wheel,” all the while racing within inches of your competitors at maximum speed. There is no room for error, and it takes split-second strategizing just to stay in the race, never mind win it. It’s almost imperceptible to the average spectator, but small changes in the way a driver handles a car is what wins (and loses) races.
It was Coon’s exceptional skill in handling his Spec Ford Racer that earned him the 2012 points championship for the Central Division at Blackhawk Farms raceway in northern Illinois, a major win. This June, he’s headed to the Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the same track where his grandmother caused a stir nearly 100 years ago. The race is the first of its kind ever to be held there and will host more than 500 of the world’s finest and most historic race cars as they compete on the recently reconfigured road course. Exhibition events will also be run on the famous 2.5-mile oval racetrack.
“It’s a huge honor to be invited to this event,” said Coon, who will be driving another Spec Racer—a car designed in 1984 with a chassis that hasn’t changed since that time. That vintage aspect of the car makes the Spec Ford Racer eligible for many different racing venues, including vintage races like the one at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Coon will be racing against Porsches, Lotus’, MGs, Jaguars and Austin Healeys, to name a few, and he anticipates 40,000 to 50,000 spectators at the event.
Even if you’re not an auto racing fan you’re probably familiar with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway—the only race track on the National Record of Historic Places seating an incredible 400,000. The track was constructed in 1909 with 10-pound bricks—3.2 million of them—earning the Speedway the nickname, Brickyard. The first race at the Brickyard took place in 1911, and the car that won averaged 75 miles per hour. In 1961, the bricks were removed and asphalt was laid over the track, but a one-yard swath of bricks that marks the start and finish line remains. It is tradition for the winners of Brickyard races to kiss the bricks in celebration.
In order for Coon to kiss the bricks he’s going to have to drive a lot faster than 75 mph and outmaneuver 50 or 60 other competitors. “The first turn is the hardest,” said Coon. “Everyone is trying to get an advantage. But the trick,” he said, “is to brake as late as possible—later than the driver next to you.” And that’s not easy when going into a turn at 130 mph with lateral forces of up to 3 Gs.
At the beginning of a race there may be 50 or 60 cars all vying for a spot in the lead, and they often make contact with each other. “After the first turn though it thins out a bit, but there are still 20 or 25 cars all within a half second of each other.”
“During a race everything seems to move in slow motion since everyone is moving at about the same speed.” You really have to anticipate what the other drivers are going to do,” said Coon. A driver to the side, or in front, makes a mistake and you could pay for it. Coon has bumped a few cars while on the track. “It’s just part of racing,” he said. He’s had broken ribs, wrists, and been generally pretty banged up, but luckily has never been in a serious accident. His wife Barbara and 13 year- old daughter, Madison, know the dangers of the sport, but they don’t talk about it too much, said Coon.
Madison enjoys seeing her dad race, especially when she’s in the pit clocking times on a stopwatch, said Coon. At one of the first races she went to, though, she watched on the sidelines as Trey’s coach got into a horrible wreck. Although he walked away virtually unscathed, it was then that Madison realized this is a serious sport.
Madison didn’t see her father race until she was 11. In 1999, he gave up auto racing along with his high pressure job as a bond trader in Chicago and moved to Livingston, where he and his wife, Barbara, opened Yellowstone TroutScout Outfitters—a fly fishing guide service. Hard-wired to seek adventure, Coon missed the sport, and in 2011 he began racing cars again.
When the Montana Pioneer asked Coon if he gets nervous before a race, he replied, “I only get nervous when people ask me if I’m nervous.” Fortunately, he wasn’t about to jump into his Spec Ford Racer after the Pioneer spoke with him, but when someone does ask Coon that question before a race, he takes a time out in his car, just to be by himself. Once he puts on his helmet though, Coon said he becomes focused on the race and any anxiety is channeled into concentrating on the moment. It’s really the only one that matters.