NICK SCHWIEN â ¢ Hays Daily News Cody Graham's hobby stock is hauled off by a wrecker after an accident June 16 during a heat race at WaKeeney Speedway.
Things happen fast when you're behind the wheel of a race car.
There's no time to second-guess or play out the scenarios of how things are going to pan out.
There's no rewind button. No do-overs.
Cody Graham knows that. He's lived with that feeling every year since he's been competing in the hobby stock class at area tracks.
But this year, Graham wasn't looking for a redo. Instead, he was living the good life and having the most successful racing season of his career.
Wins were aplenty, and he was working his way through the pack of drives in a feature faster than he could dispose of a tear-off from his helmet.
How good was it going? Despite a DNF early at RPM Speedway in Hays, he was neck-and-neck with his father-in-law, Leon Pfannenstiel, for first in track points. At WaKeeney Speedway, Graham had built up a nine-point lead toward a track title.
He had dominated tracks the last few seasons with his dry-slick setup. But this year, he and crew chief Scott Fall had done their homework in the offseason. That made them even more dominant to start 2013.
Heavy tracks that used to be a problem no longer were.
Graham started with a pair of wins at the Sunflower Classic at RPM Speedway. It was the start of multiple wins this year.
Graham could take his Bart Chassis and drive it through the field without touching another car, winning by large margins or the narrowest of margins with last-corner passes. No track -- or driver -- could tame the Hays driver.
Until June 16, Father's Day.
Only a lap into his heat race, Graham was caught up in a large wreck on the front stretch at WaKeeney. He tagged another car that got out of control in front of him, then smashed against the front-stretch wall.
His night was done, and his car looked like it was done, too.
"We busted our butts after hitting the wall at WaKeeney," Graham said. "There were a lot of bolts and parts we went through -- steering box, power steering pump. But the motor was OK."
Graham and his helpers thrashed on the car all week long, many times until 1 in the morning. Marty Barth, the builder of the chassis, helped get the car back into shape in his shop as the next weekend of racing approached.
Just hours before the green flag was to drop June 22 at Sherman County Speedway in Goodland, Graham loaded up his "new" car and headed west.
Due to a DNF at Goodland earlier this season, Graham had an ideal starting spot for the feature after winning his heat. In fact, he drove his way to another win -- his 13th of the season.
Despite everything that had happened less than a week before, Graham believed the car was nearly back to normal.
"We felt good about the car," he said.
That feeling lasted a day.
On June 23 at Thomas County Speedway in Colby, Graham took one of the wildest rides I've ever seen on video.
Coming out of turn two in the feature, he went a bit high trying to avoid a car moving up to the top of the track. He got his tires in some mud, and it sucked him into the wall.
Next thing he knew, he was seeing dirt out his driver's side window inches away from his head as he slid on his side down the track. Then something caught, and the car violently rolled multiple times, sending pieces of the car flying high into the air.
"It was pretty rough," said Graham, who rolled one other time in his career several years ago at Fall Nationals in Hays. "I'm not sure a rollover is ever a good thing, but this one was pretty violent. I was woozy when I got out of the car. I kept my eyes open like a moron, and that was part of it."
Despite the damage to the car and the violent nature of the wreck, Graham had no broken bones or severe injuries. Two days later, he was feeling normal again, despite his helmet hitting from side to side during the accident.
While he didn't have anything broken, his car was quite the opposite. His Bart Chassis car he drove the last four seasons -- one he won 33 races in during that stretch -- was toast.
"There's a lot of superstitious people out there, but I'm not really one of them," Graham said. "There's a lot of good luck and bad luck. It's kind of caught up to us now.
"I tell the young guys in the class to make sure you don't get yourself into a situation you can't get yourself out of. That's what I did, maybe pressed it a bit too hard."
Now, he finds himself in another situation he might not be able to get out of. Graham, with his strong start despite the accidents, still is in the hunt for track titles at RPM and WaKeeney. He's still in the hunt for state honors, region honors and -- dare I say -- national honors in IMCA.
National championships aren't supposed to be talked about at the beginning of the season. Sure, they can be a goal, but just as soon as a driver starts talking national titles, bad things happen.
Graham never did that. He might have eyed a thought at running for something big with the early success, and he would have been crazy not to have that notion.
He's in that position, now, where it would be a shame to just call it quits for the season and lick his wounds. That's not Graham's way of doing things.
Last weekend, he borrowed his father-in-law's old "tin can" of a hobby stock and competed in it to try to save some points -- locally and nationally.
He finished 13th at RPM and third at WaKeeney in the borrowed car.
What the future will bring, even Graham doesn't know. Build a new car? Find another one? Keep running the borrowed car? Call it quits for the year and save money?
Whatever he decides, he'll make the best decision for his family and himself.
It's an unfortunate part of racing. He had one of the best seasons going, rivaling the likes of Northern sport mod driver Bryan LaRiviere, modified driver David Murray Jr. and stock car drivers Jason Schoenberger and Nick Tubbs the last few seasons as early-season wins accumulated quickly. All were in the mix for national titles in their respective classes, with only LaRiviere winning a coveted title.
Racing isn't easy, and it's not for the faint of heart.
It takes guts to mash the gas pedal in search of glory.
Good things can happen. So can bad things.
That's the way life rolls.
Hopefully for Graham, it's the last time his life rolls that way.
* NICK SCHWIEN, HDN