Off the Clock: Eric Wright

eric-wright-featureSprint car driver Eric Wright got his start in racing as a youngster tearing up mud with a four-wheeler on a homemade track on the rear of his grandfather’s property. At 15, his father moved him up two levels to a bigger, traveling racing series, and by that point, he was truly hooked.

“You can’t explain to anyone why it’s fun or what it is about,” Wright said. “There’s something about racing that gets in your blood, and you can’t get it out.”

The older he got, the more Wright raced, “until after college, the real world started,” he said. His family founded the Madison, Tennessee-based diagnostic imaging replacement parts business, Tri-Imaging Solutions in 2013, “and the racing took a back seat,” he said. After 40-hour workweeks, there just wasn’t another 20 hours to wrench on cars in the garage.

“We’re not a small-time race team, we just don’t have a lot of time to race anymore,” Wright said. “We say we’re going to race more every year, but work takes over.”

The passion Wright feels for the sport has remained undimmed, however. These days, his team, Legate Motor Sports, limits its participation to fewer, higher-purse races, splitting eight to 10 track dates among a pair of cars in Nashville and one in Fresno, California that’s co-owned with Driven Performance, makers of its chassis. They win, too; often taking home $5,000 to $10,000 per victory.

Driven Performance owner Jake Hagopian shares driving duties with Wright, who maintains the vehicles’ motors, electrical and fuel systems. Wright’s father, Andy Legate, handles all the setups and the shocks; all three men work on the vehicles between starts, he said, because the best drivers are “completely in touch with their cars [and] every subtle change [they] make,” Wright said.

Entering the world of Sprint car racing isn’t for the casual, the weak-willed, or the underfunded. A top-of-the-line, race-ready car retails for around $30,000; a competitive vehicle could likely be bought for a third of that price, and drivers in the upper echelon of the national scene regularly invest more than a few hundred thousand dollars in their racing teams.

wright-1Legate Motor Sports vehicles are built on Yamaha R6 engines, which Wright said retail for around $1,000 and can cost 12 times as much after a trip to the workshop, replacing cranks, rods, and pistons, and boring out cylinders by another 2 millimeters over stock to increase the engine displacement. Fully modified, the engine can produce about 150 horsepower, which is enough to take a car that weighs about 750 pounds with the 6-foot-1-inch, 180-pound Wright inside around a quarter-mile dirt track at an average speed of 85 to 100 miles per hour. Even for Wright, who’s had experience with high-pressure competition as a college athlete, the feeling of getting behind the wheel is definitely “a different experience.”

“After you do it, and get involved in it, you want to be a part of it any way you can,” he said; “whether you do it, or a kid does it, or a buddy does it.”

Dirt track racing has a much bigger local following than it does a national one, Wright said. For as much attention as motor sports can draw across sections of the country that follow circuits like NASCAR, Formula 1, or IndyCar, dirt track races generally only find media attention in the wakes of tragedies that injure or claim the lives of drivers, he said.

“Every small town in America usually has a dirt track, especially in the south, the northeast; Pennsylvania, Indiana,” Wright said. “People go there religiously every Saturday night. It’s so much bigger than the mainstream sport. It’s a different world.”

The notion that a driver could be seriously injured or killed in a race is something that everyone involved tries to push to the back of his or her mind by keeping safety gear up to date and knowing who’s on the track at all times. At larger races, there can be as many as 100 cars and drivers on hand, and “you’ve got to watch who your biggest competition is,” Wright said.

“Even the guys that you want to stay away from, you know their reputations,” he said. “Maybe there’s some guys you can race hard and clean, and some guys you’ve got to push the issue with. When we’re on our average track, it’s really about being smooth and not breaking your momentum. Know how you’re going to pass them before you ever get to them.”

On the morning of a big weekend race, the Legate Motor Sports crew will pack up the family motor home and hit the road. The biggest races are generally in the fall season, and it’s not uncommon for Wright to dial up some college football or race footage on the way to the track. Andy Legate is often behind the wheel of the open-cab hauler, while Eric Wright rides in the back with his wife, Kara, mom, Wanda, and children, 4-year-old Shelby and 2-year-old Lane. The RV pulls an 80-foot hauler with the primary and backup car inside, and a deep enough inventory of spare parts to rebuild them both. Bringing the family along isn’t just about carting in a mobile cheering section, however; it’s because they’ve contributed as much of their time to the team as anyone else.

“Races are won in the shop,” Eric Wright said. “I think it’s hard for people to understand how much time goes into something like that, building the cars from the ground up, getting them dyno-tuned, getting them ready, keeping them ready.”

“It’s a huge juggling act and you need help from everyone,” he said. “People make huge sacrifices for it. That doesn’t go unnoticed for sure.”