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Trying out life in the fast lane
Times photo: Christopher Heimerman New Glarus native Jesse Saunders stares forward and settles in as the field makes its way onto the track Saturday night at Rockford Speedway. Saunders placed eighth after qualifying 12th due to break issues that marred the weekend for JWS Racing.
MACHESNY PARK, Ill. - We're not so very different, Jesse Saunders and I.

The 2004 New Glarus H.S. graduate is the fast-rising menace behind the wheel of his modified Panthfinder chassis and the 2007 ASA Late Model Series Northern Division Rookie of the Year.

Until I spent Saturday night hanging with Saunders and his crew at Rockford Speedway, I'd never seen a race bigger than the stock car races at the Manitowoc County Fair.

Still, when the engines roared and the field rolled into position on the single-groove short track in Machesny Park, the horses' persistent pounding under the hood had the same affect on the cool-headed driver as this jilted on-looker.

While I was able to hold nature's call at bay, Saunders entertained a river of bright-eyed youngsters and frenetic middle-aged fans. Then, after 20 minutes of Sharpie-scribbling and a brief pre-race interview, he dashed across the track for his one true pre-race ritual.

"I don't even know why, it's just something I do every time," Saunders says with a huge grin. "I wish they'd put a port-o-potty on the infield; that would be a lot more convenient."

Hardly Pole Position

Saunders and his sleep-deprived JWS Racing crew have ample reason to be antsy before Saturday's second installment of a local twin-bill weekend. Friday night in Madison, Saunders was unable to keep his nose entirely clean and some extra curriculars had him and the rest of his crew in the shop until 3 a.m. ironing out some brake issues. Unable to achieve the proper compound, the brakes were glazing over and not allowing Saunders to stop promptly.

Those issues saddled him with a 10th-place finish Friday and, not completely remedied before Saturday, stuck the No. 87 car with a 12th-place qualifying run in Rockford.

"That really puts us behind the 8-ball," Saunders said.

It's a very clean analogy to pool, as the narrow track makes moving up as tough as hopping a ball in billiards. Only hopping cars is not allowed, one of few racing factoids I knew before I arrived.

The first portion of the race is a "feeling out" process before Saunders can "let the animal out" in the later portion.

And the youngest helping hand on the crew doesn't care for the spot from which Saunders will be feeling things out.

"We've never started this far back," Bryce Anderson says with a laugh and a shake of his head.

Earlier in the evening, Saunders explained that on the cramped, one-groove track, "problems can happen fast."

Dave Anderson, Bryce's father, reiterates that sentiment for the rest of the crew as he calmed his nerves with a smoke in the minutes leading up to the race's start.

"This is just a real bump and run track...when things go bad, they go bad fast," Anderson said.

I dash up to the fence that borders the curve that precede's the track's homestretch, arriving just in time to feel the raw power of the machines. The thrill is very temporary as Anderson's statement proves true. Without a lap completed, a car has spun out. It's a harbinger if I've seen one.

The race is stopped nearly 10 times due to wrecks, the first finding Brett Brevak's No. 31 car coming to rest on top of the No. 76 machine. Trying to digest my surroundings and scribbling madly, I momentarily fear that the sky blue car is Saunders' rig.

Not yet. Saunders didn't dirty his nose until the 54th lap, at which point he applied pressure to local boy Michael Bilderback. Vying for ninth place, Saunders tried to pass on the bottom as Bilderback washed up, only to see his No. 2 car slow and pinch back down. Contact sent Bilderback spinning out, along with the No. 64 machine that was breathing down Saunders' bumper.

"When racing's so close, things are going to happen," Saunders said. "It was nothing intentional and I don't feel I was in the wrong. I got hit by a peanut a fan threw. All his people were here and they all expect him to win. It was the same way for me in Madison last night."

Saunders had to settle for eighth place as he pursued but couldn't overtake the No. 22 car that stayed wide over the last final 20 laps.

"When it comes to a point that you won't be able to pass without roughing him up or roughing up my own car, you gotta think of the big picture and take what you can," Saunders said.

Saunders is in a battle for second place in the Northern Division after taking a cushy margin over third into the weekend.

The Real

Checkered Flag

Merely surviving the weekend's runs makes working on the car all day Sunday a welcome prospect.

"When you can go to work to make the car better instead of trying to get it back to where it was, that's a good day of work," Saunders said.

That doesn't mean that this is how Saunders and Co. would have it in a perfect world. With the economy and the sport itself experiencing an overall financial cramp, the affable, talented Saunders hasn't been able to drive down a substantial sponsor yet.

But, Saunders' stalwart support system picks up the slack. And, as he puts it, he "tries not to do too much work" before a race. Even if Fram and The Swiss Colony aren't knocking down his proverbial door to sponsor him, his love of the sport resonates and is never lost on his face.

"Racing is like riding a rollercoaster while trying to do a math problem," Saunders says.

After taking some post-race pointers from his father and crew chief Bill, Jesse proudly explains that dad works just as hard as son and the toughest part is "just putting up with me."

A racing history afficianado, Jesse relishes his role as an ambassador for the sport. He's tried to glean the best qualities of the best of all time and form his own identity. The result is a fuel-injected phenom who dials in on racers in front of him like a predator stalks his prey .

Mark Van Veghel, an assistant to the team, laughs as he watches fans engulf the now-gentle Jesse Saunders during the autograph session.

"He loves it," Van Veghel says with a sudden grin spreading across his usually-analyzing face. "He's so good with the kids; he's an approachable, likeable guy."

That may hold true until the race begins.