Part 5: Eliminations
It’s already our fifth day in Texas, and it’s finally time to crown a champion, both for this race and the entire season. Jeremy, Lorenzo and I are up early – we’ve been tasked with picking up some Rain X, just in case we need to put some on Robin’s side window later in the day. The weather is absolutely perfect as we pull into the track. It’s clear the schedule change hasn’t hurt the fan count, as the Motorplex is once again packed.
Four drivers are battling for the points championship this weekend – Ryan Martin, Kye Kelley, Lizzy Musi, and Scott Taylor. The high stakes quickly become clear as teams try anything to give their drivers an edge, leading to numerous questionable call outs during the first round chip draw.
“I hate call outs in the first round,” says Roberts. “Call outs in the first round originally came about so that you could race someone you really didn’t like, or you really wanted to put out. It was never meant to be for team use, or for somebody to be able to skate around. This season, it turned into that. And I don’t like it, but on the other hand, if it’s going to be a part of the rules, then you gotta play the game with them.”
None of those games truly affect us, however. Robin is aiming for a top five points finish, but the main goal today is taking home that $40,000. Do that, and the points will come along with it.
During pre-race ceremonies, Melody is asked to sing the national anthem. This has become a new tradition at No Prep Kings events, after she blew everyone away with her
rendition earlier this season. The crowd reaction is indescribable – cheers far louder than any driver has received this weekend, and highly warranted.
“I’m so proud of her for doing that anthem,” Roberts says of his wife. “It’s a great opportunity to set the tone for the race, and I know she has fun singing. She was a professional singer for 20-plus years. She did Barack Obama’s inaugural ball, Donald Trump hired her to sing in Miralago, Florida, she’s sang for governors, she sang for Bill Clinton at a fundraiser. I mean, she’s pretty special. A lot of people that see her go up and do that anthem don’t realize how good she is, or the history she has.”
Robin draws fellow 405 team member and No Prep Kings race master Chuck Seitsinger. Chuck’s car is broke, though, and he is borrowing a blown Ford Probe owned by Wayne Smozanek. For the first time all weekend, Robin is in the left lane, which he prefers. As we pull out from under the tower, the feeling is almost surreal. I look out at the sea of people along the fence and in the bleachers. The film crew is rolling. Robin and Chuck roll through the water box and shake the ground with their burnouts. Robin has warned me that this is the most nerve racking time of the weekend. Nobody wants to spend all their time and money just to go home first round. Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about that today.
Robin makes a nice solid pass, and easily defeats Chuck. We may have gone winless the previous night, but when it counts, this team has brought their A-game. The hardest part is over, and now we can focus on winning the whole thing.
“When we’re racing with the 405 guys, as our team and our friends, the last thing we want to do is draw one,” says Roberts. “The fact that he was in a borrowed car – and he told me he might not be as sharp in it – we just put in a tune we knew would get down and go pretty fast, and that’s exactly what happened.”
In the pits, the routine maintenance begins again. Everyone has their specific assignments, and Robin must trust each of them to do theirs correctly. Because unlike the past few days, he isn’t able to assist as much. The majority of his time is spent doing between-round interviews with Pilgrim Media for the show, meeting fans that want an autograph or picture, or returning to the starting line for his round two chip draw.
“Having a crew you can trust is everything,” Roberts says. “For me, Allen is that stabilizing force in being sure that my mind can be clear that when I come back, the car is done right. And you take the other guys – everybody’s got their duty, everyone’s got their share, each of those guys I fully trust. And that just changes the ability of your mind as a driver to just focus on what you really have to do. The fact that it is a race that is a TV show means part of your driver function is to create a fan experience, to be someone who is personable for those fans to appreciate. They spend a lot of money to come there, they chose a whole day to set aside, and they deserve a reasonable interaction with you. The rest of the crew sees that as important too, and they give me the time to do that. And the fact that they are great gives me the time to do it, and not worry about what they do.”
The next round will be a much stiffer test, as Robin draws Eric Bain and his Boosted Ego split bumper Camaro out of Texas. Prior to our run, however, the season championship is also determined. Lizzy Musi has lost. Scott Taylor is still in, but can no longer win the championship. And in a turn of events not even Discovery could make up, Ryan Martin and Kye Kelley – numbers one and two in points – draw each other. Unfortunately, Kye has issues with his trans brake after the burnout. Ryan drives the Fireball Camaro to an easy win, and $100,000 as the season 3 points champion. There is a pause in the action as Ryan’s team – as well as other members of Team 405 – celebrates the accomplishment.
With most of the drama out of the way, it’s time to get back to racing. And just like last night, Robin is thrown into the right lane, which has not been good to us. But with the crew having done their job, Robin does his – he drills the tree, leaving on Bain, and pulls away all the way down the track. Two rounds, two win lights. High fives and shouts are exchanged as we run back to the golf cart. We’ve made it from 32 cars down to the final eight, and the Firebird is flat hauling today.
“Eric’s a really good competitor, and we know they’ve been making that program better,” says Roberts. “Again, we weren’t worried about it from a standpoint of how well our car has been running, but I was worried about it from a standpoint of how good Eric is. I have a lot of respect for those guys, but I really thought we had the advantage, and we did.”
Spirits are high and the mood relaxed as we prepare for the quarterfinals. Out of the eight drivers left – Robin, Ryan Martin, Jeff Lutz, Scott Taylor, Cody Baker, Rich Bruder, Dean Karns, and Giuseppe Gentile – we feel very confident about outrunning all of them, except perhaps Ryan. A final between High Voltage and Fireball would be the dream scenario. But after two rounds of highs, a low of sorts would arrive again. With only four pairs in the chip draw, we watch as everyone steps forward except for Robin and Ryan. We are matched against the one car we didn’t want to race this round.
Sitting in the staging lanes, the two teams keep things light, and we continue to congratulate Ryan on his championship. There may have even been a playful suggestion that he would have more fun if he went to his pits and celebrated this round, rather than race.
“When we drew Ryan, and he’d already won the championship, we knew we wanted to beat him,” says Roberts. “I think we did the right thing, we put a great tune in it, we made the right decisions on what we could do.”
Once the cars roll through the water box, my nerves begin to tighten. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I found this to be far more tense than the dreaded first round. Robin is in the left lane, a good sign. Not only does Robin prefer it, but the previous three winners this round were all in that lane. The cars leave together, flying side-by-side. But approximately halfway through the run, it suddenly appears the Firebird loses power, and we see brake lights soon after. Ryan’s win light comes on.
In an instant, our weekend is done. Confusion passes through our team as we drive down to pick up our driver. When we return to the pits, we learn the problem is twofold: Robin first informs us that the car never shifted from 2nd to 3rd gear, causing him to hit the rev limiter. He had no choice but to lift, or risk severely hurting the car. As Allen looks over the data, he also learns that there was a malfunction with the boost controller, sending the car from 16 lbs. of boost to 60 lbs. in half a second. A bad combination, and one we find out is linked together.
“Our boost controller has had random issues, and it had one of those during that run,” Roberts says. “It shook the tires real bad, and when it shook, it knocked the wire off the shift controller. So it made the one-two shift fine, but shook ‘em hard and knocked that wire off. So on the two-three it just hit the rev limiter and stopped. I could see even when that happened we were in reasonable striking distance because he was having issues. The worst part is that if we would’ve had a good run, or a run like we had against Eric, we would’ve beat him. But that’s how it goes. That’s racing.”
While the loss stings, conversation quickly turns to how far this team has come in their first full season on the show, and where they’ll go from here. A television crew comes by to interview Robin one last time, and informs him he has finished sixth in the points. Not quite the top five finish he’d dreamed of, but very impressive nonetheless.
As I sit just outside the trailer, I hear Robin say to a couple members of the team that he’s not mad, it’s okay, everyone makes mistakes. Curious about the subject, I learn the issues from our quarterfinal loss may have been self-inflicted. Over the past few days, he has been very straightforward in telling me that he believes it’s very important to treat everyone on the crew with respect, and we discuss it even more now.
“A wise racer told me years ago, ‘Win as a crew, lose as a driver.’ I never really understood what that meant,” Roberts says. “But in putting a crew together to do this, that’s where it became very apparent to me. You need those guys to be willing to jump in the middle and fix something, not be hesitant or feel like they’re under the gun any more than they already are. And so, yeah, the wire fell out because one of our guys hadn’t crimped it well enough from the changes we made the day before. That guy has been our crew guy this whole season. He’s my favorite guy, he’s so humble, he just takes care of things. I love him like a brother, or like a son, really. I don’t want him to hesitate in the future. Maybe you could say it was his fault, but we all make mistakes. In Florida, I screwed up the bump into the lights, totally screwed it up. Well the crew didn’t beat me up, and so we all have to win and lose together, we have to win and lose with a positive spirit. When someone makes a mistake, you use that as a learning example, not as a reason to bash someone. It’s disappointing when those things happen, but you’re disappointed in the fact that you’re not going on and racing. You’re not disappointed in the person or in your crew, because I love those guys.”
We continue to watch eliminations unfold, with Ryan earning another $40,000 at the end of the night. As Ryan is filmed with his huge stacks of cash on the starting line, Robin and Melody head to his pit with bottles of celebratory champagne. Soon the bottles are opened,
drinks are poured, and it’s time to relax from a grueling five days. The ensuing party lasts for hours, with music blasting out of Jeff Lutz’s trailer.
“Ryan and I have grown really close this season. Our personalities click with each other, our interests and the way that we see the world click, and that’s been great,” Roberts says. “We’d already brought champagne, anticipating that he’d win, but we didn’t let him know that, in case he was superstitious about it. So it was fun to be able to go over there when they finished up, have a toast, and talk about the season. Winning something like that is a grueling affair, and he needed a chance to feel special, and it was great to be able to do that with their crew, who we’ve really grown very close to.”
When the celebration finally winds down, it’s time to say our goodbyes. Most of the members of our team have flights out early in the morning, a byproduct of the schedule change. Friends I’ve made this week and spent countless hours with – Robin, Melody, Jeremy, Lorenzo – head back to their hotel. I’m sleeping in the RV tonight, and Allen and I will make the trip back to Missouri on our own tomorrow.
Part 6: Final Thoughts from a Long Trip Home
Monday morning comes with thick fog and cold air again. I’m immediately grateful for the two perfect days of we had for racing over the weekend. While Allen is perfectly good company, and we have music going to entertain us, the return home is somewhat miserable. The drive is long, the adrenaline from a huge race weekend is gone, we travel through constant rain and then snow, and I’m admittedly missing my wife and kids. We survive on snacks and caffeine, and finally pull back into the shop at 7:20 Monday night. After getting the rig parked and our belongings unloaded, Allen and I say farewell and go our separate ways. Another hour through the snow, and I’m home, ready to pass out in my own bed for the first time in six days.
The long road home has allowed me one thing, though, and that’s time to reflect on everything that has happened in the past week. I’m eternally grateful to Robin and Melody, who not only accepted my idea of following them around on this journey, but embraced it. I was truly treated like part of the race family they have created. To Allen and Jeremy, who along with Robin, always took the time to answer any questions I had, even when they were busy. To Lorenzo, my spectating partner when everyone else was busy thrashing on the car. I think once again to those little moments that don’t seem significant at the time, hours spent laughing and sharing meals with our crew and others, of talking about things that have nothing to do with racing. It’s a situation Robin has found himself in many times before.
“There are those moments after a race where you’re tired, and you’re driving home,” Roberts says. “But the good memories of spending time eating with your buddies, jacking around and having a couple drinks while cooking steak because it’s raining outside, you’re all crammed
in a little motor home…there we are with my daughters, my wife, friends for many years that we’ve raced with. Where else can you do that? It doesn’t happen anywhere else. We take Ryan’s crew out, we all go to dinner, and you get that time together where the pressure’s off, you’re not at the race track, you get to hack on each other and have a little fun with it. The opportunity is that you’re there at the race – we’re all too busy in our lives to really spend time doing much of that – but during the race, there’s the intensity of the race, but there’s also the down times in between, and that’s where you really become a family. You become a family with your own crew, and you become a family with other crews. And that, to me, is a big part of the fun.”
Most fans only get to see what is presented on a two-hour television show, not the other 20 hours or more of footage that gets tossed to the side. Some attend a filming of these live events, and get a little better idea of the work that’s put in by teams on any given weekend. I heard fans come up to Robin more than once and talk about their newfound respect for what these racers do. But to peek behind the veil, to see that it’s not just the race weekend itself, but days of testing beforehand, last-minute fixes on the car less than two days before leaving home, and multiple days of routine maintenance between every event, I realize this isn’t just an expensive hobby. It’s a full-time job. And although he isn’t a big name on television yet, it’s clear that the passion, drive, and determination that has led Robin to be a successful business owner will also translate into the no prep world.
“I look at this season as building on something for the future,” Roberts says. “I know that sounds a little bit crazy, but I’ve been competing long enough that I know you don’t come out of the gate ready to be great. You have to go through some experiences, and you have to go through some learning situations, that you can’t do in practice. We went into the season with the goal of just being competitive. I told the team that a highlight would be if we could finish around
number five [in points], that would really be huge. But my main goal was to grow and learn and build on it so that we’d be better for the next season. That’s what I hoped would happen, and that’s exactly what happened. The team grew closer, we learned little things, and we just got better. Even through mistakes, we got better. And that’s what I really wanted to do.”
So where does that leave Robin and his team heading into season four? Where do they go from here? This is certainly not a group that will be satisfied with staying where they are.
“Next season we’d like to stay in the top three the whole season, and we’d like to have a shot at that championship,” Roberts says. “We had several races where we went out first round from goofy issues. We had a few weird failures along the way, that if you took any of those basic things out, we would’ve been much better than sixth. Because when we were flying – I was right, the crew was right, and the car was right – we were pretty tough. I know we can be in the top five fastest cars out there. Now the question is, can we bring it together enough to where we get into that rhythm. If we get into that rhythm where the car is good and more consistent, and I’m good and more consistent, then I don’t think that top three is out of reach at all.”
With a skilled – and now veteran – driver, a knowledgeable crew, and top of the line parts, High Voltage is set up perfectly to do a lot of damage in the fourth season.
As Allen told me late one night at the track, “If Robin didn’t believe he had a chance to win this thing, he wouldn’t do it. Plain and simple.”