May 10, 2006 - Somewhere buried in the growing stack of "to be album-ized" photos in my home office is a picture taken a decade ago of NASCAR's Kurt Busch. In the photo is Busch as a freshman hanging out in the dorms at the University of Arizona and having fun like any other college student.
That photo hadn't crossed my mind in years until I received an e-mail last week with a picture attached to it of an old college friend, Kyle Bruce, who attended the UA around the same time. The photo was of him in a racing suit with a helmet under his armpit. Bruce's career on the track is just getting started on the tracks of Phoenix.
They didn't know each other back then, but whenever either of them talked about their ambition to be a professional racecar driver after their days at the UA, they drew the same laughs from their disbelieving audiences.
Guess they showed us.
Aside from the chuckles, Busch and Bruce had something else in common. They each had to leave Tucson to fulfill their fast-paced dreams.
Roy Franco and his son Houston are experiencing the same thing. Every weekend, the Marana residents hit the road in search of, well, the road. The path to NASCAR is a long one and it can't be travelled by staying in Tucson every week. That goes for both Busch - who has amassed more than $6.2 million in less than six years in NASCAR - or Houston, who just turned 10 last month.
"It shows some diversity in us," said Roy explaining the weekly road trips. Houston is the points leader in both Tucson and the Las Vegas track in the Bandit Division, which is a scaled down car for kids younger than 12.
Tucson Raceway Park is still a viable place for drivers to race and earn circuit points but attendance has begun to wane at the track even though the sport is rising to new levels of popularity throughout the country. In just a few years, attendance has fallen from roughly 4,000 spectators a weekend to somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000.
The elder Franco - founder of Franco Motor Sports - is part of a group of investors looking to purchase the track. The deal recently was forced to the pits after negotiations stalled.
TRP is in dire need of repairs and a makeover and is dragging its feet about making the necessary changes.
When Franco's group hosts special events at TRP, they have averaged between 2,000 and 2,500 race fans. So the Francos hit the road nearly every week to places named Willow Springs and Irwindale to fulfill that need for speed - even if the names of those destinations don't inspire images of tobacco-spitting good ol' boys from the South. Those tracks are in Southern California.
That doesn't mean racers like the Francos don't race at TRP. Last year he won the Tucson and Arizona Bandit championships and will run the track the next two weekends before heading out to California, Texas and Las Vegas.
Life on the road is designed to expose Houston to different tracks and earn National Touring points. The 10-year-old has accumulated points - you get 100 points per win - at six different tracks in surrounding states, while most young drivers are lucky if they get to two different tracks throughout the year.
The Francos are banking that long weekends away from home will go a long way to readying Houston for the Grand Nationals, which will be held Memorial Day in Kentucky. Right now he sits at No. 11 in the points standings with 667 accumulated points. If you take the ratio of points per overall races, however, Houston is ranked No. 3 in the nation; that's where leaving Tucson has helped the most.
But not every family can pack up and hit the road every week. The financial burden alone is tremendous. To alleviate the strain on the wallet the Francos recruit the help of sponsors.
That's where having an easily accessible track with top-flight competition should come into play. Tucson could be considered one of the premier stops in the Southwest when it comes to auto racing.
More opportunities to race locally will spur on the interest of the sport and who knows, may even produce the next Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon or, to a lesser extent, Busch.
There is a quarter midget track located on the I-10 frontage road in Marana, but it's limited to the midgets, an even more scaled down racing division than the Bandits. Located near Davis Monthan Air Force Base is the United Sports Arizona track, but that's only a dirt track.
A revamped TRP track and aggressive marketing plan would attract more fans to the sport, which in theory would pay for the construction.
And racers like Houston could stay closer to home.