Caleb Cox, to borrow a line from the Brooks & Dunn song “Only In America,” was “looking at the promise of the promised land.”
The General Manager of Cruz Pedregon Racing has visited for the past three years with students at Franklin County High School and Middle School at Brookville, Ind., sharing motivational nuggets of wisdom he picked up along his own career path.
“I bring my firesuit and my helmet, talk about race cars, just kick it with them, and be a kid,” Cox said. “I might be 29 years old, but I’m still a kid. I can relate to all these guys and girls. And I’m just like, ‘Don’t act like I’m some grown-up. I play video games. I just play with race cars for my job.’ I try to tell them, ‘I’m only 10 or 15 years older than you. So I know exactly what you’re going through. I know exactly the seat that you’re in and what your mind’s like right now, so don’t think of me as some old guy who has been through the wringer. It’s just I’m giving you a piece of advice that I think you should listen to.’
“It wasn’t that long ago that I was in those shoes, too, sitting in a classroom, trying to figure out ‘What am I going to do? What am I going to be?’ When you look back at it now, it’s like there were times I could have worked harder, times when I didn’t apply myself, and I feel stupid for doing that,” he said. “I don’t want to have those kids make the same mistakes I did. It was more of an inspirational lesson, showing those kids that you can be whatever you want to be in your life. That was kind of the message that I gave them: If you have goals, if you have dreams, if you have inspirations, you have to work hard for it. It’s not just something you say. It’s something that you believe in, that you do every day.”
Cox was in Brookville at the invitation of Heather Ronnebaum, a former teacher’s aide at both schools for the STEM program Project Lead The Way. They struck up a friendship at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis. For a decade, Ronnebaum and her husband were crew members for an eight-second Mustang that their friends raced in NMCA competition from Grand Bend, Ontario, to Memphis and Atlanta. She asked Cox to speak to the students. He did, and he made such an impact that she asked him back again and again.
“They were beside themselves,” she said. “He brings an energy. He’s just a powerhouse. He can relate to the kids, and they just love him.”
Cox said, “I came back for my second or third time, and they were building stuff for their STEM class, building some sort of car to go down a track. And one kid actually built a Snap-on dragster. I was kind of proud of that. She told me later that after I left the first time, this kid was either so inspired or so changed – I guess he had a rough time at home – that whatever I said must have clicked with him because he completely did a turnaround. His grades were better. He was more attentive in class. It really kind of kicked him in gear, which made me feel better to see that the kids were actually listening to the words I say.”
Today Ronnebaum is the town’s Teen Librarian, and once again she has invited Cox to Brookville. This time he has something special for Show and Tell. “Even to this day I still get questions: ‘Is Caleb coming back again?’” she said. She recently told them, “Well, I’ve got news for you guys. He’s coming, but this time he’s bringing the car.”
Cox and Pedregon co-crew chief Nick Casertano will be heading down Interstate 74 from Pedregon’s Brownsburg, Ind., shop May 1 to the Franklin County Library at Brookville – with the team’s show car. He’ll fire it up in the library parking lot, where the public is welcome to watch the sensory-overload spectacle.
Many of these students haven’t pondered a future much farther away than the local Owens Corning roofing-shingle plant. Some figure they maybe can get jobs in the next county, helping make caskets and cremation urns at Batesville Caskets or hospital beds and health-care equipment at Hill-Rom. Cox’s mission has been to encourage them to consider all the possibilities. Now Ronnebaum has helped him raise the stakes.
“There’s so many people who don’t know what a Funny Car is. They’re going to find out,” Ronnebaum said. “It gets your blood pumping. It’ll shake, rattle, and roll the whole town of Brookville.
“What I’m trying to do with the event is show kids they can work with their hands and they can make a good living doing it. Not everybody’s cut out for college. And you can support a family and do things. Just because you’ve got dirt under your fingernails does not mean you’re not just as worthy as the guy who’s got four years of college,” she said.
“Having the car here, this is probably something the kids never would see in their lifetime and never have the chance to go see, not because they weren’t interested but because they can’t afford to make the trip to Indy or can’t afford tickets,” Ronnebaum, who has traveled to NHRA races at Indianapolis, Charlotte, and Bristol, Tenn., said. “I am beyond excited to bring this experience to Brookville.”
She said because “more and more people want to be involved,” she plans to go to an upcoming city council meeting to ask for permission to close off several streets. “It’s taking on a life of its own. It’s going to be an amazing thing for Snap-on and Cruz and Caleb and the community.”
Cox has told the students, “The good thing is with the position that I have now, I can show that hey, there are so many different things. If you like cars, you can work on cars for a living. You can race cars for a living. It’s not like you have to get a job at the local steel mill or sand mill or something like that. You can go out there and set yourself apart way different and think and go way beyond where you think your mind can go and make a difference for yourself and your family for generations to come.
He said he fields “a lot of life questions: How do I achieve this? How do I do this? Then I started talking about the drag-racing side of my aspirations, how I got here. I didn’t just wake up one day and think, ‘You know what? I’m going to be a college football player.’ I was in the gym six days a week from 2:30 to 7:30 at night. I was watching film. I was doing drills. When I got my job with Cruz, I didn’t know anything about drag racing. I had to immerse myself, not only in the world of drag racing but also in the world of business.
“When I set out to do something,” he told them, “I set out to be the best at whatever it is. I tried to be the best football player I could. I’m trying to be the best boyfriend that I can be. I’m trying to be the best son. I always set my expectations high and portray that to people. If you want to be great, if you want to achieve everything you want to in life, you have to set your dreams and goals as high as possible. Even if you do miss those dreams, you might land among the stars and take a different route.
“I told them that for me, the path has changed multiple times. I went from wanting to be a professional football player to being a sports agent to being the general manager of a race-car team and hopefully a driver on the race-car team – and we’ll just go from there,” Cox said. “I never became a professional football player, but I ended up in a professional sport: professional drag racing. So one door closes and another door opens, and you will land what you set your sights on.”
Once he asked the students their favorite activities and their favorite subjects. He said, “One girl told me, ‘Oh, I like to sleep.’ I said, ‘Sleep is for people who are broke.’ People who work hard and want to achieve, they’ll forgo sleep.
“I translated it to the race car. There have been times you’re getting ready for a race and you want to win and we’ve blown up a car and we’re out at the track until 5:15 in the morning. We went back to the hotel, took a shower, and were back at the track at 7:30. Do you want to win? Could we stay at home and say we don’t want to come back out? Absolutely. But we’re out here, trying to win,” Cox said.
“You’re going to lose more than you’re going to win. There’s going to be a lot more hard times than there are good times. And that’s why you have to appreciate when there is success and when there are good times,” he said. “All that hard work that I did when I was 13 to when I graduated from college, there weren’t very many wins or a lot of successful times, but there are so may moments that I took away from that that have made me a better person, made me a better man. And everything that I’ve learned can translate into who I am today and as I grow up and get older – and wiser, hopefully.”
Cox and Ronnebaum are doing everything in their collective power to guide these students at Brookville, Ind., in a sensible direction. While the students do seem to be absorbing the truths Cox and Ronnebaum are telling them, some might need a little extra convincing. Seeing the Snap-on Dodge Charger might do the trick. After all, apathy or defiance are nothing that a little 12,000-horsepower, ear-splitting, gut-churning, ground-pounding excitement can’t cure.