ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
When to comes to his racing career, Hillsboro?s Bruce Serene is in the driver?s seat. Both literally and figuratively.
For a little more than 10 years now, Serene has been racing modified cars in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska. But he keeps his racing business?and he does see it as a business?in clear perspective.
It?s got to make sense financially.
?It?s more of a business than it is a hobby, I can tell you that,? says Serene, who owns and operates Hillsboro Engine Service on Date Street. ?We try to look at it that way and try to run it that way, too. It seems like your results are better when you try to run it like a business and get it running efficiently.?
This past weekend in Enid, Okla., was one of those times when efficiency didn?t prevail. His car broke a connecting rod and the engine ?blew up? during the ?hot laps? practice session prior to the race.
It marked the first time in nine years that one of his engines had failed him.
But it wasn?t the blown engine that bugged him the most. This time, he hadn?t brought along an extra one.
?I?ve got spare engines setting here (in Hillsboro) and they?re ready to go,? he says. ?At the drop of a hat you can put them in. It takes about 35 minutes to get in and running?if you?re working slow to change it.?
On this day, though, Serene became a spectator instead of driver. And that?s not good for his mood or his bottom line.
On the one hand, an incident like that is rare for Serene. On the other hand, racing has its share of challenges just by the nature of the beast.
?There?s a lot more lows than there are highs,? he admits. ?That?s just the way it?s going to work.?
Serene, a Herington native, was bitten by the racing bug when, at the age of 13, a friend took him along to a dirt-track race.
?It?s pretty easy to get the impression that you think you need to do that once you see them do it,? he says.
But it wasn?t driving that captured his imagination. It was the work of the support crew.
?I actually never thought I wanted to drive a race car because it just didn?t appeal to me,? Serene says. ?But I thought working on the cars was just OK.?
He began helping at races in Salina and Hutchinson soon after that first encounter. One problem, though: he was only 14 when he started helping, and the minimum age allowed inside the racing area was 18.
?At the time, it was a continuous battle of being too young to get into the race track,? he says.
He was content to help with the mechanical component until, after coming off a four- or five-year break from racing altogether, Serene had one more epiphany-like experience.
?We started racing go-carts, and that?s what got that deal out of control,? Serene says about his driving career. ?Once you start driving something, you immediately have to figure out how to go faster and faster and faster.
?I guess that?s a guy-thing,? he added.
That was in 1986. In 1988, he started driving sprint cars, then shifted to modifieds after one year because they?re more economical to run and it?s easier to find places to race them.
?You can go anywhere in this state in 60-mile increments and race it all the way across the state?and then you can keep doing that all the way across the United States,? Serene says. ?That?s why these cars are so popular. You can always find a place to race them.?
Serene owns one car, which currently is in storage. The car he has been driving this season is actually owned by a racing partner in Wichita.
More recently, the pair have teamed up to acquire and prepare a new car, which Serene has not yet raced. The chassis and rollcage were purchased from Eddie Martin, a well-known modifieds racer from Oklahoma. Serene and his partner built the rest of the car themselves.
Serene estimates each of his cars is worth between $14,000 and $16,000. That?s a far cry from a value of $5,800 to $6,200 when he started racing modifieds.
?Times have definitely changed,? he says.
The cars generate between 525 and 570 horsepower, which propels them down the straightaways of the relatively short tracks?which range from a quarter mile to a half-mile long?at speeds approaching 80 mph.
?That?s gaining a lot of speed going down the straightaway, stopping and turning twice and coming back again the other way,? he says.
Serene admits he likes the sensation that comes from speed.
?Ever see that (television) commercial where they get that adrenaline rush going in the truck when they?re driving off-road? That?s it.?
Modified racing is fast and it?s aggressive.
?You race two inches from somebody for 20 laps as fast as you can drive?wheel to wheel and door to door,? Serene says.
He says about 85 percent of the drivers have a ?gentleman?s agreement? not to be unfairly aggressive.
?Fifteen percent of them will run over you to get to the front if they have to,? he adds. ?You remember those guys.?
Serene definitely lives among the 85 percent.
?I wouldn?t do anything to anybody that I wouldn?t want done to me,? he says. ?There?s been a lot of instances where I thought I could nudge somebody one more time and take them out and get their spot. But I think, boy, that?s not a good way to start doing this because they could do the same to me and it would make me very unhappy.?
Like all auto racing, driving modifieds has an element of danger to it. Serene says he has ?torn up? a few cars over the years, but has never been seriously injured. The danger element is not high on his mind.
?I would actually feel safer in the race car than I would driving down the highway,? Serene says. ?It?s the way (the car) is built. If you can?t feel like you?ve strapped yourself into something pretty safe, then you won?t drive it very fast. But when you know you?re OK, you get in that zone.?
Serene has been ?in that zone? long enough to have won his share of races?although he hasn?t kept track of how many.
?We?ve won some stuff, we?ve run second and third when we?ve raced for points,? he says. ?We have never won a championship, but I?ve built engines that have won lots of championships.?
Building engines for other racers is the other component of Serene?s racing career. His reputation for quality engine work has spread far and wide.
?We were racing at Wichita, and at one point I could count 14 of my motors racing that night,? he says. ?You share a lot of good moments (with those drivers) and you share a lot of bad moments.?
Perhaps the highlight of Serene?s driving career was when he qualified for a national race in Beatrice, Neb. He won two qualifying heats to qualify 24th in a 24-car final. He finished that race in 16th place.
Serene beat out 142 other drivers for the privilege of trying.
?It was a serious deal,? he says of the race. ?When you race against those guys, you are racing against 24 of the best cars in the United States. That?s what happens when you go to the next level.?
That performance even made an impression on his wife, Diedre.
?Before she saw those results, she sometimes couldn?t figure out why I beat my head against the stone so hard trying to make this thing go,? he says. ?She kind of told me when the whole deal was over that she finally understood what my purpose was.?
For family and career reasons, Serene has not gotten full-bore into racing, and he doesn?t plan to anytime soon. If he could, he would like to drive in fewer races, but races that pay off a little better. If he does that, though, he knows the competition will be tougher.
?The intensity level goes up, the aggression level goes up, the competition level goes up?everything increases,? he says. ?But that?s the name of the game, I guess.?
At age 41, Serene has no plans to quit racing any time soon, but he isn?t necessarily counting on a long career either.
?I haven?t put a shut-off date on it yet,? he says. But he adds, ?The older my kids get, the less important racing is to me.?
In addition to his accomplishments on the track, Serene finds a lot of satisfaction in the side benefits that come with racing.
?I can go to three or four states, and there?s people that we?ve met because of racing,? he says. ?There?s a lot of good people out there.?
ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF