T.J. Flynn is trying to keep on the path, balancing dreams and reality the way a racecar driver works to keep his car in the groove between the slick parts of a speedway’s track.
The 22-year-old Greenwood resident is chasing a dream to drive racecars at the highest level.
But he’s also pursuing it in a manner that allows him to plan responsibly for what the future holds, whether or not he reaches his racing goals.
Flynn is driving a Chevy Monte Carlo this summer at tracks in Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky, as part of the Street Stock division of the Champion Racing Association.
He operates the racing team along with his dad, Tim, a former drag racer, and earned his first top-five finish on the circuit earlier this month at Lucas Oil Raceway on the west side of Indianapolis.
At the same time, he is attending school full time at IUPUI, where he majors in mechanical engineering. Flynn explained that he doesn’t want to limit his future by putting all of his eggs in one basket.
“Racing could become a career, but it might never happen,” he said. “I thought about studying motorsports engineering, but I want to be able to open other doors and real-world applications. I don’t want to lock myself into racing and nothing else.”
The Flynn File
Name: T.J. Flynn
High school: Greenwood
College: Is a junior at IUPUI majoring in mechanical engineering
Family: Parents, Tim and Linda; sister, Laura, 26
Favorite racing moment: Meeting and racing go-karts against Dan Wheldon in New Castle in 2008
Favorite NASCAR drivers: Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson.
Flynn’s approach reflects not only his upbringing and maturity but also the very real difficulties that accompany trying to forge a career in racing from the ground up. The expense of the sport, competitiveness of its participants and lack of a defined driver development path combine to make fulfilling the dream, for Flynn and other aspiring racers, a tremendous challenge.
Flynn grew up in northwest Indiana and began racing go-karts at age 11. Having moved to Johnson County (he graduated from Greenwood Community High School), he had gotten out of racing for a few years when the bug came back to bite him hard.
“Around the time I graduated, my dad and I were restoring a car, and I realized how much I missed racing,” said Flynn, who had won a track championship as a go-kart driver. “It had been eating away at me and my dad, and I started thinking about what kind of racing we would get into. We looked at a modified and an actual stockcar, and the deciding factors were the cost of the car and operation and what I would be able to actually drive.
“You don’t want to take too big of a step up at one time.”
Flynn started racing in the CRA circuit in 2012. He said there has been a learning curve, but he has begun to turn a corner in terms of competitiveness.
“We finally got from where we spent most of our time repairing our car to a stage where we could spend it doing more fine tuning, speed-wise,” he said. “That top five (at Lucas Oil Speedway) was a big milestone. Now I’d like to click off a win, and I think that’s very possible this year.”
Accomplishing that goal is about so much more than Flynn’s driving talent. He explained that the week of a race he will spend an average of three or four hours per night at the shop, working on the car. Tasks include changing oil, applying the setup of shocks and springs (different for every track), changing the engine’s gear based on the length of the track’s straightaways and circuit, working on the body panels and radiator, scaling the car, adjusting tire pressure, monitoring other fluids and performing any other work on the chassis that is needed.
All this in a circuit that places strict limits on expenditures in order to maintain its status as “a working man’s series,” according to Flynn.
“You can’t just buy your way to success in this series,” he said. “But there’s still so much to do to operate a racing team and be competitive.”
Flynn credited his dad, along with family friends Sonny Bratcher (fabrication) and Russell Winegar (car setup), for making it possible for him to be successful in the series.
Flynn takes copious notes at each track in order to find whatever advantage he can in preparing the car for future races. Of course, all of this takes money, and he said the business side of things, including securing sponsorship, can make or break an ambitious driver.
“The business part is the most difficult, I believe, for most anybody,” he said. “It’s hard to put yourself out there and really make someone believe they are going to get their value for helping support the racing team. It’s not just ‘I’ll put your name on my car and you’ll give me a few thousand dollars.’
“You have to really give them a win-win situation and provide a service for them somehow. Putting their name on the car should almost be like an added bonus.”
Along with winning a street stock race, Flynn is hoping to advance as soon as next season to the late model division of CRA, meaning he and his father would need to sell their current car but perhaps could keep its 383-cubic-inch engine. The transition also would involve acquiring a new chassis along with all the equipment required to keep it operational.
Flynn, who used to race go-karts against IndyCar drivers like Josef Newgarden and Connor Daly, said the whole transition would be a major step upward in terms of commitment.
“There is a lot of tuning involved in running those cars,” he said. “It would involve traveling to and learning about a lot of new tracks. It would be difficult, but I’d like to try.”
One aspect typically included in the challenge is that there is no manual, per se, for how to do it. This is where Flynn may have found an advantage in the Race 101 Program.
Race 101 is run by former NASCAR crew chief Tony Blanchard. Blanchard, who helped groom current young NASCAR star Joey Logano, works with young racers on ways to better their efforts both on and off the track. Flynn has traveled to North Carolina a number of times to work with the program.
Flynn continues to juggle his school work, his racing career, Race 101 and even a social life. He said restful sleep is the thing in life he misses most.
“I never sleep more than four or five hours a night,” he said. “It’s taking a toll on me right now, but I’m having fun.”
In the end, Flynn is enjoying the ride and keeping perspective while trying to reach as high as he can regarding his dreams.
“I know one day I will get in one of those late model cars,” he said. “Even if that’s all I get to, that’s OK. Growing up, I wanted to be the next Dale Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon, where other kids want to play in the NFL or pro baseball, but you have to look at things realistically.
“Could I run in the higher series if had the opportunity? Yes. But if I don’t and just make it to a late model series and stay involved in racing, I’ll be fine.”