When it comes time for local high school students to share how they spent their summer vacation, Jeb Bender and Travis Paul will have quite a story to tell.
Their narrative will entail days and nights of a month's worth of hard work, many of the evenings culminating with trying to catch some sleep in the back of a truck wending its way down the highway in the wee hours of the morning.
From mid-June to mid-July, Bender and Paul traveled and worked with Bloomington dirt late model standout Jason Feger on the grueling DIRTcar Summer Nationals tour, which ended last Saturday in Ohio.
Both found their pit crew endeavor to be well worth the effort, despite the drawbacks of days working in a hot sun and nights spent on the road.
"It was fun and the experience of a lifetime," said Bender, 15, a sophomore-to-be at Cornerstone Christian Academy. "But, at the end of the day, I was exhausted. I was ready to go to sleep and I knew I had to get good sleep because the next day it was going to be the same thing. It was really fun, but it was definitely tiring."
"I enjoyed it and learned a lot," said Paul, 16, who will begin his junior year at Normal West this fall. "You've got good days and you've got bad days. I learned that not everything will always go right."
For the most part, things went well for Feger and crew, which also included Dane Arvin of Danvers. They captured a feature win at a track in Michigan in the series' final week and finished third in the overall standings.
"All in all, I think we did way better than I thought expectations-wise, going in with a rookie crew like that," Feger said. "These three definitely have a lot of potential. They're a fun group of guys to be around and that's the best thing."
All three had spent varying amounts of time in Feger's race shop on Bloomington's southwest side before hitting the road on tour.
Arvin, the "grizzled veteran" of the group at 23, is a graduate of the High Performance Motorsports degree program in the College of Applied Technologies at the University of Northwestern Ohio.
He also races a street stock at area tracks and has called on Feger for parts and advice.
"I was talking to Jason about every day and he had mentioned he was looking for some help," Arvin said.
Last March, as a freshman at Cornerstone, Bender took a shot in the dark at landing his role with the team.
"I've always wanted to be in racing since my grandpa (Jim Cooper, a former flagman at Fairbury) introduced me to it," Bender said. "(Cornerstone) was doing an internship program so I'm like, hey, I want to get into racing as my final goal in life, let's look at that and see where it goes."
The school gave its blessing to Bender, allowing him to receive credit for the week-long internship last spring. Feger was amenable to the idea, as well.
"At the end of the week, (Feger) said 'I'd like to have you for future races to work with me,' " Bender said.
Paul lives up the street from Feger's shop. He started racing karts around the age of 6 before showing up one day at Feger's doorstep about two years ago.
He began doing odd jobs around the shop before being called into Summer Nationals duty where he found increased responsibility.
"I started out doing a little bit of everything, but by the end of the tour I was mainly the tire guy. I grooved most of the tires and siped them," Paul said of the process of cutting thin slits across the surface of a tire to improve its traction on dirt.
Bender did much of the tire mounting, as well as paying attention to fueling the car and tending to other odds and ends.
"Something that I learned several times was to double-check, triple-check and even quadruple-check things," he said. "Things will get screwed up, and you have to make sure that anything bad doesn't happen."
Ideally, they would do their work under the watchful eye of Feger, the 2010 Summer Nationals champion and one of the nation's premier "regional" dirt late model competitors. However, there were times Feger alone needed to tend to the more difficult areas of preparing a car to compete.
"There's stuff that only I can do with (calibrating) the shocks and springs," Feger said. "I'm trying to keep an eye on them, but they kind of got thrown into the fire. It's not like I had all summer to train them or to break them in and stuff. They learned a lot of stuff by themselves and they did a really good job."
Bender took away one of life's most important lessons to share with his Cornerstone classmates.
"I learned if you work hard and put in the time and effort, it's going to be fun and pay off in the end," he said.