Series official Tony Ortega 204 in a row, and counting.....
Series official Tony Ortega 204 in a row, and counting.....
TOLEDO, Ohio (Oct. 28, 2016) - They're the unsung heroes of the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards tour...the 'red-shirt' officials who give up their weekends and personal time to help make the tour hum. They are vital to the overall success of each race; in fact, it can't be done without them.
They don't get rich doing it, yet they're dedicated to the cause. Most really enjoy the camaraderie that comes with the territory, despite the grind of chasing a professional racing touring series all over the country. Trenton, Michigan's Tony Ortega must enjoy it, or it sure seems that way considering the grandfather of 10 hasn't missed an ARCA Racing Series national tour event since he started at Daytona in 2007. That's 204 consecutive ARCA races, but who's counting. Any way you add it up, his record is unmatched among his ranks.
"Originally, I was looking for something to do in retirement," said Ortega, who retired from owning and operating a body shop in Taylor, Michigan. "Racing, for me, filled the spot. I've always enjoyed racing, so I figured I could get my race fix by being an official."
Like a lot of the Series officials, Ortega is a former race driver. He drove Street Stocks and Enduro cars at Flat Rock Speedway for 15 seasons, and raced for one year at Toledo Speedway in the Sportsman division.
"Racing was a family affair for us. My wife and son and daughter-in-law helped every week. Tim Miller and Barry Reeck and Joe Shuryan were a big part of it too."
Having been at the ARCA official thing for 10 years now, Ortega admits that the extra money from officiating helps fuel his passion for his hobbies...like flying. He's currently taking lessons in pursuit of his private pilot's license.
"It's always something I've been interested in, since I was a kid. I used to build and fly model airplanes. Now I have the time for flying...I just enjoy it. To tell you the truth, working for ARCA helps me keep up with my hobbies. If I didn't work for ARCA, I'd probably get a part-time job."
Well-seasoned as he is, Ortega is a key player among his peers at the track. He's teched spoilers for years, but more importantly, he serves as the area supervisor for the template line. When his technical duties are done, he hops back behind the wheel as ARCA's pace car driver.
"The main thing is that you can't take your eyes off it. You've got to pay attention all the time, maintain your speed and spot for the tower. You're listening to two radios and you really become the eyes of the tower. You always have a spotter with you checking for debris or fluid on the track. Jack Gritter (ARCA official/late model driver) taught me how to drive pace cars.
"I'd say the dirt tracks are the hardest when it comes to getting off the track and coming to pit road...because it's dirt and the tracks are slicker. You have to speed up to get ahead of the field. (Driving the pace car) You do miss out on the race...when you're parked, all you can see is what's going on in front of you."
Prior to driving the pace car, Ortega was a 'rover' on pit road during the races.
"I like roving...you could see part of the race and you kept moving...putting out fires (metaphorically speaking) and calming down crew chiefs (not metaphorically speaking)."
Ortega came into the world in Troy, New York on February 7, 1949. His father was a Cuban immigrant, his mother from America.
"My dad was from Cuba. He came to the U.S. when he was 18. He was attending engineering school at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York where he met my mother."
Ortega never learned to speak Spanish, his father's native tongue.
"He would never teach us. He always said, 'You live in the U.S. You speak English.' As a mattter of fact, about the only time I heard him speak Spanish was when he got together with his brother. All his brothers and sisters went to school in the states...Ohio State graduates. My dad was a mechanical engineer."
Ortega's father (pictured), who also helped his son at the race track, died in 2010 at the age of 88.
"His real name was Roberto but when he came to the U.S. he immediately changed it to Robert. He was very proud to be an American citizen."
Ortega moved with his family to Detroit when he was four, and that's where he grew his roots. After he graduated from high school, he attended Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan where he studied auto body repair.
"When I got out of college I went to work for a collision shop in Dearborn."
Then, in 1970, he was drafted into the ARMY during the Vietnam War era.
"I was only in for six months when I cut my Achilles tendon. I had metal stitches in my heel and somehow that didn't fly with the ARMY, which worked out fine because I had just been married in April of '70."
He and his wife Cindy will soon be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. They have three children, two girls and a boy, and 10 grandchildren.
"My oldest (grandchild) just started at Grand Valley State. My youngest is four."
Soon after Ortega's stint in the ARMY, he jumped back into the body shop business.
"I was discharged in March of '71 and went to work in the same body shop. In June of '72 I bought my own shop - Fairlane Auto Service in Dearborn Heights. I had a building built and eventually moved the business to Taylor. I sold it in 2006, retired from the body shop business, quit driving race cars, and went to work for ARCA in '07."
These days, Ortega does his best to keep up with his 10 grandkids, studies aviation and flies planes, plays golf - a passion since high school - and chases the ARCA circuit wherever it wanders.
"I'd say Salem and Winchester are two of my favorite tracks...Toledo's good...love the short tracks."
True to a racer, Ortega says he misses "having the shop" but doesn't miss the body shop business.
"It's all good. I've got a great life...a wonderful family. I couldn't be more fortunate."