Enjoy the Drive – The Story
It’s a phrase that has come to define my time working with PowerStop Brakes. It originates from a futile attempt to make a phone call in the middle of the Utah desert, but for me it’s grown to mean seeing the adventure through the chaos, and appreciating the amazing wonder it is to be human.
My drive has taken me across the globe and back. Through my lens I’ve had the privilege to see the world, meeting people and sharing the secrets of their lives through the ever evolving nature of digital story telling. Travel is the great equalizer, for it shows you that life goes on beyond your front door.
For the last two years, PowerStop has encouraged me to get a hands on idea of what drives their customers; their passions and their journeys. A real look under the hood of the hearts and minds of our consumers. This pursuit took me across the country and through those travels these unique films came to life.
In the winter of ’18, I was obsessed with Ice Racing. For those that have never dared, it’s a mixture of rally racing and demolition derby. Gambler cars, hardly held together, doing laps around a frozen lake. If you think about it, it’s kind of the most American thing that could be thought of. The impossible in form. Race Cars… driving on water
For weeks I plied the PS top brass with reasons why a gambler car was a good investment. I had charts, graphics in pie and table form, but somehow they failed to see the potential of my pod rally vehicle. With my attempts to get a race car built on the corporate dime a failed ruin, I stumbled upon the Sinissippi Lake Ice Racing league in Hartford Wisconsin. It was three and a half hours round trip from where I lived in Chicago, and I thought if I couldn’t find a way to build a race car, I could at least go film the sport. It was there, in the middle of a snow storm, that I realized why I would never be cut out to drive a race car.
Let alone the fact that I never learned to drive stick shift, the technicality of sliding on ice eluded me. It is an art form that has been passed down thorough the bloodlines of the drivers of the rural plains. Born from the devilish cunning of Deisel Dan Bamky, who created the track in an effort to bring costumers to his bar in the dead of winter. The Hartford track is reserved for the fastest rubber on ice; a motley band of rogue warriors that call the lake their home. While the season has been getting shorter every year, and the fate of this sport is still in question, the racers still come each weekend, when the ice is thick enough to drive on, to try and claim victory.
The races are overseen by family and friends, through a point system on a chalk board, and the stakes are high. Fathers pitted against sons, sisters trying to out corner brothers, and neighbors going head-to-head all to claim the checkered flag. The heats are a cacophony of sound. Engines blasting to life once the flag drops. Cars desperately trying to hold their tread through a field of metal that could fly off the track at any moment. It’s a pass time not for the faint of heart. It takes a skill to know where to put the car on the ever melting ice.
Each weekend ends with an award ceremony at the bar on the hill, its porches overflowing with spectators watching the races. What started as an angle to bring customers into a bar in the off-season turned into a decades long pass time, unique to Wisconsin. A place where anyone with passion has a chance to bring home a trophy and test their skill on one of the most singular tracks in America.
One of my favorite pastimes has become imagining living full-time on the road. Having the freedom to travel indiscriminately and whisk away to some far off campsite in the middle of nowhere has never far from my mid-day wonderings. Whenever I’ve felt stuck, I’ve researched the perfect build for my would-be adventure van. For me it will always be a daydream, but for the Holcombe family it has been their daily grind for the last six years.
I stumbled upon a podcast describing their journey through the Grand Canyon, where Peter, Kathy, and their daughter Abbey Holcombe kayaked the Colorado river in January of 2014, making the then 14-year-old Abbey the youngest person to do so. Their carefree nature and kind-heartedness captivated me immediately. They were living a life that so many dream about, and they were doing it while raising a teenager. I knew that I had to find a way to meet up with them on the road. Being photojournalists, they were constantly following the next story or en-route to an event where they acted as brand ambassadors for Winnebago. After a few months of back and forth, I was able to drop-in while they were between summer events in Idaho. It was still another two and a half hour drive into the mountains from the Boise airport to a pin drop they shared via email.
After parking at their campsite, I couldn’t help but continually comment about the beauty of the landscape. We were surrounded by tall mountain ranges, and as the sun set, the whole valley looked like an ever changing oil painting. Awe inspiring beauty was everywhere you looked. I felt like a bumbling city slicker to say the least. Here I was lost for words over what was arguably their backyard. Instead of laughing at how gobsmacked I was, they turned and marveled along with me; happy that they were able to share the view with a new friend.
Over the next two and a half days, I got a small taste of what their daily lives were like on the road. The thing that stuck with me was their pursuit of white water. It was the commonality between them that kept them on the road and the passion that kept them chasing an endless summer. Like nomads from a distant time, they would pack up and follow the changing seasons, bringing them to the next place where the river would be ripe for riding. Then they would follow the paths of the rivers to these holes in the map that humans rarely see. Truly wild places.
It’s been a year and a half since I watched them pull away from our campsite in Idaho, and there are times that still I wish that I could have gone with them to chase the endless weaving road to see what’s over the horizon. They have finished their Famagogo Tour of the continuous United States and have set their sites on a broader view. They intend to be the first family to travel by van across the world. They just finished the first leg of their Winnebago World Tour throughout the European continent. If ever there was a family that could conquer the world on four wheels; it’s the Holcombes.
In high school my best-friend brought me into her house when things weren’t going so well in my own, and over time her circle became my extended one. Her Uncle Johnny became my uncle too, and as my adventure with PS grew so did Johnny’s. He became a staple on our annual journey west on The Trail to SEMA, and he reminded us how lucky we were to be on this adventure called life.
Whenever Johnny gets a chance he talks about fishing. In the same poetic and intoxicating way that I muse on filmmaking, he casts stories of the last “Big One” he smacked out on the wide waters of the Midwest. With every re-telling his arms get just a little wider, as he talks about the fish’s size, his face full of glee at the memory. Like any good uncle, he’s tough as nails when you need him to be, but also the biggest kind-hearted softy anytime the chips are against you. He’s a breath of life in any room, with an easy laugh, he’s always there to make your day better. And after years of talk, I finally got to go out with him on the water.
We put the boat in at first light, and with mist rising off the water. He looked like a stoic fisherman of old, dutifully casting his line into the water, as the sun rose behind him. The morning spilled into the afternoon as he spoke about the soul of fishing, and what kept him on the water. Yes, catching fish was the goal, but behind that feat was an interweaving web that held the true purpose of this man. He believes that being with nature is an art form that’s getting lost in the twenty-first century.
While you’re fishing, you’re able to slow things down, to appreciate the delicate churning of the world. It’s a mindset that was past down from his father. Even after his death, Johnny can still feel him moving through the trees when he’s out on the water. As the boat gently rocked on the tide, I began to realize how precious this world is, and how the main point of being on the boat is to help you remember that. Like in life, while fishing you’re mainly waiting. Waiting for the time to be right, for the temperature to peak so that the fish bite. You’re more focused on your space in the universe and less on all the other noise.It goes to show that there’s more to the sport than just hooking a fish.
The two days that I spent out with Uncle Johnny we only reeled in two fish, but what I caught on the water was more important than the catch of the day. I returned to the shore with a better understanding of how to be at peace with myself and a longing to continue to search out moments of silent reflection in nature. We all need time to remember how we fit into the grand scheme of the world.
One of my first assignments at PowerStop was to cover the GridLife race series in the summer of ’16. I didn’t know a lick about cars or the automotive world, and walking onto the crowded paddock at Auto Bahn raceway was like stepping onto the streets of a foreign land. The air was full of exhaust and the smell of charcoal grills, as the weekend racers of the GridLife Series set up camp for two days of chasing down the fastest lap, in what would become the countries fastest growing race series. It was there that I stumbled on the coolest brown BMW that I’ve ever seen. It was out of place on this course to be sure, but the team behind it would become some of my closest friends on the track.
The driver behind the maroon monster was Charlie Ensslin, the team captain of Hard Times Racing and I instantly hit it off with him. He reminded me of the hard fought men in my life. His grizzled appearance was offset by one of the warmest smiles I’d seen, with a mindset made for helping others. He wold give you the shirt off his back, if you needed it, or the last beer in his cooler. Since that first meeting I knew that there was a grander story to be told and I checked in with him and his crew throughout the season documenting their trials through this small window into the race world.
For me, HTR showcases the heart of what it means to be a race car driver. In order to succeed you have to be willing to put it all on the line, and to sacrifice your extra time and money, in pursuit of this passion. In the lead up to the ’19 season, Charlie had rented out his house and turned the storage area above his shop into an apartment so, that he could put more into his car. He was living and breathing racing in a way that less than half of the drivers in the series were. For him, these weekends on the track were the mission that he chased in life, and he was willing to sacrifice any excess to make this dream a reality. And yet, whenever someone else was in need he made time to help out other drivers so that their cars would ready to go back on the track.
It’s this mentality that sets the drivers of Hard Times Racing apart from everyone else. Yes, it’s great to step up on the podium and feel the glory of victory, but above that, it’s the formation of a family of drivers that is the ultimate goal. That win or loose you’re able to walk away from the track knowing that you gave your heart to every race, and your soul to building a community of drivers that you love. We would all be so lucky to be able to have a passion like Charlie’s, and the heart to really care for the family that you find.
As the last season closed out, I followed their team exclusively. From the beginning to the end of the summer I was there for every tire change, fill up, and engine fail. I saw them crawl from the back of the pack to the front, as GL began it’s first year of car-to-car racing. I watched Charlie become a season favorite not only for his driving style but for his compassion off the track. Of all of the people that I’ve been able to meet creating this series, Charlie by far was the one that I will hold closest to my heart. Thanks for teaching me a love of racing my friend. I will never forget it.
In many ways, this series of films is a showcase of my drive, as much as it is of those that found themselves on the other side of my lens. Bringing authentic stories to the screen as been my passion and has shaped the way in which I live. It has been a pleasure being able to pursue that drive with PowerStop. Collectively, as a people, we are all loosing control over our lives in some shape or another. There is a lot of uncertainty about what the future may bring. Even though things may change for a while, our passions will still be there on the other side of this calamity. Those dreams are going to be what keeps our fire alight. The things that keep us going and the belief that we must continue to strive to live our lives to the fullest.
I am not sure what is over the horizon, but like you, I will continue to let my passions guide me. So, until there is no longer is a way to capture images and bring them to the screen I will keep chasing stories that matter. I hope you continue to pursue what matters most to you.
I hope that you enjoy the drive.
I know that I will.
– Kyle Niemer