When Joe Kunberger started racing in 2000, it was for fun. In 2003 it became much more important.
Being at the race track always affects people in different ways, but they all are attracted to the roar of the cars and the people around them. Kunberger, the former maintenance operations flight supervisor for the Air National Guard, was hanging out the track with his buddies Earl Baker and Larry Vandall when his wife Donna got sick.
"I started helping them, and the next thing you know we were building me a car," Kunberger said.
Donna passed away from cancer and then Baker also in 2003, but racing kept Kunberger going. As buddy and crew chief Cid Pfeiffer said, "It was to take his mind off of things, to have something to do."
After Vandall passed away in 2014, Kunberger needed racing even more, continuing to hang out with Angola racing buddy Mike Murphy. The only difference is now Kunberger is that guy lots of people turn to when they need some help, usually asking for his guidance as an electrician. He's become part of the glue that holds everyone together at Baer Field Motorsports Park.
"The racing community is just an extended family," Kunberger said. "They are always there and you'll never find another group of people with bigger hearts. Everybody is out there competing, but it's not a race by yourself. You just got to go out there and support your family, and that's what I do. It gives me something to do during the day."
Kunberger competes in the late model division at Baer Field, and was named the division's Rookie of the Year in 2013. He's not that fast, he says, but he's consistently there every week competing. He's also there to help sometimes with things off the track, too, the kind of ethic he learned from his 37 years in the service.
"Mostly with friends and family, but there are a lot of people in the military I still talk with, and if they need a helping hand I'll go help them," he said. "I just kind of exist out there, and I'm nothing special. I just enjoy racing, it's a hobby, and if I can help somebody through their heartaches and woes... because it got me through mine. There's always people out there who need a helping hand, and that's what it's all about."
Even his new significant other, Pam Blough, lost her husband in 2002, but the couple keeps their heads up and the peddle down.
"She supports the racing because she knows what it means to me to take my mind off, and she's been through what I've been through," Kunberger said. "Life is too short. If you want to be sour, you're going to be miserable. You just have to take it and run with it. You do the best you can with what you have and try to have fun."
Her eight grandchildren and his five make sure there's plenty of opportunity for fun, that and the life-long relationships he's built with those around the track.
"Everybody out there has their whole family involved, and Joe doesn't have that but he's got lots of friends," said Pfeiffer who has known Kunberger for probably 40 years back to their days in the guard. "There isn't anybody he'll turn down to help, but he won't take anything for it. He's good at just about everything. He's a really good guy, a fair and honest guy."
There have been a few times, Pfeiffer said, where he's tried to talk Kunberger out of a few racing ventures because he doesn't have the money or sponsorship of some others, but they always find a way to make sure the No. 21 car is on the track went the green flag drops. He's also gotten plenty of encouragement from his other racing buddies.
"Obviously, I can't compete with some of the bigger-name guys who have sponsors and everything," Kunberger said, "but I do have people who help me, and that's a good thing."
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