When we caught up with Bill Caswell, he sounded like Joe Cocker during a third encore. The night before our interview, Caswell had rounded up all his pals and set out to drain Chicago’s Tequila stores dry. While there is no official word on the success of that mission, it was the topic that kicked off a rollicking two-hour conversation that gave us some insight into who the guy actually is.
If you don’t know the backstory by now, we’ll fill you in quickly: Caswell was in the midst of a successful career in finance, working for a large bank in Chicago and playing racer on the weekends. He’d do his wrenching at night, his racing on Saturday and Sunday, and return to the office on Monday morning. Turns out, he was actually pretty good behind the wheel and harbored dreams of racing for more than just club glory and trophies. When the economy went all Bismark on us, Caswell’s blossoming career in finance was thwarted, and he was left jobless. It was at that point he decided to take the year of 2010 for his own personal use to go racing full time. His balls-out performance at the WRC Rally in Mexico has made him a sensation all over the Internet and in the hearts and minds of hobby racers the world over.
“Not to sound all dramatic,” Caswell said. “But this has been the toughest year of my life probably. I love every second of what I am doing, but it is totally crazy.” It is crazy because he now has actual fans, and at the recent New England Forest Rally he was followed, swarmed, and chatted up by hordes of people who have been following his killer story via race results or through some of the media that has come from the WRC Mexico performance.
“The New England Forest Rally was the first race that my dad has ever come to,” Bill explained. “He was totally blown away by watching and listening to all these people who had never met me before talking about all the stuff I was doing and how much they thought the story was great. That really blew him away.”
What blew us away was the story of Caswell’s unlikely introduction to gearhead life. Bill has always been a car enthusiast, but by his own admission he had never turned a wrench on a car until about 12 years ago. It was then that his college car, an ancient BMW, lunched a timing belt and caused the pistons and valves to play kissy-face. Caswell had the car towed to a shop, but with no money, the car languished at the garage for more than a couple of years.
“At the time I was a big chess player and I used to read chess books constantly,” Caswell said. “I eventually ran out of chess books to read and wandered through the transportation section at Barnes and Noble. The first book I saw was a Chilton’s repair manual for my car. I never knew anything like that existed. The second chapter of the book had the instructions on how to swap the motor out. I read the book, had the car towed to my mom’s garage, bought about $150 in Craftsman tools, and a couple months later drove it back to the shop where it sat to show the mechanics what I had done. Those guys were floored that I had done it and even told me that the installation was very cleanly done.” The experience sparked something in Caswell and gave him the confidence to take on ever more bold projects up to and including building his own race cars as he does now.
The mechanics were impressed with his work and started to encourage him to enter it in local autocrossand even Solo events. Again, Caswell turned to the book store and found a tome on SCCA Solo 2. Reading that book gave him some ideas on how to improve his car on the cheap.
Bill said, “The book kept pointing to the fact that if you couldn’t increase power or do suspension work you should lighten the car, so I gutted it.” The gutted car turned out to be pretty quick, and Caswell’s own driving talents were starting to sharpen. Sick of running down cones, Caswell started entering the car in open-track events. “Eventually I wanted to start passing people for real,” he said, and before long he was racing wheel to wheel at BMW club events and in the SCCA.
“Mom’s garage” that served Caswell in his early days of wrenching still serves as home quarters for Caswell Motorsports. In fact, the day we talked to Bill, he was in his mother’s garage admiring some new equipment that we’ll get to later. Yes, his mom now has the best-equipped fabrication and welding shop in a 20-mile radius.
“My mom kept telling me that I should be playing golf,” Caswell said when we asked him about his mom’s thoughts on racing. “She is the best lady, just so great. She didn’t understand at first and really just thought I should be out playing golf like all the other guys who worked in the city. The more she saw how much I loved this, the more she saw how dedicated I was to being successful with racing and how powerful my passion for this stuff was, she started to get it. She really gets it now. She understands that racing is really filled with some outstanding people, really good people.”
Bill does bring the realities of racing down to earth with each trip to a new event. “Before I leave for every race, I do talk to my mom,” he said. “I let her know that this stuff is very dangerous and that there is a chance she could get a call telling her that I’m not around anymore. I’ve told her every time that if something happens she does not sue anyone. No matter how weird or bad the situation, I am not going to ruin something for all the people coming after me.”
We told you this guy was OK.
This adventure that we’ve all been watching from a distance is a very real experience for Caswell’s fiance Melanie. A doctor by profession she was the woman who signed up to marry Bill the finance, guy who liked to race on the weekends and ended up with Bill the guy racing for a living. “Honestly she has been kind of back and forth at some points,” Caswell explained. “She smiles, gives me a hug and a kiss and tells me to do what I need to do, but there are certainly concerns with the future. We have a wedding to plan and pay for, I’m earning virtually no income at this point, things happen when I am on the road and I really cannot help her deal with them. This is real life.”
Real life is the great irony here.
Anyone who has ever raced a car at a hobby level has harbored dreams of actually doing it full time—ditching the job that is always in the way of things and concentrating all of your energy on the car and the racing program.
Here’s the rub: That job that always seems to be in the way? That’s the gravity in your life, keeping you anchored in reality. Cutting that part of the equation out, that piece that seems to be the last obstacle to glory presents challenges the likes of which you’d probably never expect. ”This is not easy,” Caswell said. “Back when I was working I would leave the office, drive to my mom’s house and wrench on the car through the middle of the night, drive home, get a couple hours sleep and go back to work. I did that for years. In a way Melanie sees more of me now than she did then, but the issues come in when priorities need to be set. If there was some kind of event in the past, it was just expected that I would not go racing that weekend because it was just a hobby. That’s changed now that I am doing this full time. Nothing comes ahead of the racing now.”
The guy who learned to swap motors and race Solo 2 by reading books would conquer the next great hurdle in his racing story by once again burying his nose in text. This time it was welding. “I read a book on welding front to back a couple times,” Caswell said with a laugh. “I then bought a cheap-ass welder from the local parts store and it was kind of scary at first. I would weld brackets and other small stuff but never dreamed of doing a whole roll cage myself. My welds had no penetration and were cracking by the end of every event when I was doing stuff on my shifter kart..”
Caswell’s welding epiphany came when he settled on rally racing after being told his job was donzo. “I was thinking that I would wreck a car at the first event I tried,” he said. “Everyone told me how crazy it was to start rallying in the 2WD car, so naturally I thought that I’d be breaking and wrecking things during my learning period. I decided that if I was going to be wrecking stuff I’d need to fix it because I don’t have the funding to pay someone to cage several cars for me. I upgraded to a Miller welder with the Auto-Set feature and all of a sudden my welds were good, the penetration was good, and I was thinking that I could do my own roll cage. As my job was winding down I went crazy buying stuff. I had the welder now, so I then bought a tubing bender and found a horizontal mill on Craigslist that I used to fish mouth tube joints. I read the 3 to 4-page instruction sheet that came with the tubing bender about how to bend up a roll cage and went for it.”
Here’s where we stop and tell you to get off your ass and do it. We live in a world of can’t and don’t and shouldn’t. These words do not exist for racers, especially those driven to do it their own way and with limited funding. “I want people to see that this can be done,” Bill said. “A race car goes where the driver is looking, simple as that. Look at the apex of a corner and the car goes there. I believe life is the same exact way. Look at your goals, look at the stuff you want to learn about and do it. Don’t try to be perfect. Just do something, learn from it, and do it better the next time. I’ve managed to put most of my cars together in about ten days. I work until I physically cannot work any more, sleep a little and get right back at it. I talk to guys who tell me they have been working on a rally car for more than a year and I’m floored. Just finish the thing already. My cars are all pretty ugly but they work, are safe, and pass tech.”
All that work happens in his mom’s garage. When we talked to Bill he was lamenting the fact that there were five motors strewn about and that his car, after having a chance encounter with a large boulder in Maine, needed work.
Caswell recently signed with Miller Welders as a sponsor of his racing operation. They supplied Bill with a full host of equipment, fabrication tools, and a metal working necessities that he needs to keep on top of the car. We begged for an extra plasma cutter or Tig welder to move east but our pleas fell on deaf ears. “I can’t express how thankful I am to have Miller on board with us,” Caswell said. “This equipment is going to allow me to kick things up a notch and we’re going to be working on something special with Miller in the near future that will blow your mind.”
We don’t know what that means but we’re thinking it’s awesome.
Not shockingly, there are Bill Caswell haters out there. These people are typically referred to as wankers, dinks, dweebs, and jerks. These are the people who cry foul at the $500 BMW rally car claim. Yes, they are technically right that after the car was made legal for competition it no longer was worth $500, but they also fail to realize this dude built the entire freaking car in his mother’s garage…which is not big. The people who want to bag on Bill for what he has done can kiss the collective ass of the BangShift universe. Few have come so far technically in so short a period and even fewer have dared to have dreams as big and actually chase them.
Caswell is a smart guy. There are movie negotiations happening and television deals being kicked around as we write this. One of the most endearing parts of this whole adventure is the fact that the guy is unabashed in admitting to being in love with every second of it. “Lots of people take this shit too seriously,” Caswell said. “When my helmet goes on I am as serious as anyone, but when it comes to the fans and really giving back, lots of the pro teams are not good at it. Every event has pre-race stuff that allows the fans to interact with the teams. We always seem to have big crowds of people around because we love the fact that people care. We want to give back to those people by doing well.”
The crazy adventure of Bill Caswell is really gaining steam. He’s got a base of fans who love him for the fact that he’s doing it on his own, he’s got a family behind him that may not totally understand the reasoning behind what he’s doing but are supporting him anyway and he’s got the balls to run an entire racing operation out of his mom’s 1.5 car garage in the ‘burbs of Chicago.
We love this guy.