Israel flying high with NASCAR

There is not a long and storied history of Jews in motorsports. The cast of characters is limited and filled mostly with names like Jody and Tomas Scheckter, François Cevert and Peter Revson, all of which likely means little to the average American, and less to the average American Jew. Even Kenny “The King of Speed” Bernstein, a Motorsports Hall-of-Famer, isn’t well known outside racing circles. Perhaps the most iconic Jewish racer was Paul Newman, a man far better known for his acting and activism. And if you narrow the story’s scope to Israel, it becomes so short it could be a haiku: Chanoch Nissany /did not race in the Grand Prix /how good could he be?

So it might have come as some surprise if you happened to catch the trials for this year’s Daytona 500 and caught an odd sight on the track. There, among the cars emblazoned with the logos of corporations like Target, Burger King, GEICO, FedEx and Miller, was the No. 49 car, a bald eagle on its hood, clutching the flags of Israel and America in its talons, with the words “United We Stand” above its grille.

If your first instinct is to suspect that this development is AIPAC’s latest foray into public relations, or that a pro-Israel billionaire like Sheldon Adelson decided to drop a couple million on a car to bring his message to the masses, you’d be wrong. In fact, the No. 49 car was conceived in a partnership between Robinson-Blakeney Racing and America Israel Racing, and their background might surprise you.

Speaking on the phone from North Carolina, America Israel Racing (AIR) co-founder Rich Shirey wasn’t hesitant to say that there’s “not one Jewish person on our team.” Shirey was raised Baptist in a home where, he says, they were always taught to stand behind Israel. Shirey, who has no background in racing, says the idea for America-Israel Racing came out of a desire “to show the world, and Israel, that a majority of Americans do support Israel.”

After being inspired to do something in support of Israel, Shirey got in touch with his friend, AIR co-founder Mark MacCaull, a former NASCAR engineer, to try and make his idea a reality. In Shirey’s mind, there was no better way to raise awareness about Israel than through NASCAR racing, the sport he loves. “Fortunately enough, Jay Robinson of Robinson-Blakeney Racing was coming up out of the Nationwide Series,” NASCAR’s second division, “to the Cup Series, and we went and met with him and it just was a perfect fit,” Shirey said.

“Everybody we have on our team, from the air team to the driver, to the crew chief, to the team that actually owns the racing team … everybody is 100 percent on board with this,” Shirey said. Even driver J.J. Yeley, when told what would be on the hood of his car, was hugely supportive. “When J.J. found out what we were trying to do … he was ecstatic.”

With Robinson-Blakeney and Yeley on their team, Shirey and MacCaull knew there were still many hurdles ahead. “Everything we do, NASCAR has to approve of,” said Shirey. And while the sport’s governing body has been very supportive, there’s still the matter of funding a race car, which is no small feat.

“We’re not rock stars or movie stars or anything like that, we’re just ordinary people,” said Shirey. “We have enough money to run Daytona, and Phoenix, and there’s a good possibility we’ll be in Las Vegas, but we definitely need to get funding.”

While AIR has been collecting donations on its Web site,, the real struggle is “to try and get some corporate sponsors on the car.” But despite having yet to find a big-name sponsor, Shirey remains hopeful. “In America right now, things are tight for everybody.”

More than anything, Shirey wants to get the message out that America and Israel need each other and that, at least in the world of NASCAR, Israel is a true friend to America. “We’re two countries that are a lot alike in everything we do. They’re our closest ally in an area of the world that’s not real friendly to the West. And we need Israel as much as Israel needs us.”

Cohen Jockeys for Position in Racing

What’s a nice Jewish boy doing in a profession where he can’t eat? If his name is David Cohen, he is making the mealtime sacrifice to break into the ultra-competitive Southern California jockey colony at Hollywood Park.

Although his diet could place him at the same table as Gandhi or Twiggy, Cohen knows that overweight and underemployed go hand in hand in the horseback profession.

Cohen, 19, launched his career during Memorial Day weekend, one year after graduating from Laguna Beach High School. He is the son of Morry Cohen, a longtime owner and breeder who races under the name 5 C Stable.

“Because my father owned horses, I pretty much started from the ground up,” said Cohen. “I groomed horses for six or seven months for our trainer, Jorge Gutierrez, and learned everything from feeding to medication with the vets. I did most everything with about 20 horses last summer at Del Mar.”

Cohen envisions a long-range future in racing as a trainer but wants to ride for the next decade or longer. To make that adjustment, he reduced from 122 to 109 pounds.

“I was lifting weights and balanced my diet out,” Cohen said. “I started to eat less quantity and take more vitamins.”

His limited diet nevertheless has a Jewish flavor.

“I start each morning with a wheat matzah and tea,” he said. “Sometimes the matzah is flavored apple, sometimes cinnamon, sometimes peach. A big square is about 100 calories.”

For breakfast, Cohen will eat a small portion of scrambled eggs, for lunch a small salad, for dinner a little chicken with vegetables.

Cohen also has been forced to sacrifice socially.

“I wake up at 3:30 in the morning and am at work at 4:45,” said Cohen of his routine of galloping horses for several trainers. “I haven’t gone out at night in four years.”

Cohen lives with his father in Arcadia, near Santa Anita, and had been exercising horses for about two years before acquiring his apprentice license in May.

He won his first race at Del Mar on Aug. 11 with a bold come-from-behind victory along the rail aboard Quiten Boy, a 45-to-1 long shot. Cohen scored his sixth victory from 87 mounts during the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita on Oct. 1 with Holy Request, another longshot at 47-to-1 odds, for trainer Barry Abrams.

Jewish jockeys are a rarity. Walter Blum, who rode primarily in New York during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s before becoming a racing official at Florida tracks, is the only Jewish rider to have earned a spot in the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

In California, the most successful Jewish jockey has been Bill Harmatz, a contemporary of Bill Shoemaker who won several major stakes during the ’50s and ’60s. Harmatz, a scholastic gymnastics star from East Los Angeles, won the 1959 Preakness Stakes aboard Royal Orbit. He later became a successful businessman in Vista and remains nearly as fit in his 70s as during his riding years.

Cohen has a long way to go to be mentioned in the same breath as Blum or Harmatz. His apprenticeship is considerably different than that of Duddy Kravitz. As a neophyte jockey, he is allowed to ride with a 10-pound weight concession from what his horse is assigned to carry until he wins five races. The weight concession is dropped to seven pounds and later to five until he wins 45 races or one year passes, whichever comes last.

Cohen has ridden most of his early races for his father’s stable.

“I wouldn’t use him if I didn’t have total confidence in him,” Morry Cohen said.

David Cohen will continue to ride at Santa Anita through the conclusion of the Oak Tree meet on Oct. 31 before shifting to Hollywood Park for a meet beginning on Nov. 3.

Steve Schuelein is a freelance sports writer based in Playa del Rey.