From spectator to specialist, Tinzy Aronson has had her head down for over a decade working hard to earn her accolades as one of the brightest and dedicated clutch specialists in drag racing. One part of an inseparable racing power-couple, her greatest strengths were tested one year ago in the wake of a tragic accident that severely injured her husband – leaving Tinzy to rise up and take on the heavy lifting in his recovery, their business livelihood, and their daily lives.
Tinzy Aronson grew up in Montgomery, Texas, a small town 40 miles north of Houston. She and her father often attended the races as spectators, checking out the action at Royal Purple Raceway in Baytown, TX. It was at one such outing in November of 2005 that Tinzy would meet Cale Aronson: a young, up and coming second generation racer from Missouri. Cale was there with his Outlaw 10.5 Mustang racing in the Clash of the Titans program, and the pair very quickly hit it off.
They began dating, and naturally, Tinzy would accompany Cale to many races, watching and becoming more familiar with the Outlaw 10.5 racing scene. The two were inseparable, and as they grew together as a couple, so did Tinzy’s desire to be more involved in the team.
Cale loved that I was interested in racing, but he was very adamant that if I wanted to be involved, that I needed to dig in and learn everything. There was no half-assing it.”
He would advise Tinzy to look to Shannon Glidden, long time right hand of Bill Glidden and one of the most capable crewmembers in all of motorsports, as inspirational role model. Watching Shannon and Billy work together as a flawless unit at the races, Shannon’s confidence and grace working on a record-setting and highly competitive car were the benchmarks by which Tinzy modeled her own career aspirations and goals.
Learning the Ropes
Tinzy began learning and working on the clutch at the Aronson Motorsport shop in 2006. Cale and his father, Chuck, would spend hours in preparation for upcoming races, and Tinzy was beside them, taking it all in and tediously learning the ropes behind what the family did in their racing program.
Her first track experience came helping turn the motor over in the Outlaw 10.5 Mustang while Cale made adjustments to the clutch. Slowly, as she gained experience and confidence in her skills, Tinzy would begin taking on more mechanical responsibilities. The team sold the Outlaw 10.5 car, purchasing a Pro Stock Escort in 2008 for a jump to the Pro Stock world.
By then, Cale was staying so busy with trying to work on the clutch, reviewing the data, and making tuning calls, that things became really frantic in the pits. I started taking over the mechanical side of the clutch maintenance and other duties on the car to help him be able to focus more on tuning and reading the data.”
When they debuted Cale’s 2010 Pro Stock Mustang, Tinzy – now Cale’s right hand and fiancée (he popped the question in October 2007) was acting Car Chief on the car. The two worked well together, while Cale made the tuning calls, Tinzy would handle the clutch and other maintenance, and Cale’s dad would focus on the engine and transmission maintenance. Soon, people around the pits were really taking notice of Tinzy’s skill in the clutch, earning her the nickname “Clutch Girl” and recognition from track announcers as one of the hardest working, proficient clutch specialists in the business. She is typically found in the pits covered in clutch dust and buried in the clutch can, stirring up a bit of unexpected attention from fans and fellow racers alike that marveled at the woman working behind the firewall. The attention has come as a surprise to the very humble car chief, who doesn’t really understand what the fuss is about.
I think, if anything [being a woman car chief] gets you more attention than you deserve. They see me working out there, and the announcers are making references to me as the “best clutch person on the property”, and I just don’t think I do anything special to deserve that kind of attention.”
The racing community and fans have all been very supportive and encouraging of her career, and really the only negative she has encountered are some comments on message boards based on her looks and photos. For Tinzy, the most challenging part of her motorsports career has been balancing the constant demands of a close, family team.
When things aren’t going well at the track, it can be very tense in the pit. I’ve had to learn to walk away and regroup.”
But that family dynamic is also one of the most rewarding parts of her career as well. Cale and Tinzy, who married in 2013, work alongside one another as race partners and soulmates. They are always on the same page, working toward a common goal that often needs no words or explanation.
Traveling together overseas, we work so well together. Cale does the tuning, and I handle the mechanical side of things. We fully trust in and compliment each other – he makes the calls, and I’m his eyes and ears and everything just goes smoothly.”
The Day Everything Changed
For most all racing couples, there is an acute awareness buried in the back of your mind of the dangers involved seeing your loved one going down the track. But almost one year ago, on April 25th, 2015 at the IHRA Nationals in West Palm Beach, Florida, Tinzy would realize that sinking fear as she watched Cale’s routine pass in his 2010 Pro Stock Mustang veer out of control, sending him violently into the wall and sliding down the track on its lid. Her heart sank as panic quickly set in for her soulmate, who had come to rest past the finishline, still on his roof..
On the starting line, I am always video recording the runs, so I don’t get to watch Cale’s passes the way others see them. My head was focused down on the video camera screen, and I looked up when the car made the turn into the wall.”
Instantly, Tinzy and Chuck ran directly for the golf cart to take off down the track towards the wreck. But track officials quickly jumped in and blocked them, not allowing them to be near the scene or the rescue efforts underway to get Cale out of the car.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Cale was alert and conscious through the whole crash, and knew immediately what had happened to him. He asked the first responders to not allow me or his dad down there until they had him out of the car. And that is exactly what the track officials were doing by blocking us from going to him.”
The waiting was agonizing for Tinzy and Chuck, standing by helplessly to hear word of his condition. A flurry of medical and track personnel were painstakingly attending to him, but every second passing was an excruciating eternity for Tinzy, who could hear the rescue effort communications on the radio.
It felt like an eternity waiting… I could hear them talking on the radios, but no one was answering me. Flashbacks of Bert Jackson’s wreck were racing through my mind… I didn’t know if he was dead or alive down there and every second was agonizing.”
Finally, when they had extracted Cale from the car and immobilized him carefully onto the stretcher, Tinzy was rushed to his side.
A thousand things were going through my mind, I didn’t know what to expect when I got down there. He’s on the stretcher, no scratches, not bleeding… I was so relieved to see his face, to hear him.” Tinzy said when she finally saw him.
She, of course, couldn’t see the extent of his injuries at first glance.
I vaguely remember someone asking if he could feel his legs. He said no, but I was still in shock and didn’t realize what was going on. The track officials are telling me that they had called the life flight helicopter, and I couldn’t comprehend why or understand that his neck was actually broken.”
Cale was flown to St. Mary’s Hospital in Palm Beach. He had a compression fracture of his C5 vertebrae and had damaged C6, his spinal cord was swollen and bruised slightly. He underwent surgery 3 days later to repair the fractured vertebrae, but doctors had no answers for his long term prognosis. He had some very light sensations indicating early connectivity in his toes and feet, but no signal function as he could not move his body below the chest.
That’s when the drag racing community reached out with critical help for Tinzy and Cale. Jerry Gwynn, whose son, Darrell suffered a spinal cord injury in a Top Fuel crash 25 years before, connected Tinzy to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. Jackson Memorial is one of the leading spinal cord injury facilities in the country, whose work in research and development on paralysis cases and spinal cord injuries have been ground-breaking, and Tinzy made the decision to have Cale moved to Miami as soon as he was physically able to be transported.
Spinal cord injuries are a fairly rare, specialized area of medicine. When I asked about prognosis (at St. Mary’s), no answers were available. If you are ever in a situation with spinal cord injury, find the best neurologist, and get there. We were blessed that his accident happened 60 miles from one of the best care centers in the country. I am so thankful to the Gwynn Family, and the Miami Project for leading the way in research and development for Cale’s care and recovery. They have been truly amazing.”
Later analysis showed that Cale had struck the wall with 8Gs of force on impact, before the car rotated, slamming onto its roof, and sliding down the track. Fully conscious during the entire crash, Cale said his HANS and other safety equipment did its job on the initial impact with the wall. But it was the secondary impact of the car slamming onto its roof that critically injured the veteran racer.
When the car hit the wall, Cale said he was jolted sideways in the seat, and as it rotated, it came down on the roof with another 2.5Gs of force. That force, combined with Cale’s own body weight, and the angle at which he came down inside the cage’s driver encapsulation exerted over 600 lbs of compression pressure on his neck, leaving a 2” crack in his helmet. Seat belts are designed to keep you from being thrown forward or out of the car, but they aren’t designed to keep you from going UP.”
The Return Road
The recovery process, aka “The Return Road” – has been slow and painfully frustrating at times, both for Cale AND Tinzy. After over a month of care in Miami, the most difficult times came when they returned home and had to adjust to a very different life with the injury. Rebuilding nerve pathways can be excruciatingly painful, and Cale’s limited mobility made regular day-to-day activities a challenge.
Coming home from the hospital is the hardest part of this entire experience. With him not being able to move, and how much is affected by the central nervous system working, our first day home was terrible. I had no idea how we were going to get through this, but we figured it out. And as he has continued progressing, we were able to learn to manage the daily stuff into a new kind of normal.”
This left Tinzy to care for Cale, helping him to navigate daily activities and assume all the other tasks that Cale was no longer able to attend to on his own. Household chores, therapy visits, and managing to keep them afloat while Cale was down fell onto Tinzy’s shoulders.
Tinzy’s role isn’t limited to just the Aronson Motorsports household/program either. She is also a driving factor for the couple’s several business ventures: Hot Rod Power Source, where they sell complete turn-key Ford crate engine programs and kits that convert to them, and Black Magic Clutches where they offer clutch development, setup and tuning all around the world. While still in the hospital, Tinzy and Cale were still having to operate these businesses via email. He was lying in the hospital bed, while doctors monitored his condition, and Tinzy was there in the clutch of tragedy around them, still conducting business despite it all. The stress was extremely trying for Tinzy, who buckled down and bore the weight of the answering emails, fulfilling orders and all of the other tasks that Cale wasn’t able to handle in his injured state. Doctors were amazed at their determination and dedication to the sport. Tinzy also has her own line of unique gifts and accessories called Clutch Girl Gear, though it has taken a back seat temporarily after the accident.
Now that things are starting to settle down some, with Cale making more and more progress in his mobility, the couple’s attention has turned back to the Pro Stock car and really understanding what happened to cause his injuries. He has carefully climbed back in the car, belted in with his helmet on to see what they could do to prevent his spinal cord injury in the future, and they are now working with DJ Safety on new seat belt design that would secure drivers better in the event of a roll-over impact..
In the wake of Cale’s accident and Barrett Lyle – I think we ALL need to be taking a look a safety equipment, not just from the standpoint of what is mandated, but sitting in the car and really looking around and evaluating your environment and equipment. Address potential issues and find ways to help reduce the risks of injury.”
As these cars continue to go faster and faster, safety has to be paramount in the minds of racers and crew. But after seeing your loved one involved and injured in something as serious as Cale’s accident, the worry and fear increases. Cale, who initially said he wouldn’t be racing again, now is working hard on recovery and plans to return to driving as soon as his doctors will allow it. Racing friends have even begun donating parts to rebuild the damage to Cale’s Pro Stock. But for Tinzy, that day will be a tough one filled with mixed emotions.
It makes me incredibly nervous (for Cale to race again), but racing is so very important to him and his love in life, and driving again is a monster that he wants to beat.”
Tinzy’s own future goals include learning more about the tuning side of things, to be able to read the total picture and fine tune the car herself. The Horsepower & Heels 2015 Crew Woman of the Year hopes that someday, she will be able to inspire others much like Shannon served as her role model. She adds these words of advice:
Take in and learn everything you can. Absorb everything around you. Ask questions and be open to learning from others. When you do get some knowledge under your belt, don’t get overly confident and think you know it all. And don’t develope a chip on your shoulder about being a woman in the sport, work hard and earn respect that way.”
As for Cale and Tinzy, who now have been inseparable for over a decade, the question often arises – will there be a future crew member to carry on the family motorsports legacy? The couple, known for their affinity for all things “Minion”, have yet to have their own little minion running around the pits.
Tinzy laughed, “John Kaase asks us all the time, he is looking for his 3rd generation customer.”
We just will have to wait and see….