Coming off a season in which he won his first national driving title, Wrenn had wrist surgery in early January and, despite missing some time, is currently second in wins among all drivers in North America with 220. Just ahead of him is Aaron Merriman with 234 and just behind him is Josh Sutton with 209.
All three drive regularly at Northfield Park in Ohio, where Sutton-Wrenn-Merriman are 1-2-3, respectively.
Thus, this should be the best of times for young Ronnie Wrenn Jr.
But two-and-a-half weeks ago, Ronnie was visiting his dad, Ron Sr., at his Michigan barn and noticed he looked a little swollen. A trip to the hospital produced devastating news, as 62-year-old Ron Sr. was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer. It’s the type of cancer that isn’t detected until it begins to spread to other areas of the body.
|USTA/Ed Keys photo|
|Ronnie Wrenn Jr. led all drivers in North America in wins last year, with 714.|
“It’s not good,” Ronnie said Friday morning, while heading to a cancer center with his family to discuss what his dad’s options are.
Despite his success this year, Wrenn has had to carry this with him while driving the past two weeks. That’s where his colleagues come into play.
“My family helps me and also some of the guys at the track -- Aaron, Josh, Jason Merriman,” Wrenn said. “They see how I’m doing. They understand...well, they don’t really understand, but they’re here for me and it’s nice. It makes it easier.
“When you race against the same people year in and year out, and every day you have to go to work with them, I think you want to make friends with them. It makes it a lot easier to go to work. Sometimes you race against a bunch of guys you don’t like, that happens in every job. You just try to avoid those guys. But these guys have been great, and they really make it easier to go to work.”
And Ronnie, as would anyone in his situation, can use all the support he can get.
“It’s hard,” he said. “I’m used to waking up and calling my dad. He helps mentor me. I can’t do that anymore.
“I don’t want to say it affects my driving, but it doesn’t make it easy right now. It’s something I have to deal with and can overcome. I’ve dealt with it a few weeks now. I took (Thursday) night off because I had to, but I’m not going to take a lot of nights off.”
Ron Wrenn Sr. is a successful and well-known driver from Michigan. His brother Peter has more than 9,200 driving wins and his brother Gary is a driver and trainer. Big Ron’s colors are black and maroon, and they will soon be his son’s colors.
“I’ve talked to the USTA and a color company, and I’m switching from brown and white to my dad’s colors,” Ronnie said. “I will have a whole new look. People might not recognize me at first, but that will be me with the black and maroon.
“I want to do this in honor of my dad. I’m not saying he’s going to pass away tomorrow. I’m hoping he can see a lot of my races this year. But it’s just something I want to do now.”
Considering that he has continued to win races, it’s hard to tell the burden Wrenn has been under lately. Along with Merriman and Sutton, he has helped raise the profile of Northfield Park.
“I don’t think there have been three guys at the same track in the top three (in North America) ever...at least not that I can remember,” Wrenn said. “I’ve been racing against Aaron for a few years, and he’s definitely a top driver in my book. He consistently has the most starts each year for every driver in North America. He definitely hustles, racing doubleheaders. With Josh moving there in the fall, he definitely found his track. He’s an aggressive driver.”
With casinos now in operation at Northfield, the money has become more attractive. And while Wrenn hasn’t completely abandoned hopes of racing in the East, he is feeling pretty good about life in the Midwest.
“Hopefully the money will be even better in Ohio and we can talk numbers like they have out East,” he said. “I think it’s only a matter of time before the purses are as big as they are in the rest of the country. They’re doing very well with the casinos.
“It’s still in the back of my mind to have the opportunity to go out East, that’s where all the major drivers are. I probably would still do it, but if it starts turning into that in Ohio, I don’t see the point.”
As for the immediate future, Wrenn will be driving a lot for trainer Virgil Morgan Jr.
“He always has some really nice horses, especially during the summer,” said Ronnie, who won 714 races and earned $2.48 million in purses in 2013. “He has some nice colts. I know last year he had some nice ones.”
One thing that is nice for Wrenn this year, is that he is driving pain free after having surgery in January to remove some bone chips from his wrist and repair a partially torn tendon. The injury was a result of some old injuries when Wrenn played football and baseball in high school, combined with the usual wear and tear of driving.
“It didn’t feel good,” he said. “I had some good nights and some bad nights depending on how enflamed it was that day. I don’t think it affected me, I was still able to have a pretty good year. But it definitely feels a lot better. I’m 100 percent now.”
Although he took a month off and even went on a rare vacation, Wrenn said he rushed back pretty quickly, which prolonged the healing process.
“I think if it was going to hurt me, I wouldn’t have done it,” he said. “The only thing I did by rushing back was prolong the healing, so it was just a matter of handling the pain, which I did last year.”
Wrenn noted that he wasn’t forced to rush back.
“Taking time off freshened me up a little bit,” he said. “It’s every catch driver’s nightmare to take a timeout, they think they’re going to lose their mounts. But I came back and got most of my trainers back. It’s nice to know you can take time off and there are people that stay loyal to you.
“I took a couple of weeks off to relax and do nothing. But I like racing. I didn’t rush back to try and get a bunch of wins. I just look forward to going to the track every single night, unless it’s raining.”
With friendly rivals like Merriman and Sutton waiting there for him, it makes the anticipation that much better.
“We’re definitely competitive on the track, we want to beat each other,” he said. “But we’ve developed a pretty good friendship. It’s kind of neat. When one of us is driving at another track we want each other to do well.”
And when they are off the track and living in the real world -- which can deliver some harsh blows -- they have shown in recent weeks just how much they care about and support each other.