Notre Dame's Scott Paddock develops love for Midwest, motorsports

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Survive the snow and cold and wind chills of four Midwestern winters, play some college basketball, earn a degree and then get on home to his native South Florida as soon as possible.

That was the plan for former Irish men’s basketball player and Plantation, Fla., native Scott Paddock. But real life then got in the way.

Wondering how he was going to make it through winters in South Bend while becoming the ultimate glue guy for the Irish, Paddock started dating a girl from Chicago. They fell in love. Got married. Had two daughters. Following a quick professional career overseas, Paddock dived deeper and deeper into his work as a sports marketing representative for Gatorade. Ten years passed. Then 15. Twenty.

Over 30 years after first seeing snow, and still remembering not liking it at all, after learning that you can indeed fish through the ice of a lake in January and ski in February even though there are no nearby mountains, Paddock remains in the Midwest.

It’s now home.

“Chicago winters aren’t easy (but) I met my future wife in school and she screwed up all my plans of going back to South Florida,” joked the 48-year-old Paddock, who lives with said wife, Marcy, and teenage daughters in Orland Park, Ill. “But you hear the term, ‘Midwestern values.’ There’s really something true to that. It’s generational.

“This is a great town with great sports fans.”

A town where Paddock has been front and sometimes center for the past six years as president of Chicagoland Motor Speedway, which opened in 2001 in south-suburban Joliet, and its sister track Route 66 Raceway, built in 1998 which holds its 20th-annual NHRA Nationals this week.

Hired in 2011, Paddock, who dabbled some in the sport while at Gatorade, was told that he would be the face of motorsports in the Chicagoland area. When it’s time for NASCAR to run or for the NHRA to rumble, Paddock is there putting the word out with a newspaper interview here, a radio spot there and a weekly appearance on Comcast SportsNet.

“We’re not like the Chicago Bears or the Chicago Cubs where we have players living in town and that are very visible and media-centric,” Paddock said. “I’m the brand ambassador trying to build motorsports in this region.”

Irish connection

When not building that brand and working toward the track’s signature events of race season – NASCAR comes to Chicagoland for its annual visit in mid-September – Paddock spends what time he gets away from the track coaching his daughters’ travel basketball teams. Every once in a while when a contest gets tight and he gets a little excited, Paddock will unknowingly channel his inner Digger Phelps during timeouts, huddles or stoppages in play.

Paddock will catch himself saying something that Phelps said to him and his teammates decades ago and smile.

“It’s a great experience for me in giving back and imparting all the wonderful knowledge that Coach shared with me over my four years,” said Paddock, a 1990 Notre Dame graduate who averaged 2.4 points and 3.0 rebounds in 112 career games with four straight trips to the NCAA tournament. “Coach played a big role in my formative years.

“He’s one of a kind.”

Paddock makes it a point to get back to campus for at least one football and one basketball game every year. Last fall, he brought his boss and his boss’s son to town for the football game against Duke. Upon arrival, Paddock learned that Phelps was holding a book signing on campus. They stopped by.

Phelps spied Paddock five, six, seven fans deep in the line. The coach then bellowed what the player had heard about a thousand times – that he was the third-best redhead that Phelps recruited behind Joe Kleine and Tim Kempton.

It even was in the book that Phelps was peddling that day.

Paddock could only shake his head and smile.

“He’s one of the most successful basketball players we had in 20 years who’s played in and succeeded in the game of life,” Phelps said. “He’s the best.”

A good week

When it comes to cars going fast around tracks and down drag strips in the nation’s third-largest city, it’s difficult to remain relevant. Professional teams so dominate the sports landscape. There’s still a bit of a buzz from the Cubs’ first World Series win in over a century, and anything the Bears do no matter the time of year gets front-page focus. When will the Bulls figure it out? Will the Blackhawks get back on track and challenge for another Stanley Cup? How about the White Sox?

Television ratings and fan attendance have not been kind to racing in recent years. Both have slipped. But Paddock has hope.

That hope is in the stories that race fans share with him every year. Like in the letters where fans talk of how they used to go to the track with a relative who has since died, but they keep alive memories of their loved ones by returning for each race week.

Then there’s fans who arrived at the Route 66 campground one year, pitched their tent next to someone they didn’t know and now 15 years later are best friends. Race weekends aren't the same for one without being near the other.

“That’s really cool,” Paddock said. “Life’s not easy today, but to be able to create those experiences for people is really, really gratifying.”

Come Sunday, when the last of the funny cars has rocketed down the quarter-mile stretch of asphalt at speeds over 330 mph, when the last of the fans have felt like they’ve had a front-row seat for the launch of the space shuttle, Paddock will do what he does at the end of every race weekend.

He’ll park his 6-foot-8 frame near one of the venue exits and offer fans his thanks. For coming. For having fun. For being fans. They often thank him back, and promise to see him again next year.

In Paddock’s world, it’s always South Florida-sunny.

“At the end of the weekend, when you know you’ve hit it out of the park,” he said, “that’s one of the best feelings in the world.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Former Notre Dame power forward Scott Paddock is now president of Chicagoland Motor Speedway and its sister track, Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill. (Photo provided)