Those who have spent any amount of time with Kokomo open-wheel standout Shane Cottle are quick to notice his easy-going demeanor and sense of humor on race nights. His outgoing personality has endeared him to fans and fellow drivers alike.

However, the quick smile and joke that were customary seemed to becoming fewer. He still was cutting up along with all of those around him, but he just didn’t seem to be having as much fun as he used to.

The reason being was simple. He wasn’t.

I recall a conversation late in the 2011 season away from the track when he commented that the season couldn’t get over soon enough. That statement stunned me. Here was a guy that a few years earlier would have raced seven days a week, 52 weeks a year if given the opportunity and now he was saying he wanted to see the season end.

“I just want to have fun again,” he said earlier this week as he prepped to head south to Florida to kick off the annual Speed Weeks leading up to the Daytona 500. “To tell the truth, I haven’t been having too much fun for the last couple of years. That’s part of the reason I’m going to do what I’m doing this year.”

Just exactly what he is going to do is primarily pilot a Late Model owned by T.J. Rayburn.

“I’ll know more when I get back from Florida,” he stated. “But right now the plan is to run the Late Model as much as I can at tracks like Eldora, Florence [Ky,], Hartford [Mich.] and Brownstown. Then I think we are going to try to run the U.M.P. Late Model Summer Nationals, too.”

With Indiana being primarily a sprint-car-dominated state, Cottle knows he will be putting in quite a few miles just to get the opportunity to make the transition from the 1,200-pound sprint cars to the bigger, heavier Late Models.

“It’s going to be a lot different,” he noted. “It’s a big change to go from a sprint car to a modified. Now these cars are like big boxes so it’s going to take some getting used to, I’m sure.”

Even now, Cottle is the only driver in Gas City I-69 Speedway’s history to pick up a feature win in a sprint car and a modified in the same night. But he is hoping the change will perk his enthusiasm to the sport he’s loved all his life.

To say that 2011 was stressful for the popular Illinois native who moved to Kokomo a few years back would be quite an understatement.

Heading into the 2011 season he had high hopes with the Edison Motorsports/Crume-Evans Insurance/Chalk Chassis No. 10E with which he had won three track championships. Around the midway point of last season, though, he jumped into Jeff Walker’s always potent No. 11 machine for what started out as a “one off” deal in the King of Indiana Sprint Series (KISS) show at the Paragon Speedway.

He picked up the feature win that night and Walker offered him an opportunity to wheel the car for the duration of the season if Cottle so chose.

What followed was probably the toughest decision he had to make in his racing career. Should he walk away from the security of a team that virtually considered him a family member to go race more frequently with Walker, long known as being one of the top car owners in the state?

Citing his desire to race more frequently than the Edison team wanted, he chose to leave the comfort of his long-time team. He eventually captured yet another track title at his hometown track, but realized that the probability of his staying long term with Walker was pretty slim.

The stress of the rollercoaster-like 2011 campaign took its toll and Cottle even hinted at times of giving up the sport altogether. After a couple months away from the rigors of racing, he realized the competitive fire still burned inside him so he was on the phone, trying to get a plan of action for the upcoming season.

“I talked with several pretty good sprint car teams about getting in their car for this season,” he said. “A couple of them didn’t pan out but I have some options so I’m not getting completely away from the sprint cars by any means.”

He stated he intends to make every effort to repeat as sprint car track champion at Kokomo. As reported in this column a couple weeks ago, the Fox Brothers team is going to a multiple-driver campaign in 2012 and said it had a short list of drivers it planned to use.

One of those drivers, Cottle said Wednesday, was him. Also, former driver Robbie Rice and Mark Batchelor are fielding a new car for this season and have approached him about that ride and Jason Goacher and his potent No. 5G is yet another sprinter Cottle could well spend some time in this season.

“The way it looks right now I probably will be running the Late Model most Friday nights,” he said. “Robbie has said he wants to run that car at Lincoln Park Speedway on Saturdays and maybe Kokomo on Sunday nights. Jason is wanting to get his car back out and Brad and Steve [Fox] have spoken with me about getting in the No. 53 on occasion as well so it looks like I might have a pretty good shot at chasing the points at Kokomo.”

His name also was being tossed around as a possible driver of the Hoffman Racing No. 69, the winningest sprint car team in USAC history, but Cottle said that doesn’t look likely to pan out.

“From what I hear, [Darren] Hagen is going to be their driver,” he noted. “But the other cars I’ve been approached about are good race cars, so when I’m in a sprint car I think I’ll have good equipment.”

Since competing in his first USAC Traxxas Silver Crown Series event, the crown jewel of USAC’s “big three” divisions, Cottle has not hid his desire to compete in that series. He likes the challenge of the bigger tracks and the longer races and with the purse being higher in that series, that naturally comes into play as well.

At the time of this writing, he felt he was close to finalizing a deal that would allow him to compete in that series as well.

“I think I might have something there, too,” he said. “I really don’t want to say which team it is just yet since nothing is final but it looks pretty promising.”

If all things go as planned for the winner of the Kokomo Tribune’s Fans’ Choice Award for the Sprint Car Division, Cottle might arguably be the busiest driver in the state.

• Brett Bowman may be reached by email at brettbowman29@aol.com or through the sports department.

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