LAKE NORMAN OF CATAWBA, N.C. — A former NASCAR mechanic and pit crew member is keeping his competitive edge by taking on a different kind of ride: a paddleboard.
Gabe Barajas instantly took a liking to the sport when he tried his friend's board in 2021. Now, he has his own board and will use it to raise money for cystic fibrosis when he participates in Crossing for Cystic Fibrosis this June.
The event is an 80-mile challenge in open water from Bimini to Lake Worth, Florida. The founder of the event started it in 2013 after the diagnosis of his own daughter's cystic fibrosis (CF). While Barajas' own daughters don't live with CF, he said to see another man doing something for his child spoke to him.
"Why it touched me is, I guess, because it's just a father doing something for his daughter. I have two daughters. They're college age. And just the fact that if that was to happen to one of my girls, you know, I could see that in myself just going to any end or any length, to help them out," he said. "I just wanted to help out. And so, I feel like I'm able-bodied and I've got my health and my strength and all that kind of stuff. And, why not go out there and, and put my efforts to good use."
Barajas grew up in Southern California, making the move to North Carolina in 2002. Then, in 2003, he started working for Richard Petty.
"I'd carry tires on the 45 car for Kyle Petty, and then I left there and I worked for a various number of teams throughout the years," he noted.
Barajas left the sport in 2019 after a 17-year career. Now, he can be found paddling his way around Lake Norman. The former Marine is on pace to do a 76-mile paddle on the lake as a dry run.
"I'm going to go out and test everything and make sure that I'm ready with all my gear, and physically and mentally prepared. So that way, I know that if I can put in 76 miles mentally, I know the conditions," he said.
He is gauging endurance across the distance "[To] make sure that my stamina is up for that amount of time. I want to make sure that I'm ready beforehand. I've been in the mindset that if you make your practice harder than the actual game or the event, then the game or the event or, the pitstop or whatever you're doing at the time, becomes a whole lot easier."
Barajas said after hours on Lake Norman, the paddling itself isn't the hard part.
"The most difficult part is probably the boats. Just the wake from the boats and just not knowing where they're gonna come from as far as like, crossing big channels," he said.
Barajas might be out of racing, but he remains competitive as ever. He trains seven days a week. Part of his schedule on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, includes paddling five miles before hitting the gym, which is all before a full day of work. Then depending on the day of the week, he'll also add yoga, pilates, hiking, or beach volleyball.
"They give you 18 hours total. And then you have to come off the water if you don't make it in that amount of time. So, you know, my goal is to be somewhere in the 14 to 16-hour range to give myself plenty of time," he said.
Barajas says his family is very supportive but also worries about hazards, chiefly sharks.
"They know that I'm the type of person that anything I set my mind to, I'm 100% committed, and I'm gonna make it happen. And that's kind of how I've been in my whole life up to this point," he said.
It's not just the commitment to do it either that he has; he harkens back to his racing days when thinking about preparing.
"You would always prepare and take the race car there as best as you can. So I'm trying to take that mentality and make sure that I myself am as prepared in, like all facets. and try to think of everything that might come up, you know, before it comes out," he said.
Barajas' wife has set up a GoFundMe page to help with expenses and donations.
"In my mind, I'm going to be by myself. So I need to have that support, just to push me through when times get real tough, that I know that people back here are pulling for me. So, that's what I look forward to and I think together, we can make a big difference," he said.