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Chasing a dream
Local soldier lives to race

DULUTH - The 12th annual Petit Le Mans road racing festival comes to Braselton and Road Atlanta this week.

One local man, who has a name synonymous with Atlanta-area racing, will be chasing his dream by participating in the finale of the Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup.

The TDI Cup is a series of 10 racing events that has taken place at eight tracks across the country since April. All 30 drivers in the series compete in identical factory-prepared and maintained Jetta TDI's powered by clean diesel, which has been billed by some as the green future of racing. The series champion wins $100,000 to further their racing career and hopefully lands a professional driving contract.

Participation in the event is

expensive and requires serious commitment and dedication. But Duluth resident Mark Pombo said the chance at racing as a professional driver is a dream worth chasing.

Pombo said he got the racing bug growing up at race tracks watching his father, Pepe Pombo, who once raced professionally for Yamaha and Nissan.

"Everybody has something as an outlet. For some people it's going to their beach house and spending time there," Pombo said. "For me it's racing. I'm trying to have a career in racing."

It has almost broken him financially, with drivers in the series paying their own travel expenses to the races and also being responsible for crash damage done to the vehicles. Pombo pays his way working as an accountant in Atlanta during the day, building race cars at a shop in Suwanee at night and on weekends. Prior to that, he served in Iraq in the U.S. Army where he supplied the infantry with water, fuel and supplies. He's also a U.S. Army reservist.

To participate in the inaugural event last year, Pombo spent his entire military salary and savings on the TDI Cup. He maxed-out credit cards and estimates it cost him $60,000 if not more.

"I spend every dollar I have on racing," Pombo said. "It's almost impossible."

To avoid paying a mortgage or rent, he and his fiance live with his parents.

"It's all personal sacrifice on his part," said Peter Mansolillo of Duluth. "The guy has put his heart and soul into this. If he had the money or knew the right people he'd be unstoppable."

Mansolillo supports Pombo, helping with expenses and promotion. He met Pombo in 2004 while competing against him and his brother, Dr. Matthew Pombo, who's also a race car driver in his spare time. Mansolillo said he was passed by Mark Pombo in one race and then noticed sparks coming off the wall by Pombo's car.

"It was his door handle hitting the wall," Mansolillo said. "This guy is a talent. He's the total package."

Flowery Branch resident Tyler Vincent feels the same way.

He was one of Pombo's "battle buddies" in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. When they both got home Vincent worked with Pombo from time to time on cars while also serving as one of his crew members at races he could attend.

"He should already be pro. He just needs a shot," Vincent said. "It's all he ever talks about. It's all he does and he just keeps on doing it. He showed them last year when he almost won it."

In the first year of the TDI Cup, Pombo stood on the podium five times for placing in the top three. A crash in Portland ended his chances of winning the series, but he was invited back this year along with 15 other drivers from year one.

This season some tire punctures kept him from finishing races, leaving Pombo in fifth place in the series. But with a win at Road Atlanta, at what he calls his home track, Pombo has a chance to finish second overall. He's hoping that will lead to obtaining a full sponsorship or marketing partner. But he said he'll be satisfied when it's over because he knows he did everything he could to chase his dream.

"This is what I love doing and if I can make it happen, I'll make it happen," he said. "This is the last race of the season and the last year I can run in this series. I want to go out with a bang."

SideBar: If you go

· What: Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup at Petit Le Mans

· Qualifying: 6:30 to 7 p.m. Friday

· Race: 9 to 9:30 a.m., Saturday

· Where: Road Atlanta, Braselton