That’s Racin’

Sometimes you need to leave your Prius in the parking lot at Whole Foods and take your family racing.

“Hurry up,” I said, “the start is going to happen, and they’re going to do it without us.” I hoist  John up on my shoulders.   It is already dark, but I can see cars moving on the track, just beyond the shadow set off by the stands at Ace Speedway, in  Altamahaw, North Carolina.  I doubt that impatience is going to help.  I pay for our four tickets (all for $18!) and navigate through the opening.  I high step up the risers.  We get a seat behind the starter. Our feet rest on the seats one row below, and our arms rest upon the aisle one row up. Down to our left, a heavy-set woman stares at us.  She is here with her daughter.  The cars breeze by left to right.  It carries the smoke from her cigarette over our way.

Tonight, we are not apartment managers, meat processors, or research directors.  We are race fans.  The sign says “Welcome.” We are hear to smell oil, to see them go three-wide, to know what it means to feel cars at speed.

My expectations for tonight are high.  Susie, John and Rosie imagined this into reality, when they struck upon a night at the race’s as the perfect Father’s Day gift. All summer, John has been going on an on about Ace.   “We’re pretty much going to see Jeff Gordon,” he has told me more than a few times.  I don’t know what to tell him.  We are not going to see Jeff Gordon. We are not going to witness restrictor-plate models.  We are going to see Ziggy Zimmerman duel with Michael Hatley for 30 laps in the Strutmasters.Com Limited Sportsman.

That is why, as we wait in the cooling air for the Sport Limiteds, that I am glad to see a NASCAR poster pinned up to the metal fencing below the starter’s stand.  I am not sure what to say, for NASCAR is not what I’m here to see.  If anything, I am here because my kids are bright enough to know that for me, racing is bound up in a tight knot with fatherhood.

Before I was 14, my dad had introduced me to the canon of auto racing.  It was a simple thing.  Drive across a state or two, arrive among a long line of “race fans,” secure infield passes, and pitch a tent to prepare for two or three days of racing.  Some of those places include:

There were others.  That is just the highlights.  Whenever we went to Indianapolis, for example, we spent the nights watching small town tracks – we might have gone to the Gas City I-69 Speedway while we spent the days studying qualifying. Each trip involved three or four days of racing.  We camped out at night.  We took nothing but pictures.  We left nothing but footprints.

My dad may not have done everything right as a parent.  Ultimately, he did like we all do – he gave it his best shot.  One thing that he has to his credit is the time he spent camping out with me at race tracks across the Midwest.   He provided me with a first-class auto racing education – something that was in short supply in Fairfield County.

Now it is up to me.   Sure, Susie grew up in North Carolina.  She did live less than one block from Junior Johnson’s moonshine route.  But, her family didn’t go in much for racing.  Susie has been to one other track: Lime Rock Park in Lakeville, Connecticut.  That gives a novice the wrong impression.  In Lakeville, they drink chardonnay and eat brie while they watch the vintage MGs.  Lime Rock is an abstraction.

I realize as I recline against a seat made creosote-soaked railroad ties, that this raises the question “what kind of father am I?” Because John is already six and Rosie is pushing five.  They are yet to witness any Can Am, any all-night endurance racing, any USAC, let alone any Indy Car racing or Formula One.  Sure, I have changed diapers, done the bath, and received stickers, but that’s only part of the story.  There is a matter of obligation, and a matter of passion.  My dad was long on passion.

An informed observer might note the lack of any NASCAR tracks here. He or she would see a predilection for road tracks. My dad distanced himself from “the herd,” in general, and in racing in particular.

“They like to watch cars turn left,” he would offer in assessing NASCAR and its fans.  When I told him that I got the assignment to photographing at Talladega for the newspaper, he was not impressed.

“Ah, the interests of the public,” he said. “Are your editors really so compelled to sink to the lowest common denominator?  Why don’t you pitch some Formula One coverage?”

In Alabama, I think you could still sell papers if you stopped covering the extra things – the state legislature, the court system, or famine in the third world.  It is time to pack it in and become a Mommy Blog when you omit coverage of Talladega.

That support is not without reason.  I think some people get it wrong when they dismiss it as “not a sport,” “a bunch of rednecks,” or “hardly green.” It is a spectacle. Unlike some games that are never questioned as sport, (NBA basketball in November, major league baseball in Pittsburgh) it reliably provides a riveting competition.

In a good race, drivers struggle in an intimate space of ten feet or so, all the while moving along at speed.  It comes down to the corners, when the last guy to hit the brakes pulls out of the corner first.  The other day a friend said that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.  In racing, fear matters.  The fearless meet the wall.  The rest have a chance.

Am I suggesting that there is some element of holiness within racing? No.  Holiness is about being set apart.  Racing is almost the opposite – it answers to some kind of need that is deep within us.  Going fast is great.  It is a real feeling, and a strong one, and one that you don’t develop over time.  It is something that you are born with.  You discover the depth of that feeling as you live longer, from riding bikes to sledding and when you drive your own car for the first time.

The human condition is bound up in all kinds of failings.  But letting an engine open up and ripping down into a tight corner, well, it brings any kind of regular person to a new place – to a place that is at least closer to unbound.   Sisyphus might have chosen a race car, and not a rock, if he lived in America after 1960.

But, back to the race at hand.

The first race is a bunch of old Fords, gently running along the track at 40 to 45 miles per hour.  Before we have settled onto the wooden steps (no back, just steps), Garland Ricketts, of Halifax, VA, has climbed out of his 89 car, removed his helmet, and paused to make sense of his victory.

“Boy, my back wasn’t going to last much longer,” he said, leaning into a microphone held by a chubby announcer in a red shirt. “I’ve been running that car for 35 years, and it is still going!”

Indeed, Garland was 74 years old.  I am not sure if he was going to be allowed to drive himself home on the interstate. Some would suggest that fans mistakenly make heroes out of drivers.  Yet, if a small town track can make a hero out of a garage mechanic, at least for a few moments on a Saturday night, is it really that bad?

I’m having a moment. Gee, maybe this Ace Speedway isn’t so great, after all. Maybe I’ve lost my one true chance to sell my kids on racin’.  Maybe we would see better racing at the Whole Foods, when they are having a discount on rain barrels and a free hatha yoga consultation. Maybe we should get a Prius.  Maybe.

Nah, that would be crazy.

That’s about when I am shaken from my stupor by the second race.  I hear the clawing thunder of cars grabbing asphalt.  Rosie’s eyes turn left, but she buries her head into Susie’s torso. The Sport Limited field makes the fourth turn and approaches the start. Now, the wind i shot. Something is burning. The noise is so loud. I would scream but no one would hear me.  I can feel my forehead vibrate.

I am overcome. My eyes get hot, I feel myself short of breath, and I start to tear up. I can feel my dad when I feel those cars.  It has been almost seven years.  I suppose my grieving lasted a few years, but now, those feelings are largely settled somewhere inside me. Except right now, they have been let loose.

The important thing about those memories is that they were generated by a dad who wanted to share something that he was passionate about.  He wanted to share it with me.  In doing that, he didn’t just tell me that he loved auto racing.  He told me that he loved me. I can still feel that today.  Right now, my body is reacting.

This story could end here, and it would be worth telling.  But it would be a mistake to let it end there.  Keeping all of that racing bottled up would be a waste.  The only genuine response to a feeling for racing is to pass it on – to share it.

That is why this story seems destined to lead into a moment with John, where I put my arm around his shoulder and we listen for the sound of motors.  Motors unrestrained by catalytic converters.  Motors running on high octane fuel.

Except that John is looking pretty tired.  Maybe it is the end of his second week of school, or the swimming that he did in the afternoon, but he is slumping into the crook of my arm.

Come on, John!  You are getting in the way of how my story is supposed to turn out.

That is when, from the other side of my viewpoint, that I see Rosie jump from her seat.  Oh yeah, her fright has worn off.  Rosie has seized upon the fortunes of the green 11 car, sponsored by J.P.’s auto detailing. I can see the driver.  He fills the car with his mass.  He is wearing a Domino’s deliveryman shirt. Nevermind.

Rosie’s eyes follow him around the track.  He makes a move past the J.P. Auto Detailing 14 car. Rosie stands up on the rise.  She clenches her fists.  She lifts her arms.  Her elbows extend straight out.  From the recesses of her 31 pound body, she lets out a rumbling, gutteral “Yeaaaaahhhh!”

She has caught the fever.  We will be back.

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