Spring Sprints

Excaliber in his sinister black Corvette dominated the first race of the season. Ceegar broke, Canuck and Cowboy didn’t show, and I wasn’t even close with lap times would have put me in front last year. I couldn’t catch him, except once when he made a mistake.

The field was small to begin with and got even smaller as the weekend went on. It’s too bad, too. The weather was perfect: sunny and cool, exactly what the cars like best. Drivers too. Those who were there got a treat.

In the first race, Excaliber shot out in front and Ceegar was right in front of me, again. I tried to get him on the inside, outside, braking later, coming out of turns faster, but Ceegar was where I needed to be to get by him, then squirted away.

He was in front of me as we came down the main straight when all of a sudden, a huge billow of smoke came out from under his car. That usually means something bad just happened. Last time it happened to me, an exhaust valve ended up in my exhaust pipe.

Ceegar immediately pulled far left against the wall so he wouldn’t put oil down on the racing line. I went by on the right and after Excaliber, as if I could catch him.

That was it for Ceegar, first race of the first weekend. But he has O/C as his mechanic, and another motor back in the shop. He’ll be at Spokane in a month.

I got the jump on Excaliber in the second race, but that black car filled my mirrors for three or four laps, before he finally got around me. I think he was either toying with me or watching my line, figuring out where he would get past. And then he did and off he went, I had nothing for him.

But as I was coming around the hairpin turn at the bottom of the hill, I saw a cloud of dust on the left side of the track, then saw Excaliber facing backwards, off the track on the right. He had cooked it into the sharp turn just a little too hard.

I went by as he started to move forward, and I pushed it. I knew his tires would be full of dirt and gravel for at least a few turns, and I wanted enough room between us so he couldn’t catch me before the checkered flag. That’s how it ended up, too.

But it was luck, and Excaliber has set a new standard. One minute and a half. Well over 160 mph. Winners this year will need to turn 1:29, and I think we’ll see a 1:28 before the season is over, probably from Canuck, and maybe from Excaliber too, given his single-minded focus on getting better, going faster.

BS-ing in my trailer after the race, Excaliber says he doesn’t know how I got the jump on him, and I’m not telling him, either. “You’re just old, your reflexes are slow,” I say. I’m probably older than he is.

“And so it begins,” Merlin says laughing, or he said something like that, I’ve forgotten.

The fact is, Excaliber’s 1:29 was no fluke. He was turning them all weekend, every day, several laps in one race, he was consistent. Some of it is pure power, and that black car has a ton. But you don’t turn a 1:29 because you can accelerate in a straight line. That kind of time takes skill. Excaliber has worked hard over the last several years to improve his cars and his driving. He earned this.

Jakester and I buttoned  the race car up and left the track, but stopped at the kart track on the grounds on our way out. I needed seat time and had sorta kinda promised him when we first arrived.

“You sure you want to get whupped, since you’re probably feeling pretty good after winning that last race?” he tossed out with the cockiness of an almost-fifteen-year-old who doesn’t think he can lose driving karts.

“Perfect,” I think, so we run a quick race, the two of us and three family guys from out of town who are just out to see what its like. I was behind Jakester and we were at the back of the pack as we lined up. As soon as racing was allowed, I goosed it, got by Jakester and everyone else and just started a run.

Jake passed me about half way through, but just like Excaliber earlier in the day, he bobbled in a turn and I got by him. Again. Then he took me coming out of the last turn onto the main straight.

But we had come upon the family guys. We were starting to lap them.

Experience is worth something: Jakester got pinned behind one of them and I went by both just before the checkered flag.

Jakester’s pretty competitive. He did not like not being second, even to me.

“We need to have a rematch,” he says.

“I don’t know. It is what it is,” I say.

“I turned the fastest time,” he says.

“But you weren’t first to the flag,” I say, a bit of payback for the “attitude” when we arrived to drive. He sort of laughs, knowing that’s exactly why I said it. I can see him going over the race in his mind, figuring out what he will do differently next time, thinking, “THAT won’t happen again.”

Ceegar’s Mustang was not to be seen the next day. They didn’t even open the trailer, none of his crew was around. Too much to do, too little time. Falcon showed up to run his red Ford.

In the morning race, I got the drop on Excaliber again but my transmission was a little balky, or I was rusty, and after a few laps when I tried to use the clutch it went right to the floor, where it stayed.

Unable to get power to the wheels, I pulled off the track and coasted to a place in the shade where I figured they wouldn’t have to slow down the race until they could tow me in.

It wasn’t serious. I had pushed my recently repositioned clutch pedal so hard it jammed into the fiberglass floor, where a corner caught and held the pedal down. In the pits, I popped it out. Swede the mechanic crawled under Falcon’s car and retrieved a piece of sheet metal they didn’t need any more. I screwed to the floor behind the clutch pedal to keep that from happening again.

“Shall we put gas in?” Jakester asked after we were done changing out the tires. I was hot and sweaty and wanted to sit for a bit before the race. We hadn’t run more than a few laps in the morning, I thought, and maybe starting out a little lighter would give me something to use against Excaliber.

“No, I think we’ll run it as it is,” I said.

I was working my way up from the back of the six car pack, but after a few laps, my car started to pop coming up the hill through turn seven, and I pulled off into the hot pits. It smoothed out, so I drove slowly to the trailer. I didn’t know for sure what was wrong, but I had to admit to Jakester I thought I’d run out of gas.

“I TOLD you we should have fueled her up,” he said. Yeah. Four gallons of gas sitting in the trailer didn’t do me much good out on the track. Kiwi later asked if I knew the technical explanation to avoid embarrassment: “She started to lean out.”

I turned a time well under 1:29 in that race, but Excaliber turned a lap a half second faster. In this sport, a half second, even in a lap of 10 turns over more than two miles, is huge.

I went over to his trailer where he was talking to Canuck who had come down to watch. To them and everyone else, I acknowledged they are both faster than me. I’m kind of like Jakester: I don’t much like being second, let alone third, maybe even fourth or fifth.

Just one more lesson from a weekend of dusting cobwebs collected during six months out of the driver’s seat. The first go is always a learning experience, and I learned that I need brakes. I need power. I may need a transmission repair, and I need practice. A lot of practice.

It’s never enough, especially with Excaliber running consistent 1:29s; Canuck will probably hit 1:28 in his new car; and Cowboy has a new car with history and set up that he’s keeping under wraps until the first big race in July where he may blow everyone away.

And there are supposed to be some guys coming up from California soon who intend to show us how it’s done.

It’s Never Enough: Part II

My season started with an email from Jakester in the middle of April, saying the first race was coming up the first weekend in May.

I wasn’t planning to go. In Middleofnowhere, Oregon, the car was in the trailer where she’d been since I’d drained water out of the block last fall. I had my racing license, but hadn’t even paid my annual dues to the club. I thought I’d be race-ready by June.

Jakester was having absolutely none of that. At age 15, he’s still crew chief and decided the season doesn’t begin when we are ready; we are ready when the season begins.

“Time to suit up,” he says. That’s not a direct quote, because Jakester is more discreet than that, but that’s what he meant and I got the message. Three days later we were signed up, fueled up, tuned up and fired up.

Good thing Jakester woke me up. Cowboy called about a day after everything was finished, asking if I was going to the Spring race, and I was able to say, “Yeah, I’m ready. You?”

“Nah, it’s supposed to rain.”

Actually, I think Cowboy doesn’t want anyone to see what he cooked up over the winter. He likes to surprise the rest of us. One thing is certain: It’s going to be fierce. It may look like an older vintage race car, but that’s because it was “built down” from a much wilder machine.

Or “restored to original,” which is how Cowboy describes it. Cowboy is the best there is at getting you to think what he wants you to think just by how he says things. “Restored to original.” No harm in that, right? I bet there are a few details swept under that rug.

Cowboy doesn’t like new rules letting much newer cars into our races, into our group.  Cars that are 15 years newer than ours. Able to run super-light frames, with bigger motors and smooth tires that will allow them to stick to the track like they were glued.

“We’ll be middle of the pack. Might as well kiss this racing good-bye,” he said, thinking our popular production Corvettes, Mustangs, Camaros would be replaced at the front by cars with less appeal. He makes a good argument, but others see it differently.

“We need more cars or it’s all going away,” says Ceegar. “The fact is, those of us who love these old cars are dying off. We need to have newer cars come out. Some guys we used to race with in the past, like Irish, might even return.”

I enjoyed racing with Irish back when he was still involved. He brought to the track the finest automobiles ever made; a TransAm car, an original Cobra. And he’s a lot of fun to be around, smart and enthusiastic.

It’s true. The grids are smaller, and we’re getting older. A lot of guys aged out, or the money ran out, or they just moved on. There aren’t as many of us as there used to be.

Our cars are getting faster, too, and that concerns me a bit. Racing at 170 mph is not just 15 mph faster than 150 mph. It’s a whole different level, with different aerodynamics, different braking forces, and far more demands on a driver to act and react faster than ever when he runs out of track or out of skill or something happens on the track just ahead that he didn’t anticipate.

We’re going as fast as pro drivers did just a few years back, but we’re in machinery that was designed 50 years ago.

I hope we’re all ready for that.

Ceegar will be there this weekend. He’s 100 percent ready, his chief mechanic, O/C, has seen to that. We may not recognize Ceegar, nor O/C. Ceegar’s lost more than 30 pounds, O/C has lost more than 40. They’re on some diet that cuts portions and uses three drops of magic oil: my guess, something between snake oil and 90 weight gear lube, but you can’t argue with those kinds of results. I wonder if I can sneak some into my crankcase.

Excalibur will be there, too.

“We had teething problems last year. I was going nowhere. The first weekend, we ran a 1:31 and it got worse from there. There was one race I brought the car in and said to Stays-Late (his mechanic) that I wasn’t sure if next time I would bring it in in one piece.  After the front straight, I could stand on the brakes with both feet and not know if I was going to make it.”

This winter, Stays-Late told him, “you will have brakes.” That means Excaliber will drive again with the confidence that made him one of the top three on most weekends, but this season in a fresh and much faster car. Whew.

“I don’t need to win. All I know is that I want to do the best I can do,” he says.

Yeah. Okay. When Excaliber starts a sentence with “All I know is…” you can bet that he knows a lot more than he wants you to know that he knows.

As to speeds as high as 170 mph, he’s cautious but confident.

“I believe that’s where we’re all going. That’s something we all have to consider, and hopefully we all have what we need to do the job… Hopefully, it’s not 1,000 percent harder to go five percent faster. But there’s a world of difference between 80 and 140, or between 100 and 160.” Yeah, things that used to go by fast are now just a blur.

Most everybody thinks the rules on car preparation will be more rigidly enforced, and everybody knows that some will take advantage.

“My guess is, that at least at the July 4 race, you will find some interesting interpretations of the rules,” said Excaliber.  “But if you are a superior driver, that can make up for a lack of horsepower. I always thought the driver was an unheralded part of the equation.”

We do talk a lot more about cars than skills, more about horsepower than technique, more about setup than braking points.

The clearly superior driver of our group, by far, won’t be there next weekend at the Spring race. Canuck’s car isn’t quite ready, he says. Lots of little things remain to be done. His mechanic, Swede, is working on it, he says, but Swede has other clients too.

One of them is Falcon, and changes have been made to Falcon’s red car that he likes a lot. ‘Stang will be there in the blue Mustang that just keeps getting better and better and faster and faster. It’s not like either of them has been sitting on their hands all winter.

There are supposed to be some great drivers up from California this year, who can give any of us a run for our money. Canuck thinks they might push us a bit in Portland, but that Seattle takes longer to learn.

It’s said that Kiwi won’t just wrench and manage cars for clients, at least at the big race in July. Kiwi may drive a big-engine Corvette, and Kiwi used to be a professional racer. He intends not just to race, according to someone who overheard, but plans to qualify first with a better time than any of the rest of us.

“There are seven or eight guys who might disagree with that, who are planning the same thing,” Excaliber says. And he’s one of them. Canuck certainly is. Cowboy, always. Captain America will have a shot. Ceegar wins races, and has gotten 105 percent out of that Mustang each year for so long, he’s got to be close to 175 percent of what that car is capable of by now. I’d like to be in the hunt, too.

Seven or eight drivers in the running for first place, and any one of them could take it. A lot will depend on who did what over the winter; what new cars were built, what big changes were made to old cars, or what small tweaks were found that add up to give one of us the edge.

We’re all looking for that edge. We all live a bit on that edge, in a way. It’s not just what we do, it’s who we are. So we’ll keep doing it until we can’t, and keep looking for more.

It’s never enough.

They’re here.

It’s a new game, that’s for sure. Old cars “reformatted.” New cars built for one purpose only.

“Beater” was out there today in his new ride. A sinister black ‘69 Corvette with an intake manifold big enough to house a family of four. “Beater” is going to take on a whole new meaning if that car goes as fast as it looks.

It’s so strong he broke the piece that holds the rear “control rods.” With that much horsepower, control is mostly a suggestion. The piece is on its way to the shop and a welder. He’ll be ready.

Canuck didn’t bring his “new”  ’69. Somehow, the guys putting in the roll cage made it two inches too short. He doesn’t need the bad haircut if he happened to flip and slide on the top even a very short ways.

So he’s back with his Camaro and his attitude. He has said he expects to run up front. Today he backed that down just a bit, saying that whoever beat him would have to work pretty hard. Nobody out there in the first eight or so cars is afraid of hard work.

Falcon seems happy with how everything has come together. He and Sweden were talking things over after the session. It was mostly thumbs up.

My car went from Merlin’s directly to the track. He massaged many things, rebuilt others, large and small.  He found nearly failed u-joints and rod bearings scuffed and worn, the result of too many years of deferred maintenance on my part.

Merlin also created, using all the same parts, a point, or so, maybe more, not telling, of compression. He rebuilt the combustion chambers from the inside out, adding metal so he could take metal away, creating special shapes in the smaller volume. She sounds so different, feels  so different, it’s like driving a different car, and that’s just in the parking lot.

With new gear ratios everywhere, a little more pull here and there,  driving her will be a whole different experience.  I’ll have to relearn what I’m doing on the track, even if she looks just the same. 

But the car of the weekend has to be what Cowboy put together in the farm fields of Madras, Oregon. Madras! Oregon! It as beautiful, and ferocious as anything that’s been raced by our group, in, well, a long time. Maybe longer than anyone can remember. Not that any of the Big Bore Bad Boys spends a lot of time held back by what we used to do.

“It’s just the same, pretty much. A paint job. Freshened the motor after we threw that dry sump belt last year,” he said. “That’s all. Flares.”

But before the hood went down, I saw  what looked like a mighty big, all-aluminum block. Wasn’t he running an iron block last year? And the only thing taller than his intake manifold is the tale he tells about the car being “just the same, pretty much.”

Ceegar gets in tomorrow. We’re out on the track at 11:30. We’ll know a lot more by the end of the day.

Spokane

Ceegar just flies over the hump at Spokane. 

That’s not a metaphor. His Mustang has all four off the ground. We’re doing 120 mph at that point, maybe a dime more. I feel the drop, and can sometimes smell burnt rubber when my suspension bottoms out.

But Ceegar pushes harder, and gets airborne. Photographers with positions on the back straight that the crowd can’t get to come up to us in the pits, astounded that he flies over that hump. Literally.

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“What do you think?” Ceegar asked after a day of practice. At first I didn’t like the track and I told him so. Spokane’s really tight after that back “straight” and I never had the gears nor the tires to get through turns like that. I don’t much like threading the needle at high speed between concrete barriers, either, but that’s what we do.

George and I had left Middle of Nowhere, Oregon late the day before, got to Portland well after midnight. At 7:30 the next morning we picked up The Jakester, my 13 year-old crew chief, drove on toward Seattle to pick up the black and yellow race car at Merlin’s at 11 a.m., and then drove across Washington State to Spokane, arriving at about 5 p.m.

Whew. The week before I’d done a 1,000 mile round trip in 31 hours to San Francisco to get a daughter home from college. Averaged well over 70 mph, including stops. As much as I like to drive, that was a lot of seat time.

There was more to come. After we arrived at the track, Merlin and Ceegar’s crew chief O.C. asked if we could use my rig to get Ceegar’s TransAm Mustang down to a promotion for one of the sponsors. No problem. Even though my rig is well over 40 feet, Ceegar’s Freightliner and stacker trailer are larger still.

Merlin got some attention when he lit off that motor in downtown to get from the parking lot, where I could fit my truck and trailer, over to the dealership.

I was supposed to follow them back to the track afterwards, but traffic lights and onramps fooled me and I hadn’t followed one of my own rules about keeping Excessive, my truck, fueled for contingencies. I was out of diesel. And lost. In downtown Spokane, which has narrow-enough thoroughfares and one way streets to make a challenge out of driving a truck with trailer hauling a car worth more than my house.

And I’d had one or a half dozen too many sausages soaked in BBQ sauce at the event we’d just left. And I was keeping everyone from dinner. And it was my own fault and I knew it and I was cranky.

George spotted the gas station in the distance and we got there, just barely, took on $140 of diesel, a half-roll of Tums and found our way to the track at about 9 p.m. We left everything as it was and headed out to find something to eat. After one restaurant told us their kitchen had just closed, Ceegar treated everyone to dinner at the casino, though the waitress told us The Jakester shouldn’t really be there after 10 p.m. because even though he’s sometimes the most grown-up in our group, a 13 year-old is considered too young by the law to be around behaviors reserved for…adults.

It was time to tip over anyway.

We set up the next day and I set about learning the track. Ceegar kept saying how much fun it was, but I didn’t see it, not at first. The undulations leading to the short back straight made the car uncomfortable. The back straight itself seemed to be an optical illusion, it seemed long at the beginning but less than a breath of air later it was time to be on the brakes, hard… not hard enough! Hard! and make a sharp right turn.

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“Every turn at Spokane is late apex” I’d been told, which means you don’t even look at where the turn starts but where it feels like it will end. Hard to do, at times. But I got better as the day wore on, and began to see what Ceegar enjoyed about the track in Spokane. And the next morning, I qualified on the pole.

Ceegar came up to me afterwards with his head tipped forward, looking at me over the top of his glasses.

“I guess you like the track okay now?”

But racing isn’t just about driving and I am an absolute bonehead at times. As the first race approached, Merlin and I got involved in a discussion about politics and even though I’ve got a clock the size of a dinner plate always in view, I let time get away from me. I fumbled with straps and buckles and got to the grid after the five minute countdown.

Despite my fastest qualifying time, they made me start at the back of the pack. I was able to get up to fourth, but that was that. Feeling like an idiot, to say the least, though in fact, coming up through traffic is an awful lot of fun.

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“Jakester, maybe you should let me know it’s time to suit up 20 minutes before race time,” I told my crew chief later.

Yeah, I know, not really his responsibility, but even Ceegar’s crew chief O.C. was telling me how much time was left by then, though Ceegar joked that Merlin should get me “talking politics before every race.”

Though I don’t wear a watch, I usually know what time it is, but rarely know how much time is left. It’s how my brain works. Or doesn’t. And I always have a really hard time remembering what happened in races. Those who know racing, or athletics, say that’s a good thing and has to do with what my brain is doing when I’m on the track. I’ll take their word for it.

I know that at some point that weekend, I was behind Ceegar and a very, very fast and well-driven Porsche. In that race, Ceegar took him deep, deep into that turn at the end of the back straight, and the back wheels of the Porsche decided to change positions with its front wheels.

For a moment, I thought I was going to wear that Porsche like a smile, but I got by, and went after Ceegar.

I think that’s when FastCat blew up the brake rotor of his bright red V-12 Jaguar, maybe trying to avoid the Porsche sitting half on and half off the track. I don’t know. Earlier, FastCat had to put a diaper on the differential of the Jaguar that was leaking onto the rotors, which on a Jag are “inboard” near the differential and not out at the wheels. He left the track before I could find out if they were related.

I can’t tell you where I caught caught Ceegar, but I did.

“Like the track enough yet?” he said, afterwards.

George Folmer, a star of TransAm driving Mustangs and CanAm driving a Porsche, decades ago, was the featured speaker at dinner on Saturday night. We got his book, and Folmer signed it for The Jakester and his dad. Ceegar had Folmer sign a piece of art Ceegar had created out of fenders from Folmer’s TransAm Mustang, a car very much like the one Ceegar was driving this weekend.

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Falcon put on a show during one race. Coming out of the slight right to the main straight, there are bumps that unsettle the car. He spun right in front of the grandstand.  Falcon wondered if his shocks had been destroyed by Spokane, he and his car had dealt with far worst than that. The next day, race promoters said they hoped they had his spin on camera, it would be used to promote the excitement of Spokane races in the future.

‘Stang has all the power one can put under that hood. He had a pretty good weekend, too, but Spokane can punish as well as reward. Once at Spokane, ‘Stang tried to go around someone on the outside and caught the gravel on the edge, then the bank on the opposite side, then a large rock. He said he was glad the little building that’s there now wasn’t there then or he would have collected that, too.

Once over the weekend, Ceegar asked me about “trail braking” into a turn. I spent far too much time explaining car dynamics, feeling like I knew something, then realized he was really trying to learn whether I was brake checking him — putting my brakes on to fool him until any advantage I had could be used. Maybe he wasn’t, but he drove right up my tail pipe after that and I could never get away.

In the race Sunday morning, Porsche and I dueled. I could not escape, him, either. I tried to scrape him off on the Studebaker driven by Rex Easly (probably the fastest racing Studebaker in North America, maybe the only racing Studebaker in North America) but Porsche wasn’t fooled. He got by me once coming out of a turn but I followed him close to the next, where he bobbled. I got by him again and then shut the door and that was that. You can see that here.

cockpit photo

In the next race, Ceegar and I freight trained nose-to-tail at the start and our combined power and draft put us both in front of the Porsche.

“No soup for you!” Ceegar kept saying every time the Porsche tried to get past him. And that’s how we finished.

“You like this track, yet?” Ceegar asked, after I posted first place and fastest lap time. I had to admit, I had grown somewhat fond of the tight, undulating track at Spokane. I can’t get my wheels off the ground in full flight like he can, but I’ll keep working at it.

Merlin was the mind behind the engines that powered the cars that finished first and second. His reputation doesn’t need any more light around it, but that didn’t hurt.

After Sunday’s races, George and I put The Jakester onto a flight from Spokane to Portland where his mom was waiting, and at 4:30 p.m. after an already long day, we headed south to Middle of Nowhere, Oregon, getting home about eight hours later.

Not much got done on Monday.

The car did not come home with me. It went back to Merlin’s in Seattle. Merlin hasn’t finished finding out why what should be available in that motor doesn’t seem to be there. I’m not going to give you any numbers, or what we’re looking at, or where we hope to find power and torque. Because other people might want to know.

But I will tell you that we’d better find it, because the biggest race in the Pacific Northwest happens in about three weeks, in Seattle. Cowboy, Canuck, and Beater will all be there, with everything they’ve got, and that’s more than anything we’ve seen so far. Who knows who else will show up, from Colorado or California or someplace else?

We have to find more. It’s never enough.

corvette

Driver

I wasn’t always Spider.

But I’ve always been a driver.

That doesn’t make me the best, or anything like it. There’s many out there who are better drivers than me. That’s not what I mean, and I don’t know if I can really say what I mean, except maybe by example.

It goes as far back in my memory as I can reach. At age five, directing cabbies to the hospital so my grandmother’s wrist could be set in plaster after she slipped in a supermarket and broke it. My parents were out of town, she was addled even then, so I had to tell the drivers where we were going, when to turn. Okay, so I might be a little pushy, still.

One of the first books I ever read, once we got past “Dick and Jane” (who were responsible for many of my character flaws, I’m afraid), was called “The Red Car.” It was about an MG TC that had to prove itself against big-motored Fords in the heyday of the American hot rod.

The type was large and there were pictures, but that was in grade school. Even with the pictures, I kept trying to imagine what a “drop dead” grill looked like. I could see the grill, but had no idea what “drop dead” could mean.

When they talked about the little car being faster in the corners and able to beat the big car, I was fascinated and read that part over and over. I have a soft spot for those MGs today.

I remember sitting beside my father, handling the steering wheel when we drove to my grandmother’s house after she was moved to Oregon when she was unable to care for herself. That may be the best memory I have of my father.

There were also terrifying rides from the Oregon Coast back to Portland, he’d be drunk and it would be raining hard and the windshield wipers barely able to move the smear. He’d take stupid chances around curves and over hills. From the back seat, I couldn’t bear to watch and I couldn’t look away. But maybe that’s as good a reason as any why driving fast is second nature to me.

In my early teens, and long before getting my driver’s license, I stole my father’s car whenever they left town, sometimes when they were just out on the town, sometimes while they were just asleep, often to drive to a girl’s house (the ladder to her room was far more risky).

I learned many things on those trips, including that it’s possible, with enough speed, to coast a car up a hill and into a carport with the motor off and not make any noise.

But you only get one chance.

Once an ex girlfriend and I, we’d both “moved on” but I was giving her a ride to someplace because she asked and sometimes, even after you’ve both moved on, there are dangerous echos of what brought you together in the first place, she and I were blasting down a dark and rainy road in my 1970 Mustang with a big motor, and I said “Let me know if you want me to slow down.”

“I’ve always felt safe driving with you. No one else since, but always with you,” she said, and that was just one more lesson about seeming to go slow while going real fast that she taught me.

In college, late at night and with someone I should not have been with, I chased a BMW 2002 while driving that same Mustang over the twisty La Honda Road between Palo Alto and the coast. I caught up with it on the straights but lost badly in the curves, and never saw that car once the road really rolled back on itself.

“Why can’t you catch him?” asked the girl in the right seat, and I learned another difference between driving and arriving.

I used to drive from Portland to L.A. in 13 hours, usually to see another girl. Yeah. Sometimes I took the desert route and came in through the Mojave. Sometimes I would drive back a few days later, but it usually took longer, maybe because I was leaving the girl, maybe because it always seemed to be uphill.

Those trips back always ended at sunrise. But in the middle of the night, at a certain level of fatigue, dark shapes seem to leap across the highway right in front of the car. I never hit one, but I’m not saying they weren’t real.

They scared me nearly to death. Maybe that’s why they were there.

I sold the Mustang before I went to Asia and bought a BMW when I got back.

When I was a waiter in Portland, and it snowed while I was at work, I used to take that old BMW (which became my first real race car 20 years later) to a Safeway parking lot at 2 a.m. and throw the car sideways, first one way and then the next, always trying to catch it before it went all the way around.

There’s a “point of no return” in every spin. But if you have the clutch in and the brakes on, once past that point you may be able to power out to a recovery, of sorts. Maybe, but not until it’s had at least one go around. Could be that was another life lesson, too.

When my uncle was on his deathbed, I left Bend, Oregon in a fast car at the same time my cousin left the east coast on a plane. We both landed in San Francisco seven hours later, five hours before my uncle, her dad, passed away. The main difference was that I drove everyone to where ever they had to be over the next few days. I was the driver. Just like always.

Driving was my escape, driving was my hobby, driving was what I did. I wanted to write a book about “Driver,” but not a race book and this isn’t it. That one is about someone who is always taking others through major life transitions.

I will drive the ashes of my uncle’s son to a lake in Montana near the Canadian border this summer. I was told it can be a bad road. I told them not to worry about that.

Every one of the other guys has their story, and they are at least as interesting, or more interesting, than mine. I think Cowboy had his racing license before he had a driver’s license. He’s on a first name basis with everyone who’s raced over the last several decades. Ceegar has stories that weave into the lives of famous people, and I’ve seen the first car Ceegar’s brother ever owned, brought back from Japan new about the time of the Viet Nam War, it was sold but now sits in Ceegar’s shop.

It can be hard to get the time of day, let alone a story, out of Beater, but he’s from New York. As tough as he is, you know there’s more than one story there. Canuck may not have a story yet, but he’s writing one.

Long before Merlin, as we were building the big black and yellow car, I had several goals in mind. I wanted it to handle as much like my full-race BMW as it could, and that car was a scalpel. I wanted it to be easy to look at. I wanted it to be reliable. I always wanted it to have enough, of whatever was needed.

That’s before I learned there’s never enough. But Merlin will find what’s there and make that usable. I think deep down, beneath his magic and his talent and his hard-nosed attitude about only doing it the right way, generally recognized as “his” way, the stay right-of-the-centerline way, I think Merlin’s world is animated, and he approaches his flowers and lawn and tomatoes with the same passion he brings to machines.

Maybe we will have “enough,” maybe at least a chance when Cowboy and Canuck show up in a month and a half at the big race in Seattle, with whatever monster’s they’ve cooked up over the winter. Ceegar and Beater have been busy in the last couple of weeks, I imagine, given that neither would be happy in fourth or fifth place. I saw the tires Beater had stashed in his trailer. Tires far too big to go on the car that he was driving last weekend.

That July race ought to be something.

A week after that, this circus might head off to Road America. It would be a lot of fun to see how we rubes from the Pacific Northwest stack up against the best in … America. I can’t really afford to go, but Cowboy is on me hard, saying it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance, going there with these guys, these guys driving these cars. I would probably remember that race forever, long after I was unable to remember how much money I saved by not going.

But in the mean time, Spokane is coming up in a couple of weeks and the car isn’t quite ready and there’s other things to do.

Today I drove three hours from the desert in the middle of Oregon to a place just south of Portland where they have a world class kart track. A friend and I went around and around, 12 turns in a little over 2/3rds of a minute, around and around, finding the line, carrying momentum, balancing the Gs.

Because, as I told Merlin a couple of weeks ago, if his job is to refine the hardware, my job is to work on the wetware. No driver does it alone, but every driver is out there alone. I don’t want to be good, I want to be better. That’s what a driver does.

Not Racing in the Rain

Jakester and I got to Merlin’s about noon, right on time. I thought we’d be there a few hours, go have dinner, be ready to run the next day then race over the weekend.

That wasn’t at all how it turned out, not at all.

To begin with, we didn’t leave Merlin’s shop until after nine. Every minute of the nine hours we were there, every one of them, was a working minute. Jakester helped out a lot, right from the beginning, all the way till the end. I’d picked him up 150 miles south at 9 a.m., and we didn’t crash out to sleep until close to midnight.

Jakester is my crew chief. He’s thirteen. Years ago at Portland International Raceway, he and his dad walked by, and I saw Jakester staring at my car. I asked if he wanted to sit in it, if his dad wanted to take pictures. They were pretty stoked about that.

They came back the next year and gave me an exact model of my car, three inches long. They’d built it over the winter. I was stunned by how little things can have such a big impact. There’s no way to understand all of it, but I started to pay more attention to little things after that. There’s more, but I can’t explain what the family’s friendship means to me.

What makes anything important?

We were at Merlin’s because I wanted “more.” Even if “more is never enough.” If anyone can find “more,” it’s Merlin.

But first he had to find what was broken. The timing would not stay where it was set. My mechanic at home, Shade Tree, couldn’t figure it out, even though he had meticulously built the engine.

Watching Merlin think is an adventure. He cuts a problem into chunks. Big chunks at first, he eliminates the things easiest to look at, and fix. Unfortunately, that’s not where the problem was. By the time we started taking parts off the motor, he knew what was wrong. Shade Tree had replaced a $10 part about half deep in the engine with one just the slightest bit too small. The new part allowed things to move that should not move.

On the phone, Shade Tree was mortified. He is justifiably proud of his meticulous work, more often than not backed up by careful research. He slipped up, he said. It should not have happened, he said. I heard the embarrassment in his voice. I told him it’s not about blame.

Throughout all this, Jakester was getting stuff from the trailer, going under the car for bolts or washers dropped, scraping old gaskets off aluminum parts, putting gunk on new gaskets so they would hold.

The problem was fixed long after the sun hit the horizon. Merlin finally started on finding the “more” I was after. What we found was additional bad news: upgrades Shade Tree and I had been making over the last couple of years had taken the car in the wrong direction.

Sometimes we do the wrong things for all the right reasons. Especially if we haven’t decided on how we are going to test each step along the way.

They were costly “upgrades,” too, that over the next month will be taken off and replaced by what I had ten or twelve years ago. Good thing most of the parts were still in the trailer.

Long after Merlin told his wife to go ahead and have dinner, Merlin walked over to the wall and brought Jakester a carburetor.

“You get the Magic Carburetor Award,” Merlin told him.

As much as anything, it was a statement that Jakester was a member of a pretty small tribe, smart guys who get what they want in life because they know what that is, have the ability to reach for it and will work until they do.

Merlin recently learned a lot about horses, ones owned by one of his neighbors, he worked with the horses because he liked it. Merlin says horses know in a few seconds who you are. He likes things to be right. He combs the gravel of his drive with a harrow, plants flowers, trains his amazing dog to sit until he says otherwise.

At the track the next day, Merlin told others about Jakester, who I’d been introducing as my crew chief. The next thing I knew, Ceegar was driving Jakester around in his golf cart, telling everyone Jakester was HIS crew chief. He didn’t even offer me O.C., the guy that runs his operation and does everything before everything knows it needs to be done.

During the second round of testing on the track, another ridiculously cheap part failed, this time a piece of hard plastic the size of a cheerio. My throttle cable came off the pedal and I was coasting, trying to get off the track.

Ceegar almost hit me when he and Beater came through Turn One at 150 mph while trying to get through a pack of BMWs. I couldn’t be seen around the curve until they were right on me. They got past but so close my car rocked with the wind. I’m glad I didn’t see them coming.

Ceegar came over after the session. I’d found the problem, and Merlin pocketed the piece of failed plastic which he took back to his shop to machine one just like it but better.

“We shouldn’t have been running that hard,” Ceegar said, “going fast in traffic, during in a test session.” I said finding out what you had was part of testing, he and Beater always wanted to find out what they had, what other one had.

“That wasn’t the time and place,” Ceegar said.

Those two have been fighting it out and making each other better, and the cars better, for years. It’s probably the best rivalry out there, right now. I thanked him, but said it wasn’t necessary.

Leaning on my roll cage, Ceegar looked over and asked Jakester if he liked cars. Um, yeah. Ceegar invited Jakester, and by default, Jakester’s dad and me, over to see his collection of cars. I won’t say much about it, but there were some cars there I never even knew existed, and Ceegar was rattling off dates and build numbers and details as only a man passionately in love with his hobby can share.

Ceegar has some others cars in the South. He  keeps them there in a museum that supports an orphanage. Yeah, that’s right. There’s a lot more to most of these guys than you would ever know by seeing them hauling ass around Turn Nine, inches from the concrete wall, trying to get an advantage over the driver just a few more inches away.

As Jakester, his dad and I left the garage on the hill above the valley not far from the race track, Ceegar shouted out to Jakester he would pay him $20 more than I was paying him, whatever that was.

Of course, I couldn’t match Ceegar dollar for dollar, but what he really had to offer was priceless, anyway, and some of that I could put on the table.

The rain held off during practice and qualifying. Beater had a pretty good time, but Ceegar had a personal best, the first time he’d ever broken through the one minute, thirty-two second level. I was a third of a second faster, but wow, has he ever closed the gap.

A third of a second! In a lap of over two miles, at times close to 160 mph, 12 turns, that takes two minutes to cover, and the difference is one-third of a second! At times that just seems impossible to believe.

It’s hard to describe the feeling when tires are hooked up, the engine eager. The car talks to me. Coming hot into a turn, a feather’s touch on the brakes to keep her settled, front tires carve around the apex. Then, most of that over with, I unwind the wheel while putting  power down until the pedal is on the floor, the engine snarling then howling as she urgently leaps forward, clawing her way through space and time.

When in a series of corners, right-left-right-left, the weight of the car rolls smoothly from one side to the other, I hold her eagerness in check and it’s a dance, a Tango, just her and me, it feels like that when we’re alone.

If we’re in traffic, and we want around Ceegar or Cowboy or anyone else, we become predators, and I’m almost secondary to the task. We hunt for an opening, probe for weakness, attempt to dominate. The dance has devolved into ruthlessness.

The races on Saturday and Sunday got washed out. “Stang” was the only one in our group who went out and went fast. He ran well in the rain, even if I thought he was crazy. But he showed something of what he had. St. Vitus went out, too, but he was more cautious, maybe one or two others.

At least we had a choice. Those working the race did not. In the pits where racers waited to go out on the track, Roxanne and Karen and Scot and Becky and Fran worked the line, told us where and when to go. People worked the turn stations, with flags to communicate with drivers and fire extinguishers ready in case they were needed; others drive trucks to pick up stalled cars, or wrecks, and there was a crew with the ambulance.

I don’t know why course workers wear white, but at times I think their love of racing may be more pure than that of us lucky few in the cars. They are out there, working in the rain, at other times in ripples of heat radiating off asphalt measured at 140 degrees.

At least drivers get the adrenaline rush. Course workers do it for love of cars and the sport and if they didn’t do what they did, we couldn’t do what we do. Three times Scot had to tell me to get emergency information put on my helmet, just in case I was in no position to talk. Three times his request was erased by the rush of speed, but maybe I’ll remember next time so they can help me when I need it.

There were some bad wrecks in other groups. The passenger front of the first race car I built, a BMW 2002, was taken off in Turn Nine. I hated to see it, that car taught me how to drive. I admired the woman worker who stood at the edge of the track, signaling to drivers going too fast to slow down while safety vehicles were on the course.

At dinner, a emergency crew member told me that he always, always wears a helmet after being launched 30 feet into the air when a car hit one where he was working to help a driver.

“I’ve got daughters to take care of,” he said.

A Porsche was brought back to the pits, pretty much mangled. I heard it went into the wall in Turn 2. They may save parts but I think the car is probably gone, though I’m no mechanic.

Both drivers were okay, if not a little heart broken. It’s just sheet metal, they say, but these aren’t just machines.

Instead of racing in the rain, I sat in Beater’s trailer and we talked about moving dirt and building houses. Beater, like many of these guys, is a contractor, a builder. He knows a lot about money, he said, but that wasn’t his only goal. He loves excavation, construction, building, the planning and design. He thinks of it as his art.

He also loves the fact that 10 days after his next grand-baby is born, that infant will be upstairs in the office where Beater and his family run their business.

“One little squawk and I’m upstairs to see what’s wrong,” Beater said. Talking about it, an air of fulfillment draped across him like a shawl over his shoulders.

Ceegar looked like that too, when he was describing his family, his kids, his quiet work of helping the kids of other people. When Falcon was showing his daughter around, he introduced her as his third daughter, but she said with a smile, “but I’m really Number One.”

These guys have pretty interesting soft spots, even if some people think of them as knuckle-dragging, road racing, ground-pounding Neanderthals and the cars an unnecessary waste of precious resources.

You can bet that Beater is looking for at least one full second as I sit and write this, and for the next month Ceegar will be looking for that third of a second I had over him last weekend in qualifying. Being who they are, it’s pretty likely they’ll find it, too.

But it’s not like I’m sitting on my hands.

The weekend, the first race, wasn’t a complete bust. We solved some problems, are working on others, and we know a little bit more than we did last week about what other guys are bringing to the party. And that’s good, except for one thing. Two things, actually.

Cowboy wasn’t there. Canuck wasn’t there. Each of them has been building something very special over the winter, and nobody knows yet what that will turn out to be.

Drive it like you stole it.

Cowboy got me into this nearly 20 years ago and he keeps upping the ante every damn year. The last motor he built had compression like odds in Vegas. What, 30 to one?

When he started it up it sounded like somebody lit a string of very nasty, crackly rifle rounds. The gas wasn’t burning in the cylinders, it was popping and snapping and sounded like distilled anxiety.

One of these days something we build is just going to go too damn fast, or blow up at exactly the wrong moment, or we’ll nudge each other some place where the mistake has consequences. But until then, this is what we do. Every year it’s the same: It’s never enough.

Of course, it could be Ceegar. Seattle has a long line of great gentlemen racers going back a lot of generations. The Armstrongs, with the GT 40 and Corvette Gran Sport and the ZO6; Flannigan, who drove a BMW 2002 like he was in a whole different class than anyone else on the track. He was.

Waster, with the most amazing stable of exotics I’d ever seen. Some damn fine cars, too. Once he sent his jet back from Laguna Seca to Seattle to get a spare engine to replace one he blew up right in front of me in the Corkscrew. First time I’d spun in that car. When his replacement engine got there first thing the next morning, Waster had to buy a $15 head gasket from Cowboy. I thought Cowboy should have charged at least $100, then bought us all coffee.

But Ceegar just drives the wheels off that Mustang. And helps the rest of us, to boot. On more than one occasion he let me go down and pick through his pile of not-quite used-up tires. What kind of competitor does that? He does, which is another reason why I don’t mind being wheel to wheel with him at close to 160 mph with a left-right-left hairpin turn coming up fast.

I’ve followed him around enough turns to watch Ceegar handle the steering wheel. He doesn’t drive that car as much as point it and pull the trigger. His hands are constantly working, trying to keep that live axle pointing that impossibly eager motor in the intended direction. He could blow something up one of these days, but O.C., his crew chief is always, always on.

Could be Beater. One time, Beater lost his driveshaft. Tell you what about that: When the front of a drive shaft lets go, you don’t just stop. It drops, still attached to the rear end. If it doesn’t pole vault you, it is still spinning when it hits the pavement. Then it is whipping. Then it’s tearing into your car like God’s own power cutter, and most of that is happening about three inches from your lap and everything your lap currently contains.

Beater installed a shaft retainer after that. On the car. So did I. But Beater is by far the most improved driver out there. He and Ceegar go at it month after month, small block against small block, Corvette versus Mustang, driving each other to be faster, to be better, to beat the other.

Speaking of helping each other out, Beater gave me a transmission last year when I blew mine up. Then I blew his up, too. There was, as we say, a mechanical problem. An expensive one. I rebuilt both, gave his back to him. Who knows who will use it next.

Beater talked to me once about trading cars, plus a little bit of money. Not nearly enough money. I told him I’d need another 20 grand just to fix the things he’d cut out and thrown away, paint, etc. etc.

“But I like the way my car looks!” he said. Yeah, and leaving it like that hurts him less if he swaps paint with you. I know this frm personal experience. We’ve raced cheek to cheek, as it were. Boy he’s gotten good. I’m glad we didn’t trade. If I was driving his car and not winning, everyone would say my car was good, not me. If he didn’t win in my car, everyone would say he wasn’t that good. That’s a lot of downside.

There’s Falcon, too. Nobody nicer, and in my opinion, nobody with bigger — ballistics. Coming out of Turn Nine in Seattle, that damn red car has tasted the gravel more than once.

“Just got to ride it out,” Falcon says. Yeah, because even thinking about touching the brakes in that situation would put him nose-first into the wall at well over 100 mph. I don’t even like being behind him when he does that, cuz watching it scares me too bad.

The Swede, who works on Falcon’s car, said, “nobody can imagine what it takes to drive that red Ford that well.” Actually, I think we can. Respect is earned.

Captain America has a car a lot like mine. A ’69 big block Corvette. Red White and Blue. Sunuvagun looks like Howard Hughs. In the good years. He’s gotten so good as a driver, we all had to up our game. Sometimes I walk over to his crew trailer to congratulate him, sometimes just to steal grapes from what looks like a chef-prepared spread. Just the grapes. The sweet ones.

Then there’s Canuck. He whipped my butt last year. I’d beat him more often than not in year’s past, if not in Seattle then at least at my home track in Portland. Not last year. His Camaro sounds like it’s running a NASCAR motor.

He has to be revving it more than nine grand, so I think it is. It defines the term “Screamer,” at least in terms of cars. Canuck has always had an “in” with Joe Gibbs Racing. Maybe he’s downstream on some engine enhancements, too.

To top that off, Canuck is building a ’69 Vette, like mine. He might not be catchable for the rest of my racing days. He’s building the car out of the wreck of one of our favorites. Originally it was known as “The Dick Bech Car.” Black and menacing. Dick retired when he was 70 something, a promise made to his wife, I think. After a couple of owners it was raced by Big Mac, another Seattle racer. Fastest on the course, by seconds!

Until one weekend. I hated the decision the racing committee made to make the very first outing on the track a qualifying round. I said so at the time, too. We’d been working on the cars, it was the biggest race of the year. We’re always tweaking. We leave things off. Everything isn’t always tightened. And even if it is, we are not at our sharpest for at least the first couple of sessions.

There were lots of theories about what happened to Big Mac when he went through Turn One at over 160 miles an hour. There’s a hump there, cars get light. As Cowboy said once, “There’s a bit of a pucker until your tires touch the ground again.” We don’t actually get air, but it feels like it. You absolutely do not want to touch the brakes in that spot, or have anything break.

I’ve forgotten how many times they said Big Mac flipped. When I came through the turn, his car was on the berm just off the pit entry road. Was it on its top? I don’t remember. I do remember looking at the car before they covered it up after they brought it back to the pits. It was a mangled tangle of steel and fiberglass.

Big Mac suffered a lot of headaches for a long, long time, and he never raced again. Probably doctor’s orders.

Canuck is rebuilding that car, and that car means a lot to us, for a lot of different reasons. The trouble for me is, Canuck has been racing karts all over the West Coast for the last few years, and he has sharpened his skills to nearly a professional level. He is now the best driver. Plus, he can afford to put anything he wants into any of his cars. He may be unbeatable in anything he drives. I guess we’ll see.

Some of it depends on what Cowboy has come up with over the winter. The most devious, the wiliest, and smartest racer out there, he’s been racing a lot longer than the rest of us, too, and knows every trick on the track. He can give a faster car behind him exactly six-too-few inches to pass, on either side. I’ve seen him leap curbs for position.

A few years back, as soon as the green flag fell, (“You wanna watch their elbow,” he told me) he went by about 12 cars before we got to the first turn, passing on the inside next to the wall. I was going to do the same thing, but he beat me to it and was exactly where I wanted to be. I got pinned behind the slugs. I guess there was room when he went by, but a few drivers didn’t think so. There was definitely no place to go if anyone else decided to move over there.

Cowboy got a talking to for that one. They say a race isn’t won on the first lap, but but it sure can be lost there. We laughed for days.

Last year, his car was crazy fast, and this year, rumor has it that his new tires are so wide they could lie flat on their side and hold up a usable coffee table. Which means they can’t be legal because they’re the same size as mine, but never mind that.

Some people think this is a parade. Or, as officials tell us before every race, “The cars are the stars.” True enough, there’s no prize money. That doesn’t mean we don’t race.

Oh. Then there’s me. I drive a big block corvette, black and yellow. Sexiest car out there at times, in my opinion, but maybe that’s just because I designed it. It even has its own fan club. That’s right, my car has a fan club.

Well, I help out with that. I’ve won a few races over the years. To the point where everybody thought I was cheating. How would winning races prove I was cheating, unless they were all cheating too?

I even had an ex-girlfriend say once when she was mad at me that the only reason I won races was that I built a bigger motor than everyone else and just drove away. But she didn’t know racing much better than she knew me. The guys I race with know how I drive. Sometimes I wonder what she’s been up to.

I don’t have the biggest motor, certainly not the most expensive, not in that bunch, and I don’t think my 427 is even close to the most powerful. But I’m not going to say more, because those guys are really competitive, when we’re not helping each other out, and each of us has beat the other and would like to do so again.

You can call me Spider.