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.