The track wins one

Chalk one up for Portland International Raceway, PIR, the track in Portland.

Hell, give credit where credit is due. There’s a reason most fans head down to the chicane to watch a race. That’s where the action is, or is likely to be. That was certainly the case at the Columbia River Classic over Labor Day. Turn One is where it came down.

We’re humping along at a buck fifty or so (150 mph) on the main straight past the start finish line, then we come to Turn One, a nearly 90 degree right turn, followed immediately by an even sharper left at Turn Two, then quickly by the more easy right hand Turn Three. The pavement changes from asphalt to concrete to asphalt right in the middle of all this.

Turn One is a place where you can gain an advantage. It’s also where advantage can be lost in the blink of an eye.

For Saturday morning qualifying, the track was sloppy with rain showers on the west end and barely dry on the east. I had new brake pads to bed in, a type I had not run before. The ones I liked had been cracking because the backing plate was too thin. The new ones worked, but pedal feel was different. They bit later, and a little more softly.

Giving up on a better time as the rain worsened, I came in after a Porsche looped it in Turn Seven doing little more than subdivision speed. Fireball, in the gold Holman Moody Mustang, qualified first, Canuck was second. I was back in the pack at ninth or so, behind the Rex Easley Studebaker which let’s you know how I dialed it down.

After clawing my way to third, I had the best seat in the house watching Canuck and Fireball go at each other. My memory of any one race is always a little vague, because I’m not in a remembering frame of mind when I’m driving, but when one was in front, the other worked at him like a dog, going high, going low, waiting until the last second to brake and then trying to hold on.

Fireball especially reminded me of a terrier, attacking left and right, on the edge and a couple of times over it and in the dirt but always keeping control of the Mustang. He’s a great driver, better than me and at least the equal of Canuck. It was quite a show.

Fireball eventually dove beneath Canuck going into Turn Seven, and was able to get away clean. I was inching up as whoever was in the lead drove a little defensively, but I ran out of time to make a move. All three cars seemed about equal in horsepower, or horsepower to weight, or whatever ratio you want to use that defines acceleration. Nobody was going to just run away from the other two.

This weekend would be decided by something else.

The next morning, the three of us took off. This time, I was in a little better position to make my presence known. My turn to play dog. I don’t remember if I passed Canuck at the end of the back straight or Turn Seven, but was ahead of him and had Fireball in my sights.

We were coming down the main straight and I thought I saw a chance. I moved to the right, inside, glanced left as I went by and saw I was ahead.

A glance at that speed can take more time than you have. I was planning to brake late and hard, but the new brake pads bit a little later, and now I was on the edge of traction and on the edge of the track, on rumble strips where friction is low. I started to turn in, wondering if the front tires would hold.

It’s hard to say if I heard or felt the solid contact. Fireball’s passenger door and my driver’s side rear wheel tried to occupy the same space. After contact, I barely made the turn as he went through the chicane and squirted out to a fifty yard lead. Canuck got by me on the way to Turn Three as I struggled to find the right gear.

The race ended just as it started, One Two Three. Officials were at my trailer before I had my helmet off.

“What happened out there?”

“I made the pass, came in a little hot, he probably had already started to turn his wheel, we had contact. Fireball did nothing wrong,” I said. I didn’t think I had either.

Irish had the whole thing on video. It looked like we just came together in a bit of paint swapping, but his passenger door had a good size dent as well as a round doughnut of black from my back tire. A chunk of wheel flare was missing from Yellow Jacket.

I told the Mustang’s owner that his driver did nothing wrong (Fireball, a one time national champion in Spec Miata racing, is the “shoe”). I told Fireball the same thing. From their response, I’m not sure either of them felt the same about me but they were gracious enough, and that’s another conversation.

There were some in each camp who felt pretty strongly that the other driver was at fault. “You were ahead. His door contacted your rear tire, end of story,” said a driver who had been penalized in the past for a similar incident.

“We’re not going there,” I said. “He did nothing wrong.”

We both had options, true enough, but decisions made early don’t always work out as planned. As they say of flying airplanes, hitting the ground is what kills you but the mistake was taking off with too little fuel. Or misreading a weather report. Flying and racing are risky, and sometimes things happen.

That was the final official conclusion. A “racing incident” and no one at fault. They even let Fireball claim the victory after going right on through the Chicane, which was fine by me. It meant we had another equal start for what was going to be the last race between the three of us that afternoon.

My crew chief, Jakester shagged some black duct tape from Cowboy to fix the rear wheel arch with some help from Mule, who built Yellow Jacket 14 years ago. Then Jakester put on a new set tires I’d bought that morning from another racer who wasn’t going to make it out on the track this weekend. We were ready, and I realized, again, how indispensable my 16 -year-old crew chief has become.

While they worked, I wandered away from the emotion surrounding the car. I’m not a fan of drama, and there was too much of it. Irish walked me about the paddock as I processed that morning’s contact and worked myself back into racer mode, refocused on the joy of driving.

Canuck got the lead at the start. Cowboy in his beautiful ruby red ’67 Corvette, blasted ahead of both me and Fireball. He badgered Canuck for a lap or two. One thing about Cowboy: if he doesn’t want to let you by, you won’t get by. He can make his car 12 feet wide without seeming to do anything. But he’s also willing to let others race their race, and doesn’t hold anyone up just for his own finishing position. Eventually Fireball slipped past him, and then I did too.

I don’t know where I squeezed by Fireball, though wish I did. It may have been the wide right hander Turn Seven, it may have been Turn Ten. He went into the dirt on Turn Nine, on the outside of the back “straight” that is really one long, really soft sweeper. Maybe that’s where. All I have in my mind are snapshots.

But somewhere in there, Fireball was called in off the track for flames coming out his header. “As if they’d never seen a backfire,” someone said later. He went back to the paddock, but he was behind when that happened, and my eyes were already focused on Canuck, who was in front, where I wanted to be.

I couldn’t out-pull him on the straights. There were places we weren’t separated by more than a foot. Our cars were evenly matched. But Portland is my home track and maybe I have a few more laps there than he does. It’s also really tough driving while having to look in your mirrors and keeping another driver behind you. Eventually, I passed him going into Turn Ten, I think, but that isn’t where the race was won, or lost as the case may be.

We were coming down the main straight, just as hot as we had all weekend, each of us knowing there was only a lap or two left in the race. As we headed to Turn One of the chicane, I was on the left, he was on the inside where I’d been when Fireball and I got together.

I’d been watching Canuck from behind all weekend, and knew where he braked. I decided to apply my brakes later. In racer talk, I decided to “take him deep,” as I’d tried with Fireball before our contact that morning. But this time, I was on the outside where the driving line was softer and traction more secure.

At the last possible second I squeezed the brake pedal with increasing firmness, which the new pads seemed to especially like. Behind me and with a view of my brake lights, Canuck held off even longer hitting his brakes. As he whistled past me, I said out loud, “I don’t think so.”

He went by, but then had to hit his brakes and turn into Turn One at the same time. His wonderful car “Alice” decided to obey the laws of physics rather than Canuck’s late request. They spun 360 degrees into the Chicane.

I drove the rest of the race one eye on my mirror until they threw the checkered flag.

People came over to the paddock and thanked us for the show. Cowboy walked up, still in his driver’s suit, and said, “THAT was a race! I knew you could get by him!” It meant a lot. After all, Cowboy got me into this craziness more than 20 years ago. I’ve learned a lot from him, on and off the track, in the years since.

We push ourselves and our machines and each other to the limit, but we don’t set those limits as we scramble for tenths or even hundredths of a second, a chance to beat the other guy. Time itself sets limits, as does a track that dictates what we can and cannot do where. I give this one to the track in Portland.

Twenty years of racing. That’s a long time. I should probably retire while I’m still able to drive near the front. But then Cowboy said before I drove back home, “You got your hotel room in Sonoma yet? It’s only a few weeks away. And, you’re going to Indy next June. Don’t even think about not going.”

As if it’s never enough.

About Erik Dolson

Erik Dolson is a writer living in Oregon
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