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.

A Fast New Season

The Jaguar went sideways just after the hump of Turn 1, hit the bank, went airborne, came down on its nose, flipped end for end, then rolled. That’s what a driver saw from another Jaguar close behind.

In just a few seconds, a newly-built race car, driven by a novice in his first race, became a pile of barely usable parts wrapped in mangled aluminum, its driver sent to the hospital.

Bad stuff happens at over 150 mph, and some of us are hitting the mid-160s.

Canuck has seen worse. Hell, Canuck has been through a few off-roads himself in Seattle. But a few years ago “Alice,” Canuck’s new Corvette, suffered the same fate as the Jaguar, and at the very same place on the track. Its then-owner was the fastest and probably the best driver in our little group, like Canuck is now. He was hospitalized and hasn’t raced since.

The driver of the Jaguar, rumored to be unconscious when workers got to him, just suffered a couple of broken ribs according to word passed around in the pits.

Canuck was spooked. He and I agreed that having a qualifying session as the first session on the track is a really bad idea.That’s when the former owner of Alice got hurt, too. Qualifying is even worse after a winter layoff; Drivers are out of shape, cars may not have everything tightened down after working on them over the winter. Jumping in and trying to qualify near the front is a bad way to start a new season.

But nobody asked Canuck or me what we thought of the schedule, so we run when they tell us to run. Irish and I had been driving all over the Pacific Northwest to wrap up other commitments: close to nine hours on Thursday, then left Portland late on Friday and didn’t get in to our hotel until 1:30 a.m. Saturday morning. It was a slog to get everything put together by the time that 9:30 session came around.

I didn’t see the wreck. I’d come in early to find out what was wrong with my motor, which had a bad stutter and no water temperature showing on the gauge.

The wreck shook Canuck up, so he said, and he sat out the first race on Saturday, just to gather himself together. That’s the only reason I won, and if the drag boat motor in Excalibur’s black Stingray hadn’t blown up as he was trying to catch up, I might not have.

A lot of motors blew over the weekend. There were long streaks of oil in several places at different times where one car after punched a piston down throughout the bottom of an oil pan, or a rod out the side of the block.

Hey, the cars we’re racing are 50 years old. Swede did a great job building up Alice for Canuck. Just like Mule did a tremendous job putting Yellow Jacket back together after I blew the rear end last season, and broke trailing arms the year before. But there’s only so much that can be done with 50-year-old technology that was current when family telephones had no screen and sat on a table in the hallway.

Or drivers who grew up waiting a turn to use them. We are getting older, health issues dog us now, eyes and ears and immune systems failing faster than some of us get around the track.

Starting near last, Canuck worked his way up from the back of the pack on Saturday afternoon, and was posting the best lap times. With entries down, they put four-cylinder cars into our group, or us into theirs, which made for challenging racing. Still having trouble with my air-fuel mixture, I was rusty as a shipwreck on the beach. Still, it was a win. Canuck ended up third.

There was a new car, actually one built a few years back but just returned to the paddock. Quicksilver is a mid-year Corvette boasting another 427. Piloted by an experienced driver, formerly of a Mustang, he was damn fast for his first time out in this car.

Sunday belonged to Canuck, though I did give him a challenge in the last race of the day. He was way out in front when a yellow flag came out, then the pace car so they could bunch up the racers as they hauled in another of the four-bangers that blew up.

My engine was finally running well, thanks to Mule, who noticed the rear float bowl on my carburetor was over-full. Merlin came over and adjusted it. Finally, she was running clean.

I was right behind Canuck as we waited for the disabled car to be hauled to safety. As we came to Turn Nine, I saw that the yellow flags weren’t out. It was a race! But Canuck didn’t register that fact until I hit the throttle and flew by him.

He went after me. I wasn’t going to shake him, so I did everything I could to stay right where he would need to be to get by me. Cowboy is the master at making his car 15 feet wide, but I kept it up for the next several laps. Then I lost concentration coming in to Turn Eight on the final lap. Canuck got to the inside, and I decided not to chop him off or send him into the dirt, so it was a drag race to the flag.

I hit the gas too hard. The magic motor Merlin built responded in an instant. I actually needed less to do more, and spun the tires for just a moment too long. Canuck beat me by one-third of a second to the checkered flag.

It was disappointing, but a better race than it would have been if Canuck hadn’t fallen asleep. Irish said it was exciting. Mule thought I’d let him by on purpose, but that isn’t so. I apologized to my crew chief Jakester, but he said, as he usually does, that we did good for the weekend. Smartest 15-year-old I know.

Walking back from the timekeepers tent, with proof in hand that I hadn’t done my best, Irish said something about the friendship and mutual respect she’d seen over the weekend.

“This is my tribe,” I said. “Even though I only see them five or six times a year, I’m more comfortable with these people than with anyone else.”

The first race of the season is a time to shake off the cobwebs, rediscover the limits of what we can do. Or, in the case of the Jaguar, find out what we can’t. Merlin asked if I would consider spending a little time and money for a minor change that might make just a little bit more of what we all want. As if I didn’t have trouble already getting power down without spinning the tires.

Then today I get a call from someone who knew someone who might want to buy my race car, something I’ve been thinking about for a couple of years. Maybe I should accept that I’ve had a pretty good run. Better to go out near the top, rather than stay too long, right?

I asked Irish what she thought. As she saw last weekend with the Jaguar, and other cars  towed in on the hook, this is not a hobby without risks.

“I’ve only just met these people, but I’m not ready not to see them again,” she said, but carefully letting me know that it was my decision. Did I expect anything else?

By the next race, Excalibur will have a new motor, Quicksilver will have even more time under his belt, Alice will be better sorted. Those guys have got some serious juice. Cowboy will be back with everything he can bring, Captain America has a new engine, too. There were photos shown of Ceegar coming through Turn Five with two wheels off the ground. He was missed, but he’ll be back.

“A bit more?” Merlin asked, without using exactly those words. Even though I had too much “more” already, last weekend, for my skill level? Order the parts, Merlin, and I’ll order some new tires, and brake pads, too.

Of course I want more. It’s never enough.

Season over

First things first: Fireball, driving the Holman-Moody Mustang, kicked ass.

Not just mine. Fireball beat Excalibur, and Alice, too. He had the heat for the last weekend of the year.

A lot of qualifications could be put on that. Canuck’s car Alice was in her first race. There was sorting out to do. Canuck turned in lap times in Alice that were faster than Fireball, but with one mistake made (right in front of me) and then  a nearly disastrous mechanical failure on the main straight (right next to me), Canuck didn’t catch the Mustang. Excalibur ran hard, but… I don’t know what happened.

I turned in the fastest lap time of the weekend, a new personal record and maybe one for our group, I don’t know, but that doesn’t matter. I had mechanical issues all weekend which could all be traced back to the junction where brakes, clutch, shifter, gas pedal and steering wheel input all come together.

Driver.

I consistently displayed mediocre skill, not nearly good enough behind the wheel of a 160+ mph race car on the challenging course of Pacific Raceways.

Skill is where Fireball won the race, with a fast enough car that did not have mechanical problems all weekend, or if it did, they were dealt with and fixed by the owner and crew and were not an issue. Even though any of us could have caught him, not one of us did catch him and he won. He deserved each win and they deserved victory, and that’s all there is to say about that, at least from my point of view.

My point of view was from the side of the track. Which is where I was after I bobbled a shift coming into the fastest turn on the course. Which caused me to let the clutch out with the engine running too slowly for the gear I was looking for. Which had the same effect as pulling the pin of a hand grenade where power from the transmission changes direction to the rear wheels.

Which made a really ugly noise.

What’s worse: I’d worked this season on not doing that. I practiced not doing that over and over in my street car. I didn’t spend enough hours practicing in the race car, however, and  with other cars trying to be where I wanted to be when brake lights come on at over 150 mph and about three coats of paint separating us, old habits surfaced.

Bad habits. Expensive ones.

I’ve had a piece just like the one that broke on my “trophy shelf” for two years. It’s broken in the same way. This is not the first time this has happened. Nor the second. To say I was… “disappointed with my driving”… would be an understatement.

That said, Swede and StaysLate came over to my paddock where the tow truck left me. That would be Swede, builder of Alice, and StaysLate, builder of Excalibur’s Corvette: The guys who built the cars for owners who can usually be counted on to beat me, or make me work real hard for a win. My top competitors.

They spent two hours on their backs under my car while it was on jack stands less than two feet off the ground, replacing a rear end that was stubborn coming out of the car, putting in a spare, so I could go out and try to beat the racers they work for.

To those who believe what we do is nothing more than testosterone unleashed, I say, every time I get around these guys it feels like I’ve been reunited with my tribe, and with what that means in terms of friendship, common values, and camaraderie. I was humbled.

“This is amazing, I really can’t thank you enough…” I say.

“You’d do the same,” each reply to my clumsy “thank you.” Yeah, I would, but that doesn’t diminish appreciation.

I drove off looking for someone to put brand new tires on wheels for this last weekend. Nothing left to save them for. So I wasn’t there for most of the work, but several people came up to me to say what an amazing job Jakester, my 15 year old crew chief, did shagging tools and working his butt off for the mechanics, staying focused, staying available.

Early the next morning, Excalibur asked Jakester if he was in college yet, knowing he wasn’t more than 15, but Excalibur is always —always — thinking ahead.

“When you get out of high school, you’ll have three choices: Military, college, or going to work. You come to me after you graduate, and I’ll give you a  job, and with that job I’ll give you an education that’ll set you up for the rest of your life.”

“He means it, Jake,” I say, and Jake nods and says, “I know.” Bellingham is a pretty cool place. I think Jake might like it there, too, but that’s a ways away.

Ceegar reaffirmed to Jakester’s Dad that he was going to get Jakester and his brother into a driver’s ed course put on by a former racer, a guy Ceegar knows, who lost his own son to a traffic accident.

Jakester has earned a lot of respect from these Type Triple AAA personalities, everyone of them an entrepreneur, every one self-made, every one of them tough and smart and savvy, and obviously, risk takers but percentage players. They see someone worth investing in.

Hey, I’m just glad to be Jakester’s driver.

I’d worked my way up to fourth, behind Canuck and Excalibur and the Mustang, but in the next heat, I make a mistake and let some slower cars get by me on the first lap. They say no race is won on the first corner, but I don’t know if that’s true. Sometimes, letting the pack sort out can have consequences, or I get lazy, or maybe too confident I can run leaders down later. Not good.

I’d almost caught up but was running out of time. All of a sudden, I see a yellow flag. Rocket Scientist was coming out of Turn 8 and into Turn 9 when he missed a shift.

The back of his GT 40 went one way, the front another, which happened to be into the wall at the grand stand. The front of his car disintegrated and he slid to a stop just on the outside of Turn 9.

I was chasing somebody, I don’t remember if it was the Mustang or Excalibur or Canuck, but when I saw the mess and people standing near the wreck and parts all over the track, I hit the binders and slowed down.

There were people out there. I wasn’t going to catch anybody now.

Fortunately, Rocket Scientist was okay, even if a little subdued. “I had just about enough time to say ‘Oh noooo…’ he said later.

“He’s not insulting anybody, so he must still be a little shook up,” said one of his crew members, who won’t be named.

I almost caught the Mustang in the race on Sunday, but Canuck had caught up with me after erasing his own mistake, a spin between the tight right and left hand turns of 3A and 3B as we came down the hill. We race close and just came out on the main straight when I saw something fly off his car. We were side by side, concrete walls we had to thread through just ahead, when Alice skewed hard to the left, then back.

I didn’t know if Canuck was going to smack me, and even now I don’t know how he managed to keep Alice under control. A half shaft failed.

I thought about going down the escape road, but couldn’t watch Alice, see down the escape road, and did NOT want to took at the concrete barrier protecting workers (the car follows your eyes). But Canuck brought Alice back under control as I kept going, and I raced on.

Later, Canuck’s girl, Shoil, normally completely cool, showed just a slightest bit of dissipating adrenalin. She saw the piece come off, she saw his car slew sideways. She knows we’re not playing horseshoes out there, right?

I caught up with the Mustang, dropped back a bit when I ran out of talent, caught up again. We were so close, even Jakester wondered if we’d had contact. I had a chance to get him, planned where I would take him, was almost there on the last lap and then…

… the shifter had been feeling pretty rough, and there were noises I was not used to, I attributed those to different ratios that replaced ones I was used to when we fixed the car and I was… SO CLOSE! …

… I ignored them to get the Mustang… and then…

… smoke filled the cockpit as we headed up the hill. For a split second I thought about ignoring it, “SO CLOSE! LAST LAP! HALF A LAP!”

Then, inexplicably,  I became rational, and decided enough was enough, and started looking for some place to stop that might have a fire extinguisher. Possibly the best decision I made all weekend.

Fortunately, smoke didn’t become fire. Fiberglass really gets burning once it hits kindling temperature, and fire suppression systems make a mess. We’re tied in there pretty good in case the car stops suddenly against something hard. One thing more scary than climbing out of a burning car, is not climbing out of a burning car.

I made it back to the paddock where we lifted the cover off the rear deck and saw where the spinning drive shaft burned its way through the tunnel between the seats and into the passenger compartment. At least it was still connected on each end. If it had come apart, there are other consequences best not to think about.

That was that, for us: end of race, end of weekend, end of season. Rained out the month before, broken suspension the month before that, the season kind of sucked. But this race was the worst, because there were no excuses. Not really. It was on me. Bad technique led to mechanical failure.

So I apologized to Jakester for not doing my best. But he was having none of it.

“You did fine. You would have (eaten their lunch) if nothing happened to Yellow Jacket. Good weekend…” he responded.

Whoa. When in hell did he grow up? He has good parents, that’s most of it, of course. Jakester’s Dad came up for the weekend to help out, and found himself buried in praise for his boy. His mom would have been there too, but she’s president of the football booster club at Jakester’s high school and was in charge of some concession sales for the weekend. That figures, right?

So, it could have been worse.

I also got to spend time with Fox…no, really!… a woman I met who… well… hmmm… enjoyed her time at the races, and … um… er… makes me feel like I’d like to spend more time with her.

All sorts of time: time sitting, time talking, time laughing, time listening, time planning, the kind of time you spend with someone who… quality time… oh hell, enough of that. Who knows what’s next?

It’s hard to know how anything will turn out. Things break, things get fixed, you try hard and sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. There’s lots that’s out of our control. You focus on doing what you can do, and accept the rest. Right?

There’s only one thing I know for sure.

It’s never enough.

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.

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.