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.


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.

Little Things

Jakester and I had high expectations after Seattle, where we’d set three personal best times and a new lap record for our group, according to some who’ve been around. We were headed to Portland, after all, and Portland is “home.” I’ve been running cars at Portland since the 1980’s.

The Portland race was being run by a new promoter. SVRA knows what they’re doing, and has the resources to do it. Still, there will be “discussions” when a new way of doing things governs a herd of “Triple Type A” personalities.

Canuck stacked up the Camaro, “Roxanne” in Seattle, and his new Corvette isn’t finished. But most of the rest of the “Bad Boys” showed up, and there were some folks we hadn’t seen before from out of state, and the TransAm grid, mostly from California. And Fireball, driving the gold Mitchell Mustang from even farther out in the weeds than me and Cowboy.

The Mitchell boys are still pretty fired up about the Ford vs. Chevy rivalry from the 1960s. They make it a little like Hatfields and McCoys, in that some things are hard to let go. They always accuse me of running a huge motor when I beat them, and I didn’t appreciate it much when they sprayed oil all over the track in front of my car, and on the faceshield of my helmet, a couple of years back.

Last time we were together, with Looser the owner as driver, not Fireball, the Mustang  got tangled up with Excalibur and Ceegar, doing some damage. The year before, Fireball contacted Canuck. Stuff happens, right? But stuff seemed to follow that car around.

Last week in Seattle, Yellow Jacket was hard to start once. Merlin was standing right there, flipped off the fuel pump, which left enough juice to spin the motor to a start.

“We’d better put another starter in the trailer, just in case,” he said.

Normally less than six hours from Seattle, it took more than 8 hours to get home. Two days later, Mule, my mechanic, came up to my place to put in the new starter. We didn’t want to take the chance it would strand me on the starting line.

I said maybe we should put the old one in the trailer as a spare.

“You could, or get a new one for the trailer. Do you want to take a chance that your replacement is no good?” asked Mule.

Good point.

Two days after that, we were in Portland. Montana Mustang and Montana Mom saved us a spot next to them, so Jakester and his dad and me set up and changed the oil and were ready to follow the SVRA type of schedule.

Instead of three days of racing, we practiced twice on Friday, qualified on Saturday morning, had a race Saturday afternoon and another on Sunday morning.

Montana Mustang was not happy with the new schedule.

“I came to race, not drive around,” he said.

I could see his point. It’a a long way from Montana. It bugged him all weekend. He was still fighting some brake issues, too.

Montana Mom aksed if Jakester and his dad and me would be around later for sandwiches. Like she had in Seattle, she fed us lunch all weekend, and would only let us contribute fresh fruit to the feed.

“Somebody has to make sure you boys have something to eat besides cookies and burgers,” she said. Thanks, Mom.

Family guy was pitted right next to us. Maybe because he owns a tire store, he noticed that one of the tires on my trailer had started to split because of age and time in the sun. He could see the steel belts. Jakester and I got out the spare, and made ready to change it. I’d lost a tire on that trailer on my way back from Seattle in the spring, probably due to the same thing. This would be the year I bought six new trailer tires.

It’s the little things.

After the driver’s meeting before the event, I watched a guy from Seattle angrily harangue the race promoter about one of the tech inspectors, who had required the electrical cut-off switch on his car to cut off power to the fuel pump (for emergency crews in case of accident).

He seemed to be arguing that a fuel pump pumping high octane gas into a potentially explosive situation wasn’t a bad thing. But then it became clear it was the way the inspector said this would not be allowed, apparently.

Culture clash. Or maybe just communication difficulties. I try to steer clear of that kind of thing.

Ceegar, who has what we think is a legal TransAm car, has been “disinvited” to play with that TransAm group. Like a number of the “Bad Boys” from the Pacific Northwest, he doesn’t necessarily think winners should be decided in private before the race begins. We don’t show up to drive in a parade.

OCD is Ceegar’s crew chief, and just about as tenacious as his name implies. He talked to folks running the weekend. They didn’t object to Ceegar going out with the Transam boys during practice, but said it was up to the TransAm folks. OCD went to talk with them. They said it was up to the TransAm “boss.” He wasn’t around. So, nobody said, “no.”

Ceegar waited in the pits when the TranAm group went out onto the track, then went to the startling line and was waved onto the course, with “permission.”

He cut through the field like he usually does, eventually catching the lead car.

“They didn’t like that so much,” he said with a smile after the race.

He basically stood on the toes of the race official who Ceegar thought took too much delight in delivering the reprimand, and confided that smirking would not be conducive for employment in Ceegar’s company.

Or something like that.

For a half-hour.

Later, when Ceegar’s Crew Chief “OCD” went to talk things over, the official said he never intended to speak with Ceegar again, not in this lifetime.

Culture clash.

Fireball came over after qualifying to say I had the car to beat.  He was gracious, and I tried to be the same. I’ve had a heart to heart talk with him in the past, and it’s hard not to like the guy.

But Yellow Jacket didn’t really feel settled during practice, nor qualifying. I thought it was me, or the track was greasy, maybe I had asked too much of the tires or was trying to get too many races out of them. But that’s what I had, so that’s what I’d use.

I don’t remember when things began to get worse. Maybe halfway through the race Saturday afternoon. Whenever I stepped on the brakes, the car would veer left. Not a lot, and she straightened right out again. But it was a little unnerving, and caused me to tip-toe around the course.

There was a half lap to go when there was a “clunk” when I turned the wheel from left to right, or right to left.  We spun out diving deep past Fireball in the Mitchell Mustang in Turn 7. And then Yellow Jacket wouldn’t start.

We got towed back to the pits.

Mule came right over from where he was helping out on Cowboy’s car.

“I don’t know how you drove this thing,” he said when he crawled out from under. The trailing arm on the passenger side that helps hold the right rear wheel in place had broken.

So we started to thrash. We put the battery on a charger. Jakester and his dad rode bicycles around the track, looking for a missing part that holds the trailing arm connection together and could not be purchased at local hardware stores. I went to everyone with a Corvette. No luck.

Finally, Mule gave me a list and sent me to Lowes’s, where I went that evening and again when Lowe’s opened at 7 a.m.  Sunday morning.

Mule pulled it off. “This will hold for a half-hour,” he said. It wasn’t perfect, but it would do. We put the battery back in. We tested the alternator. Everything was ready to go.

I’d start from the back, but that’s a favorite of mine. I just love to chase. And Cowboy said we were supposed to start where we had qualified on Saturday morning.

On my way to pre grid just before the main race, Yellow Jacket felt so good, I wondered how long that trailing arm had been “not quite right.” I was distracted. The clutch is very firm. I stalled the motor.

She would not start.

I waved some men over, they pushed her, I popped the clutch, she started and I took the qualifying place (the wrong place, by the way) amid some confusion in the starting grid.

But even though I kept her running, eventually, there just wasn’t enough juice left, and the engine died. One of the cells in a fairly new battery had failed. That’s what had been going wrong since Seattle: not the starter, not the alternator.

I was stuck in the starting grid, watching all the other cars go out to race. On “my” track. In the biggest race in Portland this year. After Mule had slaved to get the trailing arm fixed. After we’d charged the battery, replaced the starter, and checked the alternator.

It’s the little things.

Fireball won that race. At first I was tempted to say that would not have happened if we’d been out there, but that’s racing. Even though Ceegar was in front of him, Ceegar ran out of gas on the last lap.

It’s the little things.

Fireball won the race in the Mitchell Mustang because he drove well, as he always does, and because they were ahead on all the little things.

It didn’t take long to get the trailer packed up. I was almost done when over the loudspeaker, I heard them give Fireball the first place accolades and the medal. As I drove past where a large group of them were all celebrating, I gave them a thumbs up. I don’ t know if any of them saw it, but I meant it. They deserved it.

After 13 years of racing, there’s bound to be parts on the car that are tired, and ready to let go. We replace things that have gone wrong, like a broken transmission; things that might go wrong, like a starter; things we know will probably go wrong, like wheels with thousands of laps on them.

We should have replaced old and tired trailing arm bolts, but sometimes we miss some things, especially things like a year-old battery.

Keeping ahead of all the little things that could go wrong takes a lot of effort and, at times, it seems like it’s never enough.

Retire just means new rubber

Cowboy was on his way home to Rangeville from a rodeo board meeting when I got hold of him. He’s been on the rodeo board for just about half of forever, they won’t let him off because he knows how to “get it done.”

A couple of years ago, he was working the chutes for the bull riding. A bull got out of the chute and buried him in the dirt. It came back for him, too, but got distracted by a clown or that might have been the end. Cowboy was helped out of the area, but on his own two feet.

“A little road rash, a little stiff,” he said a couple of days later. He’s not about to retire.

That’s Cowboy.

His first race ever, a teenager with a racing license, he hammered it and was in first place over the first hill, but landed so hard on the other side he scraped off his exhaust pipes and drove them right through his rear tires. He ended up so deep in the woods, a rhododendron the size of a small tree came out too when the wrecker retrieved his car. So he got new tires.

That’s cowboy.

Last weekend he was on his way up to the race track in Portland to do a little test and tune for both his fast cars. He was meeting Canuck there, down from Canada, and Hotshot. Canuck may be the best driver around now, but Hotshot was a pro driver in Europe for a while, and pretty close to the fastest driver in our group of go fast.

It would be fun sometime to hear Canuck and Hotshot tell each other how to drive. The testosterone would splash half-way up the grand stand

Cowboy was going to put them in his cars during a test session to help him set up the cars, the new one he’s bringing out in July, and the beast he used to drive.

“Don’t put them on the track at the same time,” I suggested. “They’d have to see who was fastest.”

“I thought of that,” said Cowboy. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to keep between them.”

I’ve never seen Cowboy this focused. He’s built a new car, put a lot of attention into setting it up, maybe even getting a little driver training, if that’s what this last weekend was really about, and I’ve got my suspicions. He downplays everything, and doesn’t think it’s always necessary to play inside the rules.

“Hotshot says he might come back and race with us,” Cowboy said. “We’ve got to find him a car.”

“Maybe he should buy mine,” I say.

“Whaddya mean, buy yours? You ain’t going nowhere.”

“I don’t know, Cowboy, I’m getting old, and maybe slow. It might be about time.”

“Nah. You turned a 1:29 a week ago in Seattle. You’re still one of the fastest. You going to sit around and play checkers?”

“Racing is a lot of money. A lot of money,” I said. My black and yellow screamer is up on jacks as we’re having this conversation. I was checking the brakes at the local garage when I discovered one of the shafts driving the driver’s side rear wheel had nearly chewed through it’s flange two weeks before in Seattle.

Merlin had told Jakester to tighten the bolts on Saturday before he left the race track for the weekend, and Jakester told me before we let the car down off the jacks on the first race on Sunday. But I never knew there was an issue with those bolts, and I overruled Merlin.

That’s always a stupid thing to do. They came loose.

During the Sunday morning race my clutch pedal didn’t work and I came in after a few laps. During the Sunday afternoon race, the car popped a couple of times and I thought I was “running a little lean” as Kiwi says, and came in.

Another two laps and that shaft would have come loose. Driven by the tire, it could have taken out my oil sump, could have cut through the back of my seat like a chain saw and anything on the other side of that seat, or maybe just let the rear wheel flop over onto the track at 160 mph. It any case, it would not have been pretty.

I didn’t discover it until two weeks later when the car was on a rack for brake work. This maintenance thing is pretty important, and I’d been a bit neglectful because I didn’t have a mechanic close by. That’s really stupido, too.

I think the world of Shade Tree, but it’s three hours just to drop the car off for an oil change. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be done.

I was rescued, again, by Cowboy, who told his mechanic, Mule, who had once been my mechanic too, that I might need a little help. Mule called me up and said he was on pretty good terms with the only guy in the country who has those parts. Mule was putting them in my car a week later.

“Money?!” Cowboy says to me over the phone. “You already SPENT the money. You won’t get anything out of your car, so there’s no point in selling it. You might as well be racing, maybe you only race three events a year. That’s okay. Besides, it’s not the racing, it’s the people!”

Well, that’s true enough. Cowboy is the people who got me into this decades ago, and I guess he’s not going to let me out early. There’s still time to get the car fixed and get to the next race.

Maybe with a enough extra practice, enough extra effort like everyone else seems to be putting into this go-fast passion, there might be enough left to win a race or two. Then again, everyone else has the same idea, so maybe there’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.

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.


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.