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.

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.


I may have won a couple of races, but Swede was champion of the Columbia River Classic in Portland, and it wasn’t even close.

Swede doesn’t drive, either.

And his car never turned a lap.

Jakester and Jakester’s Dad had me set up on Friday while I was trying to get back to the track from visiting a childhood friend and his folks south of Portland. Traffic in that city gets worse by the week, and an accident at the Terwilliger curves plugs it like bad plumbing.

Tireman and Son helped. They had brought both their Studebaker and their Camaro. Tireman hasn’t raced in two years, but the two of them played evenly every time they were on the track. How cool that a father and son get to race against each other. It’s even cooler that Tireman appreciates it so much.

On Saturday, we all had gremlins. Excalibur came in after only a few minutes in the morning, his steering wheel shaking so badly that he didn’t know if something had come loose. Ceegar was playing catch up with two cars, and the Mustang was acting like a bronc. Cowboy didn’t know it yet, but his brake pads were worn down to the steel.

And I was still chasing, after three races, an electrical issue that seemed to be moving from part to part around the engine compartment just fast enough to stay out of site. Replaced the starter after the spring race. The battery after the first July race. A connector ate the last race in Portland. As I sat on the grid for the first race on Saturday, I saw my battery wasn’t being charged. Again, or still? Too late to do anything except hope I had enough juice in the new battery for a 20 minute run.

Cowboy was on the pole, and I was to his left. Excalibur was right behind Cowboy,  and Nice Guy’s Camaro sat right behind our three, big-engined, tuned, loud Corvettes. But not too loud — they made us tone it down after we lit up the meter during qualifying.

When the green flag fell, Cowboy and I had a drag race going to the first turn.

We both had the same idea. Go deep, start in front. I couldn’t believe how deep Cowboy was going, but I was going to take him as far as I could before I hit the brakes. Finally, I hit my binders as hard as I dared, trying keep a balance between stopping and spinning. I didn’t know if I was going to make the turn into the chicane.

I looked to my right to see if I was going to turn in front of  Cowboy or into him, and just in time: he comes whistling past me and doesn’t even try to make the turn. Remember those brake pads? He just used up about the last of them. He has to stop at the stop sign in the center of the turn but off the track and let the field go by.

I pushed hard, trying to build a lead on Excaliber, but I don’t see him in my mirrors. I see Nice Guy’s Camaro falling back (his engine is two-thirds the size of mine), but that’s all.

Mule, who wrenches for both Cowboy and me, comes over after helping Cowboy complete the sale of his new Garcia Corvette to Polished. Actually, it went to Ms. Polished. They drive matching Lotuses, but were now stepping into our rude class of ground-pounders. The Garcia car was supposed to be for him, but he didn’t fit. Ms. Polished fit though, and so the car was hers.

And she did a damn good job driving it, only a few seconds behind those of us who have been muscling these machines for decades. And that’s one concession that will be made: power steering.

“My shoulders!” she said after coming in off the track. Imagine wrestling a car like that at speed, working at it so hard your shoulders were talking back to you. Hat’s off to her.

Mule finds, for the fourth time, the source of my electrical problem. It’s in the start switch. I wiggle it while Mule looks at the volt meter, and the problem jumps up, tries to hide, then I wiggle it again. It jumps up, then tries to hide, again. Mule sends me over to Armadillo for a new switch.

I started in back in the afternoon, to play with Excalibur and Ceegar. I cut my up through the pack, but it started to rain, and everybody but me was smart enough to call it a day. Jakester and his dad wipe the car down.

We were all disappointed that Canuck didn’t show with his new car, Alice. He was supposed to, but it’s a lot of work building a new car.

It wasn’t supposed to rain all day on Sunday. Twenty percent chance, according to my weather app. Yeah, I know that doesn’t mean it will rain 20 percent of the time. But still, you would think we’d get a break, right?

Nope. It was pouring at dawn, it would let up, then rain hard again. Most of us don’t race in the rain. I was told long ago, you pucker so hard when racing a Corvette in the rain, you can’t sit down for a week.

Banker asked me to convince Ms. Polished it would be a real bad idea to go out. What she was driving now was no Lotus. A cough can put you into the wall. I told her what I was told long ago. Not very classy of me, but had to get the point across.

But the winner of the weekend showed up. Canuck arrived with Alice, a car driven by, and wrecked by, some of the fastest drivers we’ve known. Alice was a complete rebuild. And that’s why Swede was champion of the Columbia River Classic.

We all do a pretty good job on our cars. Some are better than others, but each shows time spent, and attention to detail.

Alice was unbelievable. Not a dime was spared on pieces, and hour upon hour was lavished on detail. No trailer queen, she’ll be raced as hard, or harder than, all of the others.

But there were no short cuts taken in her build. Holes were precisely drilled in places no one would ever see to manage weight (or air flow), Heim  joint bearings replaced rubber bushings anywhere precision might be lost, her black paint was so black you could walk through it into another dimension; the names of all previous drivers were written respectfully on the top.

The guys standing around her know cars. They know what goes into a job like this. There was nothing to say, but to praise to Swede, and what he’d put together for Canuck. Alice has arrived.

But we were rained out, first the morning race, then the afternoon. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Which leaves only one more weekend this year, the Finale in Seattle at the end of the month.

It’s been a strange season, and feels incomplete, for some reason. Maybe it’s because we didn’t get out on the track on Sunday, maybe it’s because I didn’t get to race against Alice. I guess we’ll see. Maybe it’s just never enough.





Canuck rules

Let’s get one thing out of the way right at the top.

Canuck walked his talk.

Not only did he spank us, he broke 1:30 driving the Camaro. He had a 1:29:6xx or something. Nobody was even close. Ceegar was second in his TransAm Mustang with a new personal best of 1:31:6xx, but that was two full seconds behind Canuck.

In this game, a two second gap is huge, even though a lap takes just over minute and a half. Or less than a minute and a half, if you’re Canuck. Let’s give credit where credit’s due. He was leading the pack.

That was on Friday, and the only cars that could have come close, the three big block Corvettes, were all broken. Beater busted his transmission in the morning qualifying session. His mechanic took the blame, he’d put it together. But had another one installed by dinner time and Beater will run on Saturday.

Cowboy came off the track early. There was a vibration he didn’t like, and it persisted in the pits when he revved the motor. It didn’t take long before Mule, his mechanic, had the valve covers off and found the problem. The rocker for the intake valve on the number 7 cylinder was lying on its side on the head casing. Both bolts holding it in place had come out and were lying by valves nearby.

“I torqued every one of those!” Mule said. A torque wrench was found and all the other bolts checked out. Mule went looking for an underlying problem.

Merlin was bent over my engine. In the morning session the motor backfired, lost power, gained a little power, backfired again. It wasn’t happy. After leaning out the carb and putting in a missing rivet for the exhaust pipe, Merlin said to run it and ignore the backfire. Jakester, my crew chief, even reminded me on pregrid that Merlin said to ignore the backfire.

So I did,  I ran it as hard as I could until I just couldn’t stand it any more. She was still mostly willing, but I knew something was wrong. The backfires weren’t clearing up and if anything, were getting worse. She felt like she was walking in sand, not dancing light and eager as she usually does.  I came off the track.

If you want to find fault with me for personifying a machine, go ahead. I was told more than once by a woman I dated for a while that my romantic point of view bordered on the delusional. She was convinced her cynicism contained far fewer illusions. I said reality, as she viewed it, was highly overrated.

Of course, she thought that was a perfect example of why she was right and I was wrong. I said something about a self-fulfilling fallacy and walked out the door.

Merlin found water in the distributor cap. After determining there was no water in the oil, and no oil in the water, and that the motor still had compression, he traced it to a pinhole leak in the gasket between the intake manifold and the head. He immediately took the blame.

He pulled the intake off and found a gasket either in my parts box or his (he usually orders two to have spares), cuts parts out of my old gasket to make a better seal, and put it all back together again.

While he was working, he overheard Mule and Cowboy talking about having no compression in the cylinder where the rocker had come off. Major damage. Cowboy was getting ready to pack up and go home.

I was saying something not too important when Merlin interrupted me and called over to Cowboy and Mule: “If the rocker is off you won’t have any compression. The valve can’t open to let air into the cylinder to be compressed.”

“Sheesh, he’s right. I never thought about that,” said Mule.

A little more back and forth, Merlin looked at the push rod they’d pulled and said they could turn it over and maybe drill out the oil port where it had gotten a little crushed.

“I’d run it,” he said. A little more discussion, and Merlin told Cowboy he’d go back to his shop after he was done with me and look for a push rod and some bolts to replace the ones that had backed out.

Cowboy was going to trailer up and drive back to Madras, Oregon, where he would pull a lesser engine out of one car to put in this car to run at Road America in two weeks. Instead, he’s racing tomorrow.

When we needed a timing light, Cowboy brought his over.

“I can lend you a timing light,” he told me, “since you lent me your mechanic.”

Merlin had been all over the paddock this day. Not only working on my car and looking at Cowboy’s, he’d come down to primarily support Ceegar. He’d fixed the jetting on a Lotus, the shift linkage on a Porsche, consulted a few others.

“It all pays off in the end,” he said.

Which was true. I’d shipped my car to Merlin in Seattle from MiddleofnowhereOregon because two years before I couldn’t get it running at the big race in Portland. It took Merlin five minutes to determine I’d been given the wrong carburetor gasket by the parts store when Shade Tree wanted to make a last minute change in the dark of my trailer when we both were in a hurry. Merlin had the right gasket somewhere, even though he wasn’t woring on big Chevy motors.

It’s not that Merlin doesn’t make mistakes. He’d failed to reset his timing light to zero a week before this race, and pretty much toasted a motor of a Mustang on the dyno. But what makes him Merlin is that last Saturday, a machine shop cleaned up the cylinders for him, parts arrived during the week and everything was back together and was ready when race day came around.

“You just take care of it,” Merlin told me. “I learned a long time ago, if you can step up for a customer and take care of things like that, you pretty much own them for life.”

Because he’s Merlin, he also pulled the plugs of my car. And that’s when we found what may have been the real problem, not that water in the distributor isn’t problem enough. Electrodes of three spark plugs on the driver’s side of the motor had been hammered nearly closed by the pistons beneath. All four of the plugs on the passenger side were fine.

“Did you take this over 7,000 rpm?” he asked me. I told him I didn’t think I did, even on my third to first shifts. So at about 8 p.m. as the sun slid behind tall Douglas Firs that surround Pacific Raceways, Merlin regapped the plugs, then indexed them, turning them just right so the pistons would leave them alone.

When we started her up, she was smoother than she’d been since I’d come to get her in Seattle.

“I could have caused the problem on the dyno, or it could have happened when you decelerated here at the track, ” he said. Pistons wobble, forces while racing are different, and we’d reduced a lot of clearances looking for more compression.

That’s what he was saying. But what I heard was a motor happier than it had been any time this weekend.

“Tomorrow we’ll tighten the half-shaft bolts,” Merlin said in the restaurant where I took him to dinner after we got done, since his wife had already made something at home. When called to tell her he was going to have a bite with me and then go to the shop to look for a pushrod  for Cowboy, she said his dog Jed was pretty freaked out by the fireworks, since Merlin wasn’t home to provide reassurance.


Ceegar just flies over the hump at Spokane. 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was time to tip over anyway.

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


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

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

“I guess you like the track okay now?”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

cockpit photo

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

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

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

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

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

Not much got done on Monday.

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

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

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


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.