Roxy Hearts owns pregrid.
With a rhythmic back and forth with her index finger, she will point right or left as we back up and she puts us into place, clenching her fist indicating we should “hold” when we’re in position. Later, with a graceful, theatrical swing of her arms, half-bow and half offering, she ushers us out onto the track for a race.
Her son, Thor, works the line with her. He walks by the front of my car, checks to make sure I am wearing my gloves and arm restraints (if I flip over we don’t want arms flailing outside the car, right?). He looks inside the cockpit for wrenches or coffee cups he’s occasionally found there, that would become, at best, distractions at 160 miles an hour or, at worst, projectiles capable of great harm.
One time Cowboy was coming around Turn 12 in Portland. His door hadn’t been secured and flew open. Bad enough. But then, a coffee cup fell out.
Being Cowboy, he grabbed the door with one hand and slammed it shut. I don’t think he even slowed down. Being Cowboy, he could probably hold the door shut with one hand, shift with the other and steer with his knees. I don’t think he had to, but he could have.
But this isn’t about the drivers.
There are others besides Roxy Hearts and Thor on the course wearing white, they’re just the ones we can see, because we are stopped, lined up and waiting for the race to begin after Roxy gives us the five minute warning with a blast of her whistle, then two minutes, then one, and she waves us out onto the track.
She loves this stuff.
“…My first race was at Watkins Glen at the age of three. When I was seven, we moved to Niagara Falls, soon to find out we were only about a mile from the drag strip. My brothers and I would sneak over and watch the races every Saturday.
“When I moved to Washington in the late 60’s I went to work for a company that built and re-arced leaf springs. That’s where I met my husband, Bill. He came in with leaf springs off his race car to get fixed. It was a match made in heaven, since we were both motor heads. Forty three years later, we are still involved in racing.”
Sweetheart wears white. Some of the time she is working in the tower, other times in drivers services, I think, or at Turn nine in Seattle, last July. She is one of my biggest fans, I was told once, which is good, because I’m one of hers.
Others wearing white are in the corners, or in the tower, at the start/finish line. They communicate with us, using flags. Yellow flags mean “No passing, okay?” Double yellow means “No passing, really!” A black flag with our number on the board means, “Hey! Dummy! Come in and get educated about yellow flags!”
There are other flags, including one to tell us someone wants to pass, others to say there is oil or debris on the race track. A red flag means “Stop. Now. Something bad has happened.”
Workers in white also have fire extinguishers in their stations, and have been known to run onto a race course and help a driver out of a burning car. They have safety gear, but still. One time I heard Mickey, one of the safety crew, explain why he always wears a helmet.
“One of the drivers came around the truck and clipped me. Tossed me ten feet in the air. I got daughters to take care of!”
They are breakable, these people, parents, folks like us, who love cars, self-confessed motor heads and a necessary, essential element of any auto race.
“After my really bad accident (on the street, not racing) I had to have my wrist fused and it ended my racing career. We sold my race car. My husband Bill got into road racing. (Thor) and I were named Crew of The Year by IRDC. That may have been the year Bill won the championship in GT4,” Roxy said.
Like I say, they love racing.
“One year, we (Roxy and her friend Candi) worked 17 race weekends in a row! This lead to my job with CART. I worked race control with another super lady, Irene, who trained me and worked next to me for many years. We did a lot of traveling during our time with CART: Japan, Australia, Mexico and many, many tracks in the USA.”
Like I say…
Sweetheart travels to work races up and down the West Coast from her perch up in Canada. Sweet Adeline and Photog got married at Portland International Raceway! Between races! I think. But my memory is getting a little dim.
We’re losing some of them, of course, to time and frailty and disease. Drivers and workers both, of course. People who have made it easier than it might have been, people who made it possible, in fact.
Roxy told me not too long ago that sometimes, those in white feel a divide, I guess is a good way to put it, between drivers and workers in white. Or orange, if they work the safety vehicles. As soon as I got over my surprise, I felt like a schmuck.
How could they know how much they were appreciated if we don’t tell them? We talk about our races with other drivers, family and friends. Sure we’re hot, tired and sweaty, or working on something in a hurry because it’s broke and there’s another race pretty soon. But sometimes it’s too easy, I guess, to get a little self-absorbed.
I had the same problem once in a relationship that didn’t last, so I must be a slow learner.
The fact is, one of my absolute best moments in racing came after a bad accident where fortunately, nobody got hurt. I don’t know if it was vintage or Sports Car Club of America, but it was in Portland and I was in the lead.
Somewhere ahead was the wreck, and where I was, yellow flags came out, then double yellow, waving double yellow, and a white flag to indicate there was a safety vehicle on the course. I slowed down, way down, probably low second gear. Nobody could pass on a yellow, so within a lap, all the race cars were bunched up behind me, all of us going 20 mph. I imagine some were unhappy, but maybe not.
I don’t remember now if we went back to racing. Too many years, too many gas fumes. But I do remember a couple of workers coming up to me in the pits at the end of the day to thank me for bunching up the race cars and making it safe for them to take care of the driver and the broken car.
I don’t remember any race I’ve ever won as clearly as I remember them thanking me for that. Best trophy, ever.
In Portland a couple of weeks ago, Roxy was talking to me and another driver. I don’t remember exactly where, but she mentioned her history in racing. How she built a wedge motor, or a hemi, I think, for drag racing and pretty much all by her lonesome. Then she raced it. Did pretty good, too. The other driver was surprised, I knew some of it.
“Over the years my husband Bill and I have been involved in many types of racing. Anything from Sprint cars to Hydroplanes. Personally I have only driven drag cars and my husband’s GT4 VW Rabbit on the road course. I did get to spend the day driving a Viper at Pacific Raceways which was incredible,” she said.
“Twenty-five years later and I’m still here telling drivers where to go and loving every minute of it.”
They sit in the flag stations or stand on the asphalt when it’s raining. When it’s 105 degrees. Sometimes when they’ve lost someone. Sometimes when a doctor has delivered bad news. They’re not there so we can go racing, but because they love this sport, the cars, and sometimes, I think they love this as much or even more than we racers do. At least we get the adrenaline, the bragging rights and image. They’re just there.
And we couldn’t be there if they weren’t.