By Erik Dolson
Over the July 4th weekend, my qualifying run on Friday morning at the Pacific Northwest Historics in Seattle felt pretty good. I was glad I’d practiced the day before, and had done a few sessions the month before in karts. Maybe I hadn’t lost it.
Okay, so I was on old tires, and not as smooth as I could be, and hadn’t quite figured out the new exit at Turn 3B. They’d repaved half the track, and some parts felt different. Different grip, different line. But overall, it felt pretty good.
Until the time sheets came out: I’d qualified 9th.
Two seconds behind cars I’d been several seconds faster than for years.
Three seconds slower than the Falcon.
Almost six seconds slower than Kanuck.
What the … ?
“Maybe it’s the rear end, you’re not set up for this track,” said Mule, my mechanic. He thought the 3:30 gear in the rear end would be better than the shorter gears I was running.
“No, it’s me,” I said.
My daughter, who’d come to visit, knew I was disappointed but she didn’t have an opinion. I was glad she was there.
“It’s been a year and a half,” said my 18 year-old Crew Chief, The Jakester, looking for something positive. I could see concern in his eyes.
“No, it’s been 10 months, I raced last September,” I said. “I can’t ever remember qualifying 9th.”
“Yeah, but these other guys have had two races this year, here at Spring Sprints and Spokane,” he said.
Yeah, okay, I thought. That should be good for a couple of places, and maybe a second of time, but 9th? Retirement was looming a closer than I figured.
Cowboy wasn’t running his Corvette, it sat in the paddock. Instead, he was sorting out his new Dale Earnhardt Jr. Nascar Chevrolet. Or I would have been 10th. Ceegar was running both his Mustang and his Nascar. He and Cowboy tried to get me to buy a Nascar, but I’m more limited in funds than they are. The motor homes and trailers they drive to the track are worth about as much as my house.
And I have a boat, another way to burn paper money faster than with a propane lighter.
“I still got one for ya,” Cowboy said as I was admiring his Nascar Chevrolet. But hell, why would I buy another race car when it was becoming pretty obvious that the time had come to get out of racing, hang it up, stop pretending?
The first race of the weekend was that afternoon. I did a little better, moved up to 6th, Yellowjacket was now between the Falcon and the blue Mustang. They were both amazingly fast. I heard both had ordered new motors from back east, and was not surprised: Each of them was pulling me on the straight. Small block Fords out-pulling a 427 Corvette?
In the race, the Falcon cut a second and a half off his qualifying time, from 1:29.36 to 1:27:94. The blue Mustang cut 9/10ths off his, from 1:32.3 to 1:30:4. But I was able to cut almost 3 seconds off my time, from 1:32.36 to 1:29:55.
Maybe I was starting to remember that the accelerator pedal actually goes all the way to the floor.
Saturday morning, I was dogging the Falcon and pushing deep into the corners before braking. Trying to take him in Turn 2, I saw his rear end lift with a cloud of blue smoke off each back tire. He fish tailed right, then left, and I went around him. I didn’t see it, but he then left the track and connected with the tire wall, pushing his fenders back a bit and punching a hole in his radiator.
Later I told him I thought he’d stopped moving when I went around him, or I would have been more cautious.
“We were still going pretty good,” he replied, and I realized we were probably still going close to 100 mph, him sideways, it was just our relative speed that had slowed.
So I started fourth Saturday afternoon, behind Kanuck, Shamrock in his silver Corvette, Cigar in the Orange TransAm Mustang. I’d cut another second off my time, and was at 1:27:78 4th fastest overall.
But the car with the best time was sitting in 13th position. I don’t remember why he was back there, maybe a flat tire, but Snake in the brushed aluminum Cobra was by far the best driver on the track, and had turned a lap a hair over 1:26. Kanuck’s time was a half second slower, but he was on the pole.
I saw Snake coming up behind me on the inside of Turn 2, I don’t know if it was the first lap or the second. There was no reason to slow him down, the real race was going to be between him and Kanuck, anyway. I set my sights on Shamrock and ahead of him, Ceegar.
I was coming up the hill to Turn 7 when Snake went to the inside of Ceegar, who hit his brakes hard when he couldn’t make the turn without hitting the Cobra. The orange Mustang fish tailed and shot into the gravel on the inside of the turn.
I went by and chased the silver Corvette, who spun in Turn 2 after Nurseryman lost an axle in his white Mustang. That was a show all by itself. See it here, from the seat of the car with the best view. Start at minute 6:30 if you’re iompatient. It’s worth a minute of your time.
Side load on the tire pulled the entire axle out of the car. Tire and axle pole vaulted 30 feet over one car, bounced again 20 feet in the air and narrowly missed a Jaguar before caroming off into the weeds. It could have been a spear right through the roof of any car out there. Except I don’t have a roof.
They stopped the race right after that, because quarts of heavy gear lube oiling down the fasted turn on the course would have led to mayhem and if they hadn’t, someone would have gotten hurt. They put me at fourth again, though I’d passed the silver Corvette. It didn’t matter that much to me if I was on the right side or left side in the second row, when the next race started.
Snake turned a lap of 1:25.27, almost 1.3 seconds faster than Kanuck’s best time. Nobody was going to touch him on the track. That did not include the paddock, however.
I heard Ceegar’s voice even before Jakester told me I ought to head down to where Snake’s car was located. The two men were having words. Ceegar was saying Snake should not have passed in Turn 7, that it was dangerous. “I would have let you by,” I heard him say.
Apparently Snake had said that the pass was safe, and that Cigar had brakes if there was difficulty.
I had two silver cars in my line of sight and I couldn’t see what Ceegar saw. He disagreed with Snake by putting a finger in his chest. Maybe more than once. Officials don’t like that, not at all.
Snake called out to his group of workers and fans, and Ceegar was pretty well surrounded when I got there and stepped close to Ceegar, intending to be a buffer, is all. The hot words continued for another minute, then cooled off.
But there were echoes. Race officials went around and talked to everybody. Some say Snake was driving too aggressively, others say that Ceegar should have taken his beef to the officials, and not ever, ever touched another driver.
This is not Nascar, after all.
Ceegar called me that night and apologized for “dragging me into the middle of it.” I told him he didn’t drag me into anything, I stepped close to make sure it didn’t escalate and did so of my own free will.
As I saw it, there’s enough blame to go around.
One official said that under our rules, the overtaking car has to give way. Snake was overtaking, but he never gives way. He’s too aggressive, they say, and they want to ban him for life. Others point out that neither Snake nor his team had ever received a formal penalty from the racing body in Seattle, and deserved due process.
Snake is the only driver out there hired to drive somebody else’s car, and he’s a national champion in other classes. In other words, I consider him a pro. I love driving against him, if for no other reason than I get the best seat in the house to watch him do amazing things behind the wheel of an incredibly well-prepared car.
He does pass cars where others don’t, and it changes what we do out there if he takes chances that the rest of us have agreed not to take. Winning at all costs comes at a cost to the sport.
There are plenty out there who will say I have no room to talk, and maybe they’re right. But I’d shared that opinion with Snake years ago, and he and I have swapped paint since. We settled that with conversation between ourselves, without any fuss.
We are all Type A’s out there, after all. Ceegar more than most of us, maybe. He’s direct. He holds others to his own standards, and I know he has gone above and beyond when he thought he was wrong. He was a boxer, too, and doesn’t mind getting close enough to see what somebody is made of. I laughed once when he told me he didn’t think he was intimidating.
Ceegar was given five points for putting his finger in Snake’s chest. After 13 points, you don’t get to drive for a year. Ceegar elected to go home before Sunday’s races, said he wouldn’t run if Snake was allowed on the track after what happened.
Can’t really blame him, since at that point, the resolution seemed pretty unbalanced, nobody knew if Snake and team would face any penalty at all. In the past, drivers have been put on the trailer for the weekend for similar actions on the track.
On Sunday morning, the finishing order was the same as it had been the previous afternoon: Snake, Kanuck, Shamrock and me.
But Snake and Kanuck didn’t start in the last race that afternoon. They left early, Kanuck with broken parts, I don’t know why Team Cobra headed out, but sometimes the Fourth of July traffic can make getting home an ordeal for those of us from Oregon.
In the last race I got the drop on Shamrock at the start and took an inside line around every turn. If he was going to get around me, he would have to go around on the outside, or hope I made a mistake. I missed a few shifts from third into fourth, but not until I was far enough ahead that he couldn’t catch up.
So, I sorta won the last race of the weekend, but only because the two fastest cars had gone home. The win didn’t feel as good as a couple of second place finishes I’ve had in the last few years. Interestingly, one of those races was against Ceegar in Seattle, the other against Snake in Portland. Coming in second to those guys was great back then, because they were great races.
But I don’t think any of us felt great after the fracas on Saturday in Seattle. Or maybe some of the fire has just gone out, as a friend and fellow racer said. He’s retiring after this year. Or maybe, sometimes, even winning isn’t enough.