Saturday, July 25, 2015

Brickyard 400 - Star Spangled Speed

It's Brickyard weekend here in Indianapolis. With just a short break between shifts (next weekend is the long one) I'm staying put and not driving home. I had some long days this week and all I want right now is some quiet and time to write, even as I will listen for sounds of the race from a distance.

Over in Pittsboro, Jeff Gordon's hometown, there was a huge parade to honor him. I wonder if behind Barkley's first Vet there in that town is still the giant mural of Dale Ernhardt on the side of this one house, of someone that was NOT a Gordon fan. Mr. Gordon, I imagine, smiled and took it in stride and just waved to the hometown fans that love him.

At the grocers, there were race flags and pretty girls offering samples of hot dogs and tailgate food. and I almost took out Richard Petty with my shopping cart, the six foot something cardboard cutout of him anyway. Even early in the morning, the place was jumping. This is a big weekend in this city, and out in the Western suburbs, reasonably close to the race, the air is thick with humidity and excitement.
When I was a young woman, I used to go to the stock car race track and get right down where the action was taking place. You know, when you're young and still hot you can put on a tight jumpsuit, a David Clark headset, hold a clipboard, and go about ANYWHERE on the track. I wasn't looking for a date, I just wanted to see the action, up close.  Times have sure changed. I'd need a shoehorn to get ito the jumpsuit and security has been beefed up in our country as a whole, our having lost something in 9/11 other than the souls of thousands of good Americans.

But there was just something about being there close to the sights and the sounds. If any of you remember "Spinal Tap" guitarist Nigel Tufnel - he once said of the volume knobs on his amps "These go to eleven". If they go to eleven, a NASCAR track goes to fifteen, with a wild resonance made up of all of all of the sounds of the earth. There is something about the deep throated roar of dozens of cars firing up, as if something angry was unleashed from the earth, hungry and drawn by the smell of hundreds of  barbecue grills.  It was  "Gentlemen, Start your Engines", it was the National Anthem, and flags waving, and if you were lucky a military jet flying overhead.
The crowd?  You can't see a variety like this, anywhere. From casual to sexy to "don't drink and dress", it's a slice of humanity as colorful as the cars on the track.  It's not hard to tell who is rooting for who, as fans wear their colors and their favorite car's number with a pride that would put the  "my kid is an honor student at" driver to shame.  Mom might be in a Tony Stewart Shirt and Dad may have on a Dale Earnhard Jr. hat.  But there is harmony in that house, because they are both here for the "race" and if you've seen it, with the kids cheering and jumping up and down in their seats, the crowd coming to their feet, you've experienced a little bit of America's history that's about a lot more than speed and the occasional crash.

Alongside my Matchbox Mustang, there  a little Matchbox car around here from some years back,in UPS colors as I was a huge Dale Jarrett fan back in the day. He was always, and remains my favorite NASCAR driver as I remember the time he won a big race only to talk with pride about his daughter and a recent scholastic achievement.  That man is a class act and his racing  retirement video still brings a smile and a tear to my eye.

You don't see that many older drivers and there's good reason. It takes a degree of strength not evident merely by looking at the build of the driver. Dad, even as much of a sports nut as he is, doesn't watch racing, saying it's not as challenging as other sports (this is a man that thinks GOLF is exciting, a sport I find as fast paced and excitement laden as farming). But I can say this as someone that' thrown around some serious G's in a jet in her time. That would be a big NO.

Indy racing?  Sure it's sleek and super fast, but it' also a flat track, not a track that can have 16 degree banking where you get enough g's to launch you into space, while you do 180 mph inches from someone else doing 180 miles an hour.  You don't see that in open wheel racing, and having flown formation, I can tell you it's a heck of a lot harder than it looks.  It would be like being in rush hour traffic on the 294 tollway in Chicago doing 180 miles an hour where every single driver is like that idiot in a 180 mph Smart Car that jumps down in front of you, inches from your bumper, like his Smart Phone just notified him he was late for his meeting with Jesus.
That folks, takes more than guts and muscle memory, it takes physical conditioning and MUSCLE and there's something to be said for watching those cars accelerate to speeds that would make some of us pass out, then slow on a caution as if one single living organism rather than dozens of cars.

Sometimes though, there is that fatally flawed moment, when motion meets something equally as hard. There is a crash, and the sound of rending metal, a howl of machinery that takes on the character if that very moment, the rage, the pain, and the dismay.   As debris flies, the team responds, waving hands making eddies in the smoke as help is called and the flag is out.  The crowd is on it feet with a hush, listening for those small sounds that survived the debacle, the death knell of a broken motor mount, the tumbling of a piece of wreckage off of a wall. Where ten minutes ago some were cursing this driver because he or she wasn't their favorite, now they are praying for them to climb out of the car with a supportive wave to race another day

The unexpected still of the air, carries on it more than one gathered prayer, a collective heaven-sent message from those that still believe in that power. It is a stillness that is more than quiet, it is a slender hair that holds a sword suspended over the scene. What lays upon the track as the caution comes out, is the wisdom of man rendered helpless by the indifference of physics. We aren't drawn to the sport for the mayhem, but it is ever present, the dangers that pushing the edge of motion carries with it.
NASCAR, It will always have it's naysayers, and even fans will admit it has its flaws, marketing occasionally driving the players as much as skill and behavior on the track that can be more like 3rd grade tantrums, then good old testosterone. Some say as a sport it's a gimmick, so simple only a redneck would watch. I don't agree. There's the thrill of a three car wide jockeying for position on the final lap, the sheer muscle memory and split second decisions that can make or break not just a car, but bone. I look at them and I remember approaches into airports in mountains, lightning flashing around me, not looking at the airspace in the turbulence, but only the "donut", that small indicator that makes the difference between remaining aloft and being flung into hard stone.  Like a NASCAR crew chief  I'm calculating the fuel remaining in my head, hoping that our numbers are good and I'm not going to have to slow down to conserve fuel, or worse yet, run out.

As we watch the cars race towards that checkered flag we are all brought back to our own moments, where speed and timing and choice moved us towards victory or something that just wasn't going to "buff out".
Love it or hate it, NASCAR has been around a long time, and will continue to be, as long as there are people that feel it represents the values they grew up with. It's not just a "working man's" sport, it's a little slice of a American dream, that every little kid who has raced his or her go cart down a hill at warp speed can relate to. As we'd get that little wooden wonder up to all of a few miles an hour, without a helmet, because our Mom's back in the day weren't following us with knee pads and a caution sign, we were living the dream, of wheels and motion and freedom.
It's the fabric of my childhood and my teen years, and even if I don't watch it much any more, it's still a part of my life.  I was too young to be interested in anyone landing on the moon but I remember well the first live flag-to-flag coverage of the Daytona 500 broadcast on television  in 1979, as my brother and I gathered around the TV.

I also remember a long ago proficiency check in a simulator for a jet aircraft I was flying at the time. The instructor pointed out a light in the distance at high altitude (the computer generated visuals on a Level D Simulator are nothing short of amazing). I drew my craft closer to it, to see, at 38,000 feet a brown UPS truck racing across the sky that the simulator engineers had programmed in. I tipped my hat to Dale, and dropped a wing to return to formation.

But this weekend- I'll let the noise be in my memory, and smell of a grill only on my deck.  I've had a week of going round and round,even with a coefficient of lift in my office chair that doesn't do much in the way of G forces.  I've seen too much bent metal in my time, and this weekend, I'd rather not see any more. But I will breathe deep the smell of charcoal and asphalt and I will remember those days sitting in the stands, waiting for something much louder and more powerful than a little redheaded teen ever imagined she could be.
Tomorrow, a roar will come, not from the ground but the sky, breaking upon the ordered allocation of my solitude. I will look up, drawn by the sound of a military aircraft flying over the racetrack, as somewhere in the distance people will put their hands over their hearts as the National Anthem is sung.  There will be thanks for God and cold beer and those things that still retain their history.

I'll bring out a little metal race car with UPS on it, closing my hand around it as if it was a symbol of all those little freedoms I learned at that age, and of the dangers that made it so very precious.

Ladies and Gentlemen - Start your Engines.


  1. Once again you've invoked memories so powerfully that I'm reliving them. For those of us who are old enough to remember when NASCAR cars really started out as stock, and were then increasingly modified, the thrill remains - even if the resemblance to a suburban cruiser is limited to the logo on the grill. It was referred to as "stock car racing" back then, and - in my house - it still is. :)

  2. Great post!

    Enjoy your down time.

    I was always a "sports car" kind of guy, and long, long ago, campaigned cars in the SCCA.

    Started with a Corvette, which quickly became too expensive, so I went to a Camaro.

    When that got too expensive, I dropped out of the "real" racing, and went to the SCCA Solo series with my 1973 Trans Am.

    Had a ball, and made a lot of friends.

  3. If you haven't seen it, borrow your granddaughters' copy of "Cars" the next time you go out West. Have patience with the film, watch, and listen carefully.

    A lot of people dump on the flick as cliched kiddie fare, but it was clearly a passion project for the man currently running animation at Disney.

  4. I will second Roscoe's suggestion that you rent Cars. You will enjoy it... But for me, I fell in love not with NASCAR,but F1 instead. No Turn Left, Go Fast for this ol' gal! I mean, who wouldn't love a race called by that sprightly little Scotsman, Jackie Stewart? (though truth be told, it was a Greek friend in college who put me onto F1 racing, back in the day before Ayrton Senna paid with his life...)

  5. Beautifully evocative of the passion of racing... Thanks! I'm going to be eating a hotdog and cussing the fact that I can't have a grill. I'll watch from the comfort of my own chair, but memory will bring the smells of oil, tire smoke, overheated engines, and the misma of thousands of folks... :-)


I started this blog so the child I gave up for adoption could get to know me, and in turn, her children, as well as share stories for a family that lives too far away. So please keep it friendly and kid safe. Posts that are only a link or include an ad for an unknown business automatically to to SPAM..