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.
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.