It’s Saturday night, April 6, and I have the good fortune to be sitting high up in the packed grandstands of Irwindale Speedway for the opening night of the 2013 race season. Irwindale is one of two local short tracks for us at PRI, and the evening’s excitement started immediately with the steady stream of cars we encountered entering the race track more than an hour before the racing began. Irwindale is one of the country’s premier short track venues, and it was shuttered for all of last year. In a beautiful Southern California early spring twilight, we see 50 people in line for the Will Call window. We see a line of people 35 deep at each of five ticket windows. Lots of families. Mr. Horsepower T-shirt. Chevrolet Racing jacket. Winternationals T-shirt. Roush Fenway jacket. Yep, racing folks are here in droves. Part of the beauty of the night is that Irwindale Speedway is clicking along as smoothly as always. The irrepressible Bruce Flanders is working the announcer’s booth. He has a problem with the scoring system on his computer, and turns it into fun: “Bill Gates to the announcers booth. Bill Gates to the announcers booth.”
We enjoyed catching up with Jeff Schrader, of the Race Car Factory, which builds so many of the late models that race at Irwindale. He reminded us that a new half-mile asphalt track was set to open in Bakersfield in weeks—Kern County Raceway Park. It’s a striking moment to be standing in the pits of a track shuttered a year ago and now successfully reopened, talking about a brand new race track within driving distance about to open. A lot of good news this night for the future of late model racing in Southern California.
Every opening night gives one a certain feeling of coming home. I am reminded of my friend, Ken, who has visited every professional baseball stadium. He knows everything about baseball. When I told him we were naming our youngest son Matthew, he asked if he was named after Matt Kilroy, the pitcher with the most strikeouts in a single season, striking out 513 batters for the Baltimore Orioles in 1886. One of Ken’s favorite things in life is to simply be in the grandstands at a baseball field, maybe with a hot dog and soda. Any baseball stadium anywhere. Major or minor league. Sitting here in the grandstands of a short track on a Saturday night, I think I know why. It has to do with connecting. The crowd roars as one when the first green flag is waved to the mini stock racers by our friend Doug Stokes, the track’s communications VP. There’s a connection to all that’s come before. Turkey Nights, NASCAR All-Star Showdowns, the Saturday night mains...and that’s just Irwindale. We’re all connected to the rich pageantry and extraordinary history of this thrilling sport. You feel that a lot on opening night.
We all have a season in racing that becomes part of our clock. Opening night signals the winter of no racing is over. Our racing heroes are back at it, including the technical heroes in the pits and the race shops. Once again, we’re going to see who’s fastest. New stories and amazing memorable moments are going to be born. Speaking for just about all of us in the grandstands, we’re happy. Let’s go racing!