A shimmering golden door hides a giant corporate machine that produces the next racing star of tomorrow. Once the door is opened the legendary machine guarantees racing fame and a long money filled career. Mesmerized, parents forget the comforts of home and stand in an endless line in hopes of placing their offspring in the proficient golden gadget located near a 2.5-mile oval Florida shrine. Reputation convinces parents to try and they are certain the elusive hardware will do all of the work instantaneously transforming their child into the next racing hall of famer.
Nearly all youngsters would be better off honing their skills at their home track, but Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne are rumored to be products of the wonderful machine. Jeff, Tony and Kasey know the golden door is a myth, yet history shows that the racing gods in Daytona Beach create new legends in lock step with the fall of an aging and once bright star.
Parents believe that when a young kid is given the key to the golden door the corporate machine can magically stamp out the next budding star of tomorrow regardless of their experience level. Many kids with whitened teeth and hair from the cover of Fashion Quarterly enter, but only one in a million emerges with the needed poise and skill of a true champion. With what seems to be an ever younger child inside, the pristine machine shakes, steams and vibrates working magic and applying mythical power to the chosen few. At last, a shot at the big time–it is all so easy, or so says the legend.
Years ago I was at my home race track in Monroe, Washington. Evergreen Speedway was located smack downtown and the grandstands doubled for racing and cow judging at the yearly fair. Richard Petty, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough were the racing gods of the day–corporate America allowed few gods back then. Legends in the era of black and white photography earned their time in the sun with actual grit, determination and plenty of beer.
By the age of ten I had been to the Evergreen Speedway many times. My dad would load me into his Chevy van with blankets to sit on and an Igloo cooler packed with his two beers hidden under a layer of ice and our PBJ sandwiches. Dad’s van was a true California special complete with crushed velvet seats and a stereo system that could rattle the windows out of an Army tank.
Since we lived in Washington State, and not California, Dad’s ride really turned some heads. BF Goodrich T/A radials and 5 spoke mag wheels were the perfect accent to the airbrushed scallops that ran down the sides of the highly customized Chevy van. Riding to the track in style was a required part of racing back when I was ten. Minivans weren’t allowed in the parking lot then. Little did I know I was learning why people race while chatting with my dad on the 40-minute trip to Monroe.
We were regulars at Evergreen, so even at ten I knew my way around. We sat in the exact same spot every week and nobody would even think of invading our turf. Eagerly, I would lead the family to the base of the grandstands turning left to look up at our favorite spot–8 rows down from the top, 7 seats to the left of the aisle and just past the start finish line. From there we had a perfect view of turn 1.
Turn 1 was where all the action took place, and early in the year the turn 1 pond was still full–a beautiful combination of soupy water mixed with authentic northwest mud. Our bellies ached from laughter when drivers spun into the pond creating a giant brown splash. Thoughts of the billowing puff of steam filled the long Saturday night drive home with plenty of laughter. On special occasions, a rookie push truck driver would park too close to the pond and a muddy tsunami would cover his freshly waxed truck–real racing right here at home complete with material for America’s Funniest Videos.
Drivers and cars that landed in the pond were usually unharmed. The mud on their faces, a uniform dripping with puddle water, and egos that were more wet than bruised came standard with the admission price. The turn 1 puddle taught me plenty about why we race–it would just take me years to understand.
I fondly remember my favorite local drivers from back then. Real drivers that inspired me to get out of the bleachers and work on racecars were my idols. They had greasy uniforms, tussled hair and bad mustaches that would make them look more like adult film stars than racecar drivers. My visions resemble an old Elvis movie creating a dramatic contrast to modern day victory lane scenes with Kasey Kahne and his Budweiser Chevy sponsored by the Chevy Dealers in Gatorade Victory Lane at the Powerade Winners Circle celebration. Over the chaos of the celebratory noise you could hear Kasey say, “Which hat do I wear now?”
According to legend–in Kasey’s interview–he would utilize skills learned in the mythical machine. He would announce in his politically perfect voice: “I want to thank all of my sponsors, we had a really good car, the team worked super hard, the engine shop gave us a great engine and I am really proud of my team, my engineer, my PR guy, my mom and my dog.” It goes without saying that his dog is named “Impala.”
Amazing results–maybe the golden door really works! Sorry Kasey–I could have picked on anyone, but since we are both from Washington I figure you would give me one freebie or maybe you would let me off the hook because my comparison to new and old is just “one of them deals.”
From our family Evergreen bleacher spot we could hear the announcer, well sort of. The thunder of the race cars muffled some of the words, but back then my hearing was not yet hampered by the 100’s of times I would be in a closed garage with unprotected ears being bombarded with 8000 RPM’s and an engine guy that said he was setting the timing. I was never sure if the timing was set correctly or if it was just the engine tuners weekly playtime.
Whenever the announcer mentioned my favorite figure eight driver I would perk right up. The loud speaker would crackle like an old scratchy LP: “….And starting on the pole–Dirty Dan the Sewer Man.” Funny how 35 years makes a reference to a sewer sound romantic.
Dan Knott was a racer. He raced for the pure fun. To him, Daytona was a post card with a white sandy beach and a bikini girl with oversize sunglasses–mythical corporate machines not required. My dad learned to be a chassis guy on Dirty Dan’s team, and in true racer tradition he passed on all his knowledge to me. Dad taught me plenty.
My Uncle Bob turned wrenches on the Sewer Man’s car, and he simply loved being around the track. Uncle Bob was a mechanic by trade. He could diagnose an engine simply by holding a screw driver over the intake–no need for one of those big fancy red boxes with a TV screen on it. Uncle Bob could simply listen to the engine and, with the experience of real grease under his fingernails, he could have you back on the road for a few bucks, a cold beer and a have a nice day smile–those were the days!
Dirty Dan had plenty of company. Ben Chandler, The Wizard, would add a certain color to the festivities, making sure everyone in Monroe had something to cheer for. Crazy Carl Zaretske would smash the gas on and off through the turns of the Evergreen Figure 8 track. Carl had his trademark driving style. Whomp, whomp, whomp–you could hear the throttle pedal go to the floor about 8 times in each and every turn. To Carl, being smooth was saved for flirting with female groupies in victory lane.
Why would Dirty Dan, Uncle Bob and my dad race so hard when the mythical golden door and corporate machine was not even on their radar? Was it the time in the shop away from real life? Maybe it was the relaxation of building a mechanical marvel–figure eight cars were pretty cool! In what other sport can you dress in tacky oil stained uniforms and be rewarded with a crazed crowd that cheers wildly at every wreck, fist fight and photo finish? Perhaps it’s the camaraderie? The junior writer from the Seattle Times would just say it was for the love of the sport–he had no idea–the night before he was covering a high school chess tournament. Being low man on the totem pole meant he did all the bottom of the barrel assignments. Journalism at its best!
Maybe we race as the universal goal of competing creates a common racers’ bond–a bond so powerful that Saturday night at the track is more important than friends, weddings, anniversaries and kids' birthdays. Respect strengthens the holding power of the Saturday night ritual, and even the toughest competitors and bitterest of rivals treasure the compelling power of the racing bond. Every true racer feels remorse, but wouldn't think of showing any sign of emotion–when their enemy’s auto show perfect machine met with an untimely concrete collision.
Racing is so unique that it has its own language–mess with us and we will fire a warning shot–fool with us and we will take off your head. True racers can spend an entire evening in the shop and speak volumes without uttering even one audible word. In a racer’s shop, there is a poetry of information that is often spoken with a single head nod, a curled eyebrow or a subtle shoulder shrug. Clattering wrenches keep rhythm with the cycle of the week–Saturday night comes each and every weekend during racing season.
Drivers too have their own silent language. Chrome horns spank the child in front of them and hand gestures wave a thousand messages to those passing by. A subtle right turn leaves a tire mark on the competitor’s door–a rubber zero clearly communicates the opinion for the duration of the night. Those who push the window too hard are given a firm squeeze into the outside wall shortening one day and lengthening six nights.
From the comfort of the crushed velvet seat in my dad's van, and the fabulous puddle in turn 1, I learned that we simply race for fun. True racers know that just having fun is reason enough to sacrifice normal behavior in exchange for another Saturday night fix. Since we are all still ten at heart, why look for the fickle and elusive golden door of corporate magic? If we want clean fun, we just need to remember Dirty Dan–he had fun–and he found gold right here at home.
Go Forward – Move Ahead.