Click for Larger Image
"HEY DRIVER, CAN WE GET AN AUTOGRAPH FOR THE KID OVER HERE?" That's really nice, I thought, as I jogged back to my seat high in Flat Rock Speedway's main grandstand. What a great dad, getting an autograph for his son or daughter from a local racing star. I hope that driver takes a moment to stop and sign that.
"HEY, DRIVER!" came the call again, and then once more, this time with a barely concealed touch of anger. What was going on? Who was this son-of-a-bitch, and why wouldn't he take a moment to sign something for some poor kid? It wasn't until I was a few hundred feet away and halfway up a long set of steps, clutching my HANS Device in my left hand and my carbon-fiber Impact! helmet in my right, that I realized that:
- the "driver" at whom the father was yelling was me;
- and as a consequence, I had just ruined some child's evening;
- and that furthermore, to avoid said child's angry father, I should figure out another route to leave the grandstands at the end of the night.
Oh, damn. Still, the thought of it - that I was a potential signer of autographs for children, a hero, a role model, a veritable Tony Stewart of the small oval. Amazing. For a moment, I stood still, looked around me, taking in the fact that more than five thousand people had paid good, solid money to see me race. See! Me! Race! Me! Here, in the heartland of America, I had driven my heart out in an honest-to-goodness circle-track car, running at the ragged edge in a supremely skilled effort and demonstrating in rather Montoya-esque fashion that a road racer can step into the world of the ARCA Four Cylinder Class, presented by David's Jewelry and, if not dominate, at least compete with honor. Yes, I was a driver, and quite a driver at that. I stood, facing the crowd, and opened my arms to embrace this uniquely American experience.
"THANK YOU!" I shouted.
"SIT DOWN, YOU JACKASS!" came the response. "I CAN'T SEE THE SCHOOL BUSES!"
It's true: the crowd at the Flat Rock Speedway numbered well over five thousand people, so many that the traffic backed up four miles to the freeway exit and anybody unlucky enough to be in the tail end of that traffic had to settle for a "seat" consisting of a wet patch of grass on a hill next to the main grandstand. The "Night of Destruction" event on that Saturday evening showed that a local circle track could still pack 'em in, even in the current economic conditions, even with free Sprint Cup racing on television every weekend, even with gas at four dollars a gallon or more. There were four classes running for the crowd's amusement: a group of approximately thirty "Legends" racers, which are tube-frame 7/8-scale cars powered by motorcycle engines, a "Factory Stock" class consisting mostly of Eighties Monte Carlos, the "4 Cylinder" class in which your humble editor was competing, and the main attraction of the night, Figure Eight Schoolbus Racing With Fireworks, which is exactly what it sounds like.
If you missed our last article on four-cylinder stock racing, allow me to catch you up right quick, as we stock-car racers say. ARCA, which is both the sanctioning body for, and owner of, the Flat Rock Speedway, has a rental program to provide prospective stock-car racers with a sneak peek at competition. Fifty bucks gets you twenty practice laps on Flat Rock's quarter-mile oval in a four-cylinder Ford Tempo stock car, and three hundred gets you into a real race. While my practice day didn't go quite as well as I'd hoped, mostly because of minor car prep issues combined with, er, my own staggering inability to drive on an oval track, there was no way I was going to pass up a chance to run a real race, particularly for three hundred bucks. Given that the costs to rent something like a Spec Miata to race a NASA weekend would be in the range of four thousand dollars if you don't damage the car, the prospect of participating in an authentic American racing event for less than one-tenth of that was too tempting a prospect to pass up.
And that's how I found myself pulling out onto the oval for that time-honored ritual of single-car qualifying. That's right - just like in NASCAR, I'd have just two laps to qualify, during which the eyes of over five thousand popcorn-munching race fans would follow my every move. I knew that my Tempo wasn't exactly a "Hendrick car" in the world of 4-Cylinders; with eighty-eight horsepower on its best day, said best day being long behind it, we'd face a tough struggle against the 110-horse Split Port Injection Foci and eight-valve Ecotec Cavaliers which are also legal in the class, not to mention a 2.5-liter Dodge Shadow which looked to be about as fast as the eight-cylinder Factory Stock cars. I'd need a qualifying time in the high fourteen-second range to sit on the front row, so I burst past the green flag in maximum attack mode, the outside rear tire burning itself to death against the fender, the steering wheel wiggling in my hands like a cornered raccoon...
...and the motor cut out. It just plain cut out. Oh no. A glance at the fuel gauge confirmed my suspicions. I was below a quarter-tank. MY CREW SENT ME OUT TOO LIGHT! Not that I had much of a "crew", mind you, just one genial fellow who responded to all my comments about potential changes to the car with the same air of benign disbelief, but still, I'd have to change my strategy. The scoreboard showed 16.9, not even close to good enough. I needed to drive around the problem for the second lap, managing the banking and the g-force in such a way as to avoid starving the fuel pickup, slacking the wheel on corner exit to let the tank slosh back a bit for the run down the front straight...
...and I got a 15.9. Still not good enough. As I leaned dejectedly against the fence, my competitors turned a string of 14.9s and 15.2s. When the dust cleared, I'd qualified fifth out of nine - not bad, but not good, either, particularly given that the opening "heat race" would be just Eight. Freakin. Laps. That's two miles!
Approximately an hour later, it was time for the heat race. Here's how it works: the cars line up out on the track in qualifying order, they are sent around for two warmup laps, and when the green flag flies, it's time to go. Simple as that. Those of you who have followed my road-racing career (hi, Mom!) know that I'm not much of a starter. More than once, I've qualified at the front of a race and fallen back two or three rows before the first turn. I have an utter phobia of being "that guy" - you know, the driver who jumps the start and forces the starter to wave off the flag, at which point you have a whole 2.2-mile parade lap (longer, I remind you, that this entire oval race would last) in which the other drivers have nothing to do but think about how much they hate your stinking guts. Nope, I'm a lousy starter in club racing - but after competing in two 24 Hours of Lemons races, one of which I won, I've gotten pretty decent at circle-track starts. The key is to floor it coming out of Turn 4 and hope they wave the green. If they don't, you'll hit the guy ahead of you. Not so hot. Still, given that my rental contract specifically included bumper damage as "normal wear and tear", I felt good about my chances.
By the time the green flag waved, I was two inches off the back of the third-place car, and I took a chance on an outside line followed by an early pinch into Turn One to close the door. My "pinch" turned into more of a "completely slammed door", and that's how I found myself in second place at the exit of Turn Two. Hey! Not bad! The first-place car - a 110-horsepower Escort ZX2, which might as well be a Riley-Ford Daytona Prototype compared to my Tempo - was already six car lengths ahead, but I could at least hold on to second, right?
Click for Larger Image
I sure tried. Knowing that I was slower than nearly everybody behind me, I settled on a unique line which consisted of a broad sweep out of Turns Two and Four to hold off the outside cars, followed by a sharp dive to the white line (or the dirt below it) in One and Three to stop the inside cars. It was hell on the poor Tempo, which was stuttering and smoking on the corner exits, and the tires were starting to give up. On the seventh lap, I couldn't hold the Ford down to my desired exit arc and I found myself drifting way high towards the starter's tower. A red Focus steamed by me like Jeff Gordon running past Kyle Petty, and just like that, I was down into third. Only by trail-braking the Tempo sideways on the final lap and effectively terrifying the pack behind me was I able to hold that place past the checkered. Not bad! A podium in my first circle-track race. Time to head up to the grandstands and watch the schoolbuses race.
This video is twelve seconds long. You should watch it.
The argument as to which form of racing is "best" has raged ever since Barney Oldfield gave up bicycles to drive "Number 999", but allow me to put the debate to rest right now: figure-eight schoolbus racing is the highest form of motorsport in existence. The talent required to drive a tired old bus at the very edge of tipping over while still avoiding a head-on collision once every twenty seconds of so, and at the same time fighting for position with seven other maniacs - it's not trivial. And while the drivers are clearly there to have fun, they're also competitors in the truest sense. They want to win, plain and simple.
Click for Larger Image
They also want to please the crowd, and that's why guys like Ray "The Animal" Gaddis go through the trouble of selecting the fastest possible schoolbus, painting it bright pink, and putting dozens of electronically activated fireworks on the roof. This ain't NASCAR, where spectators are caught in the uncomfortable moral quandary of wanting to see a big wreck while simultaneously hoping that each driver will go home alive and safe - it's figure-eight schoolbus racing. Wrecks, head-on collisions, fire, and dramatic, thundering flopovers are all part and parcel of the package. It's a heck of a good time, for both drivers and spectators, and it stands in shining, perfect contrast to the cynical big-money circuses put on by Max "Whip Me Baby One More Time" Mosley and his ilk. Caught up in the excitement of the bumper-bangin' buses, I almost forgot that I had one more race of my own to run before the night was out.
Click for Larger Image
It was time to run under the lights for the twenty-lap "feature" race. There was real money at stake - $500 to the winner, as I recall - and everybody had their game faces on as we lined up for the out lap. I wasn't naive; I knew that I couldn't hold on to a high place for twenty laps. There were simply too many passing opportunities out there for cars which had new tires (that's right, the best 4-Cylinder guys swap tires for the feature race) and up to thirty more horsepower. The best I could do was hold on and try to bring the little Tempo home with pride.
At the green flag, I was crowded out and tossed to the back of the pack, where I immediately got into a closely pitched battle with a yellow Chevy Nova. No, not the classic V-8 "compact" Nova! The one built by NUMMI! You know, the four-cylinder one! That was like a Corolla! But even worse! Before I could even fight for a podium, I had to dispense with this well-driven little hatchback - but a few hard squeezes down to the line going into Turn Three put me into seventh place or so with fifteen laps or so to go. And then, a miracle occurred. The red Focus got into trouble on the next lap, running into the dirt and causing a Days of Thunder-style confusion on the entrance to Turn Four. I would need to do what Cole Trickle did - drive through it - and I found myself in fifth place on the far side. Five car lengths ahead of me was a black Escort LX, a car which I had seen drive consistent 15.1-second laps in qualifying.
Let's talk seriously about racing for a moment. There's a time in most wheel-to-wheel races where there's nothing you can do but relax, clear your head, and drive your line the best way you can. That's the only way you'll ever catch the guy ahead of you. In the movies, the driver gets angry, scowls, and dramatically shifts into the next gear, but in reality, the only way to put time on the car ahead or behind you is to calm down and perfect your craft. I had ten laps to catch him.
For six laps I drove with micrometer precision - at least by my standards. Inch-perfect on every entrance and exit, relaxing my hands, putting the car on the track in strict accordance with my pre-visualized plan. Time stretched in my mind. The laps seemed to take minutes - but the Escort drew ever closer, until I found myself on his rear bumper. Time to make a move. I dove low, he matched the move, and I slugged the 'Scort right in the license plate bracket, knocking him ahead and stealing my momentum. The red Focus appeared from nowhere, but I cut him hard and sent him packing a length or two behind me. Four laps left now. I needed more than precision now. I needed that little bit of Senna - or maybe Dale Sr. I spent the next two laps catching back up, and then it was time to make it happen like Mariah Carey.
On the entrance to Turn One, I trail-braked my Tempo into the dirt and made the same move hard, pushing the Escort up with a ferocious "clang" of fenders. He was beside me, and he didn't give up. Once, twice, three times he thumped angrily into my door as the entrance to Three came up. I let the car drift in with a light touch of the left foot and powered out early, cutting off his faster car on the exit. The white flag flew and all I had to do was hold off an angry driver in a better car. One lap later, we crossed the line side-by-side - but I was a clear fender in front. Fourth place, thank you very much.
It was with a light heart that I ran back to the grandstand (disappointing a child on the way, apparently) to cheer on the pink buses of Suburban Oil to victory - but in the end it was the blue "Camping World" rig, piloted by some fellow from the SPEED Channel, which took the checkered. Five-thousand-plus people cheered in unison. This is real racing, held in front of people who love the sport of automobile racing as much as any frou-frou Miata driver with a big "ALMS" sticker on his bumper ever did. My blue-and-yellow Tempo sat abandoned in the pitlane, a cascade of fresh dents covering every fender and door, but although it looked sad, I knew that for just a few glorious moments that night, it had been a real live stock car, racing under the lights before a cheering crowd of thousands - and I had been a real live stock car driver. Yup, that David's Jewelry ARCA Ford Tempo was runnin' good out there tonight. I gotta thank the crew, my family, and all the fans out there. In the meantime, I'm going to practice my autograph - you know, so the next time a kid wants a moment or two with a real racing hero, I'll be ready.
Interested in more ARCA action from that night? Check out the official event results here, and take a peek at a video of the whole figure-eight bus feature race!