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Story by Jack Baruth – Photography by the endlessly patient Michelle Baruth

It’s been said that NASCAR’s single-car qualifying is perhaps the most stressful few minutes in motorsport. You’re all alone out there, the sole focus of every track official, every competing team and driver, the thousands of fans in the stands, all the cameras – it’s murder. And yet until this very moment, as I dive into the first turn at Michigan’s Flat Rock Speedway in a tired old Ford Tempo, all by myself on the track, the only show in town, I hadn’t really understood what it might be like. The little quarter-mile bullring is lined with seasoned old oval veterans, leaning casually against the track’s catch-fencing, making the most economical hand gestures possible while speaking in a manner which combines vicious twang and brutal understatements, (e.g. “You mess up like that again and you’re like to hit the wall and crack up a bit”) all idly Staring. Directly. At. Me. They are staring at me and my little Tempo, chugging around the track, and I don’t think any of them are inwardly characterizing me as “the next Kasey Kahne”.

Plus the right rear tire is rubbing itself to violent death against the fender, and I think the car’s leaking gasoline again. I reflect for a moment about the solid two and a half minutes it took me to get into this car, and I wonder about how long those minutes will seem if this sucker catches aflame, and how the locals will laconically characterize my fiery demise. “He was fixin’ to burn up there.”

“Yup. Sure was.”

“And then he did burn right up. Didn’t even bother to get outta the car. Wonder why that was.”


How’d I get into this situation? Who’s stupid enough to rent a race car when the rental fee is a measly fifty bucks?

I’ll admit it, and I don’t care who hears me: I love NASCAR. Well, sometimes the races drag a bit for my taste, and I really wish they didn’t use a common template, and it annoys me when the drivers mention their sponsors in rapid-fire fashion. Perhaps I’m more in love with the idea of NASCAR – of old-fashioned, true-blue American oval racing, done right in the heartland, thousands of miles away from pansy-ass California Porsche Club racers and their pansy-assed “13/13” rule that penalizes drivers for hitting each other. A penalty! For a little light contact! What is this, synchronized swimming? The hell with that. Give me big engines, the smell of hot oil, and the chance to put your foot on the other guy’s neck right in front of G-d and everybody.

That ain’t NASCAR – not anymore. But it still exists. It’s called ARCA and it’s happening at short ovals around the country. For those of us who pine for old-fashioned American racing, ARCA is just the ticket, whether you’re interested in the “RE/MAX” Series, which is considered a ladder series on the way to NASCAR and is really quite a professional affair, or the bizarre-looking, thunder-loud “Late Model” cars which are just affordable enough for the local bodyshop’s owner to run on a Saturday night. I wanted to give this ARCA thing a shot, wanted to see if I could be the next “hairy American money-making machine” and deliver hilariously wooden performances in detergent advertisements. After all, I’d already won the 24 Hours of Lemons once, and that was kind of an oval race. I’ve also run on road courses around the world, from Mid-Ohio, to Mosport, to the deadly Nordschleife. How tough could this ARCA business be?

I started by calling a couple of RE/MAX teams, figuring their rental fees for a weekend’s worth of racing might be in line with NASA or SCCA rates – which is to say, between three and eight grand depending on class and race length. Forget it. To run ARCA RE/MAX is a $15K proposition, minimum, and even if you show ’em the color of your money, nobody wants to be the first team to put a rookie out there in their rather expensive and delicately tuned stock car. “How many races you run?” was a common question, to which I replied,

“Well, I’ve raced plenty of road races, and I always watch Montoya on ESPN. The coverage is excellent.” This was usually followed shortly by the sound of the other guy hanging up. A day of calling around and sending e-mails made one thing plain: if I wanted to race a stock car, I was gonna have to set my sights a little lower than the RE/MAX series. Make that a lot lower.

Which brought me to the “4 Cylinder” class and ARCA’s innovative program to put complete idiots such as myself behind the wheel of a quasi-authentic stock car for their first-ever oval race. The rental car is an automatic-transmission Ford Tempo coupe which, I am assured, has won a race in the past, although that may have been the famed “Night of Flaming Four Cylinders”, where only one driver survived to take the checker, primarily because he had spent the first few laps on pit road, trying to start the car. But I digress. It’s a race car and it runs, and it might even be competitive. The rental fee? Three hundred bucks.

That’s right. A Grand-Am ST car costs $12,500 a weekend, an American Iron car can run seven grand. Even a lowly Spec Focus starts at $3000 for a three-day event. But this Tempo could be mine to race for three bills. What’s the catch? Surely they’ll screw me on damage liability. I’ve paid a few big-buck damage bills in the past, for damage to rent-a-racers that looked positively cosmetic. Yet when the contract arrived, it listed “normal, included damage” as “fenders, bumpers, doors”. What the hell? The phrase “fenders are free” hasn’t been a part of racing since Norbert Singer deliberately misinterpreted the FIA’s rules to create Porsche’s “Moby Dick” racer. I signed the contract and send it back, but not before I circled the part about free crash damage twice and initialed every word.

Still, I had a concern. With no experience of oval racing, how could I learn something ahead of time? Again, ARCA had the answer. “Show up on Saturday,” they said, “and you can practice for fifty bucks.” Fifty bucks! Needless to say, I was there with bells on.

Maybe not with bells on, but complete with all of my favorite road-racing gear, borrowed from our departed road test cyborg, Mr. Roboto. Ol’ Roboto’s been out of contact for a while, and judging by our reader feedback, he won’t be back any time soon. So I cheerfully donned his Impact! carbon-fiber helmet and walked through the gate. And everybody stared at me.

Why was everybody staring at me? Well, to begin with, by local standards I was dressed kind of oddly, in a suspiciously oil-free driving suit resplendent with Nurburgring, PCA and NASA patches, not to mention my rather, er, ambiguous-looking Michael Schumacher-edition FILA race shoes. Also, I was approximately eight times as large as every other racer there. In my utter ignorance of short-oval events, I’d assumed that ARCA racers were all tubby Jimmie Spencer clones, but in practice they were short, fit, serious-looking fellows, kind of like all the young “Superstars of NASCAR” who look like they could hide behind Felipe Massa with no difficulty. By contrast, I’m 6’2″ and 225 pounds. That’s a lie. It’s more like 238 at the moment. Which explained why the nice man from ARCA seemed a little bit concerned about my chances of successfully getting in the Tempo.

Does it say “PATIENCE” in there? The whole race only lasts ten minutes! How much patience do you need?

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“Are you gonna fit in there?” he asked. And, truth be told, upon my first external inspection the interior of the Tempo seemed a touch cramped, with an extremely narrow stock-car seat featuring claustrophobic right-side head protection and what looked like about ten inches between the steering wheel and the likely position of my windpipe. I wasn’t worried, though. What they didn’t know was that I’m an expert in squeezing into tiny race car interiors, whether we’re talking about my stint in Steve Poe’s hilariously cramped CMC Mustang last year (Mr. Poe is about 5’7″ and very svelte, and it fits him just fine, I would add) or my own Green Baron Motorsports Neon ACR, which is no Fleetwood Brougham on the inside, I tell ya.

“I’ll be fine,” was my smug response, as I pulled the door handle. Nothing happened. Now it was his turn to be smug.

“That handle doesn’t do anything. You gotta go in through the window.” Oh noes. That’s how the Dukes of Hazzard got into their stock car . But the Dukes had a full-sized Charger. This is a very compact Tempo. Oh noes.

Just a few minutes later I was properly seated and ready to drive – of course, those few minutes had involved some amazingly dramatic contortions and a few on-the-fly modifications to the seat performed with hand tools, not to mention the knife we used to remove all of the padding. Still, I was in the car. The driving would be easy. Right? It’s a Ford freakin’ Tempo. I drove over to the “wait line”. Ahead of me, the Late Models snarled with manic aggression. Four at a time, they went out onto the track, thundering furiously and turning the quarter-mile track into one solid tire-smoking drift, ten laps at a time, and they were done.

Ow. Ow. Ow. No, I’m fine. Getting in here just fine. Ow.

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Finally it was my turn, and I was waved out, alone, onto the empty track. Did you know that all you do on a short oval is turn left? I mean, it sounds like it’s obvious, but I hadn’t considered the fact that I would be turning left at all times, in this noisy broom closet of a little Tempo, with a steering wheel jammed into my chest and a decent-sized crowd of actual ARCA racers standing on the fence discussing my completely obvious lack of oval-racing talent. I could actually see them shaking their heads with disapproval! It really didn’t surprise me when they black-flagged my session after four or five laps. I assumed I was being black-flagged for, well, sucking.

Not quite. Turns out the little Tempo was so chock-full of fuel it was spraying some out of the filler neck. Also, the right fender was hitting the tire hard enough to create what one spectator described as a “mosquito fogger” effect. In road racing, this would be enough to call it a day, but the ARCA fellows simply took a set of pliers and destroyed the rear fender right before my eyes, creating the necessary clearance. Before I knew it, I was cleared to squeeze back in the Tempo and try my luck again.

Ooh, I’m smokin’ the rear tire! Well, the fender is smokin’ the rear tire, anyway.

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This time, I resolved to push the car and really make something happen. Flat Rock’s banking offers a deceptively high grip level, and I ran the Tempo right to the limits of the squealing front tires while faithfully copying the lines used by the Late Model hotshots. I got used to the idea of looking permanently to the left, letting my eyes lead the car into the bottom “groove” of the track. I wasn’t going very quickly, judging by the utterly unimpressed expressions out there on the fences, but I wasn’t slacking, either.

Without warning, the back end started to get way active, leading me to suspect my faithful Ford was once again spraying fuel on the rear wheels, so I brought the it in after just eight laps. Eight laps, by the way, is apparently the length of the “heat races” for 4-Cylinder cars at Flat Rock. In other words, in the same time it takes for a road race to run the out lap behind the pace car, the circle-trackers are started and done. Finished. Adios. That’s racing for you. It’s probably five minutes. Seems like a long time when you’re out there, though. And if you make it through the heat races, you get to run the twenty-lap feature, which probably takes all of eleven minutes. Leave your enduro catheters at home, folks.

Good news: it turns out that there wasn’t anything wrong with the little Tempo. In my haste to imitate the Late Model superstars, I’d also picked up the marbles they’d left out on the “high line”, causing my right rear tire to acquire a solid coating of scummy, slick rubber. And thus my day of going fast and turning left came to an end, more or less without going fast at all. I went to thank the ARCA fellow, who had worn a rather worried expression during my entire stewardship of the car and who seemed quite relieved to have the circus bear out of his property and heading towards the exit gate. “You comin’ back for the race?” he asked.

Am I coming back? Hell, given that the race nights feature everything from cheap hot dogs to figure-eight school bus racing, I’m tempted to come back just as a spectator. In the long run, though, spectating isn’t quite my style. Instead, I’ll be there on race night with my helmet and my three hundred bucks clenched in a sweating palm, ready to match my wits and fenders against the finest 4-Cylinder competitors in northwest Ohio. This isn’t racing as I know it, but it’s definitely racing, and I’m not ready to admit defeat yet. Instead of Flat Rock’s quarter-mile oval, I’ll be running at the half-mile Toledo Speedway. Should give me a chance to run that little Tempo up to the ragged edge. If you’ve ever wanted to race – if you’ve ever wanted to be the man in the arena, rather than the potato on the couch – I suggest you try it as well. One word of advice ahead of time: you ain’t gonna learn nothin’ from ESPN.

Interested in racing the Tempo yourself? Check out the details here. You won’t regret it!

Once you start to put it together, driving the oval is genuinely satisfying. I haven’t put it together yet.

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Jack Baruth

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