What could be cooler than going to the dirt track races in the middle of Iowa?
I had gotten into town on Friday night and while I was getting dinner, I was asked if I was here for the races. I didn’t know anything about the races, but I did remember that Carl and I had found a Nascar sanctioned track somewhere along the route back in 2006. With the gates open, we had taken our heavily laden Suburban and done a few, albeit cautious, laps!
I was informed that the races were every Saturday night, on that same track, but I wasn’t sure I could afford the extra time in one town. Later, while talking with my wife-it’s great to have someone in the wings, that isn’t caught up in what is actually going on, to give perspective–she reminded me that I had built in several days of slop for just this sort of thing. As I thought about it, I realized that I could run up the road during the day tomorrow and come back for the evening races and not really lose that much time anyway.
When I got to the races, I paid my pit fee and was given forms to fill out, including an assignment of all right to any photograph I made to Nascar! Well, I balked at that and when I spoke to the head guy, he saw my camera and decided to toss the form and give me a press pass. He assured me that they had no interest in the rights to my photographs.
Getting across the track to the pits was a bit of a challenge. The water trucks had over watered the track and it was a slippery mud bog. I carefully skated across and somehow got to the pits without falling on my ass.
The first people I met were driver Paul and his brother and crew chief, Todd. Although busy getting the car ready, Paul took quite a bit of time to get me oriented to the happenings. Visually, there were several obviously different classes of cars, with Paul racing in the Late Model division. Others included Hobby Stock, Pro Stock and Modified.
Now, I have actually had various connections to racing over the years and know a little about the sport, but I have to admit that like the masses, what makes racing most interesting to me are the bumps and grinds! Of course, you never want anyone to get hurt, but just watching a bunch of guys go in circles can get pretty boring after the novelty of the roar and the flying dirt wears off! So, here on a dirt track, I expected chaos and when I asked Paul about it, I got a very practical, but disappointing answer. I mean we are not talking big, well funded race teams here. These guys come from towns where the average income is $20-30,000 for a family. So Paul’s answer should have been predictable, they try to avoid contact as much as possible because they can’t afford to be replacing their cars! Paul’s family might be a bit better off, they own an auto dealership (county population is only 5000 though!). Cars in Paul’s division probably range in the $30-50000 range, with Paul’s at the high end (he has two of them). Apparently, it was significant that his engine was all steel, which must be a good thing as it seemed to be cited as the reason for the higher investment.
(This financial thing sort of explained that even though they would fly through the corners in 4 wheel slides and at odd angles, the racing would almost come to a stop if there was a crowd until they hit the straight away again when it would be more of a drag race at times.)
After awhile, I started walking around and meeting other drivers. Everyone was pretty occupied with what they were doing, but always took time to answer a question and to say hello as I walked by. There was a certain sense that, like in most things, there were those that were very serious and those that were there for the social event. Most likely the latter being those that don’t fare quite as well in the races.
Maybe one of the more interesting things that happened, repeatedly, was that when I asked to take a photograph of one of the drivers, they would cop the same pose! Paul didn’t do it, and I certainly wasn’t ready for it, but there they were, kneeling by the door, hand on the window.
My intent with this portrait work is to not interfere with what the person does, but this took all my strength to not say “WTF are you doing!” Anyway, it just seemed to be a driver thing, although, fortunately, some were much more relaxed about it.
The event is broken up into 3 parts, probably to give the people in the stands their monies worth. First, each of the 4 classes do “hot laps”. Kind of like a practice session to get a sense of the track conditions and to make any last minute changes to suspension and tire pressures etc. Next, there are heats to determine who will be in the main event and to determine, I thought, the order in which they would start. Of course, sometimes there are not enough cars to fill out the field and so all move on.
I should note here that I was told that racers come in from Illinois, Nebraska and Kansas to race here. But then you have to remember that some of these counties have just 5000 people in them, so the populations is pretty sparse in these here parts!
When the Hot Laps were first called, the pits became a bit more dangerous to just be walking around in. Cars darted out of their slots and the dust made it almost impossible to see and someone like me, wandering, sod fodder–so I carefully maneuvered my way back to the sanctuary of Paul and Todd’s hauler!
Being in the pits is pretty cool, but when the races started, I realized why there weren’t more spectators out there. Unless you get invited up onto the top of someone’s hauler, as I was, you can’t see anything. Also, watching from the stands, you see the whole track and other than movement akin to watching tennis, it is a pretty sedate activity. Out here, you have to rotate your body around or snap your head back and forth in 300 degree swings to actually watch the race. Standing on top of the hauler, with no railing, there were times I was afraid I would stumble off in a dizzy stupor. Since there were no vendors out here, I was missing having a beer while watching, but that would have possibly been fatal.
Paul had been the points leader in his class until the previous week when a suspension part failed during his heat and he could not race in the feature. So his qualifying heat tonight was going to be important to him to get a good starting position for the race. Fortunately, he won by a wide margin and things were looking good.
Later, he found out that he would be starting dead last! Because these guys don’t bump and grind through the turns, it is hard to work your way through the crowd. This starting position pretty much assured a poor finish. Needless to say, there were many expletives flying around the pit. Although I generally came down from atop the hauler between heats, I stayed put this time to allow the steam to settle before getting back in everyone’s way again. No one could actually explain Paul’s being put at the end of the field to me.
During the intermission, before the feature races, they held a kiddie bike race on the front stretch. Now, I am talking 4 and 5 year olds on this dirt track and they were starting so far away from the finish line that you could hardly see them! I felt like there was something akin to sadistic pleasure being had by someone. One manic kid took off while I am not sure any others ever made it to the finish line. The older kids did seem to fare a bit better as a group.
But this is when it hit me, and I had noticed it in the earlier races as well, no one in the stands clapped or cheered–even for the kids! When I got back to the hauler, I asked Paul about this. I don’t think I got an answer. Certainly, there were a few making some noise, like Paul’s girlfriend, but the majority just sat there. I guess it was just another Saturday night at the races.
But then, there was a wreck right in front of the stands and miraculously, there was life! Everyone was standing and after I made sure the driver was alright, I turned my attention to something in the pits down below. All of the sudden the stands erupted, there were cheers and yelling and laughing! I asked what was going on. Apparently, the wrecked driver got out of his car, went to the backstretch where the rest of the field had been held and started to beat the crap out of the driver that caused him to wreck. Yes, the real Nascar does still exist!
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