Auto Racing: Not about the cars
By Eric M
15 Dec 2008
I arrived late to the track. It was dark and cold. I was prepared. I had my tent, photo gear and a pack of smokes.
Perhaps it's my nature to seek out humans before anything else but I found myself driving the infield of the track for half an hour looking for people I knew. I stopped by an enclosed trailer with a classic Mustang ominously lit by the flickering light above. I asked the short man with a beard if he knew whom I was looking for. He grunted and pointed down the road and assured me I'd find them, "that way".
To no avail I settled on a flat piece of land near the bleachers to set up my tent and make camp. The sound of open exhaust bellowed in the distance as I wrestled with the web of netting in the tent with only the light of my headlights aiding my fumbling. Before I could get the first stake in the ground I heard voices behind me. Three people stood hovering above me, holding a cold drink.
"Need a hand?" One quizzed me.
Putting my pride aside as it was getting cold, I sheepishly agreed to the help. The said they felt my pain trying to put a tent up in the cold and darkness.
When we were happy with our work they invited me over to their camper and offered me a stiff drink and showed off the chandelier they installed in their car tent balanced delicately over two Triumphs. I chuckled to myself, 'what a British thing to do'.
I asked them if they knew any of the people I had driven 3 hours to come and see. They too had seen my buddies and had lost track of them.
You see, the racing community is small and tight knit. This night and the following morning, I would learn this quite well.
I left the friendly camp of American born British racers and saw a friendly face in a parked RV. I knocked on the door and found one set of friends. They eagerly invited me in offered me a soda. We talked about life and cars. The parallels in the two are too many to expound on, suffice to say the intertwining of life and autos is very apparent here. Being able to talk to people after a long lonely car ride was refreshing and energized me for the next day.
We said our goodbyes and I returned to my tent. My rest was terrible, I was cold and the ground hurt. I awoke to the sound of race cars warming their engines. The pulse and pounding of the large cam thumps rang inside my little tent.
I exited my tent and found my camp site rested nicely on the only gravel patch within 100 yards of my camp. I suddenly realized that due to the darkness and confusion I had set up directly on quarter sized rocks. No wonder my back hurt so badly. I sneered at my idiocy at setting up camp and grabbed my gear and returned to my friends RV. They were awake and had an inviting tone.
It was cold and brisk that morning. Another friend sneaked me into the drivers meeting. That friend left me to my own devices as he rushed about behind the scenes. As past SCCA President for the region, this was a big day for him.
I looked at all the unknown faces and listened to the race auditor tell the folks good places to pass and to play it cool in certain areas.
The meeting concluded with people rushing to their cars to make it on the track on time. I made my way to a good spot over a bridge to catch the action. Another photog was there at my spot and we exchanged info about cameras before the action started. She was friendly as everyone else and I felt relaxed.
The cars took the track, roaring past our station. She grabbed my arm and shook me violently screaming, "I love this!"
I laughed and snapped more pictures.
Another man approached me carrying a stop watch. He bragged about how fast his car was on this new track.
I made my way back down to the paddock after the race. Like the swallows to Capestrano, the photogs congregated in a small triangle, as there were only 3 of us. We traded gear information and envy for the one guy with the big expensive looking white lens. He was friendly and shared his information freely.
I walked back to my friends RV and watched as him and his son set up their Firebird. I joined his wife in the warm RV and we exchanged pleasantries. As always, she was gracious and welcoming; I look forward to returning each time.
Later, as I roamed the track, I was told by the event organizer to check out Turn 3. I drove over in that direction and found a skinny man in a shack. I yelled to him to get his attention. He invited me over. He was decked out in a white fire suit and blaze orange vest. He was a corner worker.
He allowed me to stay in the shack and take pictures. Another friendly person, I thought. I stood and shivered there for a few of the hot laps and made my way back to my car to warm up. Driving back to the paddock I had a sense of confidence. Everyone was willing to talk with me. It was more of a giant social gathering with the pretense of auto racing as the lubricant.
At noon there was a memorial at turn ten for a local racer who had lost his life recently. A large group gathered to watch the ceremony and show their condolences. Another racer walked arm in arm with the widow, escorting her back off the track.
Despite the rain, the howling winds and bitter cold. It was hard to miss the human element ever present in the air.
I made my way back to the RV, my shoes soaked with rain water and my back heavy with moisture. Again I was welcomed in with open arms. I was abruptly greeted by the wives club. 6 women sharing stories of their husbands and what it was like to be 'racing wives'. Some of it was funny and some of it endearing. But, all of it was human and that made me smile.
After sufficiently warming up I left the RV and lit a cigarette and found an open car hauler with people talking in a circle. I did not know these people and no one batted an eye as I brazenly joined the circle and said nothing. Again, I was offered a soda and no one knew my name.
I finally spoke up and thanked the owner of the trailer for the soda and left to go track side and take photos. It was still raining and people were milling about. I found a face I knew and joined his group.
The old bearded man perpetually smoking, hobbled toward the barrier and grunted to the top of the cement wall. He waved the checkered flag and gave every passing car the thumbs up. A small and often missed little sign of encouragement from the flag man. I learned later that the flag man had lost his leg in a racing accident many years earlier, but made sure to come to every event to wave the flag and give the racers the thumbs-up. (I later emailed the flag waver his photo and told me that in the 30+ years he's been doing it, no one has taken his photo. He was so happy that he told me to email him next time I was in town so he could give me a pass to anywhere on the track and anywhere I wanted to go.)
Drenched and tired I packed up camp and left for home. The three hour car ride home alone was plenty of time to reflect on what had just happened.
I had come for the cars and the racing, but left with hundreds of new friends. People might try and sell you on the fact that racing is "left on the track", but the real story is off the track. The people who make it all possible, the wives, the racers, the corner workers and the race coordinators. Every last person creates the atmosphere and emboldens everyone around them.