Race Day

Cars, smoke, consumption and the quest for speed at the Acres


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At one o'clock on a bright blue Saturday afternoon, the howling hasn't yet started. There is a lazy gold aspect to everything, a hint of harshness in the glare off the machinery rolling gradually out of trailers and into the pits. People make themselves quietly busy. Superficially they're calm, but clearly anticipatory. Lawn chairs and conversations unfold as adjustments are made. The enclosed trailers yawn open, disgorging the machines and parts and pit crews and tool boxes that will make this thing happen. It's race day.

A thin lady with a husky voice, hair pulled back under an Acres cap, the crisp crease of a hard-pack distinct on the hip pocket of her white jeans, is in control of the public address system. She keys the mic, calls in the course workers, who gather around her in a loose knot and listen quietly while she lays out the schedule for the afternoon. Practice gets underway at 2:30 starting with the slowest class and moving up progressively through the faster ones. Until then, it'll be all checklists and nervous energy.

A certain strain of Humboldt gear-head has been congregating at Redwood Acres since 1947. At its inception, the Acres was a true dirt track, attracting mildly modified midgets, roadsters and hard tops. In these heady days, just before a national sanctioning body was established, stock car racing was still a distinctly local affair. One could draw a line connecting a great number of tiny tracks all over the United States and follow it back to its point of origin. This type of racing traces its lineage directly to outlaw culture, to the hills and hollers of the American South.

Not surprisingly,
ratification of the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920, outlawing the production, transport and sale of alcoholic beverages, did nothing to curb a consummately thirsty nation's proclivities. Rather, it drove the booze trade underground and turned it into big business. In the northern cities, organized crime established a foothold in the name-brand liquor game. But in the sleepy, sweaty backwaters of the South, former hobbyist distillers cranked up production of their own volatile potions. Inherent risk and unceasing demand made for a lucrative industry, but transportation quickly became a problem. It was only a matter of time before the Feds started sniffing around the revenue stream. The Bureau of Prohibition, an arm of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, falling under the auspices of the Department of the Treasury, fell on the bootleggers in force, particularly in the Appalachian region. Being, as federal agents generally are, well-funded and better-equipped, these "revenuers" had little trouble running down their prey, who transported their wares by automobile on mountainous backroads. The ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of the rum-runners won out, though, as they began modifying and lightening their cars to outrun pursuers. Hot rodding, and by extension "stock car" racing, was born.

A couple of decades on, the 21st Amendment had undone the folly of prohibition. The nation was surging forward on the momentum of the second World War. In a period of unparalleled prosperity and internal expansion, American car culture entered a fecund, fire-breathing adolescence. Returning GIs with mechanical aptitude, a taste for speed and a little money to spend took up the torch of modification lit by their rum-running predecessors. Spurred by the advent of Ford's V-8 engine in the early 1930s — famously preferred by erstwhile enthusiast Clyde Barrow — cars started to get legitimately fast, with plenty of potential to get even faster. Hot rodders swapped bigger engines into smaller cars, removed body panels to reduce weight and met up to see whose creation was the meanest. Two distinctly American forms of motor-sport, drag racing and stock car racing, were quickly becoming codified.

Stock car racing in particular took a pretty stratospheric trajectory, and has now become a multi-billion dollar industry as divorced from the grass-roots movements of illegal liquor and hot-rodding as it is from a spelling bee. Modern stock cars as we tend to think of them, the NASCAR Sprint Cup machines we see racing on television, are designed and built by top-tier engineers in secret facilities, the product of many years and millions of dollars of research and development. In the early, post-war days, though, formalized racing was still in its infancy. Driven by a collection of talented shade-tree mechanics, it found a home on small, loosely organized tracks all over small town America. It was still defined by ingenuity, the go-fast impulse and rough and tumble outlaw culture; a pretty good fit for Humboldt County.

Redwood Acres was established just as a need to unify the rules of its sort of racing was becoming clear. A year later, in 1948, NASCAR formalized those rules and centralized the heretofore fractious national stock car culture. Thus began the tidal shift toward the national circuit, the television contracts, the stadium-capacity crowds and gigantic paydays for drivers and team owners. But at out-of-the-way ovals like the Acres, the original spirit — the raggedy, DIY family aspect of the sport — still runs strong. The original dirt surface gave way to hard-packed sand, then to slippery clay in the early 1980s. By the end of that decade, the track had become what it remains today: a paved, mildly banked, slightly D-shaped 3/8 mile oval.

A given race weekend will usually find five classes running. Roadrunners are essentially unmodified, low-horsepower salvage yard refugees, reinforced for safety and pressed into service for as long as they'll hold out. Mini stocks include slightly more powerful cars and light trucks with fewer restrictions on modification. Bombers are larger, American-manufactured passenger cars with higher displacement engines and an even higher degree of modification allowed. Thunder roadsters are proprietary, purpose-built open-wheeled race cars powered by air-cooled four-cylinder Yamaha motorcycle engines and transmissions. This class is unique: a nationally sanctioned "spec" class wherein every car is essentially identical, save finer points of suspension and steering adjustment. These are often purchased as kits or as complete "turn-key" race cars. Late model and sportsman race cars hew closest to the contemporary NASCAR model. They look vaguely like a large American production coupe, but boast chasis of tubular construction, strict engine guidelines based on minimum weight requirements and none of the comforts of home. These are the fastest, most powerful race cars campaigning at the Acres.

As with any form of motorsport, there is a direct, almost exponential correlational between speed desired and attendant cost. A roadrunner can be thrown together and raced for a season for a couple of thousand dollars; the buy-in alone for a thunder roadster or a late model approaches $20,000, not including ongoing expenses like tires, fuel and repairs. There are a number of factors that determine what class a racer competes in, but expendable income is the primary one. Some drivers are certainly content to campaign a low-cost, low-stakes roadrunner just for the hell of it. Once they've gotten a taste, though, most of them go looking for more speed. As drivers accrue more experience, more skill and more sponsorships, they will likely move up the ladder into faster, more expensive classes. (While local drivers seek business sponsorships — and occasionally get them from friends and fans of the sport — they mostly finance their efforts out of pocket, racing until they run out of money.)

Back in the pits
on Saturday afternoon, practice is underway. In Roadrunner No. 7, there's Jett Taylor, who, at 16, is the youngest driver on the track. He has Acres racing in his blood, his father and grandfather having put in seat time on the oval. In Thunder Roadster No. 15, there's Paul Peeples Jr., a one-time national champion in the South West Series. Over in Roadrunner No. 7 sits broad-smiling newbie R.C. Brown, a would-be entrepreneur with some big ideas about selling drinking water to China. (With snow machines, artificial mountains and a system of turbines, "I could solve the problems with the U.S. economy if Obama would listen to me," he says.)

Then there's husband and wife competitors Mike and Belinda Ward, Thunder Roadsters Nos. 13 and 95, respectively. Mike, who in the past has auto-crossed, hill-climbed and road-raced, operates a fabrication and repair shop when he's not going wheel-to-wheel with his spouse. Belinda, the sole female driver on the track today, has been coming to the Acres since she was 5 years old and if she takes any shit on the track for her gender, it isn't apparent. The pits, in particular, are characterized by tacit egalitarianism. It probably helps that Belinda's proven herself more than equal to most of her competitors; she's earned her status as a respected elder. "We're family," Belinda says of the racing community. "We trust each other with our lives."

With practice laps humming nearby, apocryphal tales of on-track decapitation by errant flywheel and raceway politics mingle with the smoke from a dozen charcoal grills and several hundred cigarettes. At this point, there is far more bench racing than driving going on.

On track, things progress fairly smoothly. This is mostly an opportunity for the drivers, whose levels of experience range from nil to decades of seat-time, to get a feel for the race-cars and the subtleties of the deceptively simple-looking track. What to the untrained eye looks like a lazily lopsided oval is actually a sequence of four turns, a short front and longer back straight, each section requiring a different strategy regarding entry and exit speeds and car placement. To complicate matters, come race time there will be a number of other cars and fervent drivers jostling for first position. That enthusiasm becomes obvious as the practice session wears on, culminating when one of the late model drivers pushes it a little too hard and crashes out on the second to last lap. "That kid's an idiot," somebody says.

Before and during practice, there is an air of familial conviviality to the pits. Drivers and their crews discuss strategy, sort out their cars, lend and get help from other teams. This is a small, close community of like-minded people, and the feeling is almost palpable. As the sun starts to set and the green flag approaches, though, the loose affability of the affair starts to tighten up. As much as this is all about having fun, it is nothing if not a competition. And despite what they might say, every single driver out here wants to win.

Qualifying — a series of practice races that dictate racers' starting positions — begins just as the grandstands open. Attendance is sparse at first, but builds steadily as the action continues. It's a distinctly Humboldt County crowd: Real Tree and Mossy Oak and Georgia Romeos are de rigueur. The concession stands do a brisk trade in Miller High Life and corndogs. An armed security guard makes circuits of the crowd, looking awfully eager. The qualifying rounds continue uneventfully, giving way eventually to heat races: Abbreviated precursors to the main event for each class.

The roadrunners put on a good show that climaxes with a yogurt purple Dodge Neon, trailing throughout, grenading its transaxle in front of the grandstand. This provokes a boisterous reaction as the flat, warm, acrid smell of gear oil climbs over the crowd; cleaning up the track will take a few minutes. With the Neon's spilled blood sopped up, it's right back into the action.

The bombers provide more thrills and spills between spins into the infield and incidental contact — what the announcer refers to as "short track football." The mini stocks stay bunched up throughout, with the exception a valiant little Kermann Ghia following about a half-lap back. The two leaders push each other hard enough that a spin on the last lap makes the difference, giving Robbie Nelson the win. The thunder roadsters put on a more technical display, with the lead qualifier (Peeples) slicing surgically through the pack but not quite able to get past the car in second position. (At the Acres, the fastest qualifying car starts from the back, rather from the conventional pole position at the front, a switch the track made a couple of years back to make the "hot shoes," or fast qualifiers, fight their way through traffic toward the checkered flag.)

The late models are all over the shop, the dramatic increase in horsepower quickly separating the experienced from the merely excited. There's contact right out of the gate, complete with severe body damage, a spin and, finally, a car pushed off track by a tow truck. The leader tends to stretch out a lead on the straights, but the corners bunch them all up again until somebody makes a mistake, like the car that blew up one of the water-filled barricades at Turn 2, which left the track too wet for the race to continue. In the distance, somebody is saying "You can't drink all day and race a car in the morning!"

Once the track
is finally dry, the main events get going, featuring 30 to 35 laps of racing that will span about 20 minutes if there are no crashes and caution flags. But there are always crashes and cautions.

The roadrunner class is again closely contested, punctuated by a hard backward shunt into the wall on the back straight. It's full dark now, but the track is operatory bright, the air heavy with grit and smoke. The mini stock main is a two-horse race, marked by a flat tire and a dramatic spin into the infield that sends up a punishing dust cloud. As the bombers take the track, the sad, proud little Ghia prompts someone to ask, "Is that a generator runnin' or is that a race car?" Sadly, it may be more the former than the latter, and it won't make it beyond the first lap.

The thunder roadsters come out screaming, in a demonstration of what makes spec racing so popular. The cars are all glued to the same line, and the race becomes a war of attrition, the leaders gradually exploiting the minute, aggregate mistakes of the slower drivers. Once the order is sorted, someone will have to make a mistake to change it; there simply isn't enough horsepower for dramatic passes. As the race wears on, it is down to two contenders, with the second place car almost pushing the leader through the corners. The two car is trying so hard he gets sideways and eventually spins, first place having given up absolutely nothing. An unrelated crew chief deadpans, "He was beatin' on the bumper of that little fag."

Of all the day's proceedings, the late model main event is attended by the most glorious noise, a field of bellowing V-8s in full-throated harmony. It becomes clear in the early going that the lead qualifier will win this race handily, unless somebody else crashes him out of it. And that is a real possibility, with some of the more eager, less practiced drivers treating it like a cage match. There are spins, engine fires, contact and caution flags all over the place until the field is reduced from seven cars to four, then back to five after some frantic trackside panel beating. Despite the stops and starts, the leader handily stretches his lead out to nine seconds or so, about half a lap between him and the rest of the field.

It gets very quiet, very quickly when it's all over. That familial feeling is still there, but it has receded a little, obscured by all the smoke and bruised egos. Cold and dark, bathed in that yellow sodium light, the hushed pit lanes are occasionally punctuated by curses, laughter, somebody throwing a helmet at the back wall of a trailer. A number of celebratory beers are already open; a few drivers seem inconsolable. It is the nature of the thing: somebody has to lose and nobody wants to be it. But the passion that makes the non-winners so pissed off will have them back here in a month, battered rides restored, doing it all again for no money and very little recognition. It's noisy and it's not politically correct and it's wanton in its consumption. It can get nasty and dirty and mean. It engenders community and trust and long friendships. And it will repeat ad infinitum in rural America all summer: Regular people strapping into whatever car they can afford and racing on pavement and dirt.

John Bennett is a freelance journalist living in Eureka, and a regular Journal contributor.


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