The casual race car fan that attends the races at the dirt tracks around our country may think at first glance that "they can do that, it is easy", or "what can be so hard about driving a race car around a oval dirt track?"
I am writing this column to let you the reader know that it is a lot harder than it looks. I had to opportunity to find out seven years ago now, and my psychologist has finally given me permission to talk about it again after all this time. Bad flashbacks used to happen when I even thought of the subject.
As one of the announcers at the Nodak Speedway in Minot, I got the chance to drive a race car in an exhibition race against my announcing partner at that time, Robert "Charlie Foxx" Ferguson. We borrowed the cars of Tim McCloud and Joe Ree to stage our little five lap exhibition race around the 3/8 mile track at the Nodak Speedway.
Let the nightmare experience begin!
First obstacle on the docket is simply getting into the race car. Yes, there are no doors on the race cars, (except the legend cars), so you have to crawl in through the hole where the window used to be. Good luck to me.
Even seven years ago I weighed about 240 pounds, and Joe Ree's crew had to butter me up with Crisco oil just to get me to slide down into the seat. Nowadays at my hefty 300 pounds I would never even attempt the feat unless our speedway rescue crew had the "jaws of life" handy.
Have I mentioned that the seat is a metal bucket that looks like a seat? Where is the Preperation H when you need it?
Then, it is time to hook up your safety belt and put on your helmet. I have enough trouble in my own passenger car snapping my dreaded seat belt every where I go, nothing else trying to attach a belt that is tougher than a Rubik's cube to figure out. Luckily for me, Ree's crew was very helpful in pulling them so tight that I could no longer breathe.
About the time I thought that it couldn't get any worse, the pit crew started explaining to me how to shift the car. It could not be a regular stick shift with the gears mapped out on the knob of the shift. NOOOO! It was merely a metal rod that you had to have the magic touch with to either hit the one notch for reverse, or the other two for low and high. To this day I still don't know which forward gear I was in at the time.
With dirt tracks come mud, so all the drivers have plastic sheets or "tear offs" that are attached to the visor on the helmets so when your vision is blurred with mud, you simply reach up and pull the sheet off so you are using a new one, keeping your visibility clear.
It would have been real nice if three things would have happened at that time. 1.) Explain to me how to reach off an pull them off while you are driving and trying to survive, 2.) Have more than one on my helmet for the announcer's race, and 3.) Don't start the car up while you are trying to listen to the guy that is trying to tell you how to shift and work your tear offs.
As the engine fired up, I realized that I could no longer here my trainer telling me how to survive on the track. I wasn't sure at that time if I was in a race car or simply standing four feet in front of the concert speakers while Metallica performed on the stage. Outside of my psychologist not wanting me to talk about this experience, I am finally allowed by my doctors to listen to loud noises during special occasions only.
When I drive my passenger car I can watch in my rear view mirror as I back out of my parking spot. Why would we possibly want that advantage as we drive a race car? So as my "spotter" backed me out of our pit stall, it was getting close to the moment where I had to find a forward gear on the car after I was done backing up. Yes, they reached in and put it in reverse after I could not find that pesky gear, and once again thanks goes out to the crew member that reached in again and put it in the forward gear so I could drive onto the racing surface.
It was at that time that I realized that I did not have the benefit of a nice wide windshield to look through. Not only did I see that the actual "slot" to look through was about 4x12 inches, I also found out that as I came on the track and started driving around at break-neck speeds that I could not turn my head to the left or right to see what was next to me without being bound down even harder by my comfy seat belts.
Charlie had gotten down to the pits a few minutes behind me, so he was still strapping in while I went onto the track to get a feel for the car. The first thing I could feel was my butt slamming into the metal bucket seat every time that I hit a bump, which seemed to happen every 5 seconds or so.
But determined to defeat Foxx, I pressed on.
I had been attending races at the track since I was seven years old in 1965, and had also served as a flagman for the club on and off during a stretch of 6 years, and I had never realized that the flag stand seemed about a mile from Turn No. 4, and that the high banks of the race track are really high banks.
As I motored into corner one for the first time, I elected to take the high groove, and that is when I felt like I was going to fall out of the car or roll it on it's side because it was riding on such a steep slant in the corner. That is when panic began to set in.
I made the decision to stay low, where I wouldn't have to contend with the G-forces of the turns again.
Charlie finally entered the track as well and we went door to door into corner four to look for the green flag, which is so far away that you can barely see it. Charlie used to race back in the day at some tracks in Minnesota, so I was up against a veteran by my standards. I will never forget the look on his face as he smiled at me right before the green, almost giving me the sense that he was over confident, or he had something up his sleeve that I didn't know about.
The ground flag man threw the green flag, and the long trek towards corner No. 1 had begun. As I went past the grandstands, I strained to look in that direction and was immediately intimidated by the fans that appeared to be so far away. I decided not to look that direction again until it was time for my victory lap.
For the first 2O laps, I did not see Charlie at all. I thought he should have blown past me by now, but there was no sign of him. Maybe the break neck speeds I was traveling were too much for him. It felt like I was going one hundred miles an hour as I came past the flag stand for the third time.
And that is when it happened. I thought something was wrong with my car because it started making this weird roaring noise. It turned out that the roaring noise was Foxx tagging onto my tail and preparing to blow me off the track. I of course had never heard that noise before, and now I understand these drivers when they say that they didn't know where their competitor was, but they could hear them coming.
Once Foxx went by me at warp speed, I experienced the wonderful feeling of being pelted by mud in the face for the first time in my short racing career. It was now time for the tear offs.
At this time, refer back to the early part of the story when I realized that I didn't know how to work them, and that only one extra one was attached to my helmet. BIG PROBLEM.
As I barreled down the back straightaway trying to run Charlie back down, I was greeted by another beautiful North Dakota sunset. It was very brilliant and pretty, but it didn't do me much good when it reflected off the mud of my tear off and totally blinded me at that stage of the race. Did I mention that I had already lost my hearing by this time?
As I blindly drove through corners three and four, I made a point to stay low so I wouldn't fall out of the car, and as my foot slipped off of the metal gas pedal (they have no rubber pads on them for some reason), I made the mistake of having my right leg, which was exposed by the way because I was wearing shorts that night, touch the center wall of the cockpit.
The scar that was burned into my leg seven years ago is now finally feeling better now and you can barely see it anymore.
The realization that I was going to lose the first race of my illustrious racing career began to set in as I took the white flag about a day and a half after Charlie did. At this stage, I couldn't see him though or anything else because after I used my only tear off, I tried to wipe my shield with the arm sleeve of my wind breaker, which only smeared the mud like a paint brush spreads paint, so I had to back off the gas and limp it home.
So as the five lap thriller had come to an end and I parked in the pit stall to unbuckle myself, all that was left was to somehow get back out of the car.
Oh my! If it wouldn't have been for the hoist on the back of the wrecker, I don't know what I would have done. Luckily for me, it had gotten up to about 200 degrees inside the race car and I was plenty lubed up by the time I tried to climb out of the car. My race debut had come to an end. Even though I went down in defeat, I was proud of my run and confident that on my final two laps I had let it all hang out and at least got the car up to the break neck speeds that I knew I could run.
And as the final wave of humiliation hit me as I made my way back up to the announcers booth with a gloating Charlie Foxx in tow, former sprint car driver and Nodak Race Club hall of famer Jerry Lawson greeted me on my way up the stands and put the final nail in my race career coffin.
Unfortunately for me, Jerry comes armed a lot to the races with a stop watch, and was really chuckling when he told me that my average speed on my fastest lap was about 40 miles per hour on the average. So much for break neck speed!
So the next time you dirt track race fans think it would be real easy to drive a car at a speedway near you, think again. Feel my pain.
(Larry McFall is a sportswriter for the Minot Daily News. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org)