By Dylan Bennett
MY FATHER’S waving arms grabbed my full attention the first time I soloed behind the wheel of a motorized go-cart on a simple tire-lined oval track in north Berkeley. I wondered what he wanted until I sped off the road in the first turn, hit a fence, and split my 5-year-old lip on the steering wheel.
“Why were you waving at me?” I pleaded through tears of frustration.
“I was trying to tell you to look at the road,” he explained.
Twenty-five years later, I’m making my comeback. But this is no lawnmower-powered child’s play. I’m driving a Formula Ford–a revved-up, four-cylinder, four-speed, open-wheel, open-cockpit, rear-engine, fat-tired racing machine with a noisy white fiberglass body cowling.
And I’m challenging the laws of physics through 12 gnarly turns at Sears Point Raceway, the serpentine international speedway tucked in the rolling hills 10 miles south of Petaluma near Highway 37.
Move over, Mario Andretti.
I’m enrolled at the Russell Racing School, where a squad of savvy instructors has three days to teach me the tricks of the trade.
I just hope I don’t fly off the track if they wave their arms at me.
FROM THE OUTSIDE looking in, motor racing looks like so many rednecks doing the same thing, round and round, in overpowered machines steeped in a megacorporate, yahoo culture of beer, cigarettes, and machismo. Concerned as I am with the environment, beauty, social relevance, and the meaning of life, this seems at first largely unappealing. But I’m here to have fun.
I’ll give the priesthood of motor sports a chance to make a new convert.
I’m searching for redemption twice over: to put that childhood go-cart crash behind me and to glean something decent and admirable from this convergence of fast cars, cheap booze, and chain-smoking.
My classmates and I, wired with anticipation, crowd into a cramped, bland briefing room in a portable building at the sprawling raceway. We are decked out in spiffy blue racing suits adorned with sewn-on corporate logos, crash helmets at our feet.
This car course, designed for aspiring racers and rich guys, normally costs $2,000, but most of these road warriors aren’t paying full price. There’s a pack of young wrenchers from the Russell Racing School’s mechanic training program–they’re in for free. Then there’s a pro-stock car driver named Tommy Fry, a middle-aged Brazilian guy, and a cocky, wide-eyed, tough-talking racing fanatic from Brooklyn named Sal. They’re paying.
There also are two women in the group: a well-groomed anchorwoman from Cable Channel 14, the Spanish-language TV in San Francisco, and a young Canadian mechanic who says there is just one female crew chief in the world of big-time professional racing for her to emulate.
Oh, yeah, and there’s a passel of free-loading media types.
“Driving a race car involves a lot of finesse,” lead instructor T. J. Dersch says during the morning orientation. He’s a good-looking, wiry man, maybe pushing 40. His easy smile and blond, feathered hair make me wonder if I’m not actually preparing to learn to surf. But this is definitely Racing 101. And the curriculum is nearly flawless: careful step-by-step leaps accelerating in difficulty, from simple braking to downshifting to cornering, and finally high-speed lapping complete with butt-puckering passing.
“Okay, start ’em up,” shouts T.J. out on the track after 90 minutes of class time. Fifteen miniature formula cars in two rows rumble to life. One by one, we roll out and quickly hit full throttle. No stop signs. No cops. No Sunday drivers. Tailgating allowed. Speeding required.
I marvel at the joy of hitting the S-turns while gazing at the sweeping view of San Pablo Bay and the grimy oil refineries that dot the distant Vallejo skyline. The winding course, as compared to a simple oval track, snakes across the wistful hills along Sonoma County’s most southern point.
These grasslands might just as easily be the home of Clo the Cow as a mecca for motor heads.
Indeed, the quiet early morning is a little bizarre. Huge, bright-colored billboard ads for beer, cigarettes, and cars decorate desolate buildings and grandstands that dot this burgeoning 800-acre facility, hosting 100,000 spectators for the deafening thunder of drag races and NASCAR’s Winston-Salem big-time stock-car slam. But when the cars aren’t rolling, the air is filled with the music of songbirds. One blistering session is halted by a few deer approaching the raceway: men and machines stopped cold by a few gentle four-leggers.
Inside a training-level race car, I retain my social skepticism about racing culture, but my perspective shifts from spectator to participant. Adolescent excitement over a fast toy changes to pronounced respect for the basic task of downshifting without a synchronized transmission. At 95 mph around a concrete-walled 180-degree turn, with your butt four inches off the blacktop, your leg heaving on the brakes, simultaneously downshifting a growling takes hours of practice and a mountain of self-confidence.
Respect metamorphoses into a surging will to drive, moving to another level of exaltation as I lap the majestic 2.54 miles of spaghetti pavement.
By the third day, I’m dancing through corners in a high-speed, blurry petroleum-powered ballet. And it’s true what T.J. says: finesse, sensibility, and awareness make the difference between merely grinding the rubber off the wheels and letting the horse run its fastest.
BIG-TIME CAR RACING is analogous to the world of pop music, where a horde of talented musicians starve for every millionaire on the hit parade. If you really want to play, you can always gig on the club circuit. For the mere mortals of motor sports, this means flooring your Mazda, Datsun, Porsche, BMW, or whatever at a weekend amateur club race like those sponsored by the National Automotive Sport Association–NASA.
“We’re NASA pilots,” quips John Pagel, the lanky, blond owner of Mike’s Auto in Santa Rosa, as he inspects the rear-axle housing of a Mazda RX7. Pagel, my neighbor during high school, is my mechanic. He is the kind of can-do guy who rebuilt a sporty Triumph TR6 sports car at age 16 while I built a new definition of juvenile delinquency.
Pagel, 33, and his racing partner, Mark Welch, 47, have raced to victory at Sears Point in their Mazda, which sports a black-and-white cop car paint job emblazoned with a gold-badge decal bearing the number 54 and the slogan “To Swerve and Protect.”
In a strange twist of automotive history, those modest-looking Mazda RX7s, built between 1979 and 1985, have reignited the amateur racing scene. According to Pagel, the car’s complex and expensive exhaust system commonly rusts out. The repair literally costs more than the car is worth; the bodies and motors are very cheap, if not free. Free and fast. The rotary engine is powerful and light.
Voila! The poor man’s race car.
“People drop them off in my front yard. Donations. Free,” says Pagel. “Before that, we paid $150 for two RX7s.” For guys like Pagel, owning an auto repair shop offsets most of the $10,000 a NASA racing season consumes in parts, labor, and transportation. And the best part is that Pagel paints his company name on the car and writes it off as a tax-deductible advertising expense. For a professional mechanic, it’s a simple recipe: strip car, rebuild car, race car.
“It’s a very cheap way to get a serious adrenaline rush,” says Welch, an animated computer salesman with 20 years of experience as a BMW mechanic.
Cheap and increasingly popular, too; this spring, Pagel took orders to build three RX7 race cars.
Zen of Cornering
THE JOB OF A RACE CAR DRIVER is to maximize a car’s speed by putting the pedal to the metal and driving the correct “line”–the most efficient path to the checkered flag. Driving the line, as I learned it, means steering into a turn late in order to hit the apex with the correct alignment. This allows the driver to accelerate early out of the turn while unwinding the steering wheel.
For the best control, the driver maintains a balanced throttle throughout the turn, so the car neither gains nor loses speed. Timidity and hesitation are anathema. Taking your foot off the throttle at high speeds, in a turn, or cresting a hill is the surest way to lose traction and spin out.
“It reverts back to the still-standing philosophy that’s been in racing for a long time,” T.J. says of the Zen of cornering. “And that’s the slow-in, fast-out type of scenario–within reason, of course. Going into a turn, you still have to carry a fair bit of momentum, but you’re definitely slowing the race car down a little bit more than you think you might need to, which is going to give you a chance to put the car in a position to accelerate earlier out.”
Driving the line at Sears Point is a fine line, indeed. Even the instructors say they cannot hit the same line in the same corner five out of 10 times. But they know what they are looking for: that elusive level of modest perfection that motivates race car drivers and intoxicates the millions of racing fans who tailgate this expensive and exclusive sport.
And more of those fans will be coming to Sonoma County. Recently, Sears Point’s new owner announced a multimillion dollar spruce-up job to better host NASCAR’s Winston-Salem circuit race.
According to Russell’s Kjell Kallman, car racing is the world’s second largest spectator sport after soccer. That’s fine, but right now, I’d rather drive than watch, and I’d rather win than lose, so I’ve gotta pass somebody.
There is nothing better than the tension when cars bunch up at high speeds, separated by inches, each looking to bust a move out of the pack. Lock wheels with somebody and class is over for you, pal.
The power surge of passing is almost better than sex.
The next car that passes you tempers that momentary thrill. Until you learn to drive, racing is more a matter between you and your car than between you and the guy who just whizzed by.
“WHAT’S THE LAST WORD in Russell Racing School?” a slightly gray-haired instructor named Rick McCormick asks rhetorically. “School,” he patiently replies from behind a pair of cool sunglasses, a white turtleneck, and leather racing gloves.
“This is not racing–this is schooling.”
Yeah, right. No matter what anybody says, most of us are racing. Tire to tire, turn to turn, this wheel-squealing dogfight is the world’s funnest re-enactment of a war game. The rear-view mirrors vibrating in the fiberglass body are pathetically useless, and I can’t take my eyes of the road, so I just can’t see behind myself at 90 mph. I think I’m ripping fast until several cars blow past.
The Formula Fords have rev-limiters, so you can’t win on hard throttle down the straightaway–only with skill.
“Can I drive well?” I ask myself late on the second day. Sort of. Even in my fastest laps, I get consistently passed by the lightning professional Tommy Fry, daring Brooklyn Sal in his telltale orange helmet, a talented young red-haired mechanic, and the experienced Brazilian guy. My fastest lap is 2:15.4. Tommy Fry is only 10 seconds faster. The faster one goes, the more difficult it is to shave off seconds. .
In a real-life race, 1 mph is often the margin between victory and defeat.
The level of concentration is intense and gets company from a palette of emotions. Shortly before each takeoff, as drivers, instructors, and pit crew swarm around the long double row of racers, my nerves turn to a dull fear over the next impending bronco ride. My mind and body want to relax, but racing is not about relaxing. Driving involves terrific physical strain inside that cramped cockpit, combined with the absolute mental stress of total attentiveness. I tighten the four-way seat belt, my right hand on the gear shift, left hand on the tiny steering wheel. My butt feels as though it’s barely clearing the pavement. I listen to my breath inside the racing helmet and attempt to wipe the bugs from my visor. T.J. waves me onto the humming track.
Courting intense G-forces through the turns is a mental concentration meltdown. Fear morphs into a high sense of being in The Now whenever I accelerate toward the rolling climax of my top speed. I enter a mini-universe of rattling fiberglass and groaning pistons, staring through two fat tires into my own private wind tunnel. Legs flex against the hard-steel frame and the constantly heaving centrifugal assault. My left arm aches from the constant tension of steering. My right wrist flicks the tiny stick shift continually. Give gas, go like hell. Hit the turn, brake like hell. Steer like an artist, and go like hell again. Give gas and shift like a rattler.
ON A BREEZY, NEON SPRING Sunday afternoon at Sears Point, the NASA scene is going full blast. Mazdas, Datsuns, Porsches, and Beamers galore. This RX7 thing is out of control. As many as 40 of these rotary racers, destined never to become classics, line up for battle. Many are sponsored by auto repair shops and small computer companies. The teams range from the affluent baby-boomer with slick car and shiny accessories to the low-budget young guy wrenching on a Ford Escort.
Even at this amateur level, many of these people are Reichian symbolic analysts, earning fat bank in the computer industry. And this is definitely amateur racing. Many can really drive. Others qualify only as public nuisances. Their cars buck, spit, fart, and backfire.
I’m sitting on an observation platform above Turn Seven with a crusty old rail-thin bugger from the motor trade named Joe who’s videotaping the cars clawing their way through this challenging hairpin. It was in this same turn during a recent race that Pagel’s Car 54 plowed into the muddy countryside.
I expect deafening noise. I even bring industrial-strength ear protection. It’s not needed–like midweek racing class, the birds chirp louder than the Mazdas.
The scene is peaceful and mostly quiet. And, notably, NASA racing is free for spectators–at last, a democratic side to car racing. Crusty old Joe and I notice a yellow RX7 seriously out control in Turn Seven. The driver narrowly avoids several other cars. “He’s been doing that all day,” says Joe hoarsely. “He’s a place looking for an accident.”
“What seems to be the problem with that car?” I ask, determined to learn more about the finer points of racing.
“Can’t drive worth shit,” Joe snaps.
Indeed, most of the NASA drivers can’t drive that well. Having fun is what they do best. And here, after the thrill of high speeds, lies the great appeal of racing:the track is home to a dozen tight races, only one of which is for first place.
The Last Lap
BACK AT NORMAL SPEEDS, I’m riding shotgun in a late-model sports utility vehicle packed with flight-suited students and instructor McCormick. Learning to drive at the Russell Racing School includes a careful reconnaissance by foot and by car of every turn and blacktop nuance of the line. Thankfully, I’m still sober and skeptical enough to sift for a flaw in all of this euphoria.
“Hey, Rick,” I holler, “nothing personal, but who’s a better driver, you or T.J.?”
“That’s hard to say,” waffles McCormick with admirable professional discretion.
“Who has raced at a higher professional level?” I press.
“T.J. has raced pro-2000 and I’ve raced Trans Am, so I guess I have,” confesses McCormick.
“What does it take to race Trans Am?”
“About $1.4 million.”
“The car, the crew, engines, repairs, fuel, per diems. Everything,” he explains. “Each race might cost you $25,000 and you might race twice on a weekend.”
“Wow, where do you get the money?”
“You need a sponsor.”
“What if you don’t have a sponsor?”
“Then you don’t race,” he says. “The best driver in the world will probably never get a chance.
“The saying is,” T.J. adds, “there are more potential winners in the stands at the Indy 500 than on the track, since it’s a money-controlled sport.”
A sobering notion for this Russell Racing School grad.
From the June 12-18, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.