Mark and Gloria Stahl
If it had been up to Jack, he would have married Marla at the exit of the El Cajon Speedway. They had met there and he felt it was the ideal place to tie the knot.
“The guests would be sitting in the stands, the minister would be standing on the hood of Jack's ’64 Cutlass, and I would be zooming around the track in a friend’s car!” Marla says, describing her husband’s idea of the perfect ceremony.
Marla’s taffy blonde hair frames her carefully made-up face. Her upper and lower false eyelashes flutter. “I finally insisted on getting married in a church, but we still spend most of our weekends here at the Speedway.”
Marla is the wife of a 24 year-old super stock car driver, and she, along with over 68,000 other racing fans since April, have attended at least one Saturday night race at the El Cajon Speedway. The families, fans, and friends of the local El Cajon Stock Car Racing Association drivers show up at Gillespie Field every week to breathe in the dust, the fumes, and absorb the roar generated by 65 shrieking cars. They pay $2.75 to sit on the side by the start/finish line, or $2.50 for seats across the 3/8 mile oval track. It is easy and cheap to bundle up the kids and bring them along, too, since $1 buys them a seat in the peeling wooden stands.
It couldn’t be extensive advertising that brings the fans out. (I’d never heard of the Speedway until a ten-second spot flashed on the screen late one night during the Johnny Carson Show.) But somehow about 3,500 fans are aware of the Speedway and they are filling the stands tonight.
“Most of these people come to every race,” says Shawn, a longhaired program seller at the gate. He tries to push a flimsy 50 cent program on a young, full-hipped woman in red stretch pants. She has a toddler under each arm, and the dust kicked up by the crowd has already lodged in her shiny, lacquered bouffant.
“The majority of fans are grease monkeys and their families. They either know drivers or someone in the pit crews.” Shawn finally sells a program to a couple of young girls in tight black levis. “Sometimes tourists come out to see the crashes, and they’re disappointed if the ambulance doesn’t make at least one trip to the hospital.”
Inside his office, Gidge Brucker, the Speedway’s promoter, and an assistant are sorting change into strong boxes. Brucker is quite willing to talk about the history of the Speedway.
“We’ve been racing here since 1961, but over the past few years the County officials have harassed us because the County wants the land back for itself.” Brucker says he has a 30-year lease on the property and that he keeps the track clean and well maintained. “They say we make too much noise and that the crowds disturb the neighbors, but there is isn’t anyone nearby!” The County hasn’t been on his neck so far this season.
It is hard to believe the County’s claim of complaints from neighbors. One of the only structures to be seen on the way out to the Speedway is a dull, sagging house with a small sign whispering “Massage Parlor” to passing cars. From the collection of dusty cars parked in the front yard, it appears that the noise from the track has not hurt that business.
Brucker, busy sorting out tickets and pit passes, introduces Russ Bullen, president of the El Cajon Stock Car Racing Association. Bullen, unlike most of those at the Speedway, is a white-collar worker in real life, and is El Cajon’s answer to Glen Campbell. He is freshly showered and shaved, and is dressed in a blue Hang Ten T-shirt and white slacks, with every longish styled hair on his head neatly in place. He smiles politely but hurries out the door and disappears before anyone can follow.
On the other side of the chain-link fence, past the entrance gates, lie the pits — a dry, empty field. The area is filling with hundreds of men, all dressed in white pants.
I chase Bullen down and he says that white pants are a pit rule and a safety precaution, to help visibility in the dimly lit pit area.
Sixty-four men have just finished signing in, paying a small insurance fee and putting a penny in the old gumball machine for a numbered marble. The number on the marble tells them where they'll line up for the qualifying heats, whose winners go on to four preliminary heats, whose winners then go on to the Trophy Dash, semi-main, main event, or the consolation race.
“When the ambulance gets here, we’ll open the track,” Bullen assures a flock of nervous, chain-smoking young drivers.
“Everybody here thinks they’ll make a lot of money and support their cars, but the same five or six drivers win all the time,” Bullen confides. “They have invested from $1,000 to $4,000 in the shell of a long-ago proud family sedan, picked up for $60 at a junkyard. And it costs them at least $100 a week just to get the car ready to race.”
Bullen shakes his head and says the only thing that is comparable to a street model is the car’s body. The rest is totally modified.
It becomes impossible to converse. The sixty unmuffled motors are screaming their guts out into the dusk. A bashed up red Ford roars up and halts before Russ. “Rotten Ralphie” is emblazoned on its side, and Ralphie, a huge bald man in a green jumpsuit, slides out the space where the windows used to be. “I got me a new 350 c.i. Ford in here and I’m really hot tonight...” He grins as Russ points out the standard safety features on Ralphie's car. Thick, black steel bars, called “kicker bars,” form a protective cage around the driver. They stretch along the doors and diagonally across from the driver’s bucket seat to the steel dashboard. A lap belt, shoulder harness, helmet and goggles also protect Ralphie. Heavy, nylon netting hangs where the windows once were, keeping arms and heads inside the car in case of a roll. Ralphie slides back into his car and revs the new engine a few times before rumbling away. Bullen turns to confer with the four plump women scorekeepers, dressed in identical red smocks.
Even between competing drivers and crews there’s a sense of comraderie. Everyone is mingling, gossiping and sharing tools. There is little secrecy since every car's hood lifts off in one piece. The crews dive deep into the engines, tools strewn in the dirt.
“All the guys help each other in the pits, lending tools, tires or advice, just to get everyone out on the track,” says a ruddy-faced man with “Tony” monogrammed on his red shirt. “But once you pull out on the track, you're on your own.” Tony says he works on two crews
because both cars are owned by the same group of men. Before plugging back into the depths of the shiny modified engine, he says proudly that this is his year of training. “Look for me in the top races next season.” He may even be a champion if he collects enough points awarded for winning the main events throughout the season.
A dozen colorful cars are waiting quietly at the entrance of the track to begin their “hot lapping.” These laps around the track will warm their tires and engines, and give the crews a chance to observe the super stocks in action.
Mark Stahl leans casually on the hood of his blue 1964 Falcon. The program calls him a “real comer”. Mark says he is 23, and a carpenter for his father's construction company. But Mark’s real love is for the hot steel of No. 64 and the pungent odor of scorched, smoking, racing tires.
Mark gazes across the track where orange-vested volunteer firemen are checking their extinguishers. A silver suited spaceman heads slowly out to the infield.
“He can pull drivers from burning cars,” Mark says softly. Mark has never been seriously hurt in his six years of racing.
“My dad always had a lot of cars and he drove for a while until I was old enough to race. Now, he just pays the bills.”
The members of Mark’s pit crew hover near, watching him answer questions. Bob, hidden behind dark sunglasses, puffs slowly on a knobby brown pipe. His white cap and white slacks are streaked with grease and dirt. Jim, the other crewman, seems about 16 years old. His wide-brimmed straw hat flops over his long, wispy hair.
“It cost us over $8,000 to race last season,” Bob says. “We get the tires paid for by the H.G. Smith Lumber Co., but Mark's dad pays for the rest.” He explains that most of the cars are sponsored by small businessmen as an income tax write-off. “If they have their company name on the car, it's considered advertising and they can deduct the expense."
The crew says they invest about 40 hours a week working on the car.
“It's really a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun," says Mark, his expression serious. “We won the main event two weeks ago. It's exciting driving side by side with everyone only about 1/100th of a second apart in speed. It’s really hard to pass." Mark’s eyes begin to glow a little.
Bob dumps his smouldering ashes on the dirt and interrupts, “We have to make sure the car is perfect if we want to win."
A shiny Hartson’s Ambulance pulls up near the snack bar. Immediately, a dozen drivers and engines snap to life. Roaring cars drown all conversation.
“Bring me my fire suit and my skid lid with the smoke visor,” Mark shouts over the din. Aside: “You should come over after the races and meet my wife. She’s a powder puff champion driver.”
Brilliant lights perched on spindly towers pop on and illuminate the asphalt oval. It is a challenge for a first nighter to keep track of the heats. One quickly learns the language of the flags. Green/start... Yellow/caution... Red/stop... Black/go to the pits... White/one more lap to go... and the checkered flag of the finish. An official risks life and limb hanging over the track with his tiny flags as the steel monsters rip past him.
The first race is the Trophy Dash. The four fastest qualifying cars vie for a brassy trophy and a kiss from a pretty girl. Mark is in the Dash, but he doesn’t win.
The Super Stock car races prize money is widely graduated. A percentage of the ticket sales makes up the evening’s purse, which is distributed in varying amounts through 16th place in the main events. A first place driver only takes home $350 to $400, but then the guy coming in 16th in a field of twenty cars can spend his $10 prize on a round of beer for his crew. (Money can’t be that much of a stimulus here, though; last year’s champ was still $1,500 in the red after expenses.)
The crowd jumps up in unison for every spin-out and smash-up. “The south turn is the killer...” a pit man mumbles, and he is right. Two cars slide into the same lanes, their tires ripping across hot asphalt as they collide.
The orange firemen rush over to spray the steaming engines as other men pour “kitty litter,” an absorbent gravel mixture, on the oil and gas spills.
The ambulance lumbers across the track to collect a knocked out driver. The action seems movielike, distant and unemotional. Within seconds the mess is tidied, the injured cars moved, and the remaining cars glide into position to resume the race.
I watch Mark in No. 64 very closely as the main race brings the twenty top drivers onto the track. The race begins. All eyes follow the cars as the eighty tires suck onto the dusty asphalt, leaving smoky trails around the turns. The checkered flag flops down after thirty laps and about fifteen minutes of hard racing. Mark Stahl places second, behind one of the old timers, John Berneman, in No. 81. I run screaming to the field in a terribly unprofessional manner. Fans, families and crews swarm together, hugging, slapping backs and passing around six-packs of beer.
Clyde Stahl, Mark’s beaming father, pushes his way up to the heedless No. 64, passing out Olympias to the crowd. Amid the popping and splurting beer cans, Mark's wife, Gloria, elbows her way to her husband’s side. She hugs him quickly and collects a beer from her father-in-law. Mark, still shaking with success, introduces Gloria to me. Mrs. Stahl says she’s not a women’s libber, that she just has a competitive spirit, and wants to know why she’s being interviewed — all in one breath. Her blue eyes narrow with curiosity, but she is willing to talk.
“I decided I wanted to race a few years ago and Mark lent me the car. Lots of husbands let their wives drive in the Powder Puff races. I won the championship in 1971. I also won the main event a couple of weeks ago." Gloria’s long earrings dangle above her fluffy, grey fake fur coat. She says she is a student at a beauty school and met Mark at the Speedway. When Mark isn’t working on the car, you can find them both racing
When asked if she worries about Mark, Gloria’s eyes open another notch. “I get very nervous, almost to the point of being sick when he races," she pauses for a swallow of beer. She turns around, her long blonde hair dusty from the windy infield. Later, they will drive home to Chula Vista in their 1966 Chevy II and hope to spend at least a few hours together. “I like my dogs a lot, but I get tired of sitting home with them every Saturday night, so I come to the Speedway..." And finally, to reassure me, “But racing is a major part of our lives and Mark hopes to make it his career." She says she hopes that someday Ontario and other bigger speedways will welcome her husband.
The crews set down their victory beers long enough to begin replacing the hoods on the cars and moving them out to the trailers. Olympia and Coors cans pile up around the feet of the tired, sweaty drivers. The stands are empty, the winning cars are rumbling off the track towards the pits.