Like two dancers executing half a pirouette, the two 3000-pound late-model Sportsman-class stock cars spun out side by side, squealing their tires, as their rear ends slid toward the crash wall and their front ends toward the infield, beginning their spin at 70 miles per hour, then slowing fast. The 01 car and the 1 car belonged to a father and son, Jerry and Danny Gay — Danny had clipped his father on the rear left panel 6 laps into the 40-lap feature at Cajon Speedway as the two cars went into the second turn of the three-eighths-of-a-mile paved oval. On the bottom of the banked curve, Danny’s car had pulled, was slow to turn, and he drifted up, had “collected” his dad, in the parlance of the track. Danny went into the infield but Jerry skated back, smashing the rear of his car against the wall, and was done for the night. The yellow flag went up and he limped away.
Jerry’s voice came over the radio to his crew chief, Mike Hagerman, “My own kid, he hit me. He hit me twice.” Maybe Hagerman said something back, maybe not. That had been another of Jerry’s problems that day. His radio was broken. “Actually, it was a bad day from after breakfast on,” Jerry told me. “Mike said he could hear me, but I couldn’t hear him. Usually he’ll tell me if there’s a car coming up on me, or I’m coming up on a car, or when I get by the car if I’m free, or to watch out for something on the next turn, or if there’s something on the track, but that night there was nothing.”
Danny kept going, but his troubles weren’t over. It was only his second race in a Sportsman this season, having just moved up from Street Stocks. In 1999 and 2000 he had been Street Stock Champion, and in ’98 he had been Street Stock Rookie of the Year. He held the record at Cajon for main-event wins in a season with 14, held the record for fastest laps in a main event with 25, and had tied the track record for the fastest times in a season with 17. At 27 years old, he had 32 career main-event wins. Now he had taken out his father, the reigning track champion with 135 wins over more than 20 years at Cajon.
Eighteen cars had started the feature that May 5th under a full moon as a crowd of 2600 watched. Nine finished. Then in the 19th lap Danny pushed too hard and took a sudden trip up and over another car and that was that. Ron Overman, the 58-year-old, two-time track champion, went on to win the race in his number 2 car.
Danny’s problems had been going on all day. “We had motor problems, we had all kinds of problems. We lost an oil pump, an oil pump drive, and a distributor. Most people would have gone home. Nope, not us. We were going to get that thing running, no matter what it takes. It took us two and a half hours to find a pump, first of all. We had to take apart our spare motor from the Street Stock to get the oil pump drive out of it. We borrowed a distributor from my dad. We finally get it altogether. We were one minute late to 6:30. After that you can’t qualify anymore. So we missed the heat race. [This 8-lap race establishes the driver’s position in the 40-lap race, so by missing this race Danny had to start at the back of the pack in the feature.] After two and a half hours of thrashing to get it done. The week before that they started out 45 minutes late, but I’m 1 minute late and they won’t let me qualify. Ruined my whole night. Didn’t matter where I finished. Actually, I finished last in the points, as far as that goes. [Points are given for the number of cars passed in a race.]
“Then I caught my dad’s car on the sixth lap and took him out. I should have been more mellow. I was overdriving for the most part. But I’m the rookie so I get blamed for everything. My damage was mostly cosmetic — lost my whole right side — except for the damage to my J-bar; that’s what kept me from finishing.”
When Danny calls himself a rookie, it’s with a mixture of modesty and irony, seriousness and sarcasm. He is a handsome young man — tall and blond with light bluish green eyes and a brooding quality, seemingly still and explosive at the same time. As for J-bars, I was to hear a lot about them from Danny and his dad and others at Cajon. It’s a bar in the rear of the car that keeps the rear axle, the differential, and other components from moving side to side. A high J-bar adjustment keeps the rear end tighter, preventing the back end from sliding upward through the turns. When it’s too tight, gravitational forces push the front end upward through the turns.
“Danny’s had a pretty rough outing so far this year,” said Steve Brucker, the promoter and one of the owners of the track. “You don’t get any points for flying through the air. Those particular cars are too expensive to use as bumper cars. What’s important is still being around at the end of the year. Hitting his dad, Danny was just saying hello. But after Danny hit Jerry, yeah, there was no love lost for a while. Actually, I think Jerry’s very proud of his son. And the fact that we have a father and son racing against each other is good for the track. The Gays have generated a lot of interest because they’re in the Sportsman class.”
One day I asked Jerry how his son happened to hit him. Jerry’s car was on display along with Danny’s and three others at a mini-celebration at the Home Depot on Fairmount. There was a small stage, loud guitars, staticky speakers, and blasts of feedback. Jerry Gay is a tall, thin man of 49 with red hair, a red mustache, and a reddish face. He had on an orange shirt and blue pants, a cap and dark glasses. He tends to stand with his arms crossed as if looking over something he might want to buy. His red hair and mustache give him a foxlike aspect.