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Hearts pound at Cajon Speedway

Night at the races

THE #13 STREET STOCK CAR rounded the corner and violently smashed sideways into the wall, and the crowd let out a cheer. The ensuing spinout and flip-over left the car a smoking, flaming tin can, and the driver barely escaped unharmed. Just then, a man in black headphones and a ball cap pointed to me from the chain-link fence separating the grandstands and the pits. Incredulously, I pointed to myself and looked around. I couldn't believe it. I mouthed the question, "Me?" and he nodded. I quickly recognized this man as a high school buddy of mine. He yelled at me over the whining engines and air ratchets firing off behind him, "You've got to race for my team! I just lost a driver."

"You're in the pit for #13?" I asked.

"Exactly," he said. "I need someone who can suit up now."

"I don't have a car. For that matter, I don't even have a license."

"You're the only one who can do it. I saw you take Wards Ferry Road in your dad's old Ford pickup at 80 miles an hour," he urged.

"Lots of kids did that back then," I answered.

"Yeah, but not with two kegs, a hot tub, and 17 people in back."

He had a point.

I ran to meet him at the gate to the pits, and he stuffed me into a white fire suit and helmet. And, with only 12 laps to go I shot out onto the track like lightning. I muscled my way through the pack, scraped my quarter panels past the competition, and maneuvered the champagne-colored four-door Corolla into the lead. But it wasn't over yet. On the last lap a fierce black-and-gold Monte Carlo threatened to take my victory, but as the checkered flag waved, I nosed the "Go Barb" license plate over the finish line and took my place in the winner's circle.

My prize for grinding out the fastest time on the track was a fire truck full of strippers. They placed wreaths around my neck and a microphone in my hand. I pointed to the stands and acknowledged my instantaneous fan base. And as I uttered the echoing, tearful words of gratitude to those who'd helped me along the way, I caught sight of my friends Barb and David. They were far off in the stands, but I could see them perfectly. Waving to Barb and thanking her for the use of her car, I could hear her say, so clearly, "Are we in the boondocks yet?"

"I'm sorry, what?" I asked.

"What are you doing, daydreaming? Get out of the car. We should eat before we get to the races," she fired. She and David looked at me expectedly from the doorway of the Latino Taco Shop.

"Oh, yeah," I said. "I knew that," and I followed them in. At the door I turned back and looked around the shopping center for clues as to how to get to the track, but Déjà Vu's Love Boutique porno shop and nearby Chevron weren't included in my directions.

The taco shop was brightly lit in hues of yellow and orange. The walls featured large photomurals of an idyllic paradise far away from El Cajon. Between bites of carne asada, rice, and beans I talked Barb's ear off about how excited I was to be going to the races. She listened intently to my ramblings while she methodically separated her burrito into very distinct separate piles on her paper plate and ate the beans individually on tortilla chips. David and I watched her for close to five minutes, at which point he whispered in my direction, "O-C-D," in an attempt to explain her odd behavior, but I was already accustomed to her strange eating habits. Barb assured us it was merely a "minor preference."

It was five minutes past 4:00 p.m. when Barb had finished sacrificing frijole villagers to tortilla pterodactyls, and she finally said, "All right, let's go. The parking lot and track are open. Let's get a good spot." Still uncertain as to where the hell we were, I went back to the counter to ask. The small Mexican man spoke quickly, his hands gesticulating wildly. The directions were accurate and helpful; unfortunately, no one in my party spoke Spanish. I pointed, and he nodded with a "Sí." Good enough for me. Turning to leave, we thanked the small mustachioed man for the food and directions, clacked our brown plastic tray into the receptacle for brown plastic trays, then set out for our destination.

Not knowing what to expect, I braced myself for the inevitable barrage of bumper stickers. The last 20 minutes on the 8 east had filled my head with questions. How many things could a die-cut vinyl Calvin possibly piss on? Would the rebel flag or the American flag be the most prominent display of colors? Would it look as if the Confederate Army had set up a splinter cell in the East County of San Diego? And who belongs to the NASCAR numbers 3 and 8? Being metropolitan urbanites, we were naturally fearful of anything east of the 15.

From the backseat of the Barbmobile, I watched rugged off-road trucks with their bodies lifted in angles and positions Henry Ford never meant them to be. Orange-haired old ladies in Plymouths and Malibus with mirrors duct taped into place passed by, horns blaring. Barb is one of those women who drives in the second-to-fastest lane doing 50 mph and singing wildly. That afternoon, David and I were her captive audience as she belted out the entire soundtrack to The Little Mermaid.

Before we headed out, David had to make several trips back and forth from the car to his apartment for things he had forgotten: earplugs, the camera, his sunglasses. Barb and I sat impatiently in the car, and she kept saying, "We've got to get there in time," and he'd return, only to turn right back around and head back upstairs with Barb sighing, "Dammit." She was in a hurry and let fly with the pointing and cursing at other drivers until surface streets gave way to the 15 north. From then on, it was a one-woman show of Ariel and Sebastian's hijinks.

The Dust, Guts, and Wall

Giant tractor tires, painted white, stood guard at the dusty entrance to the Cajon Speedway parking lot. I was surprised to see the lot was nearly empty. We parked three rows back from the entrance gate, an easy walk. David hopped out and immediately started testing light levels and fussing with his digital camera. Barb, adjusting her sunglasses one last time and applying a final touch-up to her lipstick, prepared for her big debut at Cajon Speedway. Throwing her boa across her shoulder, she put one high heel out and yelled, "This is dirt!"

"Of course it's dirty," I said. "There's a lot of dust and debris..."

"No, it's not 'dirty,' it's dirt. The parking lot is dirt. If these heels are ruined, I'm having your ass," she joked. Barb's favorite role, besides that of any musical Disney cartoon, is that of the prima donna. This bitchiness is hilarious to her friends but would probably be misunderstood by outsiders. Others would have no way of knowing that she'd driven and paid for our tickets, serenading us all the while.

Getting out of the car, Barb asked David, "What do I do with this?" referring to her parking stub. David said, "Just put one on your dash and keep the other with you."

"Oh," she said in surprise, "do I give this stub to a parking attendant?"

"No, Barb. There's no valet service at Cajon Speedway," David replied coolly.

Once inside the gate, a fancy baseball cap with "Cajon Speedway" emblazoned on the front was shoved into our hands, and a smiling face said, "Cap Night. First 2000 people get a hat." Admittedly, I was more excited about the lids than my companions. Barb and David were grateful, but if it doesn't have feathers Barb won't put it on her head. I'm not sure there is such a thing, but David wondered about the thread count of his new chapeau.

I, on the other hand, yelled, "Wow! Cool, look at that. That's a great hat."

I removed my favorite Stihl chainsaws headpiece and replaced it with the brand-new Cajon Speedway cap. Surprisingly, it was of good quality, constructed from hefty material in a fetching red, white, and blue graphic arrangement. Giddiness came, not creeping, but in a crashing wave over me. Not for the hat. Not for the races. Not just for the opportunity to meet and talk to others like me, but for everything. I ran through the avenue behind the bleachers, where the candy, beer, and toy merchants were lined up. To the left were the main office and bathrooms; to the right, the stands stood tall overlooking the cyclone fence and wall that separate spectators from careening speed machines. A brown Crown Victoria with a stuffed cow and hand-painted numbers came crashing into the considerable concrete blockade just yards in front of me.

The ripping and booming of mechanical power plants was deafening.

"Isn't this awesome!" I screamed.

"What?" Barb asked.

"Awesome, isn't this awesome?" I yelled again, but it was no use. There was no way she could understand what I was saying. And the brown Crown Vic took another tire-screeching lap past us.

The three of us were intent on getting into the pits, which Barb called "The VIP Room." We didn't even know if there were pits, but dammit, we wanted in to whatever restricted area the track could offer. We walked around the grounds looking for forbidden places into which a press pass and a smile might grant us access. Making our way to the south side of the stadium, away from the bellowing open pipes on the oval track and back into normal noise levels, I spotted it -- the gate to the forbidden. The sign read, "No Entry into the Pits without Passes," so we stormed up to the security guard and demanded to be let in. He pointed us to the head office and said, "Gotta have a pass. Can't get in without a pass."

Rubber dust spit like a fine mist from the paved oval track in great clouds whenever a race car passed. We hadn't noticed that we were nearly covered in it until we got into the artificial light and air-conditioning of the front office. We brushed it from our arms and shirts as the manager watched us from behind the counter. "Can I help you folks?" Yes, you see, there's a lot of black dust out there, and we thought we'd come in for a quick shake off in your crisp, clean lobby. You don't mind, do you? If we were going to woo this man into giving us pit passes, this probably wasn't the best way to start.

"What's your names?" he asked, and then checked his roster.

"Oh, we're not on any list, you see..."

"If you're not on the list, you can't get pit passes," he interrupted. This was my cue to turn around and head for the door from which I entered, but Barb grabbed my shirt sleeve. She saw this as a challenge she could handle.

"But we're writers. He's writing a story about the speedway, and this is our photographer," she said as she pointed to David. Barb pressed on while I read a newspaper article tacked to the wall that bemoaned the uncertainty of the speedway's future.

The man behind the counter noticed I was reading about the lease with the county expiring, and he added, "Yep. Might not be here next year. This might be our last season.

"Sorry, folks. You should've called ahead or written us a letter. I can't do anything for you."

Again, I turned to leave and Barb yanked me back by my collar.

Barb has the gift of charm and conversational ease the way I have the gift of eating and breathing. Having zero people skills, I was thrilled when the manager said, "Okay. Okay. I'll let one of you go back, but that's it." Five minutes later we walked out of that office with three pit passes, a history of the track, and a season schedule.

Between the new ball caps, a digital dictator, a notebook, a digital camera, schedules, histories, and Barb's purse, we were walking around like bedouins, our arms cradled with gatherings from the field. We knew we couldn't drag all this crap around with us, and it was decided that I would stow some of our junk in the car.

Upon reaching the gate to get out I was turned back into the speedway because I had a pit pass. The gate attendee said, "If you have a pit pass, you have to go out through the office."

"What the hell kind of rule is that?" I grumbled and plodded back to the office. My gas-station-bought flip-flops were clap-clapping on the tile as I crossed the office floor, heading to the dusty parking lot. As I passed through the lobby on my way back, a girl behind the counter said, "Sorry. You can't have flip-flops in the pits. I need to take your pass. I noticed you were wearing them when you went out." I thought quickly of how Barb would handle such adversity. What could I say to get this high schooler to let me back into the races with that holiest of documents stapled to my left sleeve. I formulated a cunning plan. I would wow this girl with a tale of my greatness, my need to be in the action and on hand with the drivers. As I launched into my bewitching story of daring, all that came out of my mouth was, "Okay, sorry." I stood dumbfounded as the teenager ripped the paper pass from my shirt sleeve. I damned San Diego's perfect sandal weather and my ineptitude. The front office giveth, and the front office taketh away.

I climbed the broad creaking steps to the top of the two-story-tall amphitheater and looked back into the sun. My gaze followed the streaking shadow cast by the flagpole down the stairs to the south side of the track, where Old Glory snapped and popped in the wind. Taking up two city blocks just beneath the Stars and Stripes is the pit area. The pits were buzzing with men in coveralls rolling tires and sliding under cars in a scramble to ready their machines for racing. Once ready, the cars leaped out onto the oblong track from the south corner. Buzzing the length of the stands, the racers had time to mash the gas only a few seconds before laying on the brakes. The automobiles then tore ass around the corner and flew back past the Stars and Stripes for another lap.

Behind me, on the ground, people were filtering in through the front gate and into the concession area, where they were assaulted by the smell of pretzels and the hammering noise of engines. I scanned the crowd for my friends and bounded down the whitewashed wooden steps to rejoin them.

The roar of engines steadily increased and suddenly dropped to give way to squealing tires as the cars flew closer to the stands and then away to round the far corner. We marched through the vending area, past the miniature American flags hanging from the storefronts, and toward the pits. Through the forbidding chain-link fence people sat in fold-out camp chairs and BSed with their friends and neighbors. The camaraderie of the racers was what I missed most. The whole place smelled like boiling hot dogs and burning alcohol fuel. Beneath the bleachers, sunlight filtered through the stands, mixing with the dust-filled air to erect a maze of light. David and Barb were at the races for the first time in their lives, but I was home.

A Family Tradition

When other kids' parents took them to Monterey, it would be for sailing, swimming, and camping. When my dad took me it was to attend the SuperBike championships at Laguna Seca raceway. We'd regularly have family days at a top-fuel funny car drag in Stockton or the one-mile dirt oval track in Sacramento. My family loves anything to do with internal combustion engines and the seemingly endless manifestations of body style, wheels, and gearing. Flip through a photo album of my childhood: There's me on my dad's Ducati motorcycle. There's me in my uncle's Corvette. There's me at the drags, at Sears Point, at Hot August Nights. There's a picture of me when I was 14 in the 21st anniversary edition of Easyriders magazine.

My dad was born into the generation of chrome and candy paint and has turned his interest into devotion. When he was a kid he would take his parents' Model A out cruising, and he still speaks of the day he saw an Oldsmobile Rocket 88 for the first time. "Until Olds came out with the Rocket 88, cars were junk. They all had flatheads that didn't produce shit for power and would overheat. But when Olds rolled out that overhead valve design, everything changed." His gaze drifts away when he thinks of his teenage years and the yearning he held for large-cubic-inch V-8 engines.

One of my father's favorite jokes is "Why do the limeys like hot beer? Because Lucas made refrigerators too." Apparently, Lucas was a manufacturer of gauges -- speedometers, tachometers, ammeters, and the like. These gauges were mainly used by British motorcycle makers like Triumph, BSA, and Norton, built in and around the '50s and '60s. As you can guess, the gauges are known to be faulty. Now, unless you are one of the -- maybe dozen -- people who have the encyclopedic knowledge of cars and motorcycles that my dad does, you would not understand this.

When I was 15, I owned over a dozen vehicles and helped my uncle build a '68 Dodge Charger. By the time I was 17 he helped me build a '68 Chevy pickup. My uncle and I would sit on the front porch of his house and haggle, "I'll give you the Nova for the Camaro and a 327." He'd respond, "Bullshit. That Camaro's in better shape than that Nova. I'll trade you the Camaro for the Nova, but I keep the 327 and you help me paint the lowrider pickup." Deal.

Vivid still-frame memories of my childhood include "King" Kenny Roberts doing a wheelie through the S-turn and the smoking patch of bleach in a predrag burnout by Kenny Bernstein. I haven't been as interested in cars since then. When I hit my early 20s I gave up hot-rodding and haven't been to any races since. Climbing back up into the bleachers at Cajon Speedway, tasting the dust and smelling burnt rubber, put me right back on that hot blacktop of my youth.

Mime, Balloon Artist...Racer

I was rejoicing that they took my pit pass when I read the sign, "Absolutely No Alcohol with Pit Passes." The vendors made sure I didn't have one and then poured sweet salvation into my red plastic cup. A Bud Light at the races will cost you $5.50, but it's a small price to pay to enjoy this wholly American activity with a tall glass of beer. My cold beer in hand, I took in the carnival atmosphere the vending area offered. Strains of ZZ Top wafted through the air, merchants hocked tiny metal replica cars of NASCAR heroes, and a seated ancient gentleman with a hearing aid the size of a bagel yelled out, "Programs! Two bucks!"

When I see concessions and hear the roar of engines, my thoughts return to the county fairs of my youth. As a little kid in a small town I always wanted to be older and act cooler than the dorkiness that ruled my behavior would allow. An interest in cars and beer went a long way to set this doofus free. Still, I carry with me indelible memories of stark shadows cast by artificial lighting in crowded arenas. I was always looking for that girl I had a secret crush on, testing my knowledge of all things automotive with other boys, and drinking beer from coolers found in pickup beds.

I was on my second cold one when Barb and David returned from the pits, excited about the treasures they had collected while behind the iron curtain of racedom. "I got to hang out with the drivers" and "I got great shots of the cars," they assured me. The first person they spoke with was Kenny Hall, who races in the street stock class. His 2002 Monte Carlo was a 78 Ventura last year, but with the help of his family he'd turned it into an all-fiberglass bad boy and was poised to win it tonight. Kenny was only 20 years old and racing motorcycles when he had a nasty spill and a bad case of temporary amnesia. His racing in-laws set to work building him a car to get him off those damn motorcycles.

One of Kenny's biggest rivals is Neil, in the #217 street stock car. Neil and Kenny have traded spots in the winner's circle all season, which makes for interesting talk at the dinner table. Kenny is married to Neil's sister. On and off the track, their family enjoys the same love of mechanical toys my father and I share. For fun, they take their families out to the desert to ride dirt bikes and four-wheelers and between racing weekends work on each other's cars to keep them in top shape.

Tonight would be the last night for Neil to spin his wheels around the blacktop. After ten years of racing he was hanging his fire suit up for good in exchange for more time riding with his friends and loved ones. He was leaving high-paced competition and banging around the inside of a tin can for relaxed-paced concentration on the things that really mattered.

I convinced Barb to come along with me back to the beer shed. David was nearly losing his composure. "I have to go to the other side of the track." He was worried about his photographs. "I can't get the light I need, I just can't..." While Barb and I started to descend the stairs, David was fiddling with his camera and scratching his head, saying, "Well, I need a slow shutter speed to get the cars, but it's just too bright right here." As we rounded the corner he was just setting out to get his shots.

With the track's future at stake, I wondered about its past. In the beer garden I asked a friendly fellow named KC just how long he'd been working the races. His draft-pouring partner said, "That's kind of an unfair question."

"Why's that?"

KC said, "Well, my mom worked here when she was pregnant with me, so I guess I've been here since before I was born. My folks own the concessions, and I come out every weekend to work the booths."

KC told us he was a workaday police officer. There may have been a slightly awkward moment between me and KC, seeing as how if I'm awake I'm usually violating some law. I thought about the terms of my probation and the beer in my hand, but after a few seconds, we eased into our skin and put our everyday lives behind us and sat there, just two race fans. I asked him what kept him coming out to the track week after week.

"It's the people, the families, and the characters you meet," he said.

That was the cue for "Wierd Marvin" [sic] to enter, stage right. Wearing a purple fire suit and shaking hands as if he was running for mayor, the tall, thin man came upon us. He stopped in to say hi to KC.

"Hi, nice to meet you," I said. "What's your name?" He smiled and said, "Wierd Marvin, with the ei reversed because I'm so weird."

"This purple outfit is stunning. Is it for racing?" Barb asked.

"Yep. I run the Purple Pinto Eater, that's in the pony stock class," he informed us.

Marv was fulfilling a lifelong dream to race.

"I've been around these races forever. My dad raced at Balboa in the '50s, and we came out here when it came out here. I've been around these races all my life."

Marvin, his dad, and the races came out to Cajon Speedway from Balboa Stadium in 1961. In the mid-'60s the track was expanded and paved. The speedway's past is rocky, but it's held on.

After Marvin had spent years entertaining the crowds in other ways, the racing community came together to buy him a car.

"I'm not just a driver. I'm a balloon artist and mime. I've entertained out here for years, and I finally got a car," Marvin told us.

"I'm sorry, what?"

"Yep. I'm a mime," he confirmed. "I became a mime because nobody could hear my stupid jokes. Well, I better get to the pits." And with that, Wierd Marvin, balloon artist, mime, and racer, was gone.

While Barb and I were walking back from the beer hut we ran into David. "I got a couple good pics, but the lighting just isn't right yet. Everyone here seems to have a sense of humor. There are a lot of cars with stuffed animals attached to the door posts, and look at this." He showed me his camera, and the image caught on the tiny screen was of a rear bumper with the words "Stay Back 500 Feet" spray painted on it. "They all seem to have a lot of fun out here."

"David, my friend," I said, "there's a man back there in a purple outfit who drives a purple Pinto that you have to get a picture of. He's a racer, a balloon artist, and a mime. It just doesn't get any better than that. That is pure American gold, sir." France, Scotland, Thailand, and Brazil, I'm confident, could not produce one damned mime, balloon artist, racer between them. And here was one in our own back yard.

When we got to the stands, people were settling in for the qualifiers and heat races, and I was settling into a complimentary Bud Light from KC. In the row in front of us two women were figuring out who owned a backpack that was left on the seats. The way they were greeting other groups of people and setting up chairs that were built specifically for bleachers told us they were track regulars.

"Well, we sit here every weekend. It's just that my husband didn't come out and put down a sheet." It was then that I noticed the many spots in the stands covered with sheets or blankets that had been duct taped in place, marking the bona fide race fans' usual spots. True competition supporters sat on fabric that was the same colors as the cars they cheered on. Kenny and Neil's family were firmly planted on an expanse of orange trimmed with blue tape.

"Well, we're not in your way, are we? Did we take your seats?" Barb asked, as the woman found the owner of the backpack.

"No, no, not at all. Hi, my name's Andrea."

I asked, "So you come out every weekend?" Which is exactly what she had just told me. Dumbass, I thought.

"Yeah, my husband drives the tow truck for the track," she answered, "and we just love to come out to watch them race."

The track is not just a circle of asphalt at the north end of El Cajon, but an array of infrastructure, including public works, emergency rescue divisions, and maintenance. Were they all paid for by the same measly ten-dollar admission charge?

"No, he volunteers; there are a lot of volunteers. People like to help out at the races. It's a hobby to a lot of people who don't race. There's the tow-truck driver and the fire truck..."

"Is that the Coors Light Fire and Rescue Truck?" I asked, thinking I was being really funny but more likely coming off as an asshole.

"Yep, that's the one. They're mostly older guys -- retirees, I think," she said. I was going to crack a joke about pouring beer on flaming crashes but decided to quit while I was behind.

An arriving collection of weekly race fans yelled something unintelligible to Andrea.

"You know those folks?"

"Oh, yeah," she said, "they're here every week. Their son races."

"Wow, their whole family comes out for this," I noticed about the pack of people.

"Yeah, there's a lot of kids here, a lot of parents and grandparents." She pointed out a group of people. "Right there are four generations of people out here to watch the races."

See Who Can Stuff the Largest Breasts into the Smallest Shirt Contest

During qualifiers and heat races Barb paid little attention to the track and instead chose to comment on our fellow spectators. "Look at that poor woman's awful hair. Oh, those roots," or "Isn't that little girl adorable?" Her favorite observations usually had to do with what we later named "The See Who Can Stuff the Largest Breasts into the Smallest Shirt Contest." If cup size in San Diego was being graded, this place would throw off the curve. And it seemed that for this hot summer night, nothing but the smallest of tank tops would do. Green tank tops, burgundy tank tops, and the ever-popular white, ribbed tank tops -- commonly known as a "wife beater" -- abounded, but only in the tightest sizes one could find.

Between races and Barb's comments on the varying bust sizes of passers-by, I occasionally checked the big flashing LED sign at the south end of the track. The black plastic frame would scroll little white squares to spell out messages for the fans: "HAPPY" flash flash "21ST" flash flash "BIRTHDAY" flash flash "ANDREW." At the maddeningly slow pace of flashing words, it would take a good minute to get a brief message all the way through, but I could not tear myself away from it once I had started a message -- I had to watch it through to the end. Barb caught me staring at it and said, "I've arranged to propose to David on that thing."

"Really?" I asked mockingly.

"Yeah, during halftime," she said confidently.

Halftime, huh?

Barb was getting bored and started playing Scrabble on her Palm Pilot, but I was still thrilled with the races. I was glad we'd gotten out early to watch the qualifiers and heats.

The qualifiers and heats were a progression through the categories. First was the pony stock. These tiny cars, modified beyond any shadow of what Pintos were in the '70s, ripped around the track -- each driver going as fast as he or she could, with no competition but the clock. When it was time for the bomber class to race, everyone cheered. The bombers were, by far, the most eccentric. With each new car came a new stuffed toy hanging out the passenger window -- chickens, cows, and Scooby-Doo each hung on for fluffy life as their floppy heads bobbed in the wind. When #38 spun out and hit the wall, someone in the crowd yelled, "BOMBERS!"

The bombers are just normal everyday cars that have a heavy steel cage welded to the interior, a beefed-up drivetrain and suspension, and the occasional Kermit strapped on for luck. The doors and fenders of bombers have a signature pattern of mangled metal. Each line, dent, and gouge tell of a time when the pack was tight or the wall was unforgiving. They look like demolition cars between derbies.

If you took all of the bombers there that night and parked them haphazardly in front of a mobile home, you'd have a picture of my grandparents' home. In fact, local kids can count on coming out to my grandfather's and taking away an old Dodge Diplomat or Lincoln Continental for the destruction derby. Each year I'd sit in the stands while a dull gold or green sedan roughly the size of a mini-mart would smash around in the ring. I'd always brag to my buddies, "They got that car from Gram and Pop. Yep, she looks like a winner."

The T-Shirt Tradition

Our people-watching turned from casual to intense as more and more fans filled the stands. Little kids with glowing bracelets and trucker hats paraded in front of the benches. Thinking this would be a male-dominated arena, I was astonished to find that women easily outnumbered men, and I couldn't believe it when I saw quite a few mothers buying tin NASCAR replicas or posters of famous drivers for their daughters.

Barb and I took to reading T-shirts aloud: "10 Four, Good Buddy!" I'd call to her. "Kickin' Asphalt and Takin' Numbers!" she'd yell at me. I thought that Big Johnson had gone out of business in the early '90s. But to see the sheer number of people adorning themselves with Big Johnson Baseball Bats or Big Johnson Monster Trucks I was now starting to believe that the Johnson family was poised to take over the textile industry. I figured that either they were still plying menswear on a large scale or, like Sunday-go-to-meetin' clothes, these decades-old garments were kept safe and only trotted out for this Saturday-night NASCAR worship service.

I looked at my own T-shirt. It was a Harley-Davidson shirt with an eagle and motorcycle gracing the front. My dad bought it for me from Sturgis, South Dakota, when he had gone back for the annual bike rally. Harley shirts are one of the few traditions my father and I share. Wherever one of us goes he gets the other a Harley shirt. He's given me shirts from Merced and Laughlin, and I've given him shirts from Las Vegas and Barcelona. We each have shirts from Laguna Seca and the Sacramento Mile races we've attended together.

The heat races were by far the coolest events of the night. The LED sign intermittently read "4 LAP" flash flash "TROPHY DASH!" flash flash. The top four qualifiers of each class race for four laps. Without the clutter of the pack and the marathon timing of the main events, the heat races are quick-paced and the drivers daring. It was not uncommon for drivers to swing to the outside of the track and lay the hammer down. Each individual class had its own daredevils and cliff-hangers, with the winner usually only inches in front at the finish line.

We latched on to Andrea to explain the esoteric rule system. Previously, Barb, David, and I had tried to figure out what was going on down on the track, but we were baffled. In my oval-track virginity I lamely asked, "Is this the main event? How come there are only four cars?"

"No, the main event is a lot longer," Andrea explained. "These are just the guys with the top lap times. They race before the main event to see who gets what position in the field. These are called 'heat races.' "

"Okay, so there are qualifying laps, then heat races. Then the winner of the heat race gets the lead position?" I asked.

"No. The fastest guy gets last position because there are passing points. He can get a lot of points just by passing people. And besides, putting the fastest guy first kind of defeats the purpose of racing." This struck me as an awfully egalitarian approach to what I had previously considered to be a cutthroat, cat-and-mouse endeavor.

"Are you guys going to be here next weekend? Because I think next weekend are the train races, and they're great."

"They bring trains out here?" is the single stupidest question I've ever asked in my entire life.

"No," she said politely, "they hook three cars together and race them around in a figure eight through the dirt area and back onto the track. The strategy of the race is to basically not get creamed by the other cars," but I was sure she was thinking, No, asshole, they do not bring trains out here.

As the heat winners sat in the center of the track, a red 2005 Dodge pickup pulled onto the track with a knockout blonde in the back. Andrea informed us that was the trophy girl and that each heat race winner got a trophy for the evening. The winner of each heat race lined his car up diagonally across the finish line. We cheered for each driver as the trophy girl handed him his gleaming cup, and we cheered the loudest for Kenny Hall and his orange-and-blue Monte Carlo.

Pregnancy, People Watching, and Kitty Litter

A group of men hustled out onto the track with brooms, and we asked Andrea what they were doing. "There's water on the track, so nobody can race yet," she said.

Barb asked, "How do they get it to clear up? What are they spreading on it?"

Our sixth-grade sense of humor took over us, and we laughed like idiots when Andrea replied, "Kitty litter."

People were still pouring in when the announcer welcomed us to Cajon Speedway, "The Fastest 3/8-Mile Paved Oval Track in the West!" Which to me sounded like "The Falafel King of Upper Northwest Yuma!" How many can there be?

Barb and I persisted with our contest of itty-bitty tops and heavy hooters, along with her very own contest as to who had the worst hair and clothing. "Whoa! I think we have a winner" and "Not even close. Check out what's coming down the aisle" are examples of our now embarrassingly brazen conversation. I could count on Barb to nudge me and say, "Look at that poor, poor dear. Did she do that with a lighter and a pair of toenail clippers?" commenting on one woman's tragic accident with weaving. Barb was on a roll. "Look at that woman. She's wearing hip-hugger jeans, a shirt tied off under her boobs like Elly May, and a pair of heels!" I targeted the gal in question, and just as the spectators and music rose to the National Anthem the woman turned sideways and revealed a bare belly bulging with what had to be twins.

"Oo-oh say can you seeeEEEEE!"

The Main Event!

"It's time for the main event!" a voice boomed over the speaker system. There were a record number of cars that night, and things were going to be tight. The yellow flag waved. Drivers were lining up in their predetermined positions, and the pace was slow. The crowd seemed nervous. "30 LAP!" flash flash "MAIN EVENT!" the LED flash-flashed.

The pace of the pack quickened. Lap after lap they circled, increasing speed imperceptibly. And when they were all lined up, the green flag dropped. Engines wound out and tires broke free from the bonds that kept them in contact with the blacktop. Smoke, steam, water, and gas all unfurled and sprayed in thin ropes from the compression of steel and chemicals. Air combined with high-octane fuel and sucked the oxygen from the atmosphere around the track and stands.

With this many cars on such a short track, there were bound to be accidents. The spectators were breathless as fiberglass and metal ground together side to side, as the cars hurdled forward. The cars lapped faster and faster until I could no longer see their numbers. I could cheer only when others in our section were cheering.

Our heartbeats kept time with the pistons every time another car lost a little control and kicked the ass end out. The screeching of tires grew louder around the corners as the drivers pushed their cars as far as they dared. Faster and faster they circled.

Number 227 pushed it too far and was the first to spin out. With catlike reflexes the others steered clear of the spinning racer and dashed to take his place. Spectators leaped from their seats cheering and straining to see through the fog and dust. The unnatural, chemical smell of smoking tires gagged us, and out of the smoke came one of the cars with its front bumper dangling at an angle that threw off sparks from the rear and popped the driver's side up as if it were on hydraulic lifters.

Somebody from behind us yelled, "Look! Number 217 is dragging his bumper. They've got to get him off the track. GET OFF THE TRACK!" A black flag waved each time #217 got close to the seats, trying to get his attention and pull him into the pits. But he kept on, shooting the bumper from under the driver's-side front wheel out in a shower of sparks. The yellow flag waved to get everyone back in line and things calmed considerably.

Number 217 took two more laps and was working on his fiery third when some men from the pits got out onto the track and started waving him in. The pace was slower now, and the cars easily steered clear of the men in headphones. Because of the crash, the lap count was frozen and other drivers took this opportunity to enter the pits.

Before the next green flag dropped, #217 fired back onto the track from the depths of the pits without a front end at all. His missing grille revealed the mechanics of the radiator and an exposed front frame. He roared back into position, his car fixed with a permanent scowl.

The gaps between cars closed from feet to inches, and then they were a cast of hawks flying in formation. Again, rubber screeched against asphalt louder with each lap. Drivers alternately slammed their accelerators on the straightaways and stood on their brakes in the turns. As the cars plowed into the corners, the intense demands made upon the cars' brakes heated the metal disks to a fire-hot orange. We could see the glow behind the wheels, and tiny sparks popped from the undercarriage. The crowd surged and receded in the stands like the tide as the cars passed from the near side of the track to the far side.

The section behind us cheered each time an orange-and-blue car shot past. This was Kenny and Neil's family. I couldn't tell one car from the other because they were going so fast. I could only differentiate between colors. Red and white, the family in the next section would scream. Orange and blue, the family behind us would scream.

Kids and teens ran up and down the aisles, puddling up in little groups and then evaporating. Hair of every color and spiked belts paraded in a fashion show in front of the stands. A young couple in pullover sweatshirts and tight jeans started making out in front of the stands, and along with the "Wooooo!" to the racers, the crowd also started heckling the necking twentysomethings with "Pull the shade down!" and "Get a room!"

The race stopped and started frequently. Another spinout and another yellow flag would signal the drivers to muster up and pace themselves. Each yellow caution flag took a couple of laps to get everyone in line. On one occasion, an eager driver stomped his accelerator and overtook the car ahead of him from the outside before the green flag. A man in black pants, a black hat, and headphones, who had until now stood stoically on the sidelines, ventured out onto the course. The next time the offending car passed, the man in black pointed directly at the driver, hiked his leg up, and pointed to his ass. Even we, the uninitiated, knew that this could only mean "You! To the rear!" When the positions were once again set, the green flag dropped and the race was back on. We clapped louder and louder with each passing lap. We were back on our feet. The 30-lap race was just 10 laps from the finish, and our sights were set on the power play for first place. Neil was battling #221 for the lead.

On the last lap, the front of the pack screeched through the turn, decelerated, accelerated, and shifted gears. There was a spinout. A car bashed the considerably bulky wall and filled the field with smoke. Brave racers pushed through to the front as the timid dropped in the pack. With a swirl of air clearing smoke from its path and steam clinging to its fender wells, the blue front-end, then orange mid and rear sections of Neil's Monte Carlo appeared. The crowd was on its feet, and as the checkered flag dropped, Neil crossed the finish line. This, his last night, would be his last win.

Finished

After that particularly hairy finish the announcer sighed, "Whew, I guess we can all breathe now."

Down on the pavement, #221 was parading around on a victory tour while Neil's car slipped back to the pit area. As he did high-rpm transmission drops and smoking burnouts, we asked Andrea why it wasn't Neil out there celebrating. "Oh, Neil won that last race, but #221 just won the points standing for the season." The crowd went crazy for the grandstanding smoke show. Standing, yelling, and turning to each other, the fans cheered the season winner for more.

Soon after the race ended, we were defeated. We were hot and worried about sunburn during the day, but the night air chilled our bones. Our emotions and anxiety for Kenny and Neil had welled up to the brim and were purged with clapping and shouting. Tired and spent, I asked the group if it was time to go, and they agreed. We gave our parting gratitude to Andrea for being our guide to this great American pastime.

On the way home we talked about the races. I vowed to make it back out to Cajon Speedway before its fate is sealed. The next day I saw my dad and gave him a fancy new red, white, and blue ball cap from a speedway that might not be there next year. Maybe it's time to start a new tradition.

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THE #13 STREET STOCK CAR rounded the corner and violently smashed sideways into the wall, and the crowd let out a cheer. The ensuing spinout and flip-over left the car a smoking, flaming tin can, and the driver barely escaped unharmed. Just then, a man in black headphones and a ball cap pointed to me from the chain-link fence separating the grandstands and the pits. Incredulously, I pointed to myself and looked around. I couldn't believe it. I mouthed the question, "Me?" and he nodded. I quickly recognized this man as a high school buddy of mine. He yelled at me over the whining engines and air ratchets firing off behind him, "You've got to race for my team! I just lost a driver."

"You're in the pit for #13?" I asked.

"Exactly," he said. "I need someone who can suit up now."

"I don't have a car. For that matter, I don't even have a license."

"You're the only one who can do it. I saw you take Wards Ferry Road in your dad's old Ford pickup at 80 miles an hour," he urged.

"Lots of kids did that back then," I answered.

"Yeah, but not with two kegs, a hot tub, and 17 people in back."

He had a point.

I ran to meet him at the gate to the pits, and he stuffed me into a white fire suit and helmet. And, with only 12 laps to go I shot out onto the track like lightning. I muscled my way through the pack, scraped my quarter panels past the competition, and maneuvered the champagne-colored four-door Corolla into the lead. But it wasn't over yet. On the last lap a fierce black-and-gold Monte Carlo threatened to take my victory, but as the checkered flag waved, I nosed the "Go Barb" license plate over the finish line and took my place in the winner's circle.

My prize for grinding out the fastest time on the track was a fire truck full of strippers. They placed wreaths around my neck and a microphone in my hand. I pointed to the stands and acknowledged my instantaneous fan base. And as I uttered the echoing, tearful words of gratitude to those who'd helped me along the way, I caught sight of my friends Barb and David. They were far off in the stands, but I could see them perfectly. Waving to Barb and thanking her for the use of her car, I could hear her say, so clearly, "Are we in the boondocks yet?"

"I'm sorry, what?" I asked.

"What are you doing, daydreaming? Get out of the car. We should eat before we get to the races," she fired. She and David looked at me expectedly from the doorway of the Latino Taco Shop.

"Oh, yeah," I said. "I knew that," and I followed them in. At the door I turned back and looked around the shopping center for clues as to how to get to the track, but Déjà Vu's Love Boutique porno shop and nearby Chevron weren't included in my directions.

The taco shop was brightly lit in hues of yellow and orange. The walls featured large photomurals of an idyllic paradise far away from El Cajon. Between bites of carne asada, rice, and beans I talked Barb's ear off about how excited I was to be going to the races. She listened intently to my ramblings while she methodically separated her burrito into very distinct separate piles on her paper plate and ate the beans individually on tortilla chips. David and I watched her for close to five minutes, at which point he whispered in my direction, "O-C-D," in an attempt to explain her odd behavior, but I was already accustomed to her strange eating habits. Barb assured us it was merely a "minor preference."

It was five minutes past 4:00 p.m. when Barb had finished sacrificing frijole villagers to tortilla pterodactyls, and she finally said, "All right, let's go. The parking lot and track are open. Let's get a good spot." Still uncertain as to where the hell we were, I went back to the counter to ask. The small Mexican man spoke quickly, his hands gesticulating wildly. The directions were accurate and helpful; unfortunately, no one in my party spoke Spanish. I pointed, and he nodded with a "Sí." Good enough for me. Turning to leave, we thanked the small mustachioed man for the food and directions, clacked our brown plastic tray into the receptacle for brown plastic trays, then set out for our destination.

Not knowing what to expect, I braced myself for the inevitable barrage of bumper stickers. The last 20 minutes on the 8 east had filled my head with questions. How many things could a die-cut vinyl Calvin possibly piss on? Would the rebel flag or the American flag be the most prominent display of colors? Would it look as if the Confederate Army had set up a splinter cell in the East County of San Diego? And who belongs to the NASCAR numbers 3 and 8? Being metropolitan urbanites, we were naturally fearful of anything east of the 15.

From the backseat of the Barbmobile, I watched rugged off-road trucks with their bodies lifted in angles and positions Henry Ford never meant them to be. Orange-haired old ladies in Plymouths and Malibus with mirrors duct taped into place passed by, horns blaring. Barb is one of those women who drives in the second-to-fastest lane doing 50 mph and singing wildly. That afternoon, David and I were her captive audience as she belted out the entire soundtrack to The Little Mermaid.

Before we headed out, David had to make several trips back and forth from the car to his apartment for things he had forgotten: earplugs, the camera, his sunglasses. Barb and I sat impatiently in the car, and she kept saying, "We've got to get there in time," and he'd return, only to turn right back around and head back upstairs with Barb sighing, "Dammit." She was in a hurry and let fly with the pointing and cursing at other drivers until surface streets gave way to the 15 north. From then on, it was a one-woman show of Ariel and Sebastian's hijinks.

The Dust, Guts, and Wall

Giant tractor tires, painted white, stood guard at the dusty entrance to the Cajon Speedway parking lot. I was surprised to see the lot was nearly empty. We parked three rows back from the entrance gate, an easy walk. David hopped out and immediately started testing light levels and fussing with his digital camera. Barb, adjusting her sunglasses one last time and applying a final touch-up to her lipstick, prepared for her big debut at Cajon Speedway. Throwing her boa across her shoulder, she put one high heel out and yelled, "This is dirt!"

"Of course it's dirty," I said. "There's a lot of dust and debris..."

"No, it's not 'dirty,' it's dirt. The parking lot is dirt. If these heels are ruined, I'm having your ass," she joked. Barb's favorite role, besides that of any musical Disney cartoon, is that of the prima donna. This bitchiness is hilarious to her friends but would probably be misunderstood by outsiders. Others would have no way of knowing that she'd driven and paid for our tickets, serenading us all the while.

Getting out of the car, Barb asked David, "What do I do with this?" referring to her parking stub. David said, "Just put one on your dash and keep the other with you."

"Oh," she said in surprise, "do I give this stub to a parking attendant?"

"No, Barb. There's no valet service at Cajon Speedway," David replied coolly.

Once inside the gate, a fancy baseball cap with "Cajon Speedway" emblazoned on the front was shoved into our hands, and a smiling face said, "Cap Night. First 2000 people get a hat." Admittedly, I was more excited about the lids than my companions. Barb and David were grateful, but if it doesn't have feathers Barb won't put it on her head. I'm not sure there is such a thing, but David wondered about the thread count of his new chapeau.

I, on the other hand, yelled, "Wow! Cool, look at that. That's a great hat."

I removed my favorite Stihl chainsaws headpiece and replaced it with the brand-new Cajon Speedway cap. Surprisingly, it was of good quality, constructed from hefty material in a fetching red, white, and blue graphic arrangement. Giddiness came, not creeping, but in a crashing wave over me. Not for the hat. Not for the races. Not just for the opportunity to meet and talk to others like me, but for everything. I ran through the avenue behind the bleachers, where the candy, beer, and toy merchants were lined up. To the left were the main office and bathrooms; to the right, the stands stood tall overlooking the cyclone fence and wall that separate spectators from careening speed machines. A brown Crown Victoria with a stuffed cow and hand-painted numbers came crashing into the considerable concrete blockade just yards in front of me.

The ripping and booming of mechanical power plants was deafening.

"Isn't this awesome!" I screamed.

"What?" Barb asked.

"Awesome, isn't this awesome?" I yelled again, but it was no use. There was no way she could understand what I was saying. And the brown Crown Vic took another tire-screeching lap past us.

The three of us were intent on getting into the pits, which Barb called "The VIP Room." We didn't even know if there were pits, but dammit, we wanted in to whatever restricted area the track could offer. We walked around the grounds looking for forbidden places into which a press pass and a smile might grant us access. Making our way to the south side of the stadium, away from the bellowing open pipes on the oval track and back into normal noise levels, I spotted it -- the gate to the forbidden. The sign read, "No Entry into the Pits without Passes," so we stormed up to the security guard and demanded to be let in. He pointed us to the head office and said, "Gotta have a pass. Can't get in without a pass."

Rubber dust spit like a fine mist from the paved oval track in great clouds whenever a race car passed. We hadn't noticed that we were nearly covered in it until we got into the artificial light and air-conditioning of the front office. We brushed it from our arms and shirts as the manager watched us from behind the counter. "Can I help you folks?" Yes, you see, there's a lot of black dust out there, and we thought we'd come in for a quick shake off in your crisp, clean lobby. You don't mind, do you? If we were going to woo this man into giving us pit passes, this probably wasn't the best way to start.

"What's your names?" he asked, and then checked his roster.

"Oh, we're not on any list, you see..."

"If you're not on the list, you can't get pit passes," he interrupted. This was my cue to turn around and head for the door from which I entered, but Barb grabbed my shirt sleeve. She saw this as a challenge she could handle.

"But we're writers. He's writing a story about the speedway, and this is our photographer," she said as she pointed to David. Barb pressed on while I read a newspaper article tacked to the wall that bemoaned the uncertainty of the speedway's future.

The man behind the counter noticed I was reading about the lease with the county expiring, and he added, "Yep. Might not be here next year. This might be our last season.

"Sorry, folks. You should've called ahead or written us a letter. I can't do anything for you."

Again, I turned to leave and Barb yanked me back by my collar.

Barb has the gift of charm and conversational ease the way I have the gift of eating and breathing. Having zero people skills, I was thrilled when the manager said, "Okay. Okay. I'll let one of you go back, but that's it." Five minutes later we walked out of that office with three pit passes, a history of the track, and a season schedule.

Between the new ball caps, a digital dictator, a notebook, a digital camera, schedules, histories, and Barb's purse, we were walking around like bedouins, our arms cradled with gatherings from the field. We knew we couldn't drag all this crap around with us, and it was decided that I would stow some of our junk in the car.

Upon reaching the gate to get out I was turned back into the speedway because I had a pit pass. The gate attendee said, "If you have a pit pass, you have to go out through the office."

"What the hell kind of rule is that?" I grumbled and plodded back to the office. My gas-station-bought flip-flops were clap-clapping on the tile as I crossed the office floor, heading to the dusty parking lot. As I passed through the lobby on my way back, a girl behind the counter said, "Sorry. You can't have flip-flops in the pits. I need to take your pass. I noticed you were wearing them when you went out." I thought quickly of how Barb would handle such adversity. What could I say to get this high schooler to let me back into the races with that holiest of documents stapled to my left sleeve. I formulated a cunning plan. I would wow this girl with a tale of my greatness, my need to be in the action and on hand with the drivers. As I launched into my bewitching story of daring, all that came out of my mouth was, "Okay, sorry." I stood dumbfounded as the teenager ripped the paper pass from my shirt sleeve. I damned San Diego's perfect sandal weather and my ineptitude. The front office giveth, and the front office taketh away.

I climbed the broad creaking steps to the top of the two-story-tall amphitheater and looked back into the sun. My gaze followed the streaking shadow cast by the flagpole down the stairs to the south side of the track, where Old Glory snapped and popped in the wind. Taking up two city blocks just beneath the Stars and Stripes is the pit area. The pits were buzzing with men in coveralls rolling tires and sliding under cars in a scramble to ready their machines for racing. Once ready, the cars leaped out onto the oblong track from the south corner. Buzzing the length of the stands, the racers had time to mash the gas only a few seconds before laying on the brakes. The automobiles then tore ass around the corner and flew back past the Stars and Stripes for another lap.

Behind me, on the ground, people were filtering in through the front gate and into the concession area, where they were assaulted by the smell of pretzels and the hammering noise of engines. I scanned the crowd for my friends and bounded down the whitewashed wooden steps to rejoin them.

The roar of engines steadily increased and suddenly dropped to give way to squealing tires as the cars flew closer to the stands and then away to round the far corner. We marched through the vending area, past the miniature American flags hanging from the storefronts, and toward the pits. Through the forbidding chain-link fence people sat in fold-out camp chairs and BSed with their friends and neighbors. The camaraderie of the racers was what I missed most. The whole place smelled like boiling hot dogs and burning alcohol fuel. Beneath the bleachers, sunlight filtered through the stands, mixing with the dust-filled air to erect a maze of light. David and Barb were at the races for the first time in their lives, but I was home.

A Family Tradition

When other kids' parents took them to Monterey, it would be for sailing, swimming, and camping. When my dad took me it was to attend the SuperBike championships at Laguna Seca raceway. We'd regularly have family days at a top-fuel funny car drag in Stockton or the one-mile dirt oval track in Sacramento. My family loves anything to do with internal combustion engines and the seemingly endless manifestations of body style, wheels, and gearing. Flip through a photo album of my childhood: There's me on my dad's Ducati motorcycle. There's me in my uncle's Corvette. There's me at the drags, at Sears Point, at Hot August Nights. There's a picture of me when I was 14 in the 21st anniversary edition of Easyriders magazine.

My dad was born into the generation of chrome and candy paint and has turned his interest into devotion. When he was a kid he would take his parents' Model A out cruising, and he still speaks of the day he saw an Oldsmobile Rocket 88 for the first time. "Until Olds came out with the Rocket 88, cars were junk. They all had flatheads that didn't produce shit for power and would overheat. But when Olds rolled out that overhead valve design, everything changed." His gaze drifts away when he thinks of his teenage years and the yearning he held for large-cubic-inch V-8 engines.

One of my father's favorite jokes is "Why do the limeys like hot beer? Because Lucas made refrigerators too." Apparently, Lucas was a manufacturer of gauges -- speedometers, tachometers, ammeters, and the like. These gauges were mainly used by British motorcycle makers like Triumph, BSA, and Norton, built in and around the '50s and '60s. As you can guess, the gauges are known to be faulty. Now, unless you are one of the -- maybe dozen -- people who have the encyclopedic knowledge of cars and motorcycles that my dad does, you would not understand this.

When I was 15, I owned over a dozen vehicles and helped my uncle build a '68 Dodge Charger. By the time I was 17 he helped me build a '68 Chevy pickup. My uncle and I would sit on the front porch of his house and haggle, "I'll give you the Nova for the Camaro and a 327." He'd respond, "Bullshit. That Camaro's in better shape than that Nova. I'll trade you the Camaro for the Nova, but I keep the 327 and you help me paint the lowrider pickup." Deal.

Vivid still-frame memories of my childhood include "King" Kenny Roberts doing a wheelie through the S-turn and the smoking patch of bleach in a predrag burnout by Kenny Bernstein. I haven't been as interested in cars since then. When I hit my early 20s I gave up hot-rodding and haven't been to any races since. Climbing back up into the bleachers at Cajon Speedway, tasting the dust and smelling burnt rubber, put me right back on that hot blacktop of my youth.

Mime, Balloon Artist...Racer

I was rejoicing that they took my pit pass when I read the sign, "Absolutely No Alcohol with Pit Passes." The vendors made sure I didn't have one and then poured sweet salvation into my red plastic cup. A Bud Light at the races will cost you $5.50, but it's a small price to pay to enjoy this wholly American activity with a tall glass of beer. My cold beer in hand, I took in the carnival atmosphere the vending area offered. Strains of ZZ Top wafted through the air, merchants hocked tiny metal replica cars of NASCAR heroes, and a seated ancient gentleman with a hearing aid the size of a bagel yelled out, "Programs! Two bucks!"

When I see concessions and hear the roar of engines, my thoughts return to the county fairs of my youth. As a little kid in a small town I always wanted to be older and act cooler than the dorkiness that ruled my behavior would allow. An interest in cars and beer went a long way to set this doofus free. Still, I carry with me indelible memories of stark shadows cast by artificial lighting in crowded arenas. I was always looking for that girl I had a secret crush on, testing my knowledge of all things automotive with other boys, and drinking beer from coolers found in pickup beds.

I was on my second cold one when Barb and David returned from the pits, excited about the treasures they had collected while behind the iron curtain of racedom. "I got to hang out with the drivers" and "I got great shots of the cars," they assured me. The first person they spoke with was Kenny Hall, who races in the street stock class. His 2002 Monte Carlo was a 78 Ventura last year, but with the help of his family he'd turned it into an all-fiberglass bad boy and was poised to win it tonight. Kenny was only 20 years old and racing motorcycles when he had a nasty spill and a bad case of temporary amnesia. His racing in-laws set to work building him a car to get him off those damn motorcycles.

One of Kenny's biggest rivals is Neil, in the #217 street stock car. Neil and Kenny have traded spots in the winner's circle all season, which makes for interesting talk at the dinner table. Kenny is married to Neil's sister. On and off the track, their family enjoys the same love of mechanical toys my father and I share. For fun, they take their families out to the desert to ride dirt bikes and four-wheelers and between racing weekends work on each other's cars to keep them in top shape.

Tonight would be the last night for Neil to spin his wheels around the blacktop. After ten years of racing he was hanging his fire suit up for good in exchange for more time riding with his friends and loved ones. He was leaving high-paced competition and banging around the inside of a tin can for relaxed-paced concentration on the things that really mattered.

I convinced Barb to come along with me back to the beer shed. David was nearly losing his composure. "I have to go to the other side of the track." He was worried about his photographs. "I can't get the light I need, I just can't..." While Barb and I started to descend the stairs, David was fiddling with his camera and scratching his head, saying, "Well, I need a slow shutter speed to get the cars, but it's just too bright right here." As we rounded the corner he was just setting out to get his shots.

With the track's future at stake, I wondered about its past. In the beer garden I asked a friendly fellow named KC just how long he'd been working the races. His draft-pouring partner said, "That's kind of an unfair question."

"Why's that?"

KC said, "Well, my mom worked here when she was pregnant with me, so I guess I've been here since before I was born. My folks own the concessions, and I come out every weekend to work the booths."

KC told us he was a workaday police officer. There may have been a slightly awkward moment between me and KC, seeing as how if I'm awake I'm usually violating some law. I thought about the terms of my probation and the beer in my hand, but after a few seconds, we eased into our skin and put our everyday lives behind us and sat there, just two race fans. I asked him what kept him coming out to the track week after week.

"It's the people, the families, and the characters you meet," he said.

That was the cue for "Wierd Marvin" [sic] to enter, stage right. Wearing a purple fire suit and shaking hands as if he was running for mayor, the tall, thin man came upon us. He stopped in to say hi to KC.

"Hi, nice to meet you," I said. "What's your name?" He smiled and said, "Wierd Marvin, with the ei reversed because I'm so weird."

"This purple outfit is stunning. Is it for racing?" Barb asked.

"Yep. I run the Purple Pinto Eater, that's in the pony stock class," he informed us.

Marv was fulfilling a lifelong dream to race.

"I've been around these races forever. My dad raced at Balboa in the '50s, and we came out here when it came out here. I've been around these races all my life."

Marvin, his dad, and the races came out to Cajon Speedway from Balboa Stadium in 1961. In the mid-'60s the track was expanded and paved. The speedway's past is rocky, but it's held on.

After Marvin had spent years entertaining the crowds in other ways, the racing community came together to buy him a car.

"I'm not just a driver. I'm a balloon artist and mime. I've entertained out here for years, and I finally got a car," Marvin told us.

"I'm sorry, what?"

"Yep. I'm a mime," he confirmed. "I became a mime because nobody could hear my stupid jokes. Well, I better get to the pits." And with that, Wierd Marvin, balloon artist, mime, and racer, was gone.

While Barb and I were walking back from the beer hut we ran into David. "I got a couple good pics, but the lighting just isn't right yet. Everyone here seems to have a sense of humor. There are a lot of cars with stuffed animals attached to the door posts, and look at this." He showed me his camera, and the image caught on the tiny screen was of a rear bumper with the words "Stay Back 500 Feet" spray painted on it. "They all seem to have a lot of fun out here."

"David, my friend," I said, "there's a man back there in a purple outfit who drives a purple Pinto that you have to get a picture of. He's a racer, a balloon artist, and a mime. It just doesn't get any better than that. That is pure American gold, sir." France, Scotland, Thailand, and Brazil, I'm confident, could not produce one damned mime, balloon artist, racer between them. And here was one in our own back yard.

When we got to the stands, people were settling in for the qualifiers and heat races, and I was settling into a complimentary Bud Light from KC. In the row in front of us two women were figuring out who owned a backpack that was left on the seats. The way they were greeting other groups of people and setting up chairs that were built specifically for bleachers told us they were track regulars.

"Well, we sit here every weekend. It's just that my husband didn't come out and put down a sheet." It was then that I noticed the many spots in the stands covered with sheets or blankets that had been duct taped in place, marking the bona fide race fans' usual spots. True competition supporters sat on fabric that was the same colors as the cars they cheered on. Kenny and Neil's family were firmly planted on an expanse of orange trimmed with blue tape.

"Well, we're not in your way, are we? Did we take your seats?" Barb asked, as the woman found the owner of the backpack.

"No, no, not at all. Hi, my name's Andrea."

I asked, "So you come out every weekend?" Which is exactly what she had just told me. Dumbass, I thought.

"Yeah, my husband drives the tow truck for the track," she answered, "and we just love to come out to watch them race."

The track is not just a circle of asphalt at the north end of El Cajon, but an array of infrastructure, including public works, emergency rescue divisions, and maintenance. Were they all paid for by the same measly ten-dollar admission charge?

"No, he volunteers; there are a lot of volunteers. People like to help out at the races. It's a hobby to a lot of people who don't race. There's the tow-truck driver and the fire truck..."

"Is that the Coors Light Fire and Rescue Truck?" I asked, thinking I was being really funny but more likely coming off as an asshole.

"Yep, that's the one. They're mostly older guys -- retirees, I think," she said. I was going to crack a joke about pouring beer on flaming crashes but decided to quit while I was behind.

An arriving collection of weekly race fans yelled something unintelligible to Andrea.

"You know those folks?"

"Oh, yeah," she said, "they're here every week. Their son races."

"Wow, their whole family comes out for this," I noticed about the pack of people.

"Yeah, there's a lot of kids here, a lot of parents and grandparents." She pointed out a group of people. "Right there are four generations of people out here to watch the races."

See Who Can Stuff the Largest Breasts into the Smallest Shirt Contest

During qualifiers and heat races Barb paid little attention to the track and instead chose to comment on our fellow spectators. "Look at that poor woman's awful hair. Oh, those roots," or "Isn't that little girl adorable?" Her favorite observations usually had to do with what we later named "The See Who Can Stuff the Largest Breasts into the Smallest Shirt Contest." If cup size in San Diego was being graded, this place would throw off the curve. And it seemed that for this hot summer night, nothing but the smallest of tank tops would do. Green tank tops, burgundy tank tops, and the ever-popular white, ribbed tank tops -- commonly known as a "wife beater" -- abounded, but only in the tightest sizes one could find.

Between races and Barb's comments on the varying bust sizes of passers-by, I occasionally checked the big flashing LED sign at the south end of the track. The black plastic frame would scroll little white squares to spell out messages for the fans: "HAPPY" flash flash "21ST" flash flash "BIRTHDAY" flash flash "ANDREW." At the maddeningly slow pace of flashing words, it would take a good minute to get a brief message all the way through, but I could not tear myself away from it once I had started a message -- I had to watch it through to the end. Barb caught me staring at it and said, "I've arranged to propose to David on that thing."

"Really?" I asked mockingly.

"Yeah, during halftime," she said confidently.

Halftime, huh?

Barb was getting bored and started playing Scrabble on her Palm Pilot, but I was still thrilled with the races. I was glad we'd gotten out early to watch the qualifiers and heats.

The qualifiers and heats were a progression through the categories. First was the pony stock. These tiny cars, modified beyond any shadow of what Pintos were in the '70s, ripped around the track -- each driver going as fast as he or she could, with no competition but the clock. When it was time for the bomber class to race, everyone cheered. The bombers were, by far, the most eccentric. With each new car came a new stuffed toy hanging out the passenger window -- chickens, cows, and Scooby-Doo each hung on for fluffy life as their floppy heads bobbed in the wind. When #38 spun out and hit the wall, someone in the crowd yelled, "BOMBERS!"

The bombers are just normal everyday cars that have a heavy steel cage welded to the interior, a beefed-up drivetrain and suspension, and the occasional Kermit strapped on for luck. The doors and fenders of bombers have a signature pattern of mangled metal. Each line, dent, and gouge tell of a time when the pack was tight or the wall was unforgiving. They look like demolition cars between derbies.

If you took all of the bombers there that night and parked them haphazardly in front of a mobile home, you'd have a picture of my grandparents' home. In fact, local kids can count on coming out to my grandfather's and taking away an old Dodge Diplomat or Lincoln Continental for the destruction derby. Each year I'd sit in the stands while a dull gold or green sedan roughly the size of a mini-mart would smash around in the ring. I'd always brag to my buddies, "They got that car from Gram and Pop. Yep, she looks like a winner."

The T-Shirt Tradition

Our people-watching turned from casual to intense as more and more fans filled the stands. Little kids with glowing bracelets and trucker hats paraded in front of the benches. Thinking this would be a male-dominated arena, I was astonished to find that women easily outnumbered men, and I couldn't believe it when I saw quite a few mothers buying tin NASCAR replicas or posters of famous drivers for their daughters.

Barb and I took to reading T-shirts aloud: "10 Four, Good Buddy!" I'd call to her. "Kickin' Asphalt and Takin' Numbers!" she'd yell at me. I thought that Big Johnson had gone out of business in the early '90s. But to see the sheer number of people adorning themselves with Big Johnson Baseball Bats or Big Johnson Monster Trucks I was now starting to believe that the Johnson family was poised to take over the textile industry. I figured that either they were still plying menswear on a large scale or, like Sunday-go-to-meetin' clothes, these decades-old garments were kept safe and only trotted out for this Saturday-night NASCAR worship service.

I looked at my own T-shirt. It was a Harley-Davidson shirt with an eagle and motorcycle gracing the front. My dad bought it for me from Sturgis, South Dakota, when he had gone back for the annual bike rally. Harley shirts are one of the few traditions my father and I share. Wherever one of us goes he gets the other a Harley shirt. He's given me shirts from Merced and Laughlin, and I've given him shirts from Las Vegas and Barcelona. We each have shirts from Laguna Seca and the Sacramento Mile races we've attended together.

The heat races were by far the coolest events of the night. The LED sign intermittently read "4 LAP" flash flash "TROPHY DASH!" flash flash. The top four qualifiers of each class race for four laps. Without the clutter of the pack and the marathon timing of the main events, the heat races are quick-paced and the drivers daring. It was not uncommon for drivers to swing to the outside of the track and lay the hammer down. Each individual class had its own daredevils and cliff-hangers, with the winner usually only inches in front at the finish line.

We latched on to Andrea to explain the esoteric rule system. Previously, Barb, David, and I had tried to figure out what was going on down on the track, but we were baffled. In my oval-track virginity I lamely asked, "Is this the main event? How come there are only four cars?"

"No, the main event is a lot longer," Andrea explained. "These are just the guys with the top lap times. They race before the main event to see who gets what position in the field. These are called 'heat races.' "

"Okay, so there are qualifying laps, then heat races. Then the winner of the heat race gets the lead position?" I asked.

"No. The fastest guy gets last position because there are passing points. He can get a lot of points just by passing people. And besides, putting the fastest guy first kind of defeats the purpose of racing." This struck me as an awfully egalitarian approach to what I had previously considered to be a cutthroat, cat-and-mouse endeavor.

"Are you guys going to be here next weekend? Because I think next weekend are the train races, and they're great."

"They bring trains out here?" is the single stupidest question I've ever asked in my entire life.

"No," she said politely, "they hook three cars together and race them around in a figure eight through the dirt area and back onto the track. The strategy of the race is to basically not get creamed by the other cars," but I was sure she was thinking, No, asshole, they do not bring trains out here.

As the heat winners sat in the center of the track, a red 2005 Dodge pickup pulled onto the track with a knockout blonde in the back. Andrea informed us that was the trophy girl and that each heat race winner got a trophy for the evening. The winner of each heat race lined his car up diagonally across the finish line. We cheered for each driver as the trophy girl handed him his gleaming cup, and we cheered the loudest for Kenny Hall and his orange-and-blue Monte Carlo.

Pregnancy, People Watching, and Kitty Litter

A group of men hustled out onto the track with brooms, and we asked Andrea what they were doing. "There's water on the track, so nobody can race yet," she said.

Barb asked, "How do they get it to clear up? What are they spreading on it?"

Our sixth-grade sense of humor took over us, and we laughed like idiots when Andrea replied, "Kitty litter."

People were still pouring in when the announcer welcomed us to Cajon Speedway, "The Fastest 3/8-Mile Paved Oval Track in the West!" Which to me sounded like "The Falafel King of Upper Northwest Yuma!" How many can there be?

Barb and I persisted with our contest of itty-bitty tops and heavy hooters, along with her very own contest as to who had the worst hair and clothing. "Whoa! I think we have a winner" and "Not even close. Check out what's coming down the aisle" are examples of our now embarrassingly brazen conversation. I could count on Barb to nudge me and say, "Look at that poor, poor dear. Did she do that with a lighter and a pair of toenail clippers?" commenting on one woman's tragic accident with weaving. Barb was on a roll. "Look at that woman. She's wearing hip-hugger jeans, a shirt tied off under her boobs like Elly May, and a pair of heels!" I targeted the gal in question, and just as the spectators and music rose to the National Anthem the woman turned sideways and revealed a bare belly bulging with what had to be twins.

"Oo-oh say can you seeeEEEEE!"

The Main Event!

"It's time for the main event!" a voice boomed over the speaker system. There were a record number of cars that night, and things were going to be tight. The yellow flag waved. Drivers were lining up in their predetermined positions, and the pace was slow. The crowd seemed nervous. "30 LAP!" flash flash "MAIN EVENT!" the LED flash-flashed.

The pace of the pack quickened. Lap after lap they circled, increasing speed imperceptibly. And when they were all lined up, the green flag dropped. Engines wound out and tires broke free from the bonds that kept them in contact with the blacktop. Smoke, steam, water, and gas all unfurled and sprayed in thin ropes from the compression of steel and chemicals. Air combined with high-octane fuel and sucked the oxygen from the atmosphere around the track and stands.

With this many cars on such a short track, there were bound to be accidents. The spectators were breathless as fiberglass and metal ground together side to side, as the cars hurdled forward. The cars lapped faster and faster until I could no longer see their numbers. I could cheer only when others in our section were cheering.

Our heartbeats kept time with the pistons every time another car lost a little control and kicked the ass end out. The screeching of tires grew louder around the corners as the drivers pushed their cars as far as they dared. Faster and faster they circled.

Number 227 pushed it too far and was the first to spin out. With catlike reflexes the others steered clear of the spinning racer and dashed to take his place. Spectators leaped from their seats cheering and straining to see through the fog and dust. The unnatural, chemical smell of smoking tires gagged us, and out of the smoke came one of the cars with its front bumper dangling at an angle that threw off sparks from the rear and popped the driver's side up as if it were on hydraulic lifters.

Somebody from behind us yelled, "Look! Number 217 is dragging his bumper. They've got to get him off the track. GET OFF THE TRACK!" A black flag waved each time #217 got close to the seats, trying to get his attention and pull him into the pits. But he kept on, shooting the bumper from under the driver's-side front wheel out in a shower of sparks. The yellow flag waved to get everyone back in line and things calmed considerably.

Number 217 took two more laps and was working on his fiery third when some men from the pits got out onto the track and started waving him in. The pace was slower now, and the cars easily steered clear of the men in headphones. Because of the crash, the lap count was frozen and other drivers took this opportunity to enter the pits.

Before the next green flag dropped, #217 fired back onto the track from the depths of the pits without a front end at all. His missing grille revealed the mechanics of the radiator and an exposed front frame. He roared back into position, his car fixed with a permanent scowl.

The gaps between cars closed from feet to inches, and then they were a cast of hawks flying in formation. Again, rubber screeched against asphalt louder with each lap. Drivers alternately slammed their accelerators on the straightaways and stood on their brakes in the turns. As the cars plowed into the corners, the intense demands made upon the cars' brakes heated the metal disks to a fire-hot orange. We could see the glow behind the wheels, and tiny sparks popped from the undercarriage. The crowd surged and receded in the stands like the tide as the cars passed from the near side of the track to the far side.

The section behind us cheered each time an orange-and-blue car shot past. This was Kenny and Neil's family. I couldn't tell one car from the other because they were going so fast. I could only differentiate between colors. Red and white, the family in the next section would scream. Orange and blue, the family behind us would scream.

Kids and teens ran up and down the aisles, puddling up in little groups and then evaporating. Hair of every color and spiked belts paraded in a fashion show in front of the stands. A young couple in pullover sweatshirts and tight jeans started making out in front of the stands, and along with the "Wooooo!" to the racers, the crowd also started heckling the necking twentysomethings with "Pull the shade down!" and "Get a room!"

The race stopped and started frequently. Another spinout and another yellow flag would signal the drivers to muster up and pace themselves. Each yellow caution flag took a couple of laps to get everyone in line. On one occasion, an eager driver stomped his accelerator and overtook the car ahead of him from the outside before the green flag. A man in black pants, a black hat, and headphones, who had until now stood stoically on the sidelines, ventured out onto the course. The next time the offending car passed, the man in black pointed directly at the driver, hiked his leg up, and pointed to his ass. Even we, the uninitiated, knew that this could only mean "You! To the rear!" When the positions were once again set, the green flag dropped and the race was back on. We clapped louder and louder with each passing lap. We were back on our feet. The 30-lap race was just 10 laps from the finish, and our sights were set on the power play for first place. Neil was battling #221 for the lead.

On the last lap, the front of the pack screeched through the turn, decelerated, accelerated, and shifted gears. There was a spinout. A car bashed the considerably bulky wall and filled the field with smoke. Brave racers pushed through to the front as the timid dropped in the pack. With a swirl of air clearing smoke from its path and steam clinging to its fender wells, the blue front-end, then orange mid and rear sections of Neil's Monte Carlo appeared. The crowd was on its feet, and as the checkered flag dropped, Neil crossed the finish line. This, his last night, would be his last win.

Finished

After that particularly hairy finish the announcer sighed, "Whew, I guess we can all breathe now."

Down on the pavement, #221 was parading around on a victory tour while Neil's car slipped back to the pit area. As he did high-rpm transmission drops and smoking burnouts, we asked Andrea why it wasn't Neil out there celebrating. "Oh, Neil won that last race, but #221 just won the points standing for the season." The crowd went crazy for the grandstanding smoke show. Standing, yelling, and turning to each other, the fans cheered the season winner for more.

Soon after the race ended, we were defeated. We were hot and worried about sunburn during the day, but the night air chilled our bones. Our emotions and anxiety for Kenny and Neil had welled up to the brim and were purged with clapping and shouting. Tired and spent, I asked the group if it was time to go, and they agreed. We gave our parting gratitude to Andrea for being our guide to this great American pastime.

On the way home we talked about the races. I vowed to make it back out to Cajon Speedway before its fate is sealed. The next day I saw my dad and gave him a fancy new red, white, and blue ball cap from a speedway that might not be there next year. Maybe it's time to start a new tradition.

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