Saturday, September 3, 2011

Why the Race Track is Good – Part 1

I don’t remember going to a race track for the first time.  Looking back it seems like something I’ve always done.  There wasn’t a start, it just was and is, kind of like brushing your teeth.  I don’t recall exactly when I started brushing my teeth.  One day I’m gumming strained carrots and seemingly the next I’m deciding which of the 37 different types of toothpaste best suit my teeth cleaning and breath freshening needs.

There had to be a first time though, for both teeth and track.  The teeth don’t interest me too much, the track on the other hand does.  While I don’t remember the when, I was probably ten or eleven years old which puts it in the mid 80’s, I’m sure of the where, Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma California.  I’m also sure of the what, the IMSA Camel GT.  Sports cars.  The type of cars that that turn right as well as they do left. 

Racing was different back then.  Tobacco advertising hadn’t yet been banned and there were more cigarette billboards around the track than tiara wearing bachelorettes on the Las Vegas strip.  Even the series title sponsor, Camel, was a brand of cigarettes. 

The great thing about tobacco advertising was the money it brought to the sport, big money.  Fast race cars are born out of big money, and there were lots to choose from.  Porsche, Jaguar, Nissan, Toyota, Ford, Chevrolet, and Pontiac were all there.  It’s not very often a top tier racing series has representation from Europe, England, Japan and America.  Money doesn’t just make the world go around, it also makes race cars go around the track.  As an adolescent boy I didn’t care if Joe Camel was trying to sell me Egyptian themed cigarettes.  I was just happy Joe brought his wallet with him to the track.  It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I realized Camel was a brand of cigarettes and not some obscure name for a race series.  How’s that for an indicator of just how focused I was on the cars? 

Here’s another one.  I don’t even remember if there were trophy girls, but certainly there had to be.  With bags of money, exotic race cars and racing drivers speaking accented English all in the same spot how could there not be trophy girls?

The track was different back then too.  Sears Point has since gone the route of all modern sports complexes, changing its name to that of a corporate sponsor.  Since 2002 it has been known as Infineon Raceway.  I don’t know what Infineon is or does.  I’m sure with an internet connection, a few keystrokes, and about five and a half seconds I could find out.  I really don’t care all that much though.  

This namesake sponsorship money, influx of NASCAR cash, and general attitudes toward safety changed the circuit.  In the late 80’s catch fences were shorter, fewer and closer to the track.  I can remember standing near the start-finish line hanging my head over the chest high catch fence, separated from the track surface by that fence and a waist high concrete barrier.
I would watch as many race starts as I could from this location.  The anticipation would build as the cars circuited the track on the pace lap.  Drivers would use the limited space between them and the car in front to accelerate and then quickly apply the brakes attempting to get heat into the tires and pads.  I’ve always thought pace laps sound similar to an orchestra before the conductor steps up to his podium, a little disorderly, a lot quieter than and not nearly as fantastic as the actual performance. 

The cars would slowly come through the last corner, ordinarily a fast left hander when taken at speed, in their orderly two by two formations.   When the starter waved the green flag, much like the conductor waving his baton, the performance would commence.  And it was fantastic.  Drivers would bury the throttle, engines would thunder, scream or whoosh to life and it would be, as they say, on. 

Standing there, fingers clutching the top bar of the chain link fence, I would pull myself against that fence and thrust my head as close to the track as I could.  It felt as though the cars would suck the shirt right off my back as they roared by.  Through the lens of my memory it seems I was only 10 feet or so from the track, I doubt it was that close but that’s how I remember it.  At that point in my life, standing there as these fearless men piloted those incredible machines at the absolute limit of sanity, I thought there was nothing cooler on the planet.  Twenty some odd years later it’s still up there on the list.