Rolling Wheels

Summer 1981

Even before they reach you, there’s a rolling cloud of dust and hot gas, billowing yellow, orange and red through the lights high over your head. The bleacher seats vibrate, and the air pops and crackles. There must be twenty or thirty of them, cars, barking and roaring to be let go.

Then the flag drops and all Hell breaks loose. The colored shapes surge forward and blur, accelerating to 140 on their way past your seat, heading up the track to a tight, tiny left turn, pulling away so you can hear, for the first time, the screams of the people all around you.

Down at the turn, some cars are on the track and some are not, rather they’re floating over the banked rim, disappearing into the night, out of the floodlights’ glare.

It’s summer at the dirt tracks. They’re racing at Weedsport, up at Oswego and on this particular evening it’s Rolling Wheels Raceway, just outside Elbridge on Route 5, the home of the fast track, the home of the Sprints, the Super Modifieds and the Late Models (which go too fast to ever be late).

This is not my regular scene. But I believe you’ve got to strike a cultural balance in life. And I have a family reason for being here: my wife’s mother’s fiancee’s daughter’s husband was out there in a Super Modified, unwinding. His name is Scott, and in the real world he cleans up after industrial spills, accidents and assorted horror shows. Not the most relaxing job in the world. So Scott likes to “get away from it all” along with Mike “Magic Shoes” McLaughlin (in the Crazee 8) and Dick “Crash” Nash (in his Metal Mistress), mixing it up with “A.J. Slideways” and more wonderful cars, such as the little blue job from D & H Potato Farms, and a black beauty clearly marked “Moma Lena’s Pizza Wagon.”

They all drive like wild men, but there’s one guy who’s wilder than all of them put together: The Flagman. The man who flirts with Death. In a spartan white jumpsuit and headphones, he starts the warm-up procession from the middle of the track, walking backwards. One slip and he’s flatter than a frisbee, but he’s very cool about it. Once he’s got the cars worked up into a feeding frenzy, all headed down the backstretch for the final approach to the starting line, he zips off the track, runs up the stairs to an overhanging balcony, loops a leg over the rail and hangs over the track. Like a ‘possum with two flags. When they come around the turn, growling and belching fire, he uncorks a huge flourish to turn them loose. And they all take off like they’re leaving work.

In the subsequent roar and shower of grit, communication is almost impossible. The crowd loves it. This is the real thing; this is what they came for. There are no designer jeans in this crowd, no tightasses from the EPA.

In the din and clouds, I feel a beer can being thrust into my hand. It’s from Dick, Scott’s brother-in-law, a college prof in from Boston. I lean over and he shouts in my ear, “Part of the whole gestalt.” It certainly is. It’s a Schaeffer. At the food stands, you can get a hot dog or some fried dough to go with it, and a lot of people do. One young man, with a girth that most men can aspire to only in their fifties, returned from the stands with a shaking cardboard tray laden with cheese nachos, fried dough, hot dogs and a jumbo drink. His eyes looked tiny behind his thick glasses, and when he stepped up into the crowd, nowhere near an aisle, and began the weaving climb to his seat, the crowd parted before him like the Red Sea.

When you’ve finished a beer, the can is dropped through the bleacher seats. Cigarettes, however, are flipped straight out onto the sidewalk. And there’s more dirt track etiquette. Hats with bills and brims are required (mostly to keep the dust and grit out of your eyes and hair) and only a novice wears contact lenses.

The track announcer narrates all the action in Dirt Trackese. Drivers don’t go off the track; they go “over the dike” or “out into the boonies.” The feature race is really the “feature go” and the qualifiers are “heats.” In between heats, you can hustle out for a beer, or maybe a Rolling Wheels t-shirt or hat or jacket. Or a button with your favorite driver on it. And it’s the only time to hit the restrooms. In the Men’s Room, the fans wax rhapsodic; it’s the only place you can hear anybody talk. One guy expressed his love of racing this way, leaning his head back, surveying the line-up. “You know,” he sang out, “I get so #@%$* excited watching the races, I don’t want to pee!” Rolling Wheels is nothing like the Symphony.

Refreshed and restocked I rushed back to my seat, just in time to see Scott roar out onto the track for the third time. Scott’s left front tire had been snacking on his brake line, so he was driving kind of a free-form race, accelerating into the turns and then filing for a temporary suspension of the Law of Centrifugal Force. This was eventually denied, and we watched Scott head into orbit, leaving the confines of the oval to embark on an adventure of his own. His wife sat with her hand over her mouth, and one of his sons remarked casually, “He’s fine.”

After the races were over and the dust had settled, we walked back into the pit area, now open to the crowd. We found Scott sitting on the back of his trailer looking at the car. “My bumper’s gone,” he said. “I don’t even remember losing that.”

All over the pits, drivers were kicking tires, banging dirt out of air-cleaners and saying, “Here’s the problem” to girlfriends. And all trotted over to the office to pick up a check, half in and half out of their Nomex suits, an open-air locker room, out back at the Colosseum. Scott apologized for his lack of a trophy, and I said, “Hey, I was happy just to be here.”

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