I'm not sure I was supposed to be kneeling at the feet of the King when Richard Petty gave the traditional charge to the racers, "Gentlemen, start your engines!" But a handful of us paid homage to his holiness, and as long as we didn't block the view, we were welcome to be down at engine level when Jeff Purvis and Jeff Green led the convoy in igniting their roaring engines just a few feet away.
A day at the races
There must be a reason for setting up the grandstand facing east with a view of I-25 instead of facing west where you can watch the storms churning over the mountains for a little more variety than the circling and circling on the track before you. There's a large grassy area along the straightaway between Turns 2 and 3, virtually unpopulated save for a few lone onlookers, letting the race engulf them as it heads into the far turn. People stay away from grass like it's poison at these races. Then again, you can't get farther away from the funnel cake on the midway than at the edge of this straightaway.
I'd like to sit and watch the cars race by the mountains from a splotch of grass out here, but to see the mountains you have to be watching the backs of the cars as they speed away from you. Instinct tells us to watch the front of the cars as they come toward us or miss something critical, so the mountains remain in the rear view, on the fringes of consciousness.
I probably shouldn't be rooting for anybody, but how can you not pull for a guy with a bunny on his back? I'm newly addicted to NesQuick, so seeing Jeff Green lead the pack in his bunny car makes me feel like a champion. When the leader board is filled with sponsors selling charcoal and power tools, auto parts and sheet glass, it's nice to be able to relate to something like chocolate milk. It's so refreshing. Especially in a hot, dry summer. It may not be quite as satisfying as a Snickers, but sometimes a Snickers is just too satisfying. I've had very little to drink other then NesQuick for most of the past year, up until I realized that, for the same number of calories, I could be getting intoxicated.
A lot of people walk around the raceway with foam sticking out of their ears. This is the smart thing to do if you don't want your ear drums to bleed or if you don't want to enter the altered state of surroundsound at 135 mph. But why come at all if you're going to baffle yourself from the heart of the experience?
Sound is what it's all about out there. Visually, the race can be hypnotic. There have been experiments with whisper-lite engines that simply whoosh on past no louder than a nose whistler, but tennis already has the copyrights on lulling its grandstands to sleep.
Part of the joy of discovery in this day-long immersion in high decibel activity is finding the variety of sounds from various vantage points inside and outside the track. At the empty, grassy way between the far turns it's a steady roar, hardly a chance to distinguish between the scientific raising and lowering of pitch. Back on those bales of hay coming out of Turn 2, there's a more dramatic crescendo of approach followed by the retreating decellerando.
There's nothing to compare this sound to, unless you've ever spent time lying down in the grass at the end of an airport runway. The zenith of the roar settles in the lower rows of the grandstand across from the hot pits, just shy of the starting line. The noise is even steadier here, a circle of sound swirling around itself. I'm confident that after the last car turns off his engine that sound will keep racing and circling for another 45 seconds or so.
People stand transfixed in front of the safety fence, drowning in sound, returning to some kind of fetal comfort zone where nothing can touch them. They have the expression of those who can look without seeing, learning everything they need to know in the cacophonous music to a motorhead's ears.
The inside story
Inside Turn 1 is about as close at you can get to the track itself, about twenty yards away at the edge of Jeff Purvis's pit. Walking the hot pit engages yet another under-appreciated sense, as the smells begin to overwhelm you. Oil and grease and rubber filter through the nostrils, and where the pit meets the track, the exhaust from the burning engines is thick enough to taste. You can feel it lodging against your throat, building up as surely as the crud on the back of Jeff Green's wheel well after he finished the race with a hundred yard skid into a figure eight of smoking tires laying rubber on the road.
If you try to look too closely at cars 20 yards away blurring by at 118 mph while inhaling fumes and conceding your inner ear to the two-hour roar, you'll get dizzy. So it isn't all bad.
But what a world to live in. A day at the track makes you realize how much you take for granted on those days when you spend your free time on the edge of fields of green Kentucky bluegrass, occasionally seeing the dirt fly around home plate, or watching the rare divots jump out of the outfield after a quick start chasing down a line drive.
I can tell you how polluted it feels to hang out in the pit, feeling your lungs coat with second-hand fumes and letting your brain spin to the sound spiraling around your eardrums, but I suppose the pit people build up a resistance to it all in the same way that I've become immune to giardia, boldly drinking downstream from a half herd of cows tail deep in muddy waters, teeth clenched to keep the big chunks out.
On a day like Saturday, when the green flag ruled with only two caution flags to slow things down, a clean race may delight purists, but consistency and smoothness aren't necessarily qualities endearing to the average racing enthusiast. Sometimes the pits are where the fun is. Jeff Green's only mistake came in the pits when he overshot his stop and had to back up to his crew, costing him a couple seconds and half a straightaway.
P.J. Jones whips in and gets four new tires and two tanks full of gas in nothing flat, while Randy LaJoie has more trouble down the lane from him, taking several minutes to get his car track-ready again. Whatever his crew did for him didn't last long, as a lap later LaJoie came in with a fire under the hood. Something tells you not to look too closely behind the smoke into a combustible engine. Perhaps it's the three pages of waivers you need to sign before entering the infield. It doesn't help that I just watched Rear Window again with Jimmy Stewart in a hip-to-ankle cast after getting a cover shot at the finish line of an Indy race.
In the winner's lane, sponsors are quick to hand out Busch beer to the crew on the track, adorning the trophy stage with cases of Busch to gently remind fans of how good a cold beer is on the hood of a fast car. Winning driver Jeff Green, who set a track record while his older brother David pushed him on from 3/4 of a second behind in second place, says things like "my dream came true today, being able to race my brother all the way to the checker flag," and a few minutes later admits that "the brother word had to go out the window."
Jeff Green takes a prominent drink of NesQuick after emerging from his car, and there is a kinship in knowing that he works for the same rewards as we do.