If you follow this blog’s twitter, you will have seen that I spent my Saturday night at a dirt track I live in Los Angeles, so to get anywhere, it takes a while. To get anywhere that could theoretically have a race track that doesn’t involve turing the streets of Long Beach into a IndyCar track, it takes a while more. It takes about 2 hours to get to any other race track of note, if I’m honest, and that’s a hike.
But I’m a Hooiser, I grew up going to dirt and short track oval races all over the state of Indiana. Summer after summer, I remember driving with my father to all ends of Indiana to go enjoy Indiana Sprint Week. I remember driving picking up my brother from summer camp, seeing a racetrack along the way, and stopping to watching the local stock cars try their luck at a dirt oval. I mean all of this to say that I don’t really care how long it is that I have to drive, if there’s a good race going on somewhat close, I’m going to go to it.
And that’s exactly what I did this Saturday. Perris Autospeedway, a 1/4 mile dirt track about 60 miles west of Los Angeles, was playing host to the Craftsmen World of Outlaws Series as well as the local wing of the USAC/CRA Sprint Car Series. So, I packed a few friends into a car and we set out, cranking up a road trip playlist along the way, laughing and singing along to everything from Journey to One Direction. It was a great relief, a great way to enjoy a truly beautiful Saturday afternoon in sunny Southern California.
My friends were interested, not necessarily excited in seeing the race. They had never been racing like this before. I had. In between songs, on the way out to the track, I filled them in on all that they would see. I explained the cushion and the berm of a dirt track and how to use them. I talked them through sliding the car through the corner and how to spot a pass coming from 2 corners away. I rambled on and on, as I’m sure they will tell you, but as one of them said to me at one point, “This is you favorite thing in the world, isn’t it?” And it is.
To me, there is nothing more quintessentially ‘Heartland America’ than a dirt track race. There is something so simple, yet so beautiful about watching those cars sling through the corners, pushing the limit, trying the driver’s skill. I love the noise, the smell, the sights. I love having to clean the dirt out of your tear ducts during the yellow periods of a A Main race because there’s no way in hell you’re so much as blinking while the race is green.
The minute we got to the track, I started to get giddy. We were a few minutes late, the heat races already having begun, so as we walked up we were greeted with the unrestrained roar of the cars whizzing around the track. I was practically skipping as we made our way to our seats.
We sat down. The races started. I had reached racing Nirvana. Sprint cars, a beautiful night, good friends, classic rock over the loud speaker, it doesn’t get any better than that. And as the night went on, I sat there with my smile getting bigger and gibber. It didn’t matter if it was watching the Young Guns or the Senior Sprints, the Outlaws or The USAC boys, I was just happy. I was amazed at the guts the young drivers, some as young as 12 or 13, hurled their sprint cars around the track. I marveled at the skill of the mechanics as, after an accident, they managed to repair and replace a front axle in under two minutes. I laughed as my friends grew startled as pieces of dirt and clay flew up and breezed by them. There is nothing like a race like this in the world.
And as I looked around the grandstands, I noticed something very special. Kids. Kids of all ages. Some of whom, yes, were more interested in playing tag in the grass behind the grandstands or repeatedly asking their parents for cotton candy or a soda, but most of whom were watching the race right along with me. Many of them, in fact, seemed to know more about the series and the drivers than I did. And not a single one of them was on a phone or electronic device. I saw those kids, those young kids, and thought not only of how much they reminded myself of me when I was young, but I thought about the future of the sport we all love.
Yes, to many, motor racing is dying. It is the sad truth of this new eco-aware age. And perhaps it is a good thing that we are now no longer running V12 engines that put more Co2 into the air than a million jet planes, but at the same time, looking into the eyes of those kids, seeing their sheer wonder and love at seeing cars going that fast around the track, I have to think there’s still hope for the sport we love so much.
The truth is that no matter where we are, cars that go fast will always inspire children and adults. That’s what I saw Saturday. I didn’t see a sport drawing its dying breath. I didn’t see an outdated event that draws less viewership than a curling match. No, I saw a healthy sport, one alive with vitality, one that continues to draw fans out in droves to cheer for their favorites.
Racing may not be the highest rated sport anymore, but let me tell you something. Go out to your local short track. Check out the young guns of the racing world and the younger guns that watch them drive with awe and you tell me that racing doesn’t still have a bright future ahead of it.