These are the collected memories of my spent and misspent youth. Names have been changed to both protect the innocent and to subvert any statutes of limitations that may still apply. I will also take liberties with the truth as in who did what, or maybe combine a couple of stories together that really didn’t happen together. Such is the nature of a memoir. I am seeking to entertain, not write a documentary. Hope you enjoy
Rednecks, Racing, and some other word beginning with R
Teen boys in the flatlands in the early ‘80s had a simple set of interests. Teen Girls, Cars, Beer – not neccesarily in that order, but those three subject covered much of what was going on in our heads at any given time. I’ve already talked about Teen Girls, so much so that I am in danger of violating that pesky restraining order, and I have discussed beer at length. Lets talk about cars, specifically race cars.
There was a ¼ mile dirt track about 30 minutes northwest of us, the Sycamore Speedway. A ¼ mile rutted dirt oval, surrounding a mud and weed choked infield, and in turn surrounded by a 4 foot high, one foot thick cement wall. One side had a large set of aluminum bleachers and the other opened up to junkyard. On a warm summer nights, with the crickets chirping and the bright lights shining down on lines of gleaming home built race cars the place was very close to heaven. As close as I was likely to get anyway. They raced three classes there, Super Late Model, Late Model, and Spectator. Late Model and Super Late Model were for people who were serious about racing. If you built frames and motors, you ran Super Late. If you worked on engines, and played with suspensions, you ran Late Model. If you had an old hunk of American iron out back of the barn, and you thought you could get it running, and really had no regard for your own personal safety, you ran in the Spectator class.
One weekend, early in the summer, we went out to the speedway for a night. That accomplished two things; 1) it was fun, cheap, not illegal entertainment and 2) counted as a date for the guys who needed to fulfill that obligation. We watched with rapt attention as cars roared by, lap after lap. We cheered with each win and groaned with each smash into the wall. Then, they announced the spectator class race. We had never heard of this, spectators racing? You mean just anybody with a car could get out on the track? Really? Anybody? Then about 15 old beat up sedans and wagons lined up side by side and rolled around the track. The flag dropped and the junk parade roared to life. Those big V-8s launched the land yatchs into motion, bumping and crunching each other as they flew into the first turn. It was at this point that someone, probably Boss or Buef or both uttered the words “We could do this…” The die was cast. We picked up a pamphlet explaining the rules on our way out and started planning.
First we needed a car. Boss scored for us. He was always in the market for a car, and seemed to go through them quickly. He found us a early ‘70’s Pontiac T-37. Never heard of it? Neither had we. It was essentially a low budget, 4 door Le Mans. Only we found one that had some of the performance options from the GTO stuffed inside, including the base 400 motor with the big 4 barrel carb, and heavy duty suspension. Perfect for the rough and tumble ¼ mile at Sycamore.
Second we needed to do some work on the car. By we, I mean the two guys who could actually work on cars, Boss and Buef. Buef was a born grease monkey. He worked for his father’s construction company fixing the big grading equipment, so he had access to tools, space to work in and the knowledge to do the job. He also happened to have spent several years racing go carts. Boss knew the basics of car work, and wasn’t afraid to try anything. Much more ego and ambition than common sense. Perfect for the job. The two of them ripped out most of the interior, fixed the minor needs, moved the battery to the inside of the passenger compartment, welded the doors shut, took out the side windows, and tuned up the engine. The car ran really well once all was done. We had to do some testing, so we took it out in Buef’s field behind the house, 40 acres of flat. The car was strong enough that we couldn’t get it all the way opened up in the field. Further testing was required. On one of the many long straight stretches, we managed to get the speedometer to pin at the 120 mark, and it was still accelerating. The car was ready, almost.
Third, it needed to look like a race car. Buef took a sprayer, red paint and coated the car a bright shade of scarlet. Then we stole every little can of paint from our garages at home and set out to paint the car. We put a big 83 on each side (class of ’83, it seemed pretty important then), painted a big Old Style symbol on the hood (Old Style was a popular beer in Chicago at the time), and then put logos for different performance parts on the sides. My contribution was to paint an image of our mascot, Alphonse, on the trunk. Alphonse was a 3 foot high stuffed animal we had found garbage picking earlier in the year. He was kind of a bear looking snowman, so I decided that he was a bear disguised as a snowman who hunted for Artisians. (Artisians are…nevermind, it’s kind of a long story and makes less and less sense the further away from it I get.). I fashioned him an army helmet with a large antennae and a toy gun. All was ready.
Since we were spending a lot of time on the car, our parents became interested in the project either out of fear for the safety of their children or in hopes that we would provide morbid entertainment (as a parent now I understand that these urges are perfectly natural and not mutually exclusive). Cisco’s mom and dad were there, as was Buef’s father (we had to borrow a trailer from him to get the car to the track, and he was the only one with a license to drive a truck that big.), and possibly others. There were three heat races and one final race for each class. We had one person qualified to race, Buef, and three that wanted to race, Cisco, Hymie, and Boss. I chose not to race, some vestigial self-preservation instinct I kicking in I assume. In fact, I didn’t even go into the pits with the guys, being useless under the hood of the car. I did get to see everything from the stands and more importantly with the parents. It was mid summer and the weather was perfect, warm but not too hot, a light breeze over the fields, and a clear night. It was too much to resist for many people. For the first heat, a lot more people showed up than when we were there before. There was close to 30 cars on the ¼ mile track – the line of cars itself took up over 1/3rd of the track. There wasn’t really any room to race. Hymie drove first, helmet and raceface on. The cars slowly circled the track and as they came down the backstretch, Hymie looks over at the car besides him. There is a huge redneck sitting there with what looks like a kids football helmet perched on his head. The guy looks back at Hymie, then reaches down beside him and pulls up a 6-pack, minus two. He fumbles one out of the platstic rings, pops it open, and downs it before they start the next turn. Yup, this was a night at the races.
Hymie’s and Boss’s runs were uneventful for the purposes of this story. Loud, fast, terrifying and inches from death, but uneventful from the view of the grandstands. The third heat was Cisco’s turn. Remember, Cisco is about 5’3” and 110 lbs, all wirey muscle but really no mass. Cisco’s parents were in the stands. They were not overprotective, but they were protective. More than once the three of us would be out miles from home and just about to get into trouble when one of them would pull up in the car and tell him it was time to go. They did the warm up lap and Buef’s dad yells out “Hey, is that Cisco in the car?” Beuf’s dad and Cisco had a weird relationship. They didn’t dislike each other, but they genuinely enjoyed antagonizing each other at every possible moment. “I hope he’s wearing his seat belt, cause he’s bound to end up smashed into the wall since he can’t see over the dashboard!” Buef’s dad was unaware that Cisco’s mom was sitting next to him. She was still getting used to the fact that Cisco was driving the race car, strapped into 4000lbs propelled by 300 horses at 50 miles per hour among a score of drunken hillbillies all similarily equipped. She was visibly nervous, shaking a little as her fingers left impressions in the aluminum bleachers. The line of cars roared to life as they came out of turn 4 and the race was on.
Cisco had pretty good position, maybe 6th place or so coming out of turn 2 and going into turn three. He had some open space so he gunned it into the corner. The back of the car slid out and he spun around twice, coming to rest at the exit of turn 4. The car was stalled, it wouldn’t start. He was also facing the wrong way on the track, his nose into oncoming traffic. Cars swerved to avoid him as they mashed the gas down to come out of the turn at speed. Each one barely missing Cisco. One to the left, one to the right, as he sat there unable to move. With each little brush with death Cisco’s mom would utter a little “Eeeek!” or “Ahhh” or simple take a deep dramatic breath. With each passing car Buef’s dad would whoop louder and laugh harder, tears filling his eyes . “He’s never gonna make it!” he said. “He’s a sitting duck!” he said. The cars cleared for a moment and we could see Cisco frantically working the ignition, then the pack came back around the track and the cycle of near death experiences started anew, as did his mom’s little noises and Buef’s dad’s laughter. By the end of lap 4, Cisco’s mom was pale and her eyes were losing focus while Buef’s dad’s face was beet red and he was having trouble breathing. Suddenly, Cisco got the car started, spun around and went back into the fight. A few uneventful laps later the race ended and Cisco pulled the car into the pits. Cisco’s dad helped his mom shuffle down the steps and out to her car. She couldn’t watch anymore.
We had other races, without much success but with a lot of good fun. The parents never came to another race. Some things are for the better.