The fast and the curious
Our writer rides with up-and-coming Sacramento stock-car racer Johnathan Hale and lives to tell about it
“You’re going to fit me through that?”
A racing fan since I was old enough to recognize the numbers on the cars, of course I knew that stock cars don’t have doors that open. The drivers swing in through the windows, which is why they all seem to look like the mythic gunfighters of the Old West: lean all over and narrow at the hip. But I’d hoped that the ride-along version of a NASCAR Grand National racing car came with an exception: a door that would open for a short, fat chick.
Instead, I wondered if they’d have to squeeze me in with a crowbar, because there was no way I was going to miss out on a ride in a race car.
“Oh, you can fit through there,” drawled Lyn Hale, a wiry guy about my age and the father of the car’s driver, 18-year-old Johnathan Hale. “We can fit my dad in there, and he’s bigger than you.”
Son Johnathan is a young man on the move. He recently roared past two milestones: On June 2, he graduated from Rio Linda High School, and earlier this spring, he advanced from the local Whelen All-American Series, the lowest level of competition sanctioned by NASCAR, to the regional Camping World Series West, which has served as a springboard to the more prestigious Sprint Cup Series for name drivers such as Kevin Harvick. That makes Johnathan the racing equivalent of a baseball player who was recruited by the River Cats before he finished high school.
To celebrate, Roger Morris, who owns a couple of specially rigged “ride-along” NASCAR cars, brought one out to All American Speedway in Roseville so Johnathan could take a few of his sponsors for a spin.
His sponsors—and one extremely excited, if rather rotund, writer.
Taking a thrill ride in a 700-horsepower Grand National stock car with a heartbreakingly young driver at the wheel as we whipped around corners at 100 mph hadn’t been on my agenda, but when the offer for a ride in a specially rigged two-seater came along, I didn’t even think twice.
My daddy didn’t raise any fools.
Like Johnathan, I spent my childhood around race cars. My dad was a drag racer. Family legend has it that my first complete sentence, thoroughly coached by my grease-monkey dad, was a plea to my mother to let us buy a Honduras Maroon 1963 Impala Super Sport 409. It worked.
Dad, who’d been racing his 1960 Impala at the local drag strip on weekends, got seriously crazy about racing once he had the 409. More than just the title of an old Beach Boys song, those stump pullers had serious torque and horsepower. The deep bass rhythm of the 409’s engine—a HUMPH-bruh-bruh HUMPH-bruh-bruh—made the hairs on your arms stand up. It was my lullaby.
Once we had the 409—named Draggin’ Red—Dad concentrated on getting every last bit of power out of the engine. For the first several years, he raced in various “street stock” classes. That meant, as I understood it, that the cars could be street legal with just a few modifications, so sometimes, we got to take a ride in the race car. It was great fun to go racing up the hill just south of my hometown and hit 100 mph as we cruised past the little market near our house. Very illegal, but great fun.
Dad’s racing habit, like all addictions, progressed. Eventually, most of the stock parts on the 409’s body, as well as big chunks of the engine, were replaced by professional racing parts. We didn’t take thrill rides to the A&W anymore; we had a “regular” car for that. Around 1965, Dad and his racing partner, Bob Freeman, pulled the 409 out of its original home in Draggin’ Red, took it to Portland to be rebuilt by a racing-engine pro and dropped it into Kool Whip, a white 1962 Chevy Biscayne wagon.
For show and tell in the third grade, I took in two pieces of an axle that had snapped apart during a race.
“My dad blew out his rear end this weekend,” I proudly told my 8-year-old colleagues, “and it broke the axle. So now he’s got to get his rear end rebuilt.”
The kids burst into laughter. Miss Walker tried to explain that a “rear end” was part of a car, but she wasn’t very clear on the concept herself. Chaos ensued.
Dad got his rear end rebuilt, and even though he did well on the Northwest racing circuit, even making it to the Summer Nationals a couple of times, growing up in a racing family was a mixed blessing. It took so much money. Other kids went to Disneyland on vacation; we got a trailer for the race car. Fewer new school clothes but new headers (Hookers, of course). And for a large chunk of my grade-school years, the kitchen table shared space with a set of racing slicks almost as big as I was.
Dad quit racing in the early ’70s. At first, he was just “taking a break,” but slowly he began to sell off some of his stuff. Not all of it, of course, but by the time I left for college, all that was left of Kool Whip was the hood—hung on the garage wall like a big-game trophy—and the 409 engine, resting in an oily box beneath the workbench.
Still, large slices of my childhood memories are greased with racing happiness. Listening to rock ’n’ roll and handing Dad tools while he worked on the car. Waiting up for him to come home on Sunday nights from the track to ask breathlessly, “Did you win a trophy?” And later on, having my chores include dusting all of those damn trophies every Saturday.
I’ve got one of those trophies on my mantle still.
All in the family
The All American Speedway in Roseville was hopping at noon on Saturday, even though the actual racing wouldn’t start for a good six hours. A line stretched from the shack where pit passes are issued and race registrations are processed. After picking up a pit pass, I headed to the first pit on the second lane, where the Hales had set up shop.
The pits have changed a lot since my dad’s day, when they were simply drawn out in the dirt with white lines or traffic cones. At All American Speedway, the pits are concrete bays like small driveways, and the whole place has an RV-park atmosphere, with picnic tables and car trailers lined up. Awnings provide shade for the cars. Some of the bays are top of the line, with enclosed trailers for the cars, tool chests in neat racks and a crew wearing matching polo shirts. Others are just a couple of guys in grubby T-shirts with a toolbox—not even an awning to keep the sun off.
The biggest difference, though, from the pits of my childhood, is the presence of women. Back then, the only girls in the pits were the big haired, too-much-makeup type that tended to get evil looks from my mother. But now girls are working the pits. They’re warming and pumping the oil so the car will be ready to start and checking tire pressure. A few of them are climbing into fire suits.
“Sure, girls drive,” Johnathan said, a bit surprised at the question. “Some are good. Some are not so good. But that’s just the way it is with driving.”
Track facilities and the attitude toward women participating in the sport may have changed with the times, but the pits smell the same as they always did: Odors from oil, gas and all the other fluids necessary to keep a car running, as well as the sour smell of burnt rubber and the dense stench of exhaust permeate the air. That smell has lingered at least since the days of Prohibition and the Great Depression, when Southern bootleggers began suping up their automobiles in order to outrun the law. That progressed to impromptu get-togethers on the long, flat, hard-packed beaches of Daytona, where drivers raced against each other or against the clock, attempting to break the land-speed record.
Things were getting out of hand on the beach in the post-World War II years, and a guy named Bill France looked to bring some order to it. In 1947, France founded the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, NASCAR, and his progeny remain closely tied to the organization today. In fact, family has been instrumental in building the sport, from Lee Petty in the 1950s to his son Richard Petty—“The King”—who dominated the sport in the 1960s and ’70s, to Dale Earnhardt in the 1980s and ’90s to his son, “Junior,” one of the top stars on the circuit today.
NASCAR was a natural for television, with speed and excitement unrivaled by any other professional sport and built-in consumer appeal: In the early days, the cars were heavily modified versions of the Fords, Chevys, Dodges and Plymouths you could buy on the showroom floor. In the first flag-to-flag telecast of a NASCAR race, the Daytona 500 in 1979, a bit of strong-arm driving on the final lap led to a fistfight between Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers on national television.
It didn’t hurt the sport at all, at least not with some of its enthusiasts.
“Kick his stupid, cheating ass!” my father shouted at the television, jumping up from his recliner and coming close to spilling beer on the new carpet.
In the intervening years, NASCAR officials have spent a lot of time, energy and money trying to get things settled down. They wanted to build a legitimate sport and they did, but frankly, NASCAR is still more like boxing than tennis any day of the week. Or, as “The Intimidator,” Dale Earnhardt Sr., once said, “Rubbin’ is racin’.” You can expect to get bumped by drivers who have squeezed every possible advantage out of their cars and their own physical abilities. Manners might get you a date, but they won’t get you to the checkered flag first.
Racing remains a family affair, and today’s future stars start early. Johnathan, just 18, has been racing for 11 years, starting with a quarter midget that he built with his dad and raced on a dirt track. He’s following in the tracks of his father, Lyn Hale; his grandfather, Lyndel Hale; all of his uncles; and his great-grandfather, Bill Stewart, who raced a ’34 Ford back in the day.
“It’s in the blood, no doubt about it,” Lyn Hale said. “You’re almost born into it.” He’s got details on the pedigree Johnathan inherited, but he’s quick to point out that none of Johnathan’s forebears got quite this high in the racing hierarchy. “Johnathan is the first to go this far with it, though. It’s his natural talent, and we’ve been able to combine the family experience with that; plus, he’s gotten some great opportunities.”
The more you move up, the more money matters. You can run the lower level Whelen All-American Series, where heavily modified Camaros and Firebirds are the weapons of choice, with a little know-how and a limited budget. In the Camping World Series West, Johnathan will race a car much more similar to the cars in the premier series, the Sprint Cup.
NASCAR attempts to keep costs down by requiring teams to use standardized motors (with significantly less horsepower than a Sprint Cup car), but it still takes a lot more money than most of us have lying around.
“We rely on our sponsors,” said Lyn Hale. “What’s making racing tight right now is that people aren’t spending money because of the economy, so thank God for our sponsors.”
That gratitude is a really good reason to give the folks paying the bills a joy ride. On this particular afternoon, the first ride of the day went to Amanda Knieriem, who owns Trico Welding with her husband, Joe. They’ve been longtime supporters of Johnathan’s efforts, so he gave her a thrilling ride. In fact, he spun out—but that may have been because he was still getting used to the car.
“It was awesome,” Knieriem said. The spinout? “Oh, I thought he did that on purpose.”
Johnathan’s a smart cookie. He knows that with almost 10,000 drivers credentialed for NASCAR-sanctioned races and only 46 drivers in the Sprint Cup Series at the top of the heap, the odds are against him making it to the big leagues. But he wants to race. After all, it’s in his blood.
“I love it,” he says. I recognize the expression on his oh-so-young face while he’s talking about racing. Love doesn’t seem like strong enough word.
It ain’t over till the fat lady sings
The trick to climbing into a NASCAR vehicle starts with being willing to crawl through that tiny postage stamp of a window. After that, it’s mostly following directions. Lyn had me stand parallel to the car with my left hand on the roof and my right hand on the edge of the window.
“First, lift your left leg into the car,” he said. With his assistance, somehow my leg made it high enough that my hip balanced on the window and my left foot dangled inside. “Now, bring the right leg up,” he said, holding me steady. For a wiry guy, he can handle a heavy load pretty well. I now had both legs inside the car and my good-sized butt hanging in the wind. I may be fat, but I’m flexible. Thank the racing gods for small favors.
Next came the tricky part. Under Lyn’s direction, I twisted, first right and then left, and slid down to get my shoulders and head through the window. This was made more difficult by the way the helmet, strapped tight to my head, threw me off balance. Still, that helmet saved me from a concussion when I pulled back too fast and whacked my head hard against the car’s window frame.
“Careful,” Lyn soothed. I felt him checking the back of the helmet to see how badly I’d dinged it. “All in one piece, now.”
Then came the seat belt, if the harness—which might have come from the sick nightmare of some bondage enthusiast or just the drawing board of a rightfully safety-conscious NASCAR designer—can be called by the simple name “seat belt.” Two straps come over the shoulders and two more come up between the legs, meeting at a buckle at a point slightly above the navel on a normal person. On me, the buckle hit about chest-level. Lyn pulled hard on the loose ends of the straps, and all the extra air left my body in a resounding whoosh!
“Believe me, you wanna be strapped in,” Johnathan said. My driver had slipped in, gotten himself strapped down and attached the car’s steering wheel while I was wallowing on the passenger side. He leaned over to assist his father in getting me properly attached to the foam-covered plastic seat. “If you’re not strapped tight into the seat, your vertebrae could bump into each other and hurt your back.”
Johnathan lacks the mindless belief in his own invulnerable immortality that makes most kids take risks. Of course, being a race-car driver is probably all the risk anybody ever needs. He might be mistaken for shy, but he’s a friendly guy and he genuinely likes people. All afternoon, people have been dropping by to chat with him. It’s just that they have to do most of the talking. The kid makes Gary Cooper look garrulous.
He positioned a head and neck support device behind his neck and strapped it to his shoulders. The HANS device looks like a streamlined plastic horse collar. Made of high-tech carbon fiber, it attaches to the helmet and the driver, forging his head and neck into a single unit. It’s designed to prevent spinal injuries of the type that killed racing icon Dale Earnhardt Sr. “There’s absolutely no way your spine can break off from your brain stem if you’re strapped into one of these,” Johnathan explained as he secured it.
Good to know, especially when I’m stuffed into a race car where the temperature has already topped 110 degrees, and we haven’t even hit the track yet.
Johnathan flips the ignition switch to start the car, and the roar from the engine reverberates inside the shell of the car’s body. As he puts the car in gear and heads out of the pits, I can feel the tires get traction, something that never happens in the smooth, muffled ride of a passenger car. Getting traction—or “getting rubber,” as my dad used to say—is all about the way the surface of the tire meets the surface of the road. Lyn Hale tried to explain it to me (as did my dad, a number of times), but because it involves physics and math, my eyes tend to glaze over. It’s about the angle of the track and the heat and friction on the tires plus the air pressure inside them, and … well, racing people seem to be able to do the necessary math in their heads.
We pull up to the staging lane.
“Are you nervous?” Johnathan asks. He may have noticed the white knuckles on both hands, which are gripping a mounting rod for the passenger seat.
“Butterflies,” I say.
“I still get butterflies,” he says. “I get a little anxious, excited maybe, right before the race starts, but once I’m there, it’s not so much—well, it’s gone. I’m ‘in the zone,’ like they say.” He hesitates a moment, as if he suspects his next statement will sound weird. “It’s like I’m part of the car.” You wouldn’t peg Johnathan for a Zen kind of guy, but it’s a good explanation for his calm exterior.
We wait for the signal to head out on the track. “I think you’ll get about six laps,” he says. “It’ll be a good ride.” I remind myself that Roseville’s a short track—a one-third-mile asphalt oval—so he won’t be able to ramp it up too fast.
But when the light at the onramp turns green and the guy standing there waves us forward, I’m still unprepared for the huge rush of the takeoff. Yes, takeoff; it’s a lot more like lifting off in a plane than just moving forward in a car.
The impact of acceleration against gravity pushes me back into my seat. We whip up onto the track before I have a chance to squeal, and the wall around the track seems to be rushing toward us. At what feels like the last possible minute, we turn and then speed up again. If I’m screaming, I can’t hear it. But I know that my eyes are as wide as they can possibly get, because they’re drying out, and I can’t seem to make myself blink. It feels like we’re coming impossibly close to the walls, and I’ve seen what cars look like after they get too close.
After the first-lap jitters wore off, the ride felt more like a roller coaster than anything, with the rapid acceleration and deceleration; the G-force shoves me back against the seat with a heavy, invisible hand. When the pressure relaxes enough so I can draw a breath, Johnathan accelerates again and the air disappears. The car’s engine, a tenor hum, rises and falls, but almost seems to be emanating from my body instead of coming from under the hood. My liver, lungs, stomach, heart—all my lights—feel like they’re thrumming in time with the powerful V-8’s pumping pistons.
I lose track of the number of laps. I’m too busy staring, with my mouth formed into an operatic “O,” trying to breathe and yell at the same time. It’s less like a scream and more like a song. There’s anxiety, but also joy.
When we slow down and pull off the track, I can hear Johnathan asking, “Are you okay? Are you breathing?”
I’m not sure, but I guess I must be. All I can say is “Oh my gawd,” over and over.
Dad used to call it “riding on a rocket.” That’s as good a description as any.
And that sense of singing? It’s an all-alive feeling. Like the way the engine’s hum would make the hairs on my arms stand up when I was a little girl, only amplified; the body and machine both charged with energy, both mystical and mechanical. Johnathan describes it as a “rush,” which draws fully the connection to addiction. Adrenaline high? Of course. There is, no doubt, a strictly physiological explanation for the powerful, altered state that accompanies speed.
I’m still shaking after Lyn Hale pulls me out of the car. Johnathan, who must have ice in his veins, has stripped his fire suit to his waist to cool off while he signs a T-shirt and poses for photographs. It takes a few minutes before I can form a complete sentence, and that’s a mighty rare event.
Now I get it. It’s the dream of flying, of landing on the moon, of doing a victory lap and a back flip off the car before popping the cork on a champagne bottle in the winners’ circle. It happens every time Johnathan drags his fingers across that toggle switch and starts the engine.
It’s why my dad held on to racing as long as he could and mourned it so long after he quit. It’s why 10,000 drivers hope for less than 50 spots and keep racing even when they know those spots are filled. It’s why anybody ever tries to do anything that takes effort.
Oh my gawd. Oh my freaking gawd.