Every other Friday, RMR has Street Legal racing. If you own a Camaro, Mustang, Trans Am or any other road-worthy vehicle, you can race in the Street Legal competition. Unfortunately, I don’t own a muscle car. The car I’m racing is a four-door, fuel-efficient 1991 Toyota Camry. Sometimes it’s even a dependable car. There are 175,000 miles on the Camry’s odometer, and it can’t drive up Parley’s Canyon unless the air conditioner is turned off and the heater is turned on. If there are more than two people in the car, I have to drive uphill in the truck driving lane, sometimes getting passed by diesel trucks whose emergency flashers are blinking. My car isn’t a drag racer. It’s just a drag.
In five-four-three-two-one seconds, I’ll punch the gas, release the brakes and push this car to its vehicular horse-powered limit. On the window of my car is a sticker that says, “Fear This.” Painted in shoe polish on the front windshield are my “dial-in” time (21.333) and the car’s number (943). My foot and brain are linked on a single circuit so we don’t “red-light” but still have a good “reaction time.” The engine is revving and my internal clock can be heard saying, “Don’t break-out.”
If it sounds like I’m a gear-headed grease monkey, I’m not. The only ratchet set in my toolbox that works is a Visa credit card and a cell phone programmed with a good mechanic’s number on speed dial. In fact, less than a week before the races, the only way to get the Camry going was through the kindness of strangers and a pair of jumper cables. The car had been having difficulty starting for over a month and I was mystified as to its problems. If I were to call Click and Clack, the NPR Car Talk guys, and imitate the sound my car made when I tried to start it, I’d make the sound of silence. The car was dead. Kaput. It had shaken this mortal coil or as John Cleese would say, it was no longer pining for the fjords. Since my car was DOA and my Visa was maxed, I was SOL.
But then my neighbor, Nelson, who no doubt was tired of helping me jump start my car every morning, decided to solve our problem. He hooked a contraption up to the battery that read some numbers and voltage and things like that, and then he said, after a two-second diagnosis, “It’s your battery.”
With the help of Nelson, $60 in raceway registration fees, $58 for a Duralast battery, $1.69.9 per gallon for 91-octane Chevron Supreme with Techron and $2.98 for a quart of 10W-30 Pennzoil motor oil, the Camry has been resurrected. When it died, the car was a four-door sedan. When it rose from the ashes of immobility, it was car number 943 at the RMR drag races.
To learn the method, ways and lingo of Street Legal races, I went to RMR to watch real drivers—drivers with helmets, parachutes and pit crews. Before this night, my only experience with racing was the Cub Scout pine wood derby (which I lost).
At RMR, there is plenty of seating on the silver metal bleachers. But before the sun goes down, the crowd clumps together and shifts en masse, huddled together in the shadows cast by the VIP watchtower. The few people who braved the sunny seats seemed to sizzle when their exposed legs hit the skillet-like bleachers. Because of the close quarters in the small shadowed area, every question I asked my friend Smed was quickly answered by one of the men sitting next to us. However, when Smed would ask a question, it seemed to fall on nitrous oxide-deafened ears. We finally figured since I had a mustache, I was more accepted into the RMR fold. There were so many mustachioed men in attendance at the drag race, it was difficult to tell if we were there for the fast cars or for a 30-year reunion of ’70s-era porn stars.
The man sitting next to me, who looked like—or was—porn star Ron Jeremy (the fat, hairy “not in his prime” version) tried his best to explain the intricacies of racing.
This isn’t how he said it, but with the help of television, we can have a greater understanding of drag racing. In the game show The Price is Right, a contestant is asked to guess-timate the price of, let’s say, a Maytag Neptune washing machine ($1,049).
In the Showcase Showdown, contestant No. 1 guesses $850 and contestant No. 2 guesses $1,050. Even though contestant No. 2 is only one dollar off the actual price, because he guessed over the price, he automatically loses. And contestant No. 1 wins.
Street Legal drag racing works the same way. Each contestant (racer) guess-timates the price (time) of the washer (the quarter-mile race). Whoever gets closest to the actual price (dial-in time) of the machine (race), gets clean clothes (wins the race). Unless they go over the actual price (dial-in time). Then they automatically lose (break-out). Simply put, if you drive too fast, you lose. If you drive too slow, you lose.
Each race starts when the driver sees the green light on the “Christmas Tree.” The Christmas Tree is the pole that counts down, in three yellow lights and one green light, the start of a race. The Christmas Tree is never referred to as the X-mas tree, perhaps because every driver has God as his co-pilot. The optimum time for a driver to giddy-up and go when the green light is lit is 0.500 seconds. If your car moves quicker than 0.500, you’re jumping the gun, burning rubber before it’s time. It’s the quickest way to lose a race.
Ron Jeremy said, “Red-lighting is like bad sex. It’s premature racing. This disappoints the crowd because before the race even begins, you’ve lost.” (Note: This is how I plan to lose my race).
When the dragsters weren’t roaring, the RMR mascot raccoon tried to keep the crowd entertained by inviting folks down to bob for hot dogs out of an ice chest full of Gatorade. Just like baseball has a seventh inning stretch and football has a half-time show, RMR has hot dog bobbing. Ideally, the hot dogs would float in the Gatorade Thirst Quencher and the contestants would pick out the raw hot dogs like they were bobbing for apples. The only problem is, raw hot dogs don’t float.
This meant the lucky contestants had to stick their heads under the sticky sugar water with electrolytes to pull out the wieners. The raceway also threw in a bonus prize of a free night’s stay at the Silver Smith Casino in Wendover.
The first lady scuba dived for six hot dogs, which, once counted, were tossed back into the ice chest. As the next contestant, a 7-year-old boy, was diving for dogs, I sized him up as the kind of kid who played craps or maybe nickel slots. He pulled out about four franks, but instead of putting all of those dogs back into the drink, the mascot raccoon (Scientific sidebar: Raccoons are known to wash their food before eating it. But in Gatorade?) threw several of the raw hot dogs into the crowd. Girls in halter tops and Daisy Duke shorts ducked, while men with mullets and mustaches leapt up to catch the hot dogs so they could throw them back, harder, at the raccoon. Or maybe they ate the hot dogs. You know, free food.
The winner of the Gatorade cooler pulled out seven previously mouthed raw hot dogs. He was old enough to gamble, but young enough to dunk his head in Gatorade on a hot summer night and still be excited to win less than $50 worth of merchandise.
Once the sun went down and the real racing began, the Wheeler Machinery top fuel funny car beat the course record for its class. The car ran the quarter-mile track in 5.237 seconds. The announcer was speechless. In fact, he said non-stop over the PA system, “I’m speechless. Words cannot express how I feel. I’m speechless. That race was worth the price of admission …” Earlier, in pit row, the crew of this funny car had a goal written on their dry erase board: “We will beat the course record!” After the race, the word “will” was replaced with “did.” (The dry erase board in my mind says, “You will lose the race.”)
After a night of watching cars racing like petrol hurricanes, learning the racing lingo and trimming my mustache, I had almost everything I needed to take my Camry to the Street Legal races. Expect for one thing:
“Hi Phil. It’s Phil,” I said. “Do you and Leia want to be my pit crew when I drag race my Camry tonight?”
“Sure,” Phil said. “Can we be back by eight and will you buy the beer?”
Truth be told, I never have had a need for speed so much as a thirst for beer. “I’ll lose my first race on purpose. We should be back by seven.”
Now I had a pit crew. I had everything for racing, except the desire to win.
When we pulled into the Street Legal racing area with the other drivers, crews and cars, we decided that to fit in we’d do exactly what the others were doing. It was like playing Simon Says, but with cars, gas and shoe polish.
Like birds of a feather, all of the cars racing in the mini class, mine included, parked together. There was an empty space next to a black Celica when we entered pit row. We parked there. All of the cars had their hoods open to show off the engines. Simon said it. We did it. The hood of my car opened to reveal oil-encrusted wires and belts and a brand new Duralast battery.
The driver of the Celica, Seth, had written the number of his car in white shoe polish on the front and side windows. Seth let us use his shoe polish (NASCAR quality?), and we did the same. Because I had a four-door sedan, we wrote “943” twice as many times as the other racers.
I didn’t know if the hood of my car was up to cool down the engine or show off the equipment. But whenever somebody passed my car, I felt the need to point out my new battery. “It’s a Duralast,” I’d say. “It has a two-year warranty and it makes my car start. If you have car troubles, you should look into buying one of these things.”
There was one mini-car parked across the row from where the other minis were lined up. This car didn’t drive to the races—it was delivered on the back of a trailer. It was special. A crowd gathered around it and said, “inner cooled” and “nitrous oxide.” No one said, “Duralast battery.”
The pit crews for the other racers were responsible for keeping the cars in tip-top racing condition. They checked spark plug gaps, replaced belts and un-blew “f**king” blown rings. For instance, after one of the time trials, the driver of a white Honda jumped out of his vehicle and said, “I blew my f**king rings.” And the pit crew said, “We can fix those f**king rings before the next race.”
My pit crew’s qualifications were that Phil and Leia had nothing else to do Friday before 8 p.m. I asked Phil what would happen if I blew my “f**king” rings and he said, “F**k, I don’t know. Call a f**king tow truck.”
Since the duties of my pit crew weren’t mechanically minded, they affixed several “Fear This” and Winnie the Pooh stickers on the windshield of my car. The other drivers looked at my crew in what only can be described as envy.
While Phil and Leia spruced up the car with menacing stickers and cartoon characters, I talked with some of the other drivers. Each had paid $20, plus $10 per person in their pit crew, to race. The least number of times each car would race down the drag was three (two practice runs and a single-elimination race). The average time for each race was 17 seconds. If one car had a crew of two people, this meant it would cost $40 for 51 seconds of “entertainment.”
It all came back to goals. Personal goals. How fast? Can I get a perfect reaction time (.500)? What is my car and what am I capable of doing? Everyone had his own goals and a sense of pit row camaraderie. Start the race. Finish the race. Win the race. Or, in my case, lose the race.
After my first trial run, when my reaction time was 1.5 seconds, a full second away from the perfect time of .500, Seth gave me advice on when to step on the gas.
“The average human reaction time,” Seth said, “is 1.2 seconds. Don’t go when you see the green light. Go when the third yellow light is lit on the Christmas Tree.”
And the next time I ran my practice run, I went when Seth said to go and my reaction time was .845 seconds. In this race, I competed against Geoff, who is in 4th place in the mini class division for Street Legal racing. Geoff wore a helmet on his head and I raced with a Big Gulp between my legs. He zoomed while I ambled down the track. But when we met in pit row, he didn’t taunt my vehicle. He gave me advice on how to be a better racer. He said I should go sooner, because my reaction time was “pretty weak.” Then he let me wear his helmet, like I was a real racecar driver. Za-Zoom.
Todd and Brittany were working on the engine of their car in the pit. It had hoses that were different colors. Not just black and oil-stained, but also red and blue. “What’s going on guys?” I asked. To my surprise, Todd said, “Let me show you.” As though maybe I could help if he’d blown his f**king rings.
The only time I felt out of place was when I pulled up to the start line for the first of my elimination races. I heard over the public address system, in speakers so loud the voice could be heard above the deafening, intestine-rumbling roar of nitrous oxide racers. “In the Maverick Lane, car number 943 is Phil Jacobsen.” The announcer seemed to have a smug sarcastic overtone, which went well with his next comment, “Phil Jacobsen, in a 1991 Toyota Camry [pause while the audience laughs], is a 32-year-old waiter. That should be your first tip.”
I don’t know what the sound of one hand clapping is, but thanks to these comments, I know the sound of one hand pointing and a crowd laughing. The sound is humiliation. I wanted to get on the mic and tell the crowd I was born in 1967. That makes me a 34-year-old waiter, not 32. But I knew this wouldn’t help. Now, the only way to shut them up would be by winning the race.
At the moment the announcer gave the audience a good laugh, my goal was to red-light. I was going to lose this race before it even began. Seth knew it and Phil and Leia had already packed up their pit crew gear (nothing) and were waiting for car 943 to lose the race so they could be home by eight.
As the first light on the tree lit yellow, my foot knew this was when I needed to step on the gas to red-light. My brain thought back to Seth’s words as we were getting into our vehicles to race.
“Have you ever acted?” Seth asked.
“No,” I said.
“Imagine you’re on stage, and just before they raise the curtain, that’s the energy you’re going to feel at the starting line. Focus your senses. Use that energy to your advantage.”
Even though I had told Seth I was going to red-light, he must have known a change would come over me at the starting line. He was tied with four others at 10th place. He knew what I’d feel when the tree started to light up.
The second light lit yellow and like a fighter who has promised the Mafia that he’s going to take a dive in the third round—and then comes up fighting—when the lights started flashing to green I knew I wasn’t going to throw this race. I wished there were a way I could apologize to Phil and Leia sitting in the stands, because I wasn’t going to red-light. We weren’t going home. I was going to win.
Just before the third yellow light lit, I stepped on the gas and my transmission made a noise that seemed to say, “I’m a Camry. Let’s do it.” To the audience, though, the sound was a clunk.
My reaction time was .767. Coincidentally, I was born in the seventh month of the Year of our Lord 1967: 7/67. I am a racing 34-year-old waiter.
The dial-in time that is scrawled on my window is 21.333 seconds. This is nearly four seconds slower than any other car at the track. With a good breeze to his back, Carl Lewis can run a quarter mile as quick. It doesn’t matter that this car is the slowest one here. All I need to do is finish closer to my dial-in time than the old Volkswagen Bug in the lane next to mine.
I completed the first 330 feet of the race in 9.26 seconds. In my rearview mirror, I can see the tan VW bug catching up to my silver Camry. I also see parts of my life getting left behind at the starting line. This race has a start and a finish. I can’t remember the last time I got out the dry erase board and set a goal like this in my day?to-day life. It was great fodder for the announcer to mention I was a waiter.
But as I’m racing away from his voice, I have to think, is waiting tables my career finish line? I step harder on the gas pedal. Fuzzy dice hanging from my rearview mirror, “Fear This” and Winnie the Pooh stickers on my windshield, Tracy Chapman singing about her fast car on continual loop coming out of my speakers and entering a Camry in a drag race? Are these really just escapist diversions to forget about a recent relationship meltdown? I race away from her.
I’ve always owned dependable, slow cars. A Toyota Camry. A Honda Accord. Three station wagons and one Honda Civic. The pine wood derby race as a Cub Scout was also a slapped-together, half-ass attempt at racing. That car was painted by dipping it entirely into a gallon of yellow Sherman Williams house paint. The wheels barely turned because of misapplied and excessive glue. I never forgot the feeling of losing that race. I won’t lose this one. Faster. Faster.
At 1/8 of a mile, my car has reached 52.92 mph, but my mind and the VW bug are racing a lot quicker. It feels like I’m leaving in the dust a life where goals weren’t set, where living day-to-day was just getting by day-to-day, where there was never an ending point. It’s like I’ve spent the first 34 years living in only the first 1/8 mile of my track. It’s time to cross a finish line and accomplish a goal.
In a few moments I’m going to pull into pit row and Geoff, the racer with a helmet, is going to tell me he’s the luckiest guy alive. His engine started making “sounds” halfway down the track, so he had to “shutdown” and finish the race five seconds slower than he dialed-in. The guy Geoff was racing against broke-out of his time, so Geoff automatically won. The luckiest guy alive thinks he can fix his car before the next race.
When I see Seth, he’ll show me his reaction time was .453. He nearly had a perfect reaction time, but he red-lighted and was disqualified by .047 seconds. He’ll be back in two weeks.
When I speed past the finish line, I don’t want to slow down. I want to keep racing. I don’t want to stop because there are more finish lines to cross. As for this quarter mile track, I accomplished my original goal: I’m going home with Phil and Leia to drink a beer. It was a small goal, but it was my goal. I lost the race by driving too fast. I am car number 943 and I really can’t be beat.