Great Balls of Fire
By Ed Staskus
The hot summer night my wife brother-in-law and I went to the Lorain County Speedway what I didn’t expect was how loud the cars were going to be when the drivers stepped on the fast pedal, how bad the oil gasoline and rubber smelled in the humidity, how many crashes there were, and the fight that broke out on the track immediately after one of the crashes.
The minute Matt my brother-in law sat down he pulled a pair of earplugs out of his pocket and pushed them firmly into his ears. We tried asking him where ours were, but he couldn’t hear a word we were saying. My wife Vanessa and I finally decided to soak in the full experience, not like some people who couldn’t bear to hear the primal roar of engines going all out.
The Speedway is more-or-less in South Amherst not far from Lorain, 30-some miles west of Cleveland, Ohio. It opened in 1949 as a third of a mile dirt oval. It was paved over in 1960. The night we were there the track had long since been upgraded to a 3/8-mile oval with 12-degree banking in the turns and a slight bank on the straightaways. It wasn’t NASCAR by any means, although NASCAR was the reason we were there.
The racing at the Speedway that night was billed as street stock. I had never been closer to race cars than a TV screen, and the only reason I had ever gotten that close was because Matt came over our house every Saturday afternoon during the racing season, plopped himself down on our sofa, and for the next three four five hours watched handmade cars built from flat sheet metal with engines assembled from a bare block and frames constructed from steel tubing take tight left turns over and over and over at 200 MPH. The NASCAR four-wheelers resembled street stock about as much as wart hogs resemble cheetahs, even though both kinds of cars were essentially doing the same thing.
The big story was Jeff Gordon going up against Dale Earnhardt until it became the Jeff Gordon story. Dale Earnhardt won his seventh Winston Cup Championship in 1994 tying Richard Petty’s record for Cup Championships. Everybody was looking for him to win his eighth in 1995 and make history. It wasn’t to be.
Jeff Gordon was young, only 24, but he had won the Coca-Cola 600 and the Brickyard 400 the year before. He wasn’t exactly wet behind the ears. He was off to the races. He landed in victory lane in three of the first six races of 1995. As the season wore on, he racked up 14 straight top ten finishes. Earnhardt was game, but the game was up. Jeff Gordon finished on top of the leader board, the youngest champion since 1971. He toasted Dale Earnhardt with a glass of milk instead of champagne, being barely legal.
When he wasn’t watching NASCAR on TV Matt and a friend of his spent weekends driving to and camping out at nearby NASCAR events. They went to the Miller Genuine Draft 400 at the Michigan International Speedway, the Bud at the Glen at Watkins Glen, and the Mountain Dew Southern 500 at the Darlington Raceway. One weekend Matt asked if we wanted to go see some real racing. We said alright, we’re not doing anything tonight, so long as it’s not out of state.
The grandstand at the Lorain County Speedway was right on top of the racing. The bleacher seats were half full, like a high school football game where the fans are family and friends. There was a screen between the front row and the track. When I looked it up and down, I thought it might keep a flock of seagulls from assaulting us, but not a crate engine or the whole 3000-pound car.
“If one of those cars rolls and flips and comes up into the stands, that screen is going to stand the same chance as toilet paper,” I told my wife.
“What?” she asked trying in vain to hear me over the noise.
Five years earlier a man was killed and five people hurt when a race car went out of control and crashed into the pit area of the Lorain County Speedway. The man who was killed was another driver from another race. The driver of the wayward car said the accelerator on his car stuck, causing him to lose control on a turn. Eight years earlier at Talladega driver Bobby Allison’s car going at the speed of light ran over debris and a tire burst. His car went airborne and smashed into the safety catch wall. Shrapnel sprayed the fans. From then on restrictor plates, which cap engine speeds from climbing too high, keeping all race cars at around the same speeds, were made mandatory.
The thought of shrapnel gave me the heebie-jeebies. My brother-in-law must have thought it through because he had led us to the second-to-last row. Even though the stands were only fifteen twenty rows deep, it was better than nothing. The group of guys in front of us had their own cooler. They offered us some. My brother-in-law didn’t drink, and my wife didn’t drink beer.
“What the hey,” I said, accepting a Budweiser, my least favorite beer. Beggars can’t be choosers. In the heat of the night, to my surprise, the cold suds were delicious.
My brother-in-law was a chemical engineer working in a General Electric lab in Willowick, but was transitioning to mechanical engineering, which meant going back to school part-time. He didn’t have a girlfriend, which meant he had time outside of work and school to take up a hobby. He bought a hulk of scrap metal that was once a 1970 Monte Carlo. His plan was to tear it apart piece by piece and rebuild restore it. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the space to get it done. Unfortunately, we did. The next thing I knew our two-car garage was a no-car garage. The hulk of scrap metal took up all the space. What space was left was devoted to a worktable, a tool locker, and an air compressor.
He took the engine out. He took the seats out. He took the dash out. He took everything out and off the car. He built a rotisserie on wheels and fitted the frame to it, so he could wheel it in and out of the garage, working on it in our driveway. He sanded all the rust away and primed it. When the time came, he had it hauled away and painted Tuxedo Black.
When the weather turned foul, he turned a room in our basement into a work room, working on the engine and God knows what all else. He fabricated a new dash from scratch. He slowly but surely bought original parts and started to put the Monte Carlo back together. It took years and tens of thousands of dollars. Some nights, drifting off to sleep, we could hear him through the back window still working in the driveway in the glow of a bank of lights he had fixed up for the purpose.
NASCAR race cars have almost nothing in common with street cars. By the 1990s they were being built to optimize aerodynamics. The focus was on speed. They stopped looking like stock cars. Stock car racing uses production models somewhat customized for racing purposes. It got started in the 1930s when moonshiners transporting white lightning souped up their Fords to evade revenue agents. One thing led to another, and they started racing each other on weekends on tracks carved out of corn fields.
Street stock is racing a car that can be bought off a dealer’s lot. It is sometimes called hobby stock or showroom stock. Most of the tracks are short ovals, less than a mile. The speeds at the Lorain County Speedway that night hit 80 to 90 MPH on the straightaways, but slower in the turns. There were crashes galore in the turns. One of them happened in the turn coming around to the grandstand, when two cars bumped tangled and tore into each other. The driver on the outside track ran out of talent halfway through the turn. They slid skidded to a stop in front of us. The drivers got out of their cars unhurt. When they did one of the drivers got hurt. When he did, event staff and policemen and an ambulance got called in to help and sort out what was the matter.
When the two drivers got out of their banged-up cars, they started arguing. “What the hell, bumping me like that,” one of them yelled, his face red.
“I didn’t bump you,” the older of the two drivers said. “I rubbed you. Rubbin’, son, is racin’.”
They started pushing each other The younger driver got pushed too far out on the track and a car going slowly by under the caution flag ran over his foot. He fell to the ground and banged his head. When he did a woman bolted out of the stands down the stairs over the catch wall and onto the track. She made a beeline for the driver still standing.
“This here is going to be trouble,” one of the men in front of us said cracking open another King of Beers.
The 1970 two-door Chevrolet Monte Carlo was on a 116-inch wheelbase A-body platform with the longest hood Chevy had ever made. It stretched from the windshield to tomorrow. The styling was influenced by the Cadillac Eldorado, which came out in 1967. The Monte Carlo borrowed its firewall, dashboard, windshield, decklid, and rear window from the Chevelle. The base drivetrain for it was a 350-cubic inch Turbo-Fire V-8 fed by a two-barrel carburetor and rated at 250 horsepower. A column-shifted three-speed manual transmission was standard. My brother-in-law’s car was the upgrade with a console-shift four-speed manual and a four-barrel-topped Turbo-Fire V-8 350 rated at 300 horsepower. It approached 4,000 pounds at the curb. It wasn’t built for baby showers or baptisms. Shotgun weddings were more its speed. When I first heard the engine fire up so did all my neighbors within two or three blocks. Some of them came outside, standing on their lawns and in the street, looking up our driveway.
“Mommy, what is that?” a boy driving a Little Tikes Cozy Coupe asked his mother.
When the angry woman running onto the track got to the spot of the crash, she leapt onto the back of the driver who had pushed the other driver screamed like a banshee wrapped her legs around his midsection and started to pummel the top and back of his head with her fists. It took half a dozen drivers and security staff to pull her off and keep her off. A policeman finally handcuffed her to a fence post.
An ambulance showed up, the driver with the pancake foot was put on a stretcher and put in the ambulance, wreckers drove onto the track, removed the damaged cars, and before we knew it the race was back on like nothing had ever happened. A policeman came back mid-way through the rest of race to retrieve the fists of fury, who everybody had forgotten about. They put her in a squad car, legs kicking and lips flapping, and drove away, lights flashing. The King of Beers saluted her.
Thirteen years after Matt started work on the Monte Carlo it was ready to go. It was 2003. The day he put license plates on it was the day he asked me if I wanted to go for a ride.
“Sure,” I said.
It looked like a new car inside and out. It smelled like a new car. He turned the key in the ignition and flipped a rocker switch. It was like cracking a whip. The car rumbled to life. It sounded like something going after prey. He backed it out of the driveway and set off for Lake Rd. We went west through Rocky River Bay Village nearly to Avon Lake, and to the Huntington Reservation, where we turned around. When we got to the Clifton Blvd. bridge that crosses the Rocky River, he pulled over to the shoulder.
“Do you want to drive?” he asked.
“You bet I do,” I said.
As I got out of the car to walk around to the driver’s side, I noticed a red fire extinguisher bolted down in the back. It was a Kidde dry chemical vehicle extinguisher.
“What’s that for?” I asked. “Have you got Jerry Lee Lewis back there somewhere? Do you expect this car to blow up?”
“You never know,” he said. “If it does, pull aim squeeze and sweep.”
I buckled in, buckling the five-point harness belt. The car was a bat out of hell of acceleration, but no matter what happened I wasn’t going anywhere. The belt was the kind used to restrain madmen.
I waited until there was no traffic. I put the car in first got started burned rubber put it in second third and fourth and flew across the bridge breathing fire. The engine was just as loud driving the car as it was standing beside the car. I got it up to sixty in about ten seconds before starting to slow down. The bridge was far behind us by then.
“That was fun,” I said. It was like being Buckaroo Banzai for a couple of minutes. I checked for flashing red lights in the rearview mirror. We drove down Clifton Blvd. halfway through Lakewood before turning around. Heads turned when we approached, and heads followed our progress. At a stop light a graybeard alongside us said through his open window, “That is some meat and potatoes.” He was driving a brand-new Toyota Prius. The Monte Carlo was several feet its length and rockabilly to its folk singing purr.
“So long as you don’t mind getting nine miles to the gallon,” I said.
We got the car back in our garage without a scratch. That would have been a nightmare. My brother-in-law was fussy as a newborn with his old car made new. Even though he kept it bedded down indoors, he secured a waterproof car cover over it. As the garage door was closing itself, I noticed the license plate mounted on the chrome rear bumper.
“NGHTMRE,” is what it said.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com.