Saturday, August 11, 2012

Hammer Down in Riverhead

Even the track dirt at Riverhead Raceway on Long Island seems to squirm on a summer Sunday as some 100 Enduro Class cars position for the start of the feature race – a 100-lap rough ride for those determined drivers and their gritty machines.

When you watch the Enduros on a glaring afternoon, they appear to be mosaics of myriad nicks and half-hammered-out dents from perhaps one thousand past laps on that crowded high-banked oval. Their body panels are highlighted by garish paint jobs while many cars sport the names of loved ones and sponsors in trailing-off scrawls as if spray-painted by strung-out graffiti artists.

By contrast, the Modified and Late Model Class cars sparkle like jewelry under the weak lights as they race on Saturday nights. To motorheads, those engines sound like a three tenors concert, and with their speed – sub 12-second time trial laps – and maneuverability they approach a mechanical ideal of beauty in motion on the short track that the other classes that race at Riverhead – Blunderbust, Charger, Legend and Super Pro Truck – cannot hope to match.

As for the Enduros, those large stock cars may be packed three wide over the entire back stretch at the start of a race. While scorers and track stewards ready for the event, impatient drivers lean on their horns like selfish commuters caught in a closed-circuit rush hour. Engines are gunned while fans hunker in the grandstands, sprawl at umbrellaed tables or lounge just beyond the fence in their own folding lawn chairs – all eager for the hypnosis of the oval. When the clock does finally start, the flagman flourishes the green in an energetic and intricate motion, like a depraved maestro exhorting his orchestra to sublime discord.

Now the track dust swirls. The first rows of cars roar down the stretch to arrive at the back of the pack before those racers in last position have even budged. Some cars dip into the infield in the center of the oval to lap those stuck in traffic. Soon thick exhaust mixes with acrid radiator steam as the first victims of mechanical stress, misjudgment or bad luck limp out of the steel maelstrom and come to rest in the infield. The herd thins. On the short oval the Enduro cars spend half the race turning, and drivers repeatedly straighten their wheels and mash their accelerators to the floor, barreling ahead in shuddering roll cages into the next turn until the curving pavement slips the soft grip of their xylene-soaked tires. Cars spin out, tires jump off axles, radiators explode, and stranded, angry drivers resist the urge to punch and strangle their competitors – or not.

With each lap more debris litters the track. Bumpers tumble like Olympic gymnasts. Automotive parts, like metal hearts and livers, are blown out of the madly howling machines on their bum rush around the track’s pitiless surface to the delirium of the fans, by now dizzied from a surfeit of stimuli.

Despite the massive assault on the senses and the collateral deprivation of serenity produced by Enduro cars speeding around the track like cratered moons hurtling through the polluted skies of a doomed planet, this breakneck bedlam is but the low-rent tip of a costly, grease-stained iceberg.

In the pit area, crews and drivers in the various classes tweak their cars, which they have been readying all week. In some pits men use hydraulics to lower a $50,000 Modified from the upper deck of a $100,000 trailer. Next door, a solitary driver might be his own pit crew and major sponsor.

New tires from the local tread merchant are mounted each week, that is, if the racing team has an extra $500 to $700 on its money roll or is lucky enough to have a top sponsor. But whether new or somewhat used, all tires are staggered for the counterclockwise circuit, and complicated car weight percentages are adjusted for maximum handling advantage. Jaded and practical, the crews try out tricks of the trade and thrive on rulebook gray areas, justifying each maneuver with the motto that made America great: “It ain’t cheatin’ till you get caught.”

Cars run time trials to determine pole position, “hot laps” for a chance to test adjustments under race conditions, heats to qualify and of course the feature race for each class. In addition, depending on the program, there might be a school bus demolition derby, figure 8 race, spectator drag races or a sideshow like Airplane Freddy, a maniac from the Midwest who has a truck-mounted jet airplane engine that he uses as a giant blowtorch to melt whole cars.

Another popular event is the rollover contest, where drivers launch their cars over a ramp then wedge themselves in place for the topsy-turvy ride, competing to see who can flip a car the most times, trying to break the unofficial track record of 5 ½ rollovers.

Most of the racers come from around the Island but on two weekends each summer, when Riverhead hosts a Featherlite Modified Tour event, racing teams from Virginia, Pennsylvania and Connecticut are common at the raceway as they pursue point totals and the season championship.

There is another universe beyond the guardrails and walls, and it teems with creatures as bizarre as in a Star Wars bar. Children hawk cotton candy behind the bleachers. Grizzled men in the stands taunt the tanned and tattooed young women promenading in blue jeans. Elsewhere families picnic in the dirt and a large man stands aloof, wearing a Prussian helmet with a day-glo orange mini traffic cone for a spike, keeping one eye on the action and one hand on a beverage.

Back at the pits, “it’s just another day in the dirt hole,” as one laconic mechanic sighed. Welders are still tacking on bumpers, while sponsors schmooze and engine builders promise to make winners out of losers. Photographs and posters to be autographed are readied for the fans who will be admitted into the pits following the final race of the night, when that sprawl of cars and trailers is transformed from open air garage to asphalt picnic. It is then that toolboxes are closed and coolers opened. Barbeques and blenders replace air tanks, while pop tunes from sophisticated sound systems fill the aural void left by the cooling motors. Trophies are displayed and winners stroll to the payout window to collect what seem insultingly small cash awards, when you factor in the price of this passion in dollars, sweat, disappointment and risk.

The party continues until the last steward shuts off the lights, plunging the hardcore into darkness, under cover of which they ride out onto the unromanticized highways of Long Island, abandoning until the following weekend, Riverhead Raceway, the Island’s last surviving oval and only metro-area NASCAR stock car track, and leaving to stand guard alone over this desolation, Big Chief, perhaps the ultimate icon of survival, dignified in his muteness despite the devil’s red they painted him and the Sieg Heil salute they gave him for all eternity – if there is an eternity.

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