The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : 1313 Turkey Court by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday June 4, 2009

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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : 1313 Turkey Court

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday June 4, 2009

 

While I enjoy stock car racing at Pocono, race weekends at the track are also tinged with a bit of melancholy. For more years than I care to recall, all my best buddies and I used to attend one of the Pocono races together, gathering from near and far for the annual “male-bonding weekend.” (Which is a polite way of saying drinking a truly epic amount of beer, carrying on outrageously and, in general, reinforcing every negative stereotype of stock car fans we could manage.) I can’t say whether I’ve been to more races at Dover or Pocono, or that the best races I’ve seen have been at this track, but I can say I’ve had more fun at Pocono than any other track on the circuit.

This of course was back in the era before I wrote about racing for a living. There was no worry about a deadline after the race, no careful taking of notes to prepare columns, and no stomach churning anxiety wondering what I’d write about the event. Hell, there were races I had to check the paper the next morning to remind myself who won. It was back when we went to races just to enjoy the atmosphere, talk trash about the other guys’ favorite drivers (the Elliott and Earnhardt partisans got particularly combative), listen to fast loud cars and scream ourselves hoarse cheering on our favorites.

In that era, no hotel would have put up with our antics but we had an ace in the hole in 1313 Turkey Court, a house in a community nearby the track which I won’t name for fear of getting sued. Let’s just say that on race weekends, that community, knowingly or otherwise, threw open the gates to the barbarians and let them have at it. Most of the roads in the community were dirt or gravel and it was legal to ride dirt bikes and quads through the development. (Though you were supposed to register them and get a badge…badges? We don’t need no steenkin’ badges.) Security was three old guys in blue Toyota pickups that were tied up handling folks even more hard core than my motley crew all day. (Though we once did get a stern lecture that it was illegal in Pennsylvania to fish using a handgun.) The more genteel crowd left the community to avoid the traffic and the parties, and the lunatics took over the asylum.

1313 Turkey Court was built when our buddy John was a kid. The décor was Brady Bunch traditional with a smattering of Mod Squad hip in the orange shag rug and conversation pit. The house had fallen into disuse as John and his siblings grew up. It smelled funky inside. The water ran red with sediment most of the time. The porch was ready to fall off the place. (As my buddies and I discussed many a time while drinking on the same porch about 20 feet off the ground.) But there were eight bedrooms, some with bunkbeds, and a shower of sorts in the morning. Rent was 20 bucks a head for the weekend. Yeah, it wasn’t luxurious but 1313 Turkey Court was our home base for race weekend.

The hard core race fans, myself included, usually showed up Friday to catch qualifying. We were in charge of hanging up the stolen “Welcome Race Fans” banners and all our driver flags. The guys who were there more to party showed up Saturday morning, usually towing some sort of quad or dirt bike on a trailer or in the back of a rusty pickup truck. Saturday was a riding day, or more accurately a wrenching day as we tried to keep our odd little fleet of off road vehicles running or repaired crash damage. Saturday night the traditional menu was burgers on the grill washed down with copious amounts of beer while swapping tall tales and outright lies. On Saturday night, we’d jump in or on whatever was running, ride up to the fire ring and have a big old bonfire to continue the ritual of male bonding. The evening was usually capped off with the Pennsylvania 25, a 25 lap quad race around the community’s ball field. Behind the backstop there was a curved slope that worked perfectly as a banked corner. Throwing of elbows, shortcuts, and miscounting laps to claim you won were all part of the program, as were end over end flips.

In retrospect, we were lucky. No one ever got arrested. No one ever turned up Jimmy Morrision in the bathtub Sunday morning. The worst injury any of us ever suffered was the time Lee flipped Ken’s quad on a rocky hill climb and slid the entire way to the bottom on his prodigious butt. That opened up some nice gashes, which, unfortunately, he insisted on modeling for us. The worst property damage was the time I slid John Henry off a muddy trail during an ill-advised attempt to keep up with the quads and totaled the bed. Damn near flipped the rig so I guess I made out OK there.

You’d think guys who drank that much the day before would have trouble getting out of bed on Sunday morning. Any other weekend, yes, but not on race weekend. Two unlucky participants were chosen as dawn patrol to drive my truck over to the track and stake out a space in the infield. The part I liked best was since it was my truck, I never had to do dawn patrol. Normally the rest of us would get out of bed around 8:00, run through the shower and share a box of Captain Crunch on the ride to the track for breakfast. To make sure the dawn patrol crew caught up with the rest of us, the yearly ritual involved the early guys hauling the keg in the truck while the late arrivers brought the tap. Even in that vast infield, we always managed to hook up. The keg would be tapped and there was great rejoicing. Only in the infield of a racetrack is beer consumption in the morning the norm rather than the exception. Usually I tried to be the responsible one and tried not to drink prior to noon. Normally, I failed to do so.

Fans at Pocono would go mudbogging in the track’s infield, including Frontstretch’s own Matt McLaughlin.
- Photo courtesy of Toni Montgomery

We’d usually have four and a half hours to kill prior to the race. The first few years we’d run my truck, the mighty John Henry, through Pocono’s notorious mud-bog wide open making like Moses through a Red Sea of filth. John Henry was an honest truck, a mid 80s Ford with 4 inches of suspension lift, 35 inch tires, 4.11 gears, a granny gear four speed and the big six. Darn thing never got stuck. Only an official crackdown by the black shirts (Pocono’s notoriously bad tempered and abusive security goons) ended the merriment. By that point old John Henry would be so muddy that you couldn’t tell what color she was. Once done playing alpha male baboon of the mud pit, we’d reposition the truck, and set up camp. By infield standards our rig was a Cadillac. Ken has worked as a machinist and a carpenter during his life, and built us a platform a full 10 feet long and as stable as the state of Utah. (Though it made the truck a little funky to drive over 70 MPH, especially on dirt roads doing bootlegger turns.) We’d add a tarp on one side as an awning, and a tarp on the other side which in combination with the driver’s door being left open served as our restroom. That solved the most perplexing problem of infield race watching, how to process beer while maintaining modesty and not missing more than a lap per relief break. It caused another problem in that every year I’d tell whoever pulled the dome light bulb out of the truck to keep from draining the battery to put it in the ashtray so I could find it after the race. And every year that bulb got lost.

Three boom boxes tuned to MRN on the platform kept us apprised of what was going on. I had the only scanner and binoculars most years. We started our infield tenure in the 1st turn which is the Wild, Wild, West of the Pocono infield. Eventually as we grew older we moved up towards turn 3 where we could see the Long Pond straight, the tunnel turn and part of turn 3. There’s nowhere in that infield that you can see all of the track, even from the lofty perch John Henry afforded, but the fact that areas where you can’t see any of the track fill up with people anyway says something about infield culture at Pocono.

But as the minutes leading to race time ticked off there was an energy that built up in the infield you just have to have been there to understand. The fireworks erupted more often. Fans of various drivers hollered taunts back and forth between rigs but it was all good-natured. Trivial bits of information on the latest news on the circuit was swapped back and forth. Contests to see whose stereo was loudest drove the noise level to deafening well before the engines of the racecars ever started. Atop our platform there was much backslapping, sidesplitting laughter, and high fiving as we got geared up for the afternoon ahead. One man’s Hell is another man’s Heaven. I loved the chaos, the unpredictable nature of the infield, and, admittedly, the displays put on by morally lax women at frequent intervals. I loved meeting new folks and swapping stories. I loved the atmosphere where if you found yourself short of anything (other than beer and ice) someone nearby was always willing to lend things to a stranger. I used to bring along two bottles of suntan lotion, the most forgotten item in the infield, to share with others once I got myself lathered up.

By the time the Star Spangled Banner played the first casualties were already sprawled out unconscious in lawn chairs or even just laying in the dirt. All of us filled a fresh beer during the pace laps so we could celebrate with foamy soaking toasts as the cars came by us driving in anger for the first time, kicking up a tremendous cloud of dust and making the earth rumble beneath us. Honestly we were like a pack of kids waiting at the top of the steps on Christmas morning when we heard the field take the green, all but jumping up and down in place, grinning ear to ear. It was a magic moment, followed my memorable afternoons we’d talk about until the next Pocono race weekend bought the clan back together.

Over the years the numbers of our little posse slowly diminished. The infield price got out of hand and the guys who weren’t hard core race fans felt ripped off. The traffic got to be too much of a headache. Guys would sleep over Sunday night and get out of bed at 4 AM to drive home to make work Monday morning. Everyone but me got married and produced offspring who had soccer games and horse shows the weekends of racing. Lawns needed mowing. Jeff Gordon dominated too many races. ( I still recall in 1996 when Gordon won his first Pocono race, Brent just shook his head. Brent was about as hard core a Dale Earnhardt fan as you’ll ever meet, and he looked at Ken and I sadly before proclaiming, “That kid is good. Too good. I hate the little….”) It was the first anti-Gordon statement I’d ever heard.

Maybe if the racing was still as exciting as it had been the guys would have hung on. But eventually the hassles began outweighing the fun for some. We were down to a hard core group of three with an occasional guest, but it was still our tradition. Then I got a job working the garage area (but still running out to hang with the guys during the race under special dispensation from Derek that I could submit my columns Monday after I’d had time to see the video of the race.) And when Dale Earnhardt died, that was the end of it. Two of the last hard core threesome no longer cared as much about racing without Dale out there. I’ve got nothing against Jeremy Mayfield, but in retrospect I sure wish Earnhardt would have won that race in 2000 he led at the white flag for the sake of my friends who were attending what was probably their last stock car race. Especially since they had to stay overnight Sunday due to the rain delay.

Old John Henry has been sold now after many, many trouble free miles, when old age started demanding a softer ride, air conditioning and an automatic. 1313 Turkey Court burned to the ground two years ago last autumn (not while we were in residence) and a lot of memories went up in smoke with it. When the front-end loaders scooped away the debris they added our platform that had once been the envy of many of our fellow infield denizens to the scrap heap. I miss those wild weekends, though I guess I’m old enough to know better now.

Looking back though, I really miss those race weekends. I miss the excitement of counting down the days until it was time to head north. I miss the phone calls with the guys making plans. I miss the arguments over which driver was better, the buzz in the infield, that first lap toast, and slapping someone in the back of the head and pointing to indicate a pass for the lead or a wreck from atop the truck. I miss laughing during a race and not taking things so seriously I couldn’t take a few minute break under the awning while my buddies top side yelled down what was going on on the track with varying degrees of accuracy. I miss heading to the go-kart track about a mile from where we stayed the evening of the race, having our own little stock car race, and getting thrown out. (We got thrown out every year I can remember. I recall a track employee telling me he’d never seen a wreck that flipped three go-carts before. His tone of voice didn’t indicate he was impressed.) I miss those raw in the center bugers, the bonfires, and the quad jumping competitions. I miss the draw of being there at something so special no hangover or cottonmouth could keep you in bed a minute longer. I miss the taste of that first beer in the morning. I’m a professional now I guess. That stuff doesn’t wash.

Sometimes at the track I’ll see a group of guys headed for the infield, beers in hand, stripped to the waist, carrying souvenir used tires, and laughing between themselves grinning ear to ear. I’ll look at them and smile myself. I’ve got better access, but they’ll have a better time, even if they don’t know who finished sixth that day. Sometimes we take this sport too seriously and suck the joy out of it. It’s all about hanging out with your buddies, enjoying the greatest show on earth, and going home grinning. Sometimes I need to remind myself that’s the case. But I guess I knew that well enough back in the days of hanging out at 1313 Turkey Court. I wonder when I forgot.

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jaymatt
06/03/2009 11:46 PM
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Not much to talk about today, huh Matt?

This column falls into the “frankly, my dear” category.

Johnboy60
06/04/2009 07:21 AM
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I take exception to jaymatt’s comment. Unless you are not very old, that is the way all of us older fans started our addiction to racin’.
My Dad had me in the infield at Daytona with his buddies in 1957 on the beach and A1A course. from that day forward a 14 year old boy became a fan and learned the ropes from my Dad and his friends. A practice I continued for many years. Thanks Matt for putting that feeling into words!!

Shayne Flaherty
06/04/2009 07:22 AM
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Matt, thanks for reminding me why I’m still a fan.

MilChad
06/04/2009 07:44 AM
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Forget what jaymatt
has to say, I’m glad you ran the article Matt. It was always one of my favorites and remindes me of our wilder days at Rockingham.

Douglas
06/04/2009 07:52 AM
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Ah Matt, you can’t bring up things like “mud bogging” and such!

While I never ever took part, the various venues “back-in-the-day”, such as Talladega “the naked mud-slides”, Watkins Glen “the pit” (where every year they burned a bus or RV of some sort) to even turn one at INDY, a place to avoid at all costs if you lived a “decent” life!

Can’t say I’m not glad they toned these areas down, but by the same token, they were always fun to visit!

Carl D.
06/04/2009 08:07 AM
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Matt…

Great story. It brings back memories of the many weekends my buddies and I spent in the infield at Charlotte Motor Speedway in turn 2. I may publish those stories someday, but I’m holding off until I’m sure it won’t cause any arrests, divorces, or paternity suits. Man, those were some great times.

Ed
06/04/2009 10:06 AM
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Great story Matt. It is good bring up good memories of fun with friends at the racetrack before the era of too high prices, million dollar motorcoaches, and dry, un-entertaining races and drivers. Young Jaymatt must be a sore loser because he missed those good times.

Overa88ted
06/04/2009 11:13 AM
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Refreshing and interesting, better than writing ALL JR.,ALL THE TIME like other writers and websites.

Kevin in SoCal
06/04/2009 12:36 PM
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And here I thought you would lump Pocono in with the rest of the tracks you think are “boring”. I guess its different when its your home track, eh?

Mandy
06/04/2009 12:56 PM
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I think this must be exactly why my dad resents me for changing his race-going habits with my birth…(not trying to make you feel old!)

MJR in Springfield VA
06/04/2009 01:07 PM
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I too enjoyed it Matt. It brought back the many memories I have of Rockingham NC. That was my first introduction to racing in the early 80s. Boy I miss those days, those friends and that track. Now, if and when I go to a race it’s a Dover or Richmond smash-n-dash. Oh, we have fun, but not like the old days at The Rock.

heidi
06/04/2009 03:15 PM
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ah so you were part of the turn one committee
i to have spent more then a few races in poconos infield
and have had a blast every time havent gone for a few years now still trying to make the july race this year we go to daytona now for the 500 since one of our poconogroup moved to florida but you paint a vivid picture

Walt B
06/04/2009 04:44 PM
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Great read! I have spent a lot time in different track infields but the was always something special about the goings on in Pocono’s infield especially when you camped there for three days in a truck camper which had 4wd which let you stay where motor homes feared to tread

Jim
06/04/2009 08:34 PM
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Nice piece of writing, Matt.

If only you could step away from the negativity every week, and remember why you love(d) NASCAR.

Everytime you slam FOX, Digger, the car, Goodyear, Toyota, Fontana, Loudon and Chicagoland, just remember that there are tens of thousands of fans in the stands and in the infield who are making foamy toasts as the cars pass by for the first time in anger, and could care less about the packaged product on TV.

Go to more races, man. I won’t hold it against you if you don’t remember who finished sixth in the Monday column.

Matt
06/04/2009 09:55 PM
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Jim,
I respect your opinion.

But I want my sport back. I want NASCAR racing to provide with the joy it once did over all those wild weekends at Pocono. I want to feel that if I invest the money to head to the track on my dime there is at least a reasonable possibility that I will leave feeling entertatined not ripped off. In saying that I am not asking NASCAR to respond to my wishes but to the wishes of a ton of long time fans who no longer feel the same passion for the sport. If I were the only one that felt this way I’d be an aging crumudgeon whose crap nobody would read. My readership has maintained and grown. NASCAR ratings, both on TV and in the stands are down.

I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong that the sport is now in the Titanic mode and the band is playing. I’d love to be able to write every weekend that the race was outstanding or even if it wasn’t next week it probably will be. But NASCAR racing has gone from the occasional kernel of unpopped popcorn in the bag to sifting sifting through the sands of the beach for an occasional gem. Or that’s how I see it. To all the fans still enjoing the races, whether it be with a soaking first lap toast of beer with the boys or with a loud cheer with your wife and kids on the couch sipping your cup of Folgers, God bless you. I am truly happy you can still enjoy the races.

Me, the same sort of joy I once found in NASCAR racing I normally only find these days on the saddle of my Harley cruising the back roads of Chester County on wrecning on a classic car in the garage. So yeah, maybe it is time I retire. But I just keep hoping that maybe, just maybe, the next race is going to be a classic that’s going to leave me joyous. I’m not a casual fan. I am a NASCAR addict and I have been for about 44 years. Kicking the fix that has defined my adult life isn’t easy. But it’s looking more tempting with every sorry ass race featuring dancing gophers and such I sit through grinding my teeth wishing I was riding instead. The path to the exit is well worn.

As Jackson Browne once wrote:

But suddenly it’s so clear to me
That I’d asked them to see what they may never see
And now my kind words find their way back to me
There’s a train everyday leaving either way
There’s a world, you know
You got a ways to go
And Ill soon believe — its just as well
This is my opening farewell

Jeff
06/04/2009 11:17 PM
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I smile again every time I read this story…thanks, Matt!

Janice
06/05/2009 11:15 AM
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Man Matt…Your article made me cry. I’ve mourned so much for NA$CAR over the years. First Dale (still do that one), and what use to be, and the excitement and passion I use to have for the sport. It’s become so lack luster that I’ve recently forgotten about the race until it’s already started. Now maybe that’s cause I recently hit the half-century mark and memory is shot. Killed too many brain cells in the 70’s and 80’s. We had the rare gift of knowing the NASCAR that our parents knew. Not may changes, only the box ugly cars of the 80’s (but Earnhardt’s lumina still intimindated) and stinking plates. We did have deaths we mourned then, so saftey evolved until 2000 and 2001. Today the Earnhardt in the series continues to struggle, there’s whispers of Gordon’s retirement, there’s hardly any independent sole ownership teams in existance and NA$CAR is doing it’s best to kill off those guys. Toyota is here and it’s all iroc cars, all the time. Iroc has gone away…how long til Cup goes away? The economy stinks, and I’m sure we all know of someone, if not ourselves, who has lost their job. You know, we need something to help with the stress…to escape it for a few hours. I guarantee you that bankruptcy of GM will be on the race shows this weekend. I know we can’t escape it all, but a break would be wonderful. But IROC racing is not the answer. Whom ever gets th lead on Sunday will fly away until the first yellow flag pit stops. Then it will repeat.

Sigh….

Mike
06/05/2009 02:57 PM
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“…Titanic mode and the band is playing.”

They’re playing ‘Let’s go Racing Boys’, right?

Michael T.
06/06/2009 12:14 AM
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Nothing is ever as good as we remember it. It’s called getting older. Nobody want to, so we cling to memories of when we were more energetic and youthful. Even if those memories are fabricated. Nothing will ever be as good as when you were in your prime. More than likely it really wasn’t that good. Even reading these comments. Hardly anybody is commenting on the racing, they are just remembering partying with friends in the infield. They are remembering days they wish they could relive because they are feeling old. This has nothing to do with NASCAR and the entertainment value it provides today.

Kryle Boosh is a Big Baby
06/08/2009 06:19 PM
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NA$CRAP Sucks. Brain France sucks. The chase sucks. The COT sucks. Kryle Boosh sucks. Kryle Boosh fans suck. NA$CRAP is Dying and that in itself is the most entertaining thing about it these days