Editor’s Note: Matt McLaughlin’s off this week. Enjoy one of his classic columns with NASCAR racing at the track he speaks of, Pocono Raceway, just a week-and-a-half away.
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.
These memories, of course, were made 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 there 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, all of whom were tied up handling folks even more hardcore 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 parties, leaving the lunatics to take over the asylum through race day.
1313 Turkey Court was built when our buddy John was a kid. The décor was Brady Bunch traditional, anchored 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 and the porch was ready to fall off the place. (As my buddies and I discussed many a time while drinking on the same porch, sitting about 20 feet off the ground.) There were eight bedrooms, some with bunk beds, 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.
The hardcore 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 Morrison 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, sliding 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.
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 four inches of suspension lift, 35-inch tires, 4.11 gears, a granny gear four-speed and the 300cid in-line 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 he 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. He 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 70mph, 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 first turn which is the Wild, Wild, West of the Pocono infield. Eventually, as we grew older we moved up toward 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.
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 concerning 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 race cars 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 by 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 hardcore 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 4:00 a.m. to drive home and 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 hardcore 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 hardcore group of three with an occasional guest, although 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 my boss, Derek, that I could submit my columns Monday after I’d had time to see the video.)
Finally, when Dale Earnhardt died in 2001, that was the end of it. Two of the last hardcore 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 several years ago (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. Boy, were those wild times, 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, all while my buddies topside yelled down what was happening 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 event, 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 karts before. His tone of voice didn’t indicate he was impressed.) I miss those raw-in-the-center burgers, 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, though, 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.