On the fast track for fun
June 9, 2008 · Updated 7:35 PM
"The qualifying laps were OK - no spinouts, and no wrecks, which is more than several drivers could say.But the No. 24 car wasn't rolling through the banked left-hand turns properly. So driver Garrett Haxby steers back into the pit for a conversation with his mechanic, one that goes like this:Donna says you got third.It's loose though, dude.Really loose?Not really loose, but loose.Given this direction, mechanic Nathan Searles takes up a wrench and makes minor adjustments to the suspension of Haxby's car. It works - later in the evening, when it really counts, Haxby will rally to take third again in a field of some 15 cars, in the evening's main event.We live and die by our motto, Haxby says, pointing to the dashboard and its inscription: Drive it...like you STOLE it!Haxby, a Poulsbo resident and co-owner with Ranji Dhatt of Madison Avenue Garage on Bainbridge Island, is in his fourth year in Legends series racing.The regional circuit, which runs for six months with races three weekends out of every four, includes tracks in Tenino, Yakima, Richland, Wenatchee and Monroe. Last Saturday, the schedule took them to Spanaway Speedway, a humble, quarter-mile short track nestled amongst creeping subdivisions in the shadow of Mount Rainier.Set up in a large trailer fully outfitted with tools and spare parts, the crew is comprised of Haxby, his wife and timekeeper Donna, and Searles. Crew chief Dhatt didn't make the trip Saturday.The first year, it was like the blind leading the stupid, said Dhatt, hunched over the motor in the garage later. Garrett had never raced, and I'd never worked on a car like this. Everything was a learning experience.For those accustomed to the white-collar world of say, major league baseball and its half-billion-dollar stadiums and luxury boxes and micro-brewed beer, visiting the motor sports milieu is like touching down on another planet - perhaps a friendlier one, and lower on pretense. It is a world of revving engines and burbling exhausts, drifting fuel fumes, dust, and gravel kicked up from cheekily spinning tires. Fashion is a melange of auto-parts T-shirts, mullet short-long haircuts, and nicotine-stained mustaches; one gets a sense that amongst adherents, consensus would be that popular music reached its apex in the 1970s, somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line.This is what happens when you get drunk and let your cousin cut your hair! beams a member from another race team, showing off a new crew cut for Haxby and friends.One looks both ways before stepping out into one of the pit lanes, as cars of various sizes are constantly rumbling past. An official sign on the track's information shack warns that injuries suffered in fistfights among drivers are not covered by the track's insurance policy.But that doesn't seem to be an issue. Throughout an afternoon of qualifying heats and car work, drivers and mechanics from different teams commingle freely, swapping parts and offering advice on how to keep engines tuned to perfection.It's a really good group of people, said Donna Haxby. They just all take care of each other. If anybody breaks, you see everybody's pit help them.It is a lot of fun for spectators as well, as evidenced by the hundreds of people filling the stands. Admissions ranging from $2.50 to $7.50 will get you a full day of time trials and a long evening of racing (on this day, the main events went past midnight).The Coors beer is cold and dirt cheap, and the food is hearty; the concessionaire offers among other fare Mama Pikron's Almost Homemade Chicken Soup, with Grilled Cheese Sandwich and Pickle Wedge. Cost: $3. Try finding that deal at Safeco Field.And then there's the racing, against other drivers and against the clock. Over 10 solid hours, no more than a few moments pass without something flying around the track, or off it.During practice runs, spectators are at one point treated to a dramatic burst of smoke from one car, which goes skidding off the end of the track into the weeds. Later, in warmups for the Bandolero series - small fiberglass cars powered by Briggs and Stratton 30 hp motors - a driver spins out and smacks the concrete wall. A rush of spectators crowds up to the fence, and the driver, about 12 years old, is helped out and ambles off the track. The car is loaded onto a wrecker and carried back to the pit. (For the record, the car's fiberglass body was patched up during the afternoon, enabling the driver to qualify for the main event and two more collisions in a single race later in the evening.)Haxby loses control sometimes too. Does his wife worry?Oh, yeah - you can't help it, said Donna. He's hit the wall, but not to where you think he's hurt.I take that back, she added. Last year, he had a pretty gnarly wreck. He went shooting up over the hood of another car.It was actually his second wreck of the day, and while it might not have helped the car, it did improve the team. Nathan Searles, who at that time was working for another driver, helped Haxby put the car back together.This year, he was coaxed into joining Haxby's crew. I eat, breathe, sleep and live racing, said Searles, who comes from a family of motor-sports enthusiasts and has raced motorcycles. There's really nothing I don't like about it.Across the pit area from Haxby's crew, a row of battered sedans, mostly old Mustangs, rumble away in the entry-level Fever 4 class. Also on the evening's bill is the popular but expensive-to-run Late Model series - large and powerful Camaros and Monte Carlos, boasting 650 hp or more - in which every car looks like it just rolled off a NASCAR track.Haxby races in the Legends series, in a scaled-down replica of a 1940 Ford Coupe custom-built by a factory in North Carolina. Powered by a 1200cc Yamaha motorcycle engine, it can hit speeds of 130 mph, although on the straightaway-free, perpetual oval at Spanaway, hitting 60 is a feat.Equipment in this class is standardized, so the race comes down to the skill of the driver and the mechanic. Aspiring drivers can get into the sport for $14,000 for the car, and will need a trailer and rig to haul it around. Then there's the tools and the tires and the fuel. And the time. And the work.The payoff is modest, with a first-place pro-class purse of $300. But the perks come in just hanging out at the track, talking to other drivers, seeing pals from other teams week to week. And driving really fast.At Spanaway, the official track rules are posted thusly: 1. Have fun. 2. Make friends. 3. Go home happy.We've been too serious sometimes, Haxby said. If you don't have fun racing, the racing sucks."