Why does the track in Bakersfield, California, hold such an allure to me? What is it about this historic venue that connects with me on a level that no other track can do?
When I think about that track, I start at the core, the track itself. I like to walk up and look at the starting line in the morning. The air is quiet, the breeze still, and I can faintly discern the smell of a mix of flowers, mulch, and VHT. There are usually very few people out on the track this time of the day. It is quiet and the world seems like a perfect place at that moment, when time seems suspended. It could be 2015 or 1950, the date doesn’t really matter; it makes absolutely no difference to the track and you simply don’t care. Off in the distance, the sound of agriculture goes on with a tractor or a fruit tree sprayer chugging through the orchards, but none of that matters because right now you are suspended in time at a timeless place, ready for a day of drag racing.
I look down track from the starting line and notice the rubber from other burnouts, other cars, and I see the groove as it heads for the finish line. The old rubber lays there as a testament to long-ago passes down this same quarter-mile strip of asphalt. A slight mirage effect ripples in the air as the summer heat reflects off the black, rubber-coated surface. At this moment, nothing matters but that 1,320 feet of perfect track, a finish line, and the turnoffs.
Sure, the track is surrounded by so much more that is currently out of sight. At the end, there are the turnouts, with return roads leading to a timeslip booth and then back to the pits. At the start there are staging lanes numbered 1 to 10 and at the head of the staging stands the stage master. This official is the one that pulls out the racer and directs him toward the track, and then the racer encounters another track worker who puts him in the burnout box.
The burnout box is where the fun begins, as you wet the tires and pull out of the water. On the official’s hand signal you bring the motor up so the tires begin their crazy warm-up preparing for the launch. As you shift into second gear and the tires begin to really smoke like a crazy house fire out of control, you turn off the line lock and allow the car to start spinning and moving forward toward the starting line.
Then it’s time to stage. As your car creeps forward, inch by inch, you feel like maybe a surfer about to drop down into a monster wave, or a sky diver looking out an open door as the world spins miles below. The thrill, the rush, it’s just moments away. The tires are ready, the car is lined up and now you look down track just like you did earlier. Once again, time stands still. Is it 2015? 1950? Nobody cares. Nothing matters now but the track; the wonderful, eternal track; everything comes down to the track.
As the front tire creeps forward and breaks the last staging beam the second light illuminates. You press the accelerator and the motor comes to life. Powerful, loud, ready, the motor is ready to turn your car into a rocket ship. Time may be standing still, but your engine is spinning like crazy. The starter presses his button and the tree lights up.
This is the moment, the moment when everything comes together for better or for worse. This split second of reaction time is what drag racers live for, what we spend long nights alone in the shop wrenching on cars for, why we save every dollar we can just to afford rolling in the gate. This moment is our essence, our reason for being. The tortured tires grab and wrap, the sidewalls wrinkle and slingshot the car down the track.
The front of the car lifts up and heads for the sky for 50 feet or so before gently, like a butterfly, floating back to return the front tires to the track. Everything in your peripheral vision zooms by in a blur. The car rockets toward the finish line and as you cross the stripe all you know is, you want to do that again.
Bakersfield, it has all the elements to make all this happen. However, as I race at many tracks all over this country, I feel the same spirit, the same excitement and as I roll through the front gate, I feel the same excitement. I know it will just be a matter of time before I strap myself into my own time machine. I know it will just be a matter of time until I am living that moment again. And I know I will want to do it again and again and again.