9/09/2007

Gentlemen, start your engines...


I've been threatening for at least two or three years to accompany my main man Joseph on an auto-racing expedition. Somehow a few years ago he was bitten with the high-speed auto bug. Ever since, on both weekends and lazy summer afternoons, you are likely to find him wriggling about on his back underneath his car, in the vacant lot behind his shop, greasing and tweaking and machining and futzing with his Silver 1985 Volkswagen Golf, aka "the beastmaster of Douglass St." Car culture pretty much gives me a rash, the internal combustion engine being in my opinion the second most pernicious invention of modern man, coming just after the television, and so for years I have managed to postpone, obfuscate and seek out subsequent commitments to avoiding fulfilling the proffered role of assistant grease monkey. This last weekend I had finally run out of excuses, so I packed my toothbrush and off we went.

Representing Gowanus, Brooklyn: Car 77, loaded and ready to go.

Eastern Pennsylvania's Poconos, about two hours west of the George Washington bridge, are a true middle-American backwater, with none of the granola-chomping and cappucino-drinking rural sophistication of upstate New York. For our lodging we found ourselves submerged in classic motel flavor. One wonders how often the mildewed neon "NO" on this sign is ever illuminated.

Faced with architecture and furniture like this, I felt like I was working as a location scout for the next David Lynch movie. As one might expect, an inevitable posse of drunken and vaguely sinister yay-hoos chose 1AM as the appropriate moment to take their party outside our screen door for a few more hours of slurring, hooting and hollering.

Like a big, bald head: just after dawn the sun rises over the world famous Pocono raceway, from which, soon, the exhaust fumes of over-torqued big-bore engines will begin drifting upwards.

The competitor's tunnel to the inner circle. It may seem an obvious observation, but this scene is all about vehicles. I'm not even referring to the race-cars; there are flotillas of enormous pickup trucks hauling vast trailers equipped with entire machine shops; there are bicycles on racks, for zipping about the vast spaces of the race-track; people bring motor-scooters to putter around on. Some install entire encampments, with "E Z Up" Tents, folding chairs and barbecues sizzling away, conveniently near rows of quick-pouring five gallon jugs of spare gasoline.

Joseph "the Toothless Wonder of the Gowanus" Fratesi suits up, preparing to take no prisoners in the EMRA ST-5 class.

McMurdo flavor: Car 77's homage to Antarctica, courtesy of Will and Marsha. [Update: from McMurdo Station, Antarctica, Marsha, forgetting that last year when I shoplifted my Hagglunds bumper stickers from her satchel I was myself a FNG, writes: "The FNG's are buying them like crazy..." pronounced Fin-jee]

Stay the hell out of my way or I will run you over, chew on your pistons and spit your ball bearings out onto the grassy verges of the median strip. I will show no mercy and will crumple the rusting carcass of your inferior excuse for a car beneath beneath my wide, slick "Hoosier" tires.

Lined up and ready to go. Getting the maximum speed out of a car moving around the track requires a constant, strenuous battle against mechanical and physical forces, the interaction of the vehicle with the road, as they are expressed back to the driver through the controls of the car. Fratesi's mentor, Roberto Lorenzutti, the shadow of whose name is still visible on the hood of the VW golf, describes learning the line, or the route around the track, as similar to an orchestra practicing a concerto: the track is the music, and the driver can move the car around it harmoniously, giving emphasis here, relaxing just there, opening up at just the right moment, or dissonantly, fighting against the camber, arc and flow of the asphalt, jangling jarringly around its curves. I knew Joseph was driving well not only because he was constantly passing lame-asses in more powerful cars, but because just to the left of my field of view where I stood watching the cars coming around the track was a slight slope in the track, a spot where he seemed effortlessly to slide the car from left to right in exactly the same way on every revolution, initiating the move, it seemed to me, within a precise and specific centimeter.
I fear, dear readers, that I have failed to exploit the multi-media capabilities of the blog format. To really convey last weekend's experience I should have included audio recordings from the track. The gruesome, incessant whine of the unmuffled engines, their deep, throaty coughing and roaring as they doppler around the track is both horrifying and impressive. Note here, at the edge of top speed, the air under Joseph's back right tire; not, he says, a desirable condition, however exciting it might look.

Car 77 prepares to slice, dice, mangle, skin and peel car number 8. Joseph says it is easy to catch cars, but very difficult to pass them. Nonetheless he was getting around the inside and outside of all manner of vehicles last Saturday.

The entirety of the pit crew: Gatorade bottle-polisher, coffee runner, nitrogen tire pumper-upper, jackstand wielder and lone team supporter. On TV one always sees a dozen and a half strapping lads humming about the cars in the pit like a swarm of bees, four or eight pneumatic socket wrenches firing at once to get the tires changed out in seconds, new fuel injected under pressure into the gas tank, the whole operation over in a the blink of an eye. All surrounded by last year's cheerleaders urging the proceedings along. I had always thought life in the pits so energetic and glamorous. Instead, the main focus of my job was apparently to make sure a tote bag with a couple of bananas in it didn't get soggy during a brief rain shower.

I didn't have a fireproof codpiece, so I wasn't allowed onto the track side of the pit to refuel the beastmaster. Here Larry from Long Island helps out, gassing Joseph up in pit number 27. Larry and his brother Cory co-drove an orange and black BMW to victory in the ST-5 class, just edging out the Fratesi phenomenon.


Hooded and crouched, Joseph appears to be an aspiring suicide bomber bidding the world and his car adieu, but in fact he is checking tire pressure and temperature after a few savage laps, trying to determine how much rubber will be holding the road once the gummy rubber tires have had a chance to warm up.

The Darth Vader of amateur racing, a chopped Ford F-150 pickup truck, which, Joseph says, "bears no resemblance to the original." Little more than a few flimsy panels hanging off of a tubular frame, these beasts drive in the big bore class. They sound, as Joseph puts it, "like someone banging on sheet metal with a hammer.... The first time I drove in an enduro race and one of these came up behind me, I almost pissed myself. You're thinking: what the hell is that? I was so freaked I drove right off the track."

With awesome and ominous thunder clouds rolling in, race officials ended the two-hour enduro race half an hour early.

A podium finish in both the sprints and the enduro! Double Silver. Fratesi displays the fruits of victory and enjoys a complimentary Yuengling.

4 comments:

jkarah said...

i don't think that's her...she was a later model?

AK718 said...

Right on Team Fratesi! Next year - Riverhead Raceway! The original track of champions, where I've seen some mean racings skills, before 'Whiplash' Joe finished a field of Demolition Derby contestants like a plate of juicy chicken wings. Yup, still missing the US of A. C'mon. Who wants to see some skinny dudes race some oddly shaped scream machines around some mediterranean retirement resort.

icegrrl said...

re "hagglunds" sticker: mwah ha ha! you are right - you just never seemed like a FNG with that OAE beard..oh, & I don't believe I had my "satchel" on Ice with me last year for you to uplift swag from - (snicker).

They say it's a cold world said...

For those who aren't hip to the lingo, FNG is Antarctican slang for "F@*KIN' NEW GUY." I believe OAE means "OLD ANTARCTIC EXPLORER" and is therefore sort of the opposite of FNG, but I'm not so solid on that one.