The revving motors cut through the morning silence like oncoming tanks. I was still miles away from the Lebanon Valley Dragway, but it was clear the races had already begun.
It was the Fourth of July weekend and the National Hot Rod Association, the world's largest auto-racing organization, was in town. I had driven south from Canada to upstate New York to witness this brimstone-and-treacle convergence of engine, tire and track. I asked the attendant at a nearby gas station what he thought about these drag racing events. "They're all right," he shrugged. "The people are a bit redneckish, though."
Inside the dragway, I realized why they're called "rednecks": they really do have bright red necks. Sitting out in the scorching sun and drinking cans of Bud in "Guns, Guts and God" beer holders while watching glimmering colour-bursts hurtle down a straightaway will do that to you. Someone was actually wearing a Planet Hollywood Rome T-shirt. When in Rome, these people do as Americans do.
To appreciate this sort of event, you have to relish pollution-olfactory and otherwise. The congregation of hot-rod faithful seemed unaffected by the brain-melting stench of nitrous oxide fumes and burning rubber, which mingled with an acrid cloud of malt vinegar hovering near the refreshments area. Drag racing is a bacchanalia of contamination. Everybody here wears earplugs, but even earplugs don't safeguard against the very real possibility of vomiting from the decibel level of the 530 km/h engines, which are so brutally loud they set off car alarms halfway across the trailer park on the other side of the highway. I was speaking with a timekeeper dressed as Uncle Sam when a funny car peeled out into the shimmering horizon, spraying me with flecks of molten rubber. My clothes, arms and face were dotted with sticky black squiggles. Resuming the conversation, I realized that speckles of tire goo were also stuck to my tongue. Truly, a feast for the senses.
I asked a gentleman in a Waste Management cap to describe the happenings. "We're just celebrating freedom and independence the best way we know how," he drawled.
While turning into an endless parking lot full of RVs, campers and trailers for the race cars, I got to speaking with Joe Romano, the dragway's BBQ pitmaster, about the love of racing. "It starts off as kids installing nitrous oxide tanks in their mom's Hondas and goes to people mortgaging their homes to race," he explained as we drove around on his golf cart. "I met one guy who got a loan from the bank to put a front porch on, but he went out and bought a new motor with the money."
How does someone get so into cars that they go into debt? I put this question to a clown named Binx ("rhymes with hijinks") who was handing out balloons in the parking lot of a nearby ice cream parlour. He replied, "How do people get into anything?"
Was Binx onto something? Perhaps it's the same as any other passion: it just happens. BOOM! You're a bankrupt drag racer. Or BOOM! you're a grown-up man in a clown costume, or BOOM! you're a journalist inhaling rubber shrapnel in Lebanon Valley.
Or KA-BOOM! You're Jay Blake and a tire has just exploded in your face and suddenly you're "racing's only totally blind race crew chief." Blake is still working with cars today, despite having completely lost his senses of sight, smell and taste during the 1997 accident, which threw him fifteen feet into the air. According to his brochure, he landed on a concrete floor yards away and sustained multiple fractures of his face. "I love working on motors," he revealed. "I see them with my hands."
Blake is hardly the exception. Anybody wanting to get near an actual racetrack has to sign a waiver acknowledging that this is a high-risk environment where bodily harm and death can occur at any moment. The danger doesn't deter primal car lust, though: the NHRA remains the world's biggest spectator participation sport. Virtually anyone is allowed to compete, and with dragways open to the public, informal racing happens most nights of the week. "It's a true democracy," said Blake.
So if you have a car, you can bring it down to the strip and join everybody else enjoying freedom the best way they know how. The war in Iraq wasn't on anybody's conscience that Fourth of July weekend. And why would it be, with all that glorious chrome shining in the sunlight, all those hyper-saturated neon airbrush paint-jobs, all that liquefying rubber and all those "Live Free Or Die" licence plates disappearing into exuberant clouds of exhaust fumes?