Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Monaco, Spa, LeMans, Indy, and Belleville. Yes, Belleville, Kansas is one of the world's greatest race tracks

                  Saturday night, the sun is sinking into the prairie and a full moon is coming up behind the trees around Rocky Pond. Race time. Belleville, a sleepy Kansas farm town of 3,000 has grown to 30,000 for the Belleville Midget Nationals. (click on link for video)

          The cars circle slowly around the track and park in front of the stands, leaving the engines running, thumping on idle like drum beats, raising the pulse and the expectation of racing.  All these guys, their owners and crews are all doing it for the love of racing.  Nobody makes any money at it.  “Maybe some new guy thinks he can make money doin’ this,” an old-timer says. “You better get to him quick before he learns better.”

This is not about money, this is about racing.  Pay attention.

Belleville Cuisine 2004

              Mario Andretti drove Midgets.  So did AJ.  Tony Stewart drives Midgets. Jeff Gordon was the 1990 USAC Midget champ.  Ryan Newman, Bobby Unser, Roger Ward, Jimmy Vasser, Parnelli Jones, Kasey Kahne, they all drove Midgets

              53 Cars show up for Saturday night, the best Midget racers in the country. And they all tell you this is the track; the fastest, the trickiest and the best to win

               The fans have come from all over the country, but most are from the middle of America, states like Indiana, Idaho, Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio, Kansas, Oklahoma and the Dakotas.  Around 30 Australians came over with Ozzie Midget drivers, Adam Clarke and Nathan Smee. 

Adam Clarke (couldn't find a pic of his pit crew in Spandex)

The crowd awards Clarke best looking driver because Adam lines up with four gorgeous Australian blondes in skimpy orange spandex. The drivers toss autographed Frisbees into the crowd and the fans dive for them.
                     Speaking of fans, here’s a tip.  Hang onto the lid of your cup of soda or beer; it’s handy for keeping out the flying mud and grit.  (Drink your beer, sweetie, before it gets dirty.) Here’s another tip I picked up in the stands when a cell phone went off.  “I got a remedy for that,” a Kansas farmer said, “just a couple drops of Bud and that phone won’t rang (sic) again tonight.”
                The Belleville Jazz Ensemble (aka The Belleville high school band) cranks up a weird and wonderful combo of rah rah football music mixed with saxophone jazz, and you know good stuff is about to happen.

                   What you do when you race a midget (you can win this one)is wrap your knees around 350 horsepower and stomp the throttle.  While all around you a whole bunch of other crazy, fearless racers with their knees wrapped around 350 horsepower stomp on their throttles. This is pure, raw, butt to the wall, grass roots racing

                    Belleville is the world’s oldest and fastest banked half mile dirt oval. 
The clay is so sticky it’ll pull your shoes off. Except for a 30 yard straight, it’s a perfect circle. Midgets, with no wings and the aerodynamics of a buffalo can take the high 5/8s of a mile flat and they are almost always sliding, back end hanging out, pedal squashed to the metal.
                 Here’s how pure the racing is. There are no pit stops. No test drivers.  No mirrors. No media centers. No Press Officers. No fins.  No wings. No clutch. No Transmission. No starter motor. No marketing plan. No independent suspensions.  No carbon fiber chassis or brakes. No push to pass buttons. No on-board computers. No turbos. No pit to car radios. No traction control.  No aerodynamic devices. If these cars were pared down any more they wouldn’t have wheels

               You sit bolt upright.  And mostly you look down the track over your right shoulder. The right pedal is go, the left is stop.  The strategy is pass everybody and don’t hit anything.  

                 The cars weigh a minimum 900 lbs. without the driver.  The chassis is tubular aircraft steel and the driver sits inside a roll cage.  Most engines are 166 cu in. 4 cylinder,  325 to 350 horsepower.  The cars are about ten feet long with the wheelbase running from a wee 66 to 76 inches and width limited to 65 inches.  Which is how they fit three and four wide in the banked turns
              Longevity counts.  Two crew guys, looking old as crocodiles, watch qualifying from inside turn two.  About halfway into the session they jump back from the fence, pick up wrenches with 5 foot long handles and swap the rear tires on their Midget. Something they saw out there made them go for a harder compound, but they won’t say what.  Because the cars haven’t changed much for the past 80 years there are several Grandfather, father and son teams, passing down the secrets from generation to generation. 

   Ask Mario Andretti about his Midget days, and he just grins like the kid he was.  “I was so fortunate.  I learned everything I needed to know in Midgets to launch me in my career." 

"I mean everybody who was anybody was at Belleville, and they had their best cars ready to go there. It was a great race for me to win. I was on a tear there, running wide open and jumping the cushion and never lifting. I never stopped racing like that until the checkered flag flew." - Jeff Gordon

(to be continued tomorrow)

1 comment:

cheryl said...

Oh, good, you've posted this piece! I will link to it.