Mud, Sweat & Tears: Stock Car Racing Enthusiasts Sour on Iraq War
Rory McNamara/Pacific Sun
Larry Albedi, the voice of the Petaluma Speedway, has been announcing stock car races for 53 years. He's a Bush supporter who thinks race track fans tend to be patriotic.
Saturday nights, from March to October, you can hear the metallic howl of car engines as they slide through tons of mud. The screech of machines—pleasant to the ears of some, roundly despised by others—can be heard for a good five miles around the Petaluma Speedway, a dirt track located at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds. It's the sound of stock car racing—the perfect sport for our oil-fed consumer society.
Born in the Deep South after World War Two, stock car racing projected a beer-breath, chicken-bone-spitting persona. Serving a mostly blue-collar crowd, thousands of dirt tracks sprang up around the nation in the car-crazed Fifties. In the Seventies, Wide World of Sports made "NASCAR," (National Association for Stock Car Racing) into a multi-billion-dollar business with 75 million fans. Today, NASCAR's millionaire superstars race gorgeously designed asphalt racetracks, such as Infineon Raceway at Sears Point, which is a few miles south of the no-frills Petaluma dirt course.
The Petaluma Speedway does not produce fancy motor racing -- it has the visual appeal of a construction site -- but it provides affordable entertainment for the locals. And racing experience for wannabe NASCAR stars. It also has a political aspect.
President George W. Bush has long claimed NASCAR folks as his own. He shows up at high-profile races, like the Daytona 500. He throws parties for victorious drivers at the White House, praising their supposed support for his military adventures. Taking a cue from the president, Petaluma Speedway management promotes a high-octane brand of war patriotism -- composed of equal parts religion, sentimentality, and half-truths. But even though Petaluma's stock car racing enthusiasts tend to describe themselves as patriotic and conservative, not a single one of a score of drivers and fans interviewed at the Speedway in September said that he or she favors the war on Iraq. Quite the contrary.
Only one of a dozen drivers interviewed said he plans to vote for President Bush in November. Several drivers said they will vote for John Kerry because of the mismanagement of the war, or Bush's anti-labor union policies. Others disdain the electoral system entirely. While fans interviewed in the stands recently, on the anniversary of September 11, tended to support the re-election of George W. Bush, they were confused about the cause of the Iraq War, and how to end it.
At the Speedway, as in much of America, ordinary people are disoriented by the daily horrors in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as by the poverty of our political process. Even though the war propaganda of the Bush-Cheney administration has suffused all aspects of our society, including our recreational moments, support for the occupation of Iraq, at least among the stock car racing crowd in Petaluma, has the traction of an oil slick.
Petaluma Speedway promoter Jim Soares drives around the pits in an electric golf cart, keeping tabs on the bottom line. With a seating capacity of 2,750, the dirt track hardly compares to Infineon's 47,000 seats and its tens of millions in annual revenue. Soares' profit depends upon his ability to attract drivers, not just fans. The prize money (usually several hundred dollars per race) is largely generated by the $35-$100 entry fees that Soares charges the drivers. When too few drivers showed up to a recent race, the grizzle-bearded Soares cut the standard prize in half, disgruntling many drivers. Money and class matter in the pits--where there is perpetual war between wealthy drivers and those who must scrimp and save to buy a custom-made car part.
Joe Amadeo is the advertising and marketing director for the Speedway. Conservative politics is clearly part of his marketing plan (although he says he is not a "right-winger"). In a pre-show eulogy to the late Ronald Reagan in June, Amadeo proclaimed (incorrectly on both counts), "Ronald Reagan rejuvenated the economy and was solely responsible for ending the cold war."
Tonight, he delivers a September 11 tribute.
"We are here to honor ... everyone who is involved in keeping us safe. ... Think about those brave, incredible Americans on the plane .... they looked those Muslim terrorists in the eye and said you are not going any further. ... We are facing a terrible enemy, one that is hard to define. We have to find the strength to fight the enemy with all our might, the way our men did in World War Two. ... They knew that 70 to 80 percent [sic] or more of them were not going to make it. But they had to do it. Why? For freedom."
He hits his stride, voice rising.
"I don't know about all of you, but I personally am not willing to give up my freedom. ... Women, I don't know about you, I bet that none of you want to walk around in a burka, and put a wrap around your head, and be told you are the subject of a man. And I am sure that you do not want to do whatever you are told by Osama Bin Laden. .... We will fight with all our might to fight for what they were fighting for. ... Military personnel going into Iraq, boy, I'll tell you, they are taking the fight to the enemy. God bless every American serviceman and woman that's over there."
As members of an American Legion Post march to the bomb-bursting tune of our national anthem, the audience (mostly white, largely male) stands, hands over hearts. Tow trucks adorned with American flags roam the infield.
On dirt ovals, drivers brutally slide their cars through turns, spewing mud toward the audience. On straightaways, they punch the pedal to the floor, trying to make the inside track. There are plenty of opportunities for drivers to nudge--or slam--each other out of position. In fact, almost every race sees a driver penalized for illegal maneuvers.
James "Woody" Woodward has been racing stock cars half his adult life. Intensely competitive, he won the super stock championship this season.
"There are hot heads here," Woodward says on the night of September 11. "I used to be a little rough out here. I was the bad boy. I got banned from the track."
Woodward, 41, a union communications worker, lives in Novato. He is in the midst of a divorce. "Going through life changes makes you a better person. Karma is a big factor for me. I have a feng shui plant." He points to a fern hanging in the trailer he uses to haul his battered Chevy.
Woodward has a few local sponsors, but he and burly pit crew chief, Eric Skov (a geologist by day) cough up most of the five to ten thousand dollars a year it takes to keep his super stock vehicle supplied with custom tires, parts, and tender care.
Woodward loves the mud that is indigenous to Petaluma, "Adobe. Good, sticky, gooey stuff." He sprays baby oil on the Chevy's dent-spattered body, which is laced with steel splints. Baby oil keeps tons of mud from mounding on the car, he explains. The face is another problem. Dirt track cars do not use windshields, so drivers attach layers of transparent plastic to their helmets. As they shoot around the track at 80 or 90 miles an hour, adobe splashes into the open cockpit, blinding them, until they tear off a layer of plastic wrap. Woodward is proud of his state-of-the-art mechanical device--it rolls a clean swath of plastic across his face plate at the flick of a switch.
Woodward points out that there are rich folks racing here tonight, which is a source of some friction among those who can't afford to fix their cars after accidents on the race course. One of his colleagues chimes in that wealthy drivers deliberately slam into the cars of poorer drivers in order to sideline them for the season. It is a common complaint.
"NASCAR cars rebuild the engine and change skins every week," Woodward points out. That is why they look so sleek and pretty as they streak around the Infineon course at 150 plus miles an hour, slipping in and out of each others slipstream. At Petaluma, Woodward explains, the cars do not go fast enough to create a slipstream.
"It’s always a money issue, the more you spend, the faster you go. I am not very good at [raising money.] I am confident that if I found someone that could talk to people that way I could get more money."
His eyes shine. "I'd like to race the Winston Cup."
An hour later, Woodward loses his race. He had a shot at winning, but his inner bad boy intervened. He flipped off front-running Dean DeVolder, after their speeding cars collided. A referee saw the gesture, and sent him to the back of the pack.
When asked about his politics, Woodward said he believes there are active al Qaeda cells in the United States. He commented that Bush misled the country about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that he should withdraw the troops. He will vote for Bush, mostly because he has not heard too many good things about Kerry.
His pitman, Skov, lapsed into a two minute silence when asked whom he supports for president. Finally, "Let's just say the choices are bleak at this particular point in time.
"I support the military. They are simply out there doing what they are ordered to do and what they think is right.
"It's sad. I just hope the boys will get home soon. Any way they can."
A few feet away, DeVolder, triumphant, calls his mom with the news. DeVolder's pitman, who is also his dad, beams with happiness--and not just because Dean won. He discloses he lost his other son in a car wreck some time back.
The elder DeVolder comments, "I do not vote for the party, but for the guy I think is the best guy. This year is tough. I'll probably go with Kerry, because I want to get our guys back from overseas, and he'll bring them home."
He says that although racing people are not particularly right-wing, "You'll find a few of those in any group."
Near the entrance to the pits, a large Confederate flag waves freely. Belt buckles decorated with the Iron Cross (often viewed as a racist icon) seem to be in fashion. Huge American flags on poles hang off the back of a couple of pick-ups. Politics is in the air, but there is not a Bush-Cheney, nor a Kerry-Edwards bumper sticker in sight. Forget Nader.
Pitman Bob Thompson, 46, has been in racing since the age of five. "I am a
union construction worker, and Bush don't like unions, so I can't support him. I guess I'll have to go the other way."
He says a lot of people not happy about the way the war is going (including himself), but, he reflects, "We are the United States. We always help every country there is, don't matter what country, we are going to be there to help them. Damned if you do, damned if you don't."
Thompson believes Bush will win. "I think he started something overseas that he is going to have to finish, and people are going to want him to finish it."
A few trailers along the pit side, Larry Damitz, 75, relaxes in a folding chair. He has been racing for a half-century. "Just because you like racing, doesn't mean you prefer one candidate over another. Can't say I like either of them. I'll hear all the lies, and then I'll try to separate them in November."
Every Saturday night during the season, Larry Albedi is the voice of the Petaluma Speedway. He has been announcing stock car races since 1953.
Albedi talks about the one death that the Speedway suffered in its half century. Last July, turn referee Randy Clifton was killed by a runaway race car with a mechanical problem. Albedi is proud that he was able to control his emotions. "I got everybody home and cleared the pits and went home and cried. I'd known Randy for ten years."
The atmosphere is particularly tense at the Speedway the week after September 11. The cash prize for the feature race is huge by dirt track standards: $3,500 to win. Albedi, 73, sits high above the crowd in a small booth lit by bare light bulbs. Suddenly, two cars tangle and thirty feet of chain link fence that protects the center of the grandstand lies in a heap. The crowd holds its breath. Albedi sees a hand signal from the crash site. He announces that the driver is unharmed. The crowd cheers. In his baritone, Albedi suggests a visit to the concession area as the leaky, potentially explosive mess is swept away by a bulldozer.
Talking about the crash later, he says, "There was a lot of bashing going on. People will commit mayhem and murder [for $3,500]." He says that the richer drivers sometimes intentionally crash into the poorer drivers. "I could name three or four people who live for the idea of crashing somebody, especially if they are in first place."
Albedi, who also announces the NASCAR races at Infineon, says that, unlike sports car racing ("They all run foreign cars, and idolize foreign drivers"), stock car racing is for "people who all get together and drink beer in the park on Sunday, and go to parades on the Fourth of July.
"Patriotism is typical of oval track racing," he remarks. "Reagan enjoyed an auto race. Probably Bush does too. I go for Bush, probably because he is for business. Kerry does not have a clue how to conduct himself."
How about the war on Iraq?
"I like the way that person in the CIA put it: We must identify these people, we must find them, we must kill them. It's brutal, yeah, but it's our only choice."
"I try to make my own opinions," Albedi says. "I am influenced by a number of things, like what is good for me! Basically, I am a FOX TV watcher. [And] I am a member of the [Napa County] grand jury. If you can't get verification [of a fact], you shouldn't look at it."
He believes that the Iraqi government had something to do with the attacks of September 11. "They probably know who it is that did it. I believe that they did nothing to help. Somebody masterminded one hell of a plot!"
I tell him that the "somebody" is thought to be Osama Bin Laden.
"I would probably agree," he states. "But how close are these people to one another in other countries? Even my own ancestors, we stick together. My family is Italian."
Harlan Osborne sits at Albedi's elbow during the race, feeding him instant statistics. He does not share Albedi's views. "I do not want Bush in charge. I hate the war, and the Bush crew is ruining the environment."
Admission to the grandstands is ten bucks. Twenty ounces of beer is five bucks, a plastic American flag to wave when excited is two bucks. It's solid family fun--if you remember to dress warm against the cold summer wind.
Wearing a parka, Brad sits front row center with his teenage daughter. A pastor in the Church of the Nazarene, he comes to the races a few times a year. "I vote conservative, for Bush," he says. "I am pro-life. That's the part of a political platform that influences my vote. I tend to believe Bush's statements of faith.
"The war is not going real well. At one time, I thought it was worth going there. Now it does not look like freedom. The solution requires time. A [withdrawal] at this time is a total waste of lives and dollar. We should stay the course."
In the upper row of the grandstand sits Matt, born and raised in Petaluma. He works as a butcher at Albertson's supermarket. "I like Bush. He'll get the people home. We made our point."
What is the point?
"Iraq attacked the World Trade Center."
What makes you believe that?
"There are countries out there that do not like us. There is jealousy. Sometimes we stick our nose where it doesn't belong. People are dying on both sides. What is being solved when along with the guilty we are killing innocent kids, grandmothers, grandfathers? Bush will withdraw. Eventually."
The engines roar to life. Matt 's eyes circle around and around and around the muddy oval.
Melissa McDowell's life experience is emblematic of Speedway drivers of military service age who said that they do not vote.
McDowell, 24, grew up in Santa Rosa. She loved playing soccer in high school. She frequented the Petaluma Speedway pits on Saturday nights because her boy friend raced.
"I watched, cleaned his car, always wanted to drive it, but never got in," she recalls with bright eyes. On impulse, she bought a Honda Accord for $2,000, jumped behind the wheel and ended up as one of three women who regularly race at the Speedway.
This year, McDowell won five races. She left the track one night in an ambulance, after her car spun into the wall at fifty miles per hour. Two weeks later, she took first place. She has a reputation for driving skill and carrying a load of guts.
Soft-spoken and earnest, McDowell describes herself as an aggressive driver, but courage and talent are not enough to get her to Infineon.
"You've got to know the right people, and you've got to have money." (It takes about $12 million a year to fund a first class NASCAR team.) McDowell says she hasn't got a clue about how to meet the right people. "I don't know anyone from the Petaluma Speedway who has been drafted or scouted [by NASCAR]."
It costs McDowell, who teaches special education for a living, about $7,000 a year for car maintenance, pit crew expenses, and entry fees. Most of this nut is covered by local sponsors, including a tire store and a tanning salon.
Noting that women were not allowed in the pits a generation ago, McDowell says, "It's great when the fans are screaming and yelling for you. A lot of women, older women who would have liked to [race] when they were younger, come up to me in the pits saying 'I am so proud to see you out there.'"
As for the future, "I'd like to be in racing in ten years, but only now and then. I'd keep my car, like my little baby. Hopefully, I'll be married and have a child."
Which presidential candidate is she voting for this year?
"I do not even know who is running. I don't vote. I am not political."
Does she talk about the Iraq War with her friends? Her eyes narrow: "No."
It says a lot about our country when a spunky young woman cannot bring herself to engage in mainstream politics—or to talk about the war.