My brother and I are approaching a man who is pulling up both sleeves of a well-worn, black NASCAR T-shirt. He is shouting, "I am the world's biggest Earnhardt fan." When his sleeves crest the bulk of his biceps, he is proudly displaying two very large and vivid tattoos. The left arm is festooned with the bust of racing legend Dale Earnhardt Sr.; the right has been freshly painted with the face of his only son, Dale Jr. My friend, the racing fan, states, "Some people don't understand it, but I do." He winks and walks away. I stop the camera, and my brother and I have just captured the spirit of I-55 Raceway on videotape.
One and a half years ago, my brother and I started talking about making a documentary film. To this day, we have no idea how or why we got involved in a documentary about the third of a mile raceway so cozily tucked into a slope down in "good ole' Pevely, MO." One thing is for sure: we are better people for having headed south.
When you approach I-55 Raceway, you're on a two lane, meandering little road flanked with the tallest, skinniest white oaks you've ever seen. This road takes you past a scrap iron yard, a quarry, a number of abandoned cars and a half dozen houses that look like they'll fall if the bloodhound moves from the porch. About a half of a mile in, the trees open up to a curve, which goes up, and to the left, and then right into the sunset. This creates a sloped enclave to the south, which hugs the fastest, loudest, most colorful thing we have ever seen.
We pull into the racers' entrance because my brother, as producer of this film, has spent countless hours talking on the phone and explaining to the owners and promoters that we're the good guys. We're the guys who are going to tell your story for you. We park the car and make the long walk up to the entrance. It's always a long walk because from the moment you step out of the car, all of your senses are punched right in the face.
The sound comes on first. It's the noise of a racecar and that's about the only way it can be described. If you have the misfortune of going to hell, the sound is similar, I think, to Satan himself clearing his throat. It shakes your lungs and your ribs and your hair kind of tingles. Your ears will kind of cower and you'll start to giggle that way you do when a rock concert starts and the guitarist plays the very first note of your very favorite song. It's absolutely awesome, and if you ask anyone there to describe the racetrack they will look you right square in the eye and use the exact same word. It's awesome.
When you heave the camera and lights and grip bags out of the trunk and on to your shoulder, you can't help but take a big huge pull of Pevely air. It's thick with burnt fuel and burnt rubber and you can taste it. Not only can you taste the air, but also you can get full from it. It's like invisible stew. The scent comes on like hot air and it sticks like fly paper. Although you burn the clothes you wear to the track, it smells like America and when those clothes are gone, you'll miss the smell.
Now this isn't the track you might be thinking of. This isn't that track on Fox Sports that's all manicured and symmetrical and uniform in color, and ad space. This track is lopsided, and dented and crooked in places. It moans angrily under the cars, and it has bruises and aches and scars. The racers dig in on the turns and gun it on the straight-aways. The clay on the track warms up, smoothes out, and gets packed down hard like concrete. The lights are dim and more orange than white. The infield is a jigsaw puzzle of trailers and car parts, folding chairs and speed jacks. It looks sort of like God cleaned out his shed and threw everything in this little oval. Cars enter through the staging area, which is right at the top of the track, and from that same spot enter mechanics, technicians, the press and some mothers and wives. If you have a pit pass you can stand briefly on the track during hot laps. These are laps that drivers use to test tires and suspension and timing and weight distribution. The cars go fast and the drivers have a lot on their minds. So for a second or so, you can step out and stand on the track with a two-ton, seven hundred horsepower beast going full throttle into turn three. The racing officials tell you to hurry and cross, but you can't hurry because it's like one brief moment of bullfighting, and bullfighting is cool.
Racing at I-55 is not like what you see on TV, not by a long shot. Races last from five minutes to about an hour. This is due to a number of things. We think it's mainly because the track is very, very small. It's so small, that cars are in a constant left-hand turn. Racers take these turns, or laps, at such speed that the car is in a controlled fishtail for the entire race. When you see a race up close for the first time, it appears as though the cars (not one, but all) are sure to careen into the high-banked walls on every turn. At the last instant, the very last, racers named Eddie and Gus and Dandy Don swing their cars into the turn and into another straight. Every straight and every turn, every pass, every jockey and brake and throttle looks like hell is about to break loose. From a distance the race looks like that machine your grandfather had bolted to the workbench in the garage. It's loud and wobbly and downright dangerous. Nuts and bolts and smoke and sparks fly from the machine and you're not even sure what it does, but it's fascinating when the switch is flicked.
"I just got hit in the face with a piece of rubber." My brother yelled that over the track noise five minutes into our first visit to the racetrack. There are places not to stand at the track. It's not so much that the officials won't let you stand there; it's more that you don't want to be there when the pack whizzes by. Mud and gravel and rubber get hurled from the cars in an epic battle with centrifugal force. So much debris gets tossed over, around and through the fences that the guy who sells beer also sells goggles. Speed Racer Goggles. The really neat bubble-shaped kind with little side vents and an easy to operate elastic strap. Be prepared to have mud in your hair and ears and eyes and teeth. Towards the end of race three, you'll probably need another beer. Before you toss those last two sips of the beer you just drank, take a look in the cup. There will be no less than a quarter-inch of clay on the bottom. It's o.k. though, lean back and finish it. It's river clay, it's from here, and it's good for you.
We spend a great deal of our time in the staging area. It's a huge slab of concrete that sits below and to the east of the track. Like the grandstands, the staging area is covered in mud and clay and little chunks of tire. This is the best part of the experience. Wealth doesn't determine success in the staging area. Back here it seems less like an auto race and more like a contest to see who can be the nicest or funniest or most innovative. There is no beer drinking allowed back here and you really need to keep an eye on where you light your cigarette, for you yourself can get lit. This is the outdoor, dirty, loud, sweltering laboratory where all of the week's thoughts and dreams and paychecks can be built into a car and tested and sometimes proven.
We have decided that this is where the real action is. Nearly half of the footage we have gathered so far came from the staging area and it is the best stuff we have. My brother and I aren't the most personable people on the world, so the beginning of the season was a little difficult for us. It's not easy to walk up to a person who is in the middle of a complete engine rebuild, turn on a camera, mic and lights and ask him if you can ask him a few questions regarding a sport about which we know nothing. Nothing. However, if we don't do these things we have no chance of making the film. So my brother and I approach a racer in his late forties. He's wearing a black and silver Simpson Racing Coverall and those cool little racing booties, and he's bent over the hood of a late model UMP racer. That's a car.
"Excuse me, we're from Brennan Productions and we're making a documentary film about the culture and lifestyle surrounding the I-55 Raceway. Do you mind if we ask you a few questions?"
This fellow turns around and says, "You can go ahead and ask me whatever you want, but I'm gonna keep on working here. My timing guy tells me that mosta' the people in my heat are runnin' high tonight so we gotta do a little Chinese fire drill, then stiffen up the left side for turns. The torque ratio is messed up 'cause we geared it low last week and my wife drove into it with her Olds last night. Yep, right there in the yard. Drove right into it cracked the gas tank. We drew a pill of 72, so the set up tonight needs to be fast off the line. We got a lot of people to pass. So what is it that you wanted to ask me?"
"Um...is it fast?"
"Son, you don't know much about racing, do you?"
He was right. We don't know much about racing, but we're trying, and trying is what got us here. These people have a certain sense of patience with people like my brother and me. They understand the concept of trial and error like no place else. "Maybe I'll try different suspension. Maybe I'll try them new tires. Maybe I'll let the wife bless the car this weekend. Hell, maybe I'll just try driving faster."
Mark Brennan is twenty-eight years old. He's lived in St. louis his entire life. He
enjoys producing and directing bizarre little films and has been telling
stories since he could talk.