I'm riding shotgun in a red Dodge stock car, doing "hot laps" -- think full-pad scrimmage for auto racers -- at Tri-City Speedway. Piloting the vehicle is track superintendent Bob Leinemann, he of the steely green eyes and Saigon war stories.
The track's surface is dirt, and thanks to Bert Jacoby, whose car we're trailing, said surface is all over my chest, neck and helmet. And we're only on the first straightaway.
Only it doesn't feel so straight. There's no such thing on a quarter-mile oval, where one rooster-tail turn bleeds into another, and another -- twenty laps' worth of turns.
Normally Leinemann is a mellow fellow. But get him out on his track and his facial expression red-lines toward psychotic. The steering wheel of the Dodge never stops spinning. From the passenger's seat it feels like a merry-go-round. Only faster, and with no bar to hold onto. After six laps of this mistreatment, I emerge from the Dodge's right window hole dizzy and caked with dirt.
And these boys are just getting warmed up.
At Tri-City the racing is reckless and angular, overcorrectional steering a constant, high-bank wipeouts frequent, bashed-up rear quarter panels de rigueur and "taco neck" a nightly side effect. How drivers like Jacoby inject actual strategy into this fight against physics is both impressive and perplexing.
Equipped with half- and quarter-mile dirt ovals, Tri-City is one of some 950 so-called short tracks in the United States, 750 of which feature racing surfaces of dirt or clay. Improbable as it may seem, 95 such tracks are located in Illinois and Missouri, mostly in towns smaller than Granite City, Tri-City's home.
"Go a hundred miles east or west of St. Louis and there's probably a short track in that town," says Tom Deery, former vice president of NASCAR's weekly racing series, whose family owns Rockford Speedway in far northern Illinois. "That becomes the area's activity."
Safe in the stands amid a clean-cut cadre of army recruiters clad in black "Army of One" short-sleeve T-shirts, the work-hard-play-hard crowd is taking in this particular area's activity, which is marked early on by the pit-stop pathos of James "Bubb" Mitchell and Tom Krankel's penchant for swapping paint.
Mitchell's car number 01 is the most popular among the Tri-City tyke set, owing to the marketing brilliance of the Square Pants-aping "Sponge Bubb" cartoon that graces its flank. Each and every lap Mitchell's blue-and-yellow rig takes around the quarter-mile oval elicits joyous cries of "Sponge Bubb! Sponge Bubb!" from kids in the stands, regardless of where he's positioned in the race.
After finishing a respectable fourth in his Sportsman Class heat, sandwiched between ace drivers Jacoby and Steve Maisel, Mitchell gets off to a bad start in the nineteen-car Sportsman feature, lasting only one lap before mangling his right front quarter panel and tire in a four-car pileup on the second turn. Miraculously Mitchell makes it out of the pits in time to take the last caution lap before the restart. One problem: He hit the "cold pits" -- retreating with his sparse pit crew to his off-track trailer instead of to the "hot pits" situated on the unutilized half-mile oval's backstretch. This infraction earns Mitchell the dreaded "black flag," disqualifying him for the night.
Maisel, whose black car number 41 is distinguished by the slogan "Pimpin' Ain't Easy" etched on the back, has maneuvered in the meantime from the rear of the pack to third. Midway through the twenty-lap race, vying with Jacoby for second, he elects to dive low on each turn, which allows him to steal past his rival for a split-second at a time, only to be overtaken on the "straightaway." Jacoby winds up second, Maisel third. Ron Heaton's "Wild 1" is the class of this field.
The trio's accomplishments and collective horsepower pale in comparison to Tom Krankel, one of two drivers who've been dominating Tri-City's most powerful and lucrative class, the Dodge Iron Man Late Models. After an early season rife with pole-to-pole victories, on this night Krankel faces an uncharacteristic spate of trouble on the first of 25 Late Model feature laps, nearly stripping his right rear quarter panel clean off in a first-turn collision. Under the caution flag, an infield attendant manages to kick the car's tubular steel shell back into place, and when the green reappears, Krankel promptly slides into the lead by deftly threading through slivers of daylight between rivals.
"Is that car gonna be naked by the end of this 25-lapper?" track announcer George Depper wonders aloud over Tri-City's public-address system.
The musing almost proves prescient. Midway through the race, while jousting for the lead with talented newcomer Michael Kloos, Krankel is faced with the predicament of whether to go high or low on Dave Shaw's number 7 car, which is about to be lapped by the front-running pair on the backside turn. As Krankel goes low, Shaw drifts downward in front of him, clearing the way for a high-banking Kloos to take the lead, which he never relinquishes.
Perhaps unintentionally, Krankel exacts a measure of retribution. On the second-to-last lap, as he prepares to lap Shaw for a second time, Krankel's car gets just a little too close, nudging number 7 off the track and out of the race.
Take that, tortoise.
"There is a stereotype to that race-car-driver personality," Tri-City's owner, Bob Wente Jr., explains later. "They're egomaniacs. The adrenaline is to win. Money is the least motivating factor."
Lisa Smith, Tri-City Speedway's lone regular female competitor, is driving a Pepto-Bismol-pink four-cylinder Dodge Colt, its sides decorated with painted yellow daisies, around the quarter-mile inner oval.
"These are cars that we race," George Depper says over his PA, describing the factory-stock finale that closes out this evening's festivities. "These are not race cars."
Smith's rig -- as well as the mid-'80s Ford Tempo driven by her brother, Bob Crawford Jr., and the early-'80s Mustang raced by her father, Bob Crawford Sr. -- sounds like a bumblebee. It wasn't meant to work this hard, and yet, compared to the races that were run before them, it's hardly working. In fact, Smith's Colt would likely get passed by a Toyota Supra doing the speed limit on Highway 203.
"She's always last," says her mother, Marilyn Crawford, watching from the bleachers. "But she's consistent."
The two Bobs are a smidge more competitive, but they still finish closer to Smith than to the winner of the race. Not important, says track owner and ex-midget car racer Bob Wente Jr.
"I once heard him tell a friend that this was his fishing boat," Wente says of the senior Crawford, a Spanish Lake resident who works as superintendent of maintenance for the Jennings school district. "He was talking about his car. This is what his family does together."
It sure isn't the money that drives the Crawfords to drive. Purse money in their class amounts to a pittance -- approximately $1,000 split among the feature finishers at race's end. And it's not the rush of pure speed: Under the rules of the Factory Stock division, the Crawfords and their peers must race compacts with nothing gutsier than four cylinders beneath the hood.
"The win is more important than the money," explains the beefy, energetic, cobalt-blue-eyed Wente, a St. Charles resident whose dashing, fun-loving father was recognized in national circles as one of the finest, most colorful drivers ever to steer a midget.
Five classes race regularly at Tri-City: four-cylinder Factory Stock; Street Stock hoopties (think old, stripped-down Monte Carlos and Cutlass Sierras) with bigger engines; and three classifications that actually resemble cars one might race: Sportsman, Modifieds and Late Models, the last being the lone class that consistently threatens triple digits on the speedometer.
The money is better for these three classes -- a $5,000 combined purse for Late Model finalists, $2,000 for Sportsman -- but once it's divvied among the field, not even the top three finishers in the finale go home with well-padded wallets. Even for Tri-City's elite, the payout typically doesn't pay the rent. Which is why, on off nights, the more ambitious drivers cast their lot at nearby tracks in even smaller Illinois communities, like Canton, Highland, Brownstown and Godfrey.
And then there are drivers like Brian Crawford, to whom the Saturday-night lights of Tri-City Speedway mean everything.
Brian is the lone member of the Crawford family who doesn't race Factory Stock, electing instead to compete in the slightly swifter, considerably more crowded Street Stock division. Right now he's seated in a red, white and blue Monte Carlo, number 64, eight positions behind the pole in the 26-car Street Stock feature, the second-to-last race of the night.
"That's a lot of cars to run a feature, man," Marilyn Crawford says as she stands to cheer her son as he and his fellow competitors start their engines.
A few laps in, Crawford jostles with a white Chevy in the middle of the ridiculously crowded pack. On lap six out of fifteen, the black number 00 spins out of control, prompting a caution. As Crawford and his foes take a lap under the yellow flag, Marilyn's son sticks his hand out of his window to wave at Mom, who is positively elated at his gritty effort.
This is their Super Bowl, eventual twelfth-place finish notwithstanding.
Bert Jacoby grew up racing Hot Wheels in his daddy's driveway in Collinsville. But unlike most little boys, by age five Jacoby was also racing motorized quarter-midgets -- glorified go-carts with some serious kick. Naturally, his kindergarten classmates thought that was mighty cool.
Not surprisingly, Jacoby, a burly, curly-haired mustachioed gent who's currently savoring the final month of his 39th year, felt he should have been granted his Illinois driver's license at age ten. "My dad let me grow up a little bit before we hit the road," he says of his early racing excursions, which were chaperoned by his father, Glen. "We traveled the country at age eight and nine."
Dad used to race, too; Glen Jacoby was Tri-City Speedway's first public-address announcer when the track off Illinois Highway 203 opened its bleachers to the public in 1961.
Nowadays, every Saturday night (weather permitting) Jacoby and a buddy or two haul his stock car from his garage at his home near Lake St. Louis to Tri-City, where Jacoby is tops in cumulative points this year in the Sportsman class.
On big nights -- like when a regional or national touring circuit such as the popular World of Outlaws swings through town -- Tri-City's grass parking lot can resemble a Grateful Dead concert, albeit one where Busch tall-boys replace marijuana cigarettes as the social lubricant of choice. On mellower evenings, when it's just the hometown heroes duking it out on the dirt, the atmosphere is more reminiscent of a sanguine state fair. Either way, if you live in the Greater Pontoon Beach metropolitan area, Tri-City is simply what you do, and what you might dream of doing.
"Fans that attend have a higher level of avidity than normal," understates former NASCAR veep Tom Deery, an Illinois native who now resides in Ormond Beach, Florida. "Their dedication to both the participants and events is a sports marketer's dream. They are dedicated to the facility. They know the drivers and their cars.
"The nice thing about motor sports is that everybody who sits in the stands can truly envision doing what they see on the racetrack themselves," Deery goes on. "Tall people, short people, fat people, skinny people -- there are no boundaries as to who can drive a race car."
But there are boundaries when it comes to who can race a Busch Series or Nextel Cup car, to name two of the sport's elite seats. Specifically, money: If a driver doesn't have or can't raise enough of it, he can more or less shelve those Hot Wheel aspirations of racing on a two-mile asphalt track in front of a hundred thousand screaming fans and a rabid national television audience that has swelled steadily since the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 2001.
"There are tons of potential Nextel Cup champs who will never get the opportunity," laments Fenton-bred Nextel Cup star Kenny Schrader, who occasionally makes time to race in Pevely at I-55 Speedway, which he co-owns. "You can't race like we [big-money drivers] do and just drop into a local dirt track and run like junk. You're dropping into their backyard to play their game."
And to Bert Jacoby, that game is more than worth the cost of emission.
"I've got that special place to take out my aggressions," Jacoby says. "My whole street comes to the races. Afterwards we'll sit out in the street and party until four or five in the morning. Then first thing Sunday I evaluate the whole night with my six-year-old son."
Across from a pair of massive petroleum plants at the intersection of Madison and Indiana avenues sits a bar called Almost Home, whose tongue-in-cheek sign in the parking lot beckons thirsty patrons with the message, "We have cold food, hot beer and ugly women."
"It's a little hoosier town," James "Bubb" Mitchell Jr. says of South Roxana, population 2,000. "But it's filled with racers."
If the twenty-year-old Mitchell wanted to prove his point, he could scoop a wrench off the floor of his garage at the end of Gonterman Street and fling it through the bedroom windows of at least a half-dozen other Tri-City dirt devils, including fellow Sportsman drivers Matt Hartnett, Terry Chester and Rick Squires, the last of whom is Mitchell's brother-in-law.
Mitchell began racing at Godfrey Speedway when he was fourteen and currently languishes in sixth place in the Sportsman point standings. Futzing around with a four-wheeler on the farm doesn't cut it in terms of preparing to race a stock car. In fact, says Mitchell, there is no preparation.
"You just get in," he says. "I thought I was going pretty fast until I got lapped."
Standing on his back deck with a glass of iced tea and an uncharacteristically hyper basset hound named Scooter, Mitchell, who lives with his father, James Sr., a manager at the St. Louis Auto Auction in Bridgeton, recalls a day when the family property was far more pristine.
"The yard was beautifully landscaped," he says. "Before racing, that is."
Like Bert Jacoby's, Mitchell's pit is a skeleton crew. James Sr., himself a former racer (big surprise), serves as the lone mechanic, while Mitchell's girlfriend, Ashley Grant of Alton, is in charge of keeping Sponge Bubb's Hoosier (the brand, not the local human species) tires filled with air.
Mitchell, clad in a Wood River Fire Department muscle shirt and a well-worn Interstate Battery ball cap, waxes poetic about the taste of battery acid on his cell phone's antenna after a sweltering day shift installing car batteries throughout the metro east. His girlfriend, meanwhile, takes time out from preparing a monster dinner of bratwurst, steak, pasta salad and broccoli to comment on the libido of Bubb's basset hound.
"Scooter had a boner earlier today," observes Grant, a Lewis & Clark College student who works at McDonald's to help defray tuition. "Swear to God."
The McDonald's where Grant works is one of Mitchell's sponsors. So is Interstate Battery, his employer. For dirt-track drivers, day jobs make that Saturday-night gig possible in more ways than one.
"I would love to race dirt late-models for a living," Mitchell says, referring to circuits like the Mid-American Racing Series (MARS), which swung through Tri-City this year on Father's Day. "But it's hard to get sponsors. The further up you get, the easier it gets."
With the nation's 950 short tracks a far cry from the internationally televised spotlight of Daytona Speedway, it's tempting to think of dirt as analogous to professional baseball's farm system, feeding talented, young drivers to the big asphalt ovals once they're properly seasoned.
"I think you can draw that comparison, but only because of availability," says Tom Deery. "You're a fan of whatever is available to you. With 750 dirt tracks across the country, they've really become the staple of what's available in the entertainment spectrum in 750 communities across the country."
If you throw a 96-mile-per-hour fastball and a wicked curve, you are going to get your chance with the big club. In auto racing, however, if a terrific driver doesn't have the connections or resources necessary to upgrade his equipment, he's relegated to the bush-league ovals for life. If there's a baseball parallel to be drawn here, it may well be more like the plight of slugger Josh Gibson, the black Babe Ruth. Or Satchel Paige in his prime. Compare tracks like Tri-City to the Negro Leagues, whose stars shone in relative obscurity owing to circumstances beyond their control. Financial discrimination isn't nearly as egregious as racial discrimination, but it functions similarly in terms of keeping good men down.
"Where our sport's all screwed up is you can be an unbelievable football player at Granite City High and people notice," says Nextel Cup luminary Kenny Schrader. "You can go to college and be really good. If you're that good and have that much skill, you can work your way up to the pros. In motor sports you can't work your way up without a budget -- somebody's budget.
"You have to continue to have more expensive, faster race cars," the 49-year-old driver continues. "We're stuck with it. If you have the potential to be a future Nextel champion and you're running at Granite every Saturday night, you have to have that other equipment to progress."
Thirty-one-year-old Mark Brennan is seated on a wooden stool in the middle of his Central West End wine-and-cigar store, enjoying an afternoon bounty of tender prosciutto-and-honeydew skewers, roasted vegetable crackers with chicken-salad spread, Acqua Panna bottled water and Samuel Smith's Taddy Porter.
Three summers ago Brennan and his brother Kevin (who co-owns the wine-and-cigar business) spent four months filming 25 hours of behind-the-scenes footage at Kenny Schrader's track in Pevely. The film, Give It Juice, has yet to be released, but the city-dwelling brothers have lost none of their passion for the sport that inspired the creative endeavor.
"It's wicked loud [at Pevely]," says Mark Brennan, who sports a long-sleeve polo, green cargo shorts and sunglasses strung around his neck on a lanyard. "Everybody's throwing back two-by-four beers. You get this idea that these guys work 50 to 60 hours per week just to get their cars ready.
"Some people play golf," he goes on. "But these are regular guys spending their own money. And they're racing against their neighbors."
Seated alongside Brennan is his upstairs neighbor, fellow filmmaker Paul Henroid.
"It does something more than a baseball game," ventures Henroid, a casual dirt-track fan. "The people and their lifestyle -- their concerns in life are so simple, yet they're so content. They have their families, their homes, their cars and their dirt track. And it kind of rubs off on you."
Seconds Brennan: "You find yourself within a mentality that's totally foreign to your own. They work their asses off six nights a week for that one time."
"Is it the simplicity? The racing? The type of people around you?" Henroid wonders aloud.
"I think it's the last thing," answers Brennan. "After the races, when they're working over those beers, it's like they don't have a care in the world."
Lifting a knifeful of chicken salad from its round plastic container, Henroid nods in agreement. "They have less self-imposed stress," he says. "We want the house in the 'burbs and the nice car. They don't."
"I have a picture of my brothers-in-law, Pete and Tommy," Brennan says. "One's an Air Force pilot, the other's a lawyer in Clayton. They're standing up with huge dips of chew in their mouth and those big-ass beers, wearing goggles."
Can a go-go denizen of the city advance from voyeur to bona-fide dirt track fanatic? In Brennan's case, yes: In July 2003 he held his bachelor party at the Pevely track, forgoing booby tassels and body shots for twenty-plus lap heats. His choice, in essence, was dirt over skirt.
"You can totally be yourself," he says. "It's louder than shit, but you can't hear all the bullshit. In that environment, I don't care about my mortgage payment or moving a lot of wine."
A.J. Foyt was a dirt-first kind of guy.
"He thought that dirt-track racing separated the men from the boys," says sportswriter William Nack, author of the definitive biography of Triple Crown racehorse Secretariat and a longtime writer for Sports Illustrated who wrote a memorable piece on Foyt for the magazine in 1991. "It's not that he thought the Indy 500 was less than that, it's just that that dirt was where you learned to be a great driver. That was what really made a man out of you."
A multisurface star in the mold of Foyt, Kenny Schrader was involved in the February 18, 2001, accident at the Daytona 500 that resulted in the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. "It wasn't the first time I'd been involved in something like that," Schrader says. "That can happen, you know, so you can't think about it."
But until that fateful Sunday at Daytona, it had never happened to anyone of Earnhardt's stature.
"He was a huge icon before his death," says Jeff Paxton, a Roush Racing engine operations manager who used to race at Tri-City and received his technical training at Belleville Area College's Granite City campus (located right behind the track). "But it almost went to god-level after he passed away. It brought people's attention to the sport that weren't necessarily avid fans."
Indeed, stock-car racing went from being a Southern-heartland phenomenon to something on par with Monday Night Football, a paradigm shift that has compelled Tri-City owner Bob Wente Jr. to publicize his track's events through a series of television spots on Fox Sports Midwest.
"It doesn't surprise me at all," Nack says of auto racing's rapid ascent. "America used to be a horse-driven society. For many years, horse racing, boxing and college football were the three major sports in America. Baseball was sort of there, but if you were a columnist like Red Smith and Grantland Rice, those were the three sports you covered without any questions. Basketball? Never. Pro football? Never.
"Nowadays basketball's a very telegenic sport, just as auto racing is a very telegenic sport," Nack continues. "You know who's in front, they're very colorful and people have gotten to know their numbers. They've become real celebrities. I've asked people, 'Why would you rather see this than the Kentucky Derby?' And the answer, almost unqualifiedly, is, 'I don't own a horse, but I do own a car.'"
Don't believe the hype? Walk into any east-side bar on a Sunday afternoon and note what's on the tube. It's not the Cardinals game.
It's a stock-car race.
Verva Kizer and her 79-year-old mother, Dorothy Tite, sit in the same spot toward the front of Tri-City's bleachers every Saturday, cheering on Kizer's son, Sam, who drives a Sportsman, and nephew, Brad Gilleland, a leading Street Stock racer.
"It's a little dirty sittin' here," says Kizer, thankful for the blue umbrella her mother always brings along to fend off the flying mud and rocks that sneak through the chain-link fence separating fans from the action on the banked backstretch turn. (Many a bleacher creature dons plastic goggles so as not to get dirt in her eyes.) "But it's peaceful. We've been coming here for years."
Kizer herself used to race a '57 Chevy at the Godfrey track.
Not far from that track lies the domestic racing headquarters of Tommie Seets Jr. and his father, Tom Sr., situated on the family's no-frills patch of prairie off Fosterburg Road, out by where the stop signs say "Whoa!"
In the Seets family garage (which is almost as big as the adjacent living quarters), a mechanic named Gilbert is flat on his back, tinkering with the undercarriage of 22-year-old Tommie's modified stock car. Taken together, Seets and his father are a Tri-City dirt-track dynasty in the making.
"He's the only one who's had a flawless season," says Bert Jacoby, who considers the senior Seets the best driver to grace the Granite City ovals these days. "He can drive anything." As for Tommie Jr., who's ranked second in Tri-City's Modifieds division, Jacoby says, "He's come a long way. He's learned a lot from Dad."
Recently, at Spoon River Speedway in Canton, Junior beat Papa for the first time.
"We started side by side," recounts Tommie, who earns his keep making fiberglass hazardous-waste covers. "I passed him clean."
"Dad made the comment that if Tommie beats him, he's going to have to find his own garage," imparts his sister, Cheri.
While the drivers in the touring circuits employ large teams of skilled technicians to man the pits, Seets relies on a volunteer crew of two pals, Russell and Bob, and his girlfriend, Amanda.
"She gets my helmet ready, scrapes the mud off and always asks me what she can do," Junior explains.
That Tom Jr. is a junior is not unusual among Tri-City's racing progeny. Wente's a junior. Bob Crawford Jr. is a junior. Jacoby, who goes by his middle name, is really a Glen, just like his dad, and he named his son Treb (that's Bert backward) just to throw a wrench into the sonny-boy phenomenon.
"It's an inbred thing," acknowledges Wente.
"I don't remember not going to the track," Jacoby says of his own gas-and-gasket upbringing. "My wife will ask me, 'When do we get to lead the normal life?' Well, we are."