The Nightfly of Bakersfield, 2001
©2001 Bill Ott
Saturday, Oct. 6
Cosmic Center of the
Drag Racing Universe
I hear you are singing a song of the past
I see no tears
I know that you know this may be the last
For many long years*
Just like last year... 4:30 am... northbound on route 65. Cruise control set in the red Grand Am rental car... seat way back... fresh cup of coffee in the console.
The radio's playing some forgotten song...
Brenda Lee's - 'Coming On Strong.**
Ahhh... "Radar Love". Another one of those great songs by one of those great groups that, one day just disappeared into obscurity. But this morning, they're alive and feeling fine. Thank you, Golden Earring.
Awright!! Here comes the big drum part! Now I'm leaning forward in the driver's seat, pounding on the wheel, swaying from side to side, and keeping perfect rhythm with song on the radio! Go, man!! Go!!
Damn!!! Blew right by it again... the sign that says Famoso Raceway, turn left now!! And right in the middle of my solo, too! But what the hell, getting turned around at this hour of the morning isn't any problem. Back tracking about half a mile, I don't miss the turn off this time.
Now we're heading east on this straight-as-a-string road... but the mood for old R & R played real loud has passed. Time to drive along at a more leisurely pace. I can see the glow of the lights from the track as I ride along nursing this cup of coffee. 'Ya know, this will be a great time to let the windows down and just cruise along in the cool night air. Wrong... forgot about that legendary compost heap you 'gotta pass on the way to the track. All of a sudden, this cold cup of coffee doesn't seem so appealing.
Turning at the entrance to Gate One I see a security guy standing watch at the gate. I'm impressed... seems like everywhere you go, security HAS been beefed up. I drive up in the darkness and the guard informs me they can't open the gate until about 7:00 am. I tell him I just got in from Pennsylvania (almost true!) and I'd like to drive around the place to kind of 'get the feel' of things (definitely true!) while it's still quiet. "No problem" he replies, and the gate swings open. Man, that was so-o-o easy. Thanks!
This is the second year I've driven out to the track at this ridiculous hour, but remember... according to my watch it's almost 8 am. But man, is this place bitchin' at this hour. There's not a single thing moving and it's dead quiet...eerily quiet. The almost completely full moon adding to the already mysterious atmosphere here in the darkness.
On the way to the starting line, I decide to detour through the 'Grove'. There's plenty of room to negotiate the big Pontiac at this time. All of that will change when the crowds arrive in a few short hours. Slowly cruising between the trees and a few covered up racecars, I stop where the Anderson's "Vagabond" and Bill Pitt's "MagiCar" are parked side by side. Both of these beauties are covered with cloth tarps, which also adds to the surreal feel of this place.
I had just exited the car and was sitting on the hood digging on the cool vibes, when I became aware of him. Literally appearing out of nowhere, walking by on my right side in front of the concession stands. I nodded hello as he passed by, and as soon as I did, he turned and headed towards me.
We exchanged greetings; he told me his name was Dave. After the usual introductory small talk about the weather and other unimportant stuff, the conversation turned to (what else?) Drag Racing and the Reunion. I told Dave this was my third trip to the Reunion. He told me he's been to all ten of 'em. We both agreed this Reunion is one of the high points of the whole year for us.
I told Dave I was going to drive down to the end of the track and slowly work my way back to the starting line. He asked if he could ride along. "Sure," I told him.
In a matter of a few minutes, we were at the very end of the shut off area. I turned the Pontiac around and we slowly headed back up track, the car moving at a crawl. We both stayed quiet and dug on the stillness and silence, accompanied only by the sound of the wind rushing past the car. Cool!
As we approached the finish line, I stopped the car, shut it off... we both got out. After walking to the first set of lights, we turned around and headed back towards the car. Dave stopped right at the finish line and just stood there. I stood there next to him and after a minute or so, broke the silence with some comment about the number of record breaking and heart breaking events that have occurred on this very spot where we were standing.
He nodded in agreement and then told me he'd made quite a few passes through these very same traps over the years. Turns out Dave campaigned an Alcohol Dragster called "The Landlord" right here in Division 7 back in the eighties... was even the Division Champ in '86. He told me he'd driven through these traps at right around 215 MPH more than once, and proudly carried the number eleven on the side of the dragster for one season.
Wow!! Only at Da Patch (Bakersfield) do you get to hang out with some of the 'names' in Drag Racing... half the time not even realizing who they are. Hell, last year I sat at a picnic table and chatted with a guy over a bottle of cold water. I later found out he was Leroy Goldstein... one of my heroes from the Texas days! And all we talked about was driving eighteen-wheelers! Who knew?
Dave and I got back in the car and continued our 'wrong way' ride down the track. Eventually arriving at the staging area, we make a slow u-turn and pull up towards the starting line area.
We look across at each other and nod as I stop right at the starting line, wait a second or two, then mash it!! We're both laughing like hell by the time the Grand Am finally makes it through the traps. We estimate about a 16.33 and at least 77 or 78 MPH!! Who knows... we might have just reset the Famoso Raceway Rental Car Record!
We continue on driving to the very end of the shut off area... another u-turn finds us heading back towards the pits. Weaving our way through the campers and trailers, the sight of all of these racecars covered up in the darkness, waiting for the daylight and another day of hell raising IS inspiring.
Arriving back in 'The Grove', I stop again at the 'Vagabond - MagiCar' pit area. Seems like I need just one more look around in this hallowed area while it's still dark. We get out of the car again and I resume my old position, leaning on the hood of the Pontiac.
I turn to say something to Dave and am greeted by total silence... no Dave. Scanning the whole area, I realize Dave's nowhere to be found. Guess he has somewhere else he needs to be, or he just wanted to be alone for a while.
Returning to the silence and the dark again, I'm just getting good and relaxed leaning against the hood, when something over my left shoulder gets my attention. There's some kind of a rustling sound coming from over near the concession stand area. It's a hard sound to describe... just sounded like something moving around.
Curiosity gets the best of me, and I walk a few steps towards the sound, stopping by one of the Memorial trees to get a better look. I put my arm out and lean against the tree, straining to see what all of the fuss is, when all of a sudden the sound stops... just as quick as it started. I now realize that I AM alone in this place, and it IS
kinda dark... maybe I'll just stay right where I'm at.
Still leaning against the tree, my gaze falls to the Memorial Plaque in front of the tree. It reads:
Dedicated To The Memory Of
Former Division Seven TAD Champion
More old B.S. later.
*© 1973 W. Becker & D. Fagan
ABC Dunhill Music
**© 1973 George Kooymans & Barry Hay
A note of thanks to those who helped with this: Bill Pratt and Draglist.com, Steve Gibbs, Pat Green, and Frank Genco.