— story and photos by John Dinkel
So I’m sitting behind the wheel of my daughter’s Mazda 6, which is straddling the finish line at Irwindale Speedway, and staring up into the grandstands on a rather warmish Saturday afternoon and wondering how the hell I wound up in this position . . . or maybe more correctly, imposition . . . on my birthday.
Well, Doug Stokes gets most of the blame. When I checked in with Doug after learning the MPG was having a Night at the Races, he immediately says, “Come early and I’ll get you a pit pass so you can kick tires with the racers. Wear anything or nothing,” Doug says. “Anything goes in the pits except open-toe shoes. And don’t forget EAR PLUGS!” (There’s an opening in that statement large enough to drive a tank through, but for the sake of Doug’s budding PR career, I’m not gonna go there.)
After hanging up with Doug, I immediately realized that if I was going to have to deal with Stokes mano-a-mano on his turf, I should seriously consider my Queens, N.Y. upbringing. When you drove into my Glendale neighborhood, you weren’t met with a sign that read: Welcome to Glendale. Population 6896. Rather you were greeted by a hastily scribbled message, written on cardboard and wired to a traffic light pole, that implored: Do not to turn your back on the huggable-looking chow that patrols the local outdoor German beer garden, or be prepared to have your ass bitten off.
In dealing with Stokes there is always safety in numbers. So I went about gathering a group of friends who mostly didn’t know Doug and wouldn’t mind distracting him long and often enough so that I could walk the pits in peace. Among my misc. and sundry guests were my wife who actually likes Doug and my daughter who has learned not to; a University of Michigan All American who played on the 2005 NCAA champion softball team and who now does good deeds as a nurse; an inline water wizard (If you gotta ask, you’re in the wrong business.) and his wife, DBA madscientistswife; an OC dentist who could be Laurence Olivier’s double, and his lovely wife who makes it possible for the rest of us to survive the Drill Sargeant’s “company;” and MPG member Rex Parker, who allowed me to share a ride in his 1979 Fiat 308 after we met up with him parked surreptitiously in the Big Lots parking lot in Long Beach. (Don’t ask.)
My happy pit wanderings were suddenly interrupted by the harried voice of Mr. Stokes, who screamed at me from a golf cart that I was late for lining up for the MPG parade lap, but casually zipped off leaving me to walk the half mile or so back to the parking lot. Turned out I wasn’t the only late comer and I managed to sneak behind the wheel of the aforementioned Mazda6, start the engine, crank up the AC and close all the windows before Doug could continue berating me.
This turned out to be a classic case of hurry up and wait. We all drove in single file fashion onto the track and lined up the cars. And then we waited. And waited. All the racers and race cars were also on the track. The Seidner’s Collision Centers Late Model stock cars (think NASCAR Xfinity), The Pick Your Part Southwest Tour Trucks (Think NASCAR pickup trucks), the Legend Cars (Think Elliott Forbes Robinson) and the Universal Studios Hollywood Bandoleros (Gad damn. The name is longer than the cars!)
Doug must be taking lessons from the folks at Mazda and their track up north: Mazda Mazda3, Mazda5, Mazda6, Mazda CX-5, Mazda CX-9, Mazda MX-5 Miata, Mazda CX-3 (future), Mazda Cosmo (past), Mazda RX-2 (past), Mazda RX-7 (past), Mazda R787B (Le Mans winner) Raceway Laguna Seca. If you mail (snail) me a check for $5.95 (I don’t take PenPal, thank you very much Elon Musk) and a self-addressed stamped envelope, I will send you a copy of a Japanese mnemonic rhyme that will assist you in seemlessly memorizing the name.
But I digress . . . Eventually I realized there was method to Doug’s seeming madness. The stands were empty. All the fans had gravitated to the track for an autograph session with the drivers and great conversations about lap times, gear ratios, spring rates, wedge . . . you know, racer talk. Cool. Meanwhile, my entourage and I had an opportunity to shoot photos, get shot (Thank you, Albert Wong), shoot the breeze and shoo Doug.
Then we all jumped into our cars for two parade laps around the speedway. Except for the Drill Sargent whose Jag front end and windshield spent those two laps eating the boiling coolant and leaking oil of the limp-motor Fiat, everyone had a delightful time. Afterwards, we parked our chariots (except for the Fiat, which needed a cool-down lap of the parking lot) and then climbed or elevated our way up to the top of the grandstand where the shade and a cool breeze made for a delightful evening of race watching.
There is definitely something to be said about the logic of two 30-lap Late Model stock car races around a half-mile oval vs. NASCAR’s overly long (dare I say boring) 400-500 milers. At Irwindale there’s action packed into every lap. Maybe the Big Boys could learn a lesson or two . . .
Speaking of Big Boys, 21-year old Toni McCray beat all of them in the two Late Model main events. She was third in points heading into the August 1 races.
The Trucks, the Legends and the Bandos got us primed for the final event of the evening, a Flag Pole race. Visualize a cross between a demolition derby and a figure 8 race. If you want a better description, I suggest you call Doug for a schedule of Irwindale’s upcoming events. Best I can do is to tell you that watching a Flag Pole race will have you laughing from the start to the fender-bending finish.