The Dawghouse Goes To The Races

You who've endured, and maybe sometimes enjoyed, my written ramblings over the years know that I protect my summer weekends. That, from last out of baseball season to first whistle of August football camp, the one place I'm sure NOT to be found is at any sort of organized sports event because it feels too much like work. Well, delete another of life's alleged certainties.

I went to a race Sunday.

Yep. Instead of spending July's next-to-last weekend in my humble corner of Jones County, risking grave physical damage involving tractors, mowers, kaiser blades, posthole diggers and what people in M.H.C.oJ.C. still call ‘bobwire,' or other rural implementia, I stayed Saturday in Starkville to attend a friend's wedding. Best wishes, Cassie and Will, as you head for Norman, Ok., and your life together.

Then I fudged on the Fourth Commandment by celebrating the Sabbath at Barber Motorsports Park t'other side of Birmingham where the big sports cars were running.

And I guess I'd better confess to breaking a couple more of the Big Ten before even leaving the parking lot, such as #s 2, 3, and especially 10. Not that any of my immediate neighbors happen to currently own either an Audi R8, which I thought only existed in magazines, or a Porsche 911 GT3. But if they did I'd definitely be coveting in overtime since these are two street-legal vehicles with performance numbers NASA can envy and price tags that would make the Pentagon gasp.

A pause here: if you don't happen to care for or even actively dislike anything to do with cars and auto sports, feel free to log-off now. I'm not offended. In fact I'm writing this more to get back up to speed (sorry) with columnizing. I haven't done any of this sort of writing since baseball ended but football is coming up fast (sorry again), as last week we had the annual and informal green fla--OK, I promise to stop--the kickoff of Mississippi State's pre-season. The pace picks up (note, I didn't say ‘accelerates') Wednesday when Coach Sylvester Croom, quarterback Wesley Carroll, and linebacker Jamar Chaney represent the Bulldogs at SEC Media Days. And on August 3, another Sunday I should note, we'll be on the practice field or in my case the sideline watching as real practices open. Leaving 28 days until the real thing in Ruston.

So your scribe should start shaking off some summer sloth by writing a harmless opinion piece, even if there isn't a lot of MSU material in it. Though it's worth adding that by the time I trekked to a good, grassy vantage point above the turn one complex I'd passed enough tents and seats posted by fans of Georgia, LSU, Auburn, and Alabama,, to feel I was at a SEC Baseball Tournament on the other side of town. One of the, may I remind, THREE IN THE LAST FIVE YEARS SECTs that the Diamond Dogs themselves didn't make; a problem I have full faith John Cohen will take care of very quickly. Far as I could tell I was the only soul sporting State gear Sunday, though; my MSU network shirt made of dri-fit material which proved wise in the conditions. So did slathering on lots of Hiroshima-grade Bullfrog gel, my preferred sunblock.

Now, given how often I've annoyed readers with auto-related comments over the decades, it's almost embarrassing to admit…this was my first race of any sort. Well, other than the 18 months I lived in the Jackson area working at Belhaven and making morning Lakeland Drive runs. If sponsors of the series that ran at Birmingham, really wanted to put on a show, they'd organize races for SUV-driving (if not always steering, braking, or signaling) metro-mothers. The winner isn't necessarily who finishes first, but which blonde mom gets in the most cel calls while also applying makeup and forces the most other competitors off the track without denting her own fenders. Bonus points given for making use of that pack of Virginia Slims kept hidden from Brandon and Brittany on the way to school.

But no, Rolex prefers running big (called Daytona Prototype) and medium (GT) sports cars. Not that any of them except the GT Corvettes retain much of their factory hardware, and that's why they're the slow guys. For the first time this Birmingham (Leeds, actually) event came before football Media Days so I couldn't resist the opportunity to see if the on-scene reality matched the on-screen image. It does. Oh, does it.

I must report another violation, though not of Moses' law. I turned into the first available parking lot which turned out to be for premium guests. Fortunately years of experience in SEC road-game parking prepped me well; I convinced the aged lot-guide I belonged there by simply acting as if I did. And by hanging my ticket on a SEC lanyard which made me look official enough to him. Just wish that tactic worked at the Georgia Dome or Knoxville, though. They don't bluff easily there.

Lot A was nearest the first-turn region, and that's as far as I went in this extensive layout because a race was already underway; a warm-up act of sorts with about 20 Mustangs, the only difference the drivers and paint schemes. Almost saw my first professional wreck too as the third-to-last hoss half-spun in the turn; the others missed him and he never caught up. Turn one is shaped like the rounded stubs sticking from most jigsaw puzzle pieces, but it's a bug-bear because it comes after a sharp 90-degree left shortly after the starting line, rises sharply for maybe 200 yards then begins sloping down as soon as the turn-right begins…leading into a real hillclimb onto a long straight.

I don't know if it's the best view on the course (I heard a couple of fans say so), but it was good enough for my first racing observation giving about 15-20 seconds of viewing time. Since a full lap took the DP cars right at 90 seconds and the GTs six or seven ticks longer, I settled in for the duration. Oh, and in the pre-race we got to see another Mustang…one familiar to any American man of my middle-age who built WWII airplane models. That P-51D, bearing D-Day stripes, was gorgeous flitting over the course during the national anthem…and a far cry from the Baron von Snoopy act we State folk saw in pre-games the last couple years.

Doc's biplane wouldn't be able to keep pace with any of these racers. Speed is relative, I know, and I've no idea what the prototypes were making as they came into the turn. But at this level folk don't drive as much as they squirt from bend to bend in deceptively smooth bursts of controlled velocity. DP design is ruled by aerodynamics so they might as well all be the same car, only the chosen powerplant making a difference. The GTs look more or less like real cars, though there are so many Porsches (the racing version of that aforementioned GT3 in the parking lot) in the field it seems the same. Thank goodness for several Pontiac GTO-Rs (hmm, Florida should sponsor one; GaTO-Rs, get it? Sorry, was in the sun a long time today), a couple of Corvettes, and…

What in the blue blazing heck is THAT?! It's black and orange, long and wide and blocking and…good gawsh, it's a BMW couple. Not only that, it's a racing M6, something I didn't know was operative right now. It looks as out-of-place as an offensive guard in a 4x400 relay, like it could swallow the Mazda RX-8 just ahead of it whole and gnaw on a Porsche for dessert. And oh, the sounds.

By definition all racing cars are loud, and I realize the decibels hitting us on this ¼-mile grassy slope (no bleachers at all) don't compare to dragsters or sprint-alkys. But this is loud enough, and these cars have variety with their volume. The DPs run either V8s (Pontiac, Lexus, Ford, and a lone BMW) or Porsche flat-six turbos. The latter make a weird whistling on approach, and exit with a blatant flatulence bespeaking their birth in a land where folk consume too much sauerkraut. Don't know why but the Lexus eight is the loudest; the GM motor more throaty; and the Ford familiar to anyone living in a neighborhood where kids run hopped-up Mustangs. You can tell a Y-block from over a block away.

As for the GPs, I admit prejudice. I regard the Chevrolet small-block V8 as one of the three greatest technological inventions in human history, so once laps have spread the field out I can enjoy hearing the Corvettes and to a lesser extent the Pontiacs as they uphill leaving behind that classic baritone burble. The Porsches are harsh, whether turbo'd or not; and those Mazda rotary engines just plain shriek up to the shift point, at which they pop on over-run. It's like sitting between two Poulans at ear-level running at full-power; or listening to Hank Flick after he's had three Cokes and five halftime hot dogs. It gets to grating fast.

But that M6…the only thing I've heard to compare is a logger's ancient winch-truck, burning quarts of Havoline, muffler long since rotted away, and spark plugs of Jurassic age, with the gas pedal floored trying to break out of a mudhole before the pulpwood mill locks up. Even among a shoal of competitors the BMW stands out aurally as it does visually. As a BayEmVee driver myself naturally I have just found my car to pull for, but he's obviously too heavy (that 10-cylinder lump under the hood makes for entertaining driving dynamics) to hold up for three hours without burning up the brakes. In the curve agile Porsches and Mazdas can get position to pass…but heaven help anyone in the way when the track unwinds. The M6 doesn't so much accelerate down the straights as it hunches up and leaps from curve to curve on a wave of sheer torque. I just want him to finish.

He does. Close to last among the still-running but that's enough for me to tip the cap on the cool-down lap. The Castrol-sponsored Mazda, as expected for a pole sitter, wins the class ahead of a Porsche and Pontiac. The two black ‘Vettes soldier along mid-pack but still earn my award for most pleasant engine sound. Small-block Chevys forever!

As for the big boys, a Pontiac-powered car leads most of the way but dies on the backstraight at about 45 minutes left. Clutch gone, the P.A. says, and I believe it. Modern racing transmissions and electronic paddle-shifters help, but halfway through the race I could clearly hear missed shifts and crunching gears. Just like when Dad was teaching me and my sisters to drive out in the hayfield, in our pea-green Chevy pickup with three-on-the-tree to transmit what passed for power from the 250-cube straight six. I bet there are still stripped gear teeth somewhere in that pasture…but I'd gladly sell both my Kraut kars if I thought that truck still existed.

Anyway, a Ford-powered car grabs the lead on re-start only to pull up short of pit lane ten minutes later, letting the series points-leading Lexus move in front and stay there through two more restarts, the last with just four minutes and three laps left. I stay the whole time, though lots of the crowd doesn't. At the end I'm all the way down the hill to the nearest fans are allowed to track. I reckon Wes Carroll…well, for sure Chris Relf…could hit the cars from here, though there's a wide strip of gravel, an Armco fence, a belt of holly just like what we have at Scott Field, and then another fence separating us. It's close enough; as the machines shriek or thunder by I can feel this cyclone fence vibrating. It ain't from the passing breeze but how those beast pound the ground. Especially my favorite Bimmer. At least it is until I go back to Lot A and find the newest edition of the M3, the one with the carbon-fiber roof. But my little four-cylinder hatchback is of the same DNA, so there.

And there was another Bee-Em in the race, the DP model. It was sponsored by something called ‘Rum Bum.' Hmmm, I'm already in debit territory for skipping Sunday morning; pulling for a car advertising Rum Bum might have my Baptist brethren really concerned. Relax, friends, football season is almost here and I can go back to Bulldog business.

Will I return? Eventually, when possible, though obviously my profession limits the available weekends for other events at Barber M.P. I've only walked maybe 1/10th of the whole layout, but it was on the highest vantage point and the rest looks as gorgeous as alleged. Monthly upkeep alone must cost as much as a SEC head coach, but it can stand with any golf club course I've seen including Waverly. And there ain't a fire ant mound to be seen anywhere. Just the inexplicable metal monster insects placed near the track entrance.

But if I go back for the Rolex race again, next time I'm springing for the ‘Hot Pit' level ticket providing access to both paddock and pits. See, that M6 has a fascinating primary sponsor emblazoned on the flanks. Playboy.

Hmmm. Maybe that's what the ‘Hot Pit' pass really means.

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