Story and photos by Robin Postell
Tonight is Trucker’s Appreciation Night at Irwindale Speedway, a traffic-choked jaunt from L.A. Semis line up proudly during the pre-race autograph session, alongside hotrods and souped-up pick-ups whose. Drivers scribble signatures on programs, pose for photos, hug pretty girls, and shake the hands of pimple-faced boys who think they’re cool.
Tonight will feature twin-50s of ASA Speed Trucks, 40-laps of Vista Paint Super Stocks, and 50-laps of NAPA Auto Parts Super Trucks. That’s just dinner.
For dessert, the West Coast Championship of Pick Your Parts Figure 8, an open race where “you race what you brung” is about the only rule worth noting. It’s the big draw, only about half an hour long -but it’ll be one hell of a ride during its 50 relentless laps. It also brings in competitors outside the region due to a hefty purse totalling $7,200, with $3,000 fattening the pocket of No. 1.
Figure 8 is the shifty-eyed, bastard brother of Nascar and Indy – both refined, ankle-crossing gents compared to their foul-mouthed, ball-scratching kin. Closer to Demolition Derby, Figure 8 is so outlaw only the craziest, most hellbent sumbitches would even attempt it. Most people have never heard of it.
Figure 8 makes oval races look like merry-go-rounds. Followers and competitors of this black sheep, which requires racers to turn not one way but two, do it for one thing only – to meet each another on that tiny patch of asphalt where the infield course becomes a crossroads.
Though Figure 8 courses average 1/3 mile, with speeds rarely above 85 mph, it doesn’t make it any less compelling. Its aggressive rumble with chance where X marks the spot makes size and speed less relevant.
Pre-race, Figure 8 rides and their drivers are on display for fans under a dusky sky. I zero in on a Speedway star, Barefoot Billy Ziemann, who drives the #3 car.
“You’ve got a race within a race,” Barefoot explains, twitching a toe. “You’ve got the race side by side, then the race at the intersection. The adrenaline rush at the intersection, makes it a big game of chicken.”
With no limitations on horsepower, weight or bodies, Barefoot says, “If it was regulated, they’d lose a lot of cars. The guy with the baddest toy wins.”
An eight-time Figure 8 champ who got his start in Demolition Derbies, he’s afforded the peaceful air of deference. Decked out in a cherry-red fireproof jumpsuit and ordinary spectacles, he’s framed in a frazzled halo of chin-reaching unkempt dirty blond locks that, though clean, tell you he’s a dirty boy.
A tow truck driving bachelor, he shrugs off marriage since he knows if it came down to him getting new tires or his wife a washer and dryer, the outcome would undoubtedly render a futile brawl.
Idly I note that his bare feet are not nearly as wrecked as you’d expect after decades of trudging in and out of junkyards and life.
According to Barefoot’s lore, he’s never worn shoes – not even in school. “I just never liked wearing shoes,” he shrugs, claiming he wears them when he races because he has to. He confides that his daddy, busy working in the oil fields and drinking a wife away, couldn’t muster the might to enforce shoe-wearing among his motherless brood.
Big balls, Billy says, are a top priority in Figure 8, but experience is king. Trial and error can develop the instinct of timing necessary to careen through that X with confidence strong enough to beat down fear.
Those who sign up for this know there’s a chance of checking out. Knowing your opponent offers an edge, which means rookies on the track pull a little bit too snugly against an already hairpin trigger.
“Last race, I got hit by a guy who’d only raced three times,” he cites. “There’s no stop signs or red lights at the intersection. It’s a matter of timing. If you run up there and stop, you need to know a lot of different factors. We train the rookies out there.” He chuckles ruthlessly.
Heroes are culled from mere men at that X. A ticket broker can become a fearless champion; a plumber might make his rival, who by day installs elevators, look like a pussy. A tense blink to the lock-jawed spectators, for the racers it’s simple: live or die.
Most racers here are from the surrounding area – many are acquainted with each other’s backyard BBQs, or their garages, tinkering under the hoods of beloved hotrods. Afoot tonight are a few strangers, among them Indy big boys Fred Bear, who won this same IS Figure 8 race last year, and Curtis McMurtrey. With spit-shined Indianapolis Speedrome specials they towed for long hours to show up and show out, they run Figure 8s 40 times a year back home, while Irwindale drivers get only about 8 per season. Barefoot knows they’ll be hard to beat.
The marked edge, and the glaring comparison, between the local hard-asses with their rough-shod hotrods and the pedigreed Indy fellows with their babied rockets doesn’t seem to create tension, and the prize money of a few grand seems more a formality than a driving force.
Absent tonight is car #666 – driven by motorcycle czar Jesse James, founder of West Coast Choppers. His rep for molding bikes out of metal from scratch with his tattooed paws has made him an anti-star; a blue collar boy straddling the tracks, never committing fully to the old life of rags nor the new one of riches.
This duality won Discovery Channel’s hugs and kisses. Multiple docu-dramas about his craft and lifestyle were produced. An ensuing series called Monster Garage made him famous. American Dream realized, he had everything, but not enough.
Irwindale Speedway, not far from his Long Beach HQ, has become a reality check, providing a place to escape the gold-barred cage of fame in which he’s found himself imprisoned. Girlfriend Sandra Bullock comes along now and then, and nobody bothers them. They’re allowed to be people, not stars.
“Being a regional track, James is always a draw for us,” comments Wendi Westbrook, long lean blond former race car driver turned sales and marketing girl, announcer and pace car driver for IS. “The track appreciates the fact that when it comes time for him to test out a new MG creation, he brings it out here. It helps us. The bottom line is, it’s a good relationship.”
Evidence – seas of West Coast Choppers T-shirts in the crowd. Indy-bred McMurtrey has a WCC emblem emblazoned on the hood of his supercar.
Figure 8 mainlines adrenaline uncut, and Irwindale Speedway enables James frequent injections. Practicing a hobby without being harangued by autograph-begging ankle-grabbers, he’s allowed to race side-by-side with men a lot like him but with a lot less money.
“I’m the most feared driver in Figure 8,” he tells me. “All of those fuckers know that I will hit them. But it’s fun – meaningless and balls-out.”
Wendi Westbrook, a tall, blond former race car driver who now works as announcer, pace car driver and sales and marketing girl at IS, recalled with a shake of her head, “I’ll never forget it when he flipped this awesome car over – 666. All the oil drained out of it. You can’t drive a car without oil, but he did. He said fuck it, he didn’t ask for more oil, he kept going. They flipped him back over and off he went. He blew a brand new motor, trying to finish a race.”
James can now afford to do this, and you’d think this might piss some of his fellow Figure 8ers off. His trademark affable arrogance doesn’t faze. He fits in, doesn’t act like a diva or request Evian by the truckload for his pits. James is one of them. His car most definitely will blow others away in style and might (1,000 HP Nascar-style, running on alcohol), but it’s just a car and he’s just a man. He might be a TV star, plastered in The STAR kissing Sandra Bullock, but he knows, as do they, the difference between them isn’t any broader than that intersection in the 8.
On June 5, 2004, James proved he bleeds and breaks just like everybody else. A wall head on nearly killed him. On crutches, still nursing an ailing ankle, James avoids the track tonight because not being able to race hurts a hell of a lot worse than broken bones.
“Crashing and walking away is bitchin’,” he says. “I’ve done it a bunch of times. But crashing and being knocked out and trying to wake up and open my eyes and wondering for a split second if I was dead? Sucks. I will race again when I’m 100%. My cast has been off 2 days now. I broke 9 bones in one shot.”
The revival of interest in Figure 8 racing can perhaps, in part, be contributed to his presence in its realm.
“Keep in mind,” comments Barefoot Billy, “It had gotten to the point that we were racing 3 cars for 35 bucks in a main event – and we’d tow three hours to get there. Jesse’s helping put the spotlight back on it.”
In the pits, Figure 8ers gather, crews lounge about, talking shit, dreaming of post-race beer drinking.
Figure 8’s history is negligible amongst the mainstream, but for those in the know, it is passed down like folklore. Spending time with racers and crews, the greasy metal tapestry of it unravels. Childhoods spent at the gone-but-not-forgotten Ascot Park Watching Daddy race. Or grandpa.
“I grew up thinking that the National Anthem was the Ascot song,” says Hot Rod Proctor, a track favorite who drives car #21 and is a restauranteur in nearby Riverside. “On July 4th, I remember asking why they were playing the Ascot song. They always gave me shit about that.”
Hot Rod leans against his car grinning. His son Mike says he’s gonna race one day, when dad loans him the car. His brother Tom also races in car #195.
“They said I was too much of a pussy to come here and win this, so I came out and did it,” Hot Rod says.
The pits are a paved campground. Everyone sits around on trailers, stacks of tires, folding chairs. It is family – rivalry is either hidden or healthy so it doesn’t factor into fellowship. Hell, one guy says, we can’t be rivals, we might need to borrow a part from somebody.
But Barefoot had said, if anybody, Rusty Stewart would be his rival. At 45, Stewart has been racing since ‘76. Brother Steve races in car number 7.
His crew wave over Earl Cox, the oldest of the bunch at 65. A machinist, his entire family gets involved, including his wife who he boasts was a 7-year champ.
“I still get just as excited as I ever did,” Earl says. “You get my age and you got to have something to keep the blood circulating. Like most of these people, we live all over the state, and this is where we all get together.”
Truck driver Tony Curtis, only facing 5 years, talks about the cost of gas – $5.85/gallon for 110 Octane. Like most, he’s not sponsored. “There’s no budget like broke,” he laughs, puffing a Marlboro Red. “Doing 50 laps you definitely don’t wanna run out of gas. I had to buy 4 new tires and rims, so tonight I put my cap out to all my friends and they gave me $50 – enough money to race tonight. It’s a lot more difficult to wreck because all you see is dollar signs. This is all my own money. Sometimes I’ve gotta be real conservative.”
Just after 9 p.m., it’s time to find out who’s going to hit who in the X.
Westbrook is harried, impassioned, urging me to jump in the pace truck with her – a glimpse of what it would be like, to be them, gripping the wheel and a prayer with a hint of a death wish clinging to life.
On the microphone for hours, now Westbrook is responsible for guiding these mad bastards into a mean parade of potential damnation.
Although the cliche about it never raining in southern California usually holds water, suddenly raindrops freckle the windshield and Westbrook is aghast, groaning as she leans up to look at the sky, “Uh oh, I see raindrops. Shit, look at it, look at it. This is not what we need.”
“It hasn’t rained since April!” she says, shaking her head, hugging the wheel.
But this isn’t a picnic, and raindrops be damned. The first couple of laps, nobody gets close, but with every lap, the cars draw nearer.
McMurtrey, #49, from Indy, starts in the front row and bulldozes onward, leading the first two laps. Clearly, he’s undaunted by the wet track – while others slide like ice skaters. Bear is sniffing his ass, however.
“Number 12 is practically 2 wheels in,” Westbrook howls, whacking the steering wheel with a palm. We’ve got the best seat in the house, parked slightly off to the side. Sparks fly out from beneath sliding car. Still drizzling, Westbrook keeps moaning between whoops.
The Indy boys keep dominating, although Bear jets ahead, with Ron Chaney, #57, tailing.
It’s a pinball game of cars at several points because of the slick course. Then the first crash – Harry Kuenninger, #77, and Ron Chaney, hitting perpendicular in X.
A red flag flies and the race stops to establish damage.
Everybody lives. Drivers regroup and we lead the pack again, and then it rains. No more drizzles. Rain. Eleven laps in and the race might be called. Westbrook is appalled, shakes her head.
Looking into the stands, no one seems to notice or seek cover. They’re in it for the long haul.
The wet track is an issue. Westbrook, via radio, is ordered to get on the course, not just the oval, but the 8. She complies, “Run the course, OK.” Not fast enough, radio says go faster, and we haul ass. “Go with me, go with me,” she says to the racers.
Westbrook spots tools on the front stretch and reports them, then hits the gas. “We have to warm the course,” she explains, “To help dry it off.” The truck makes a racket as it trembles and peels. “Feel that?” she asks. There’s a thumping sound all around us. “That’s the rubber coming off of the tires.”
We lean in on the turns and I understand not just what Figure 8 is, but how it feels.
Shepherding our big metal herd of 11 remaining cars back into the field, Westbrook says, “This is the epitome of the old days of dirt track racing on this wet course.” This girl’s racing days might be behind her – but still in her.
Jeff Marguet , # 12, had early on been wounded and has become part of the obstacle course on turn 3. Miracles alone keep him from being splattered.
Steve Cook, #36, glides aimlessly but saves it, barely missing the wall. Westbrook hollers, hammers the steering wheel, cursing like a trucker. She’s in heaven, providing a running commentary that comes from knowing every racer and square inch of the course as if it were her driveway.
It quits raining on lap 16, which is almost a disappointment.
On lap 18, #17 is smoking like he’s losing an engine. Westbrook says, “He’s out.” Meanwhile, #36 keeps sliding. Number 12, still a sitting duck, probably deep in prayer.
At lap 24, the bottom falls out. It rains for the next several laps, soaking the track, making things interesting. Slip sliding away, #42, emblazoned with “Wing and a Prayer,”pirouettes on lap 26.
Through it all the Indy guys are fearless.
Steve Cook is the little engine that could as he drags his tail behind him, the bumper having been half-ripped off during an earlier collision.
Fred Bear takes the cake and the 3K. McMurtrey hurtling in second gets a grand, while John Carlson, a fireplace installer from Seattle, grabs third and $600. My buddy from the pits, Earl Cox, gets $450 for taking 5th.
After accepting his accolades and beaming before the wet spectators, waving to his wife and kids amongst them, Bear and I walk over to Victory Lane. Flushed and smiling, full of fresh adrenaline, he’s an out-of-towner who has stolen the show. I ask him where he got the deep scar on his head, and he looks at me sideways and says it was from a bottle. We both laugh.
This is a man’s race, reeking of pride so thick and meaty it’s way too tough to cut with good sense.