The world is full of opportunity for adventure.
Often, we avoid it, not because we don’t want adventures, but because we’re not adventurous.
I fit that description. After all I am a librarian; my profession is not one that attracts the adventurous or the death-defying. There are happy exceptions to this rule, but it is the rule. I like my quiet house. I like my quiet street. I like my quiet library, although it is louder than you might suppose.
One of the things I’ve always wanted to do is become a gear head. I’ve met a lot of these people. I’ve known kids that could swap engines, make SAE racers, all sorts of things. I know a lot of engineers that can work with machines in ways I can barely comprehend. And who doesn’t want to be like that, really? Who doesn’t want dominion over their tools and their machines? To make things that produce power, go fast, and make a lot of noise?
One of my friends, Mike, is one of those gear heads. He’s done work on solar cars while he was in school. Now he’s an engineer for a living. He knows machines inside and out.
He told me once about a race he does. They’re all around the country, but find an easy home here in Michigan. They’re called 24 Hours of LeMons.
A LeMons team spends $500 on a junker car, fixes it up, and races it on a track. The key to winning is keeping your car on the track, because the race lasts all weekend. The cars that win are the ones that had the most laps when the race ends. I barely understand how my car runs, let alone keeping a car running and racing it.
It turns out that really anyone can race in these races. The races aren’t particularly fast, because they’re trying to keep their cars on the track. Sure they might go a bit fast here and there, but you win by keeping the car out there. The faster you go the more you risk your engine blowing up. This was something that, me, as terrible as I was with machines, could do. It appealed to me. I told Mike as much.
Mike was good about it; whenever a race would come up, he would let me know. Every time, I would come up with some reason as to why I couldn’t do it. This sucked, because every time he did, I had to face the fact that I am not an adventurous person, even though you’re supposed to be.
Finally I told him, goddammit, that I was going to do it this time. I was going to race. You only get one life, after all. You only get one chance to defeat your enemies, see exotic places, and race cars. At least I’d get to do one of those things before I went into the ground.
First step, though, was that I would need to drive a stick-shift. It isn’t all that hard if you’re willing to concentrate on it. It’s easy when you’re driving around a suburban neighborhood. I made Mike’s car smell like a mid-90’s computer tower, but I got the shifting down.
As the day approached, I didn’t think about it too much. There was a flurry of e-mails between the team finalizing our plans, but that was it. I was ready to race. Or at least, I thought I was.
The first night we were there, the rain was coming down. We were sitting in Mike’s truck, drinking beers and readying ourselves for the next day. There were two Mikes, two Steves, and a Paul in our team. All of them were good guys. They were all gear heads, even though Paul had never raced before. That made me feel better. Other Mike even ribbed me for driving a Toyota Camry. I told him what I tell everyone: the Toyota Camry is a solid automobile.
The next morning we made our coffee, put on our racing gear, and made our way to the driver’s meeting.
Heading to the meeting, most of the people were dressed in their gear like we were. Even the cars were dressed up. LeMons has a smart-ass ethos that makes for some pretty unique competitors. There was a bumble-bee car, a mini-van dust-buster, even station wagon with ‘Little Lebowski Urban Achievers’ pasted on the side. We, of course, were the (My Little) Pony Car, one of two cars painted bright pink. I think we were the only one, though, with a cutie-mark and a tail.
The rules were pretty simple: yellow flag meant go slow, black flag means you fucked up the rules and had to come into the penalty box, white flag means keep cautious out there. Refueling, you have to be in full gear, with a standby holding a fire extinguisher also in full gear. Obviously you don’t want your face melting off, especially when you could prevent it so easily.
The last rule we were told, and this was most important, was that you needed your straps to be as tight as possible. Of course, we all know that loose straps can kill you; look what happened to Dale Earnhardt.
People nodded. It was just safety. You don’t want your body flinging around in the seat in case of a crash, so you strap yourself in tight. Simple.
Of course what I heard was: you could totally die during this.
I was terrified before we even got back to the car.
Other Steve was the first driver up. We watched them all on a hill above the track. I felt a bit of relief when I saw this. They weren’t going fast at all, they weren’t passing each other. Even when they got up to racing speed, they didn’t look like they were going particularly fast. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad. Maybe people would go slow because they were trying to keep their cars on the road.
I told Mike: “They don’t look like they’re going fast at all.”
Mike laughed. “Oh, it feels a lot faster when you’re driving on the track. That’s for sure.”
I looked at him, wide eyed.
“What?” he said.
I spent the next few hours terrified. I was going to do this. Hell, I had to do this. I probably wasn’t going to die. Yeah, I probably wasn’t. I was going to be all right. Sure.
Mike strapped me in, I made my way to the track. You couldn’t go over ten miles an hour on the pit lane, and I was great at that. Hell, that was my favorite part. I stopped to get my wristband checked. I pressed the gas, and nothing happened. In fact, my car started going backwards. My engine had just stalled. I turned the key again, jerked forward, and merged my way onto the track.
It was not an auspicious way to start a race.
When I made it out, the first thing I noticed, aside from the butterflies, was the smell.
When our car would come in for a pit stop, I would get close to the car and you couldn’t help but smell it. I thought What kind of smell is that? Is the car falling apart? I didn’t know it at the time, but that smell was race-track smell: exhaust mixed with old engines, ozone, rubber, asphalt and sweat. And that smell hit me full force when I got on the track.
Then I got hit with the, well, force force when I tried to shift.
It’s easy when you’re shifting in a neighborhood, but when you’re on a track, and cars are flying by, it’s another thing altogether. I tried shifting down as I entered each turn, and shifting up as a came out of it. I was so bad at it that every time I came out of a shift the car would jerk forward like it was a tank being shelled by stupidity.
In spite of my best efforts to go fast, cars were passing me like crazy. Some were driving aggressively, but for the most part, people just passed.
Honestly, it really wasn’t all that bad. The worst things you experience come not from the thing in itself, but your reaction to that thing; mine had been horrible. I had played it up so much in my head that my nerves were frayed before I even got in the car. Once I was out there, engine running, not trying to shift into every turn, it was pretty fun. Honest. It was even a little exhilarating.
But once I felt I had my legs under me, my mouth began to water. I could feel my stomach spinning. Anybody could tell you what it meant.
When you vomit in a helmet, the first thing you try to do is to shove everything back down. And that’s what you do: you clamp down and just swallow. Lucky for me, I had not had much to eat that day. But sure enough, the butterflies were coming up to say hello.
I had to go another lap before I made it off the track, taxiing slow into the pit.
Mike asked me what happened. I told him. For his part, I think, he tried to make me feel better, that there was some level of badass necessary to keep yourself from throwing up in a helmet. But I just I climbed out of the car with my stomach still in open revolt. I took a walk, a long one. One more time I threw up, and I made my way back.
I was talking with Paul after I did; he had butterflies too, but his shift on the track had gone really well. He let me know that there was another shift coming up before the end of the day, and I’d be able to go out there and do it again, you know, give it another shot. I told him, in no uncertain terms, that it would take a very large amount of money or threat of bodily harm to get me back out there on the track.
Don’t get me wrong; a LeMons race is awesome. The people there are fun, creative, and friendly. If you ever have an interest in cars, doing a LeMons race should be something on your list. But as I drove back home that afternoon, with fresh air coming through the vents of my car, I was happy. Probably happier than I have been in a long time.
Because I learned something:
We keep thinking what we should want to be, rather than what we are. On some level, you need to build yourself. That’s true. But sometimes, you also have to accept what you’re not. And I am not a gear-head. I’ll die never having stripped an engine, never worked knee deep in solvents and grime, never actually raced a car without feeling terrified. And really, that is all right. That is definitely all right.
As your librarian, I can tell you where all the Chilton’s are. Hell, I can tell you lots of things.
And goddammit, that’s enough.