About two years ago, Jim Gardner was running in the figure-eight competition at Dorsey Speedway, just south of Baltimore -- Big Jim's the old boy with all those hearts tattooed on his arms and the hard-earned look in his eyes that says he won't ever be tamed, no sir -- when he took the godawful force of 2,800 pounds, moving at a ridiculously happy clip, in his left armpit.
A little more than a minute after the collision, Gardner, now 47, regained consciousness and felt something like a swarm of fire ants chewing on his ankle. Turns out the brake pedal had chewed into and made a mess of his lower leg, particularly the ankle, which would require 97 stitches and leave a nasty scar that still makes him want to holler for mercy when the weather turns from hot to cold and vice versa.
But the thing to remember about Big Jim Gardner, who runs a machine shop in Baltimore, is don't play chicken with him on Saturday night, not when he's looking to win a few extra dollars for the wife and younguns and maybe some for the Maryland lottery.
Although his car never will burn down the macadam during the 500-mile spin at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which will attract some 300,000 spectators next week, Gardner's been content running the figure-eight for 15 years, before crowds that rarely exceed 2,000. Everybody who knows him knows he doesn't stop at the intersection of the track -- "You got no bidness whatsoever coming through there when I am, boys" -- or much care who bumps into the aluminum body of the vehicle some old boys call a mule.
"That day two years ago," Gardner was saying recently, "old boy who plowed into me was drinking or something for courage. Wine or beer or maybe even whiskey, I dunno. He had no business making the run. Ended up calling a helicopter down to take him away. Thought he'd broken his damn back. They opened up the roof of my car like a tin can and lifted me out. You should've seen the blood. Ambulance took me out to St. Agnes and I stayed on the table till four, five in the morning.
"Old boy, they turned him loose the next day. Sprained back was all he got. And that one lesson I showed him."
Even in the old days, when things were going so well at the speedway there was talk of building a dance hall under the main bleachers, no one ever summoned the bigness of heart to come right out and announce that the fun of shoving a mule around the quarter-mile track would last forever, although a dozen or more might have felt that kind of false thunder clapping deep in their chests.
But now, at what seems to be the peak of its popularity, the speedway at Dorsey will close after this racing season. Don Meyer, whose father co-owned the track for more than 25 years, sold the property last November to a man who plans to build an office complex on the 80 acres. Most every fan and driver is hoping Meyer will relocate the speedway on one of the two plots his family owns near the present site off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, but the death of this small-town, small-time track, which first opened in 1950, seems inevitable.
"I've been working on saving it," Meyer said. "I've already spent a lot of time and money, but with my ambitious schedule, it's hard to make everything come together. Tell you the truth, I've got something of a love-hate relationship with the place. But what makes me sad is knowing that a lot of the people here really love it. They live for it."
Stan Dillon, the track's publicity man, said, "You go to the opera or symphony sometime, and you see a lot of pretentiousness and snobbery. These people who come out here are pretty simple, but they're happy. They like eating cotton candy and watching the cars go 'round. These are the folks who used to go to the carnival when it played at the A&P parking lot. They're your people who put Ronald Reagan in office and who like country and western music. "They're your good Americans, see, your lower middle class without anything better than a high school education. Some people call 'em rednecks or blue collars, and they don't mind. They know what they are and they're proud of that. But what I'm wondering, where will these good people go on Saturday night when the track closes down?"
Years ago in the offseason, you used to catch a multitude of dirt track folks watching kung fu and John Wayne movies at the drive-in. Sometimes the little shavers would hide in the trunk till Uncle Roy Bob was able to clear the gates and park on a grassy hump next to a talk box.
Then everybody stretched out on the hood of the car -- generally something Detroit built in no great hurry, painted powder blue or cyclone red with a skunk tail tied to the antenna, and with a dashboard that looked like the cockpit of a fabulous WW II starch-wing -- and shared a box of stale corn. You threw a bag of peanuts in a bottle of pop and made a goober drink, then shook it up and drank the salty brown foam.
"I bet once the track is gone," Dillon said, "these young people will start hanging out in malls. It makes me sad in a way, but the shopping center is where they'll be going in the future."
The other night at Dorsey, the price of admission jumped from $6 a head to $7 because there was a very special "Run Whatcha Brung" competition featuring 22 late-model mules geared to take the track with every conceivable advantage for speed. Some of the cars -- like the one driven by George Kopchak of Laurel -- featured inverted airplane wings and plexiglass spoilers designed to help negotiate the difficult corners. The wings were supposed to put more down-pressure on the car, giving it greater thrust blowing out of the curves and confronting the straightaway.
"You have these add-ons," Kopchak said, "and about half of the drivers run on alcohol for extra power, but it's hard to tell just how fast these cars manage to go. You get a lot of accidents out there, and a race set for just 25 laps might take as many as 75 laps to finish because of the cautions."
Before the big race, Kopchak sat in a rubber lawn chair and scratched his sideburns, brooding, as was his way, on the old, familiar world that lay stretched out behind him. Here was a man who has spent his last 16 years driving round and round on the same patch of earth in Dorsey, Md., now directly under the flight path jumbo jets take on their way to the BWI Airport. He figured, at 47, it was time to quit living behind the wheel of a race car, and this notion saddened him deeply.
"I always liked speed," he said. "For me, getting on the track and going full-out was always the most relaxing place and thing in the world. The way it was, when I wasn't working on the car in the garage at night or working at my job, I was sleeping. There was time for nothing else.
"This is no real money-making sport. Once you got the car built -- and now it costs you anywhere from $16,000 to $18,000 -- if at the end of the year you have a little money left in the kitty, you had a good year. You did this because you got the idea in your head that it was fun and there was really nothing better. I'm going to miss it, but after this season, I'm hanging it up. I don't know what I'll do with my Saturday nights."
There are other speedways in the state of Maryland; both Budd's Creek and Hagerstown continue to prosper. In Virginia, tracks in Richmond, Winchester and Waynesboro still draw large crowds, but few oval tracks are as popular as Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas, which has been dominated lately by a fellow who dreams of running with the Grand National hard-chargers. Curtis Markham works as a district manager for a big potato chip outfit, but he can rub the corners raw in his Chevrolet Camaro.
"When opportunity meets luck, that's when you win," George Woodward was saying at Dorsey the other day. "One must remember when running at this speedway, the only alternative to elitism is mediocrity."
Oddly, the old boys -- they were fiddling around with their fuel cells and trading big fish lies and watching the stands start to fill -- consider George and his brother Tony geniuses, really, each blessed with an incredible gift of gab. George, an electrical engineer, comes down from New Britain, Conn., every week and says he was "born about three years ago," the first time he drove a race car at Dorsey. When the Woodwards start to hobnob, you listen and feel goose pimples steal across your back. Whoever thought big words could sound so perty?
" . . . Magnesium, titanium, aluminum and springs made of plastic . . . ," George once said in a rush, without stumbling.
Tony Woodward, whose specialty in the great incoherent struggle of 9-to-5 is rack-and-pinion steering, said, "Nobody in the Soviet Union could even imagine this. It's everything that's American."
Somebody said, "But nobody in Washington could imagine this, either."
"That's true," George said. "The people who are yuppies don't like to get their hands dirty."
Then Tony, all riled up, managed: "This is every bit as scientific and refined as what you'll find at Daytona or Darlington. The level of technology in these cars is right up there with the best of World War II aircraft."
Across the lot crowded with wedge-bodied heaps, the only woman street stock driver at Dorsey, Donna Bouchat, asked her father something about the water hippo that had just washed down the track. The truck was making mean noises, as if lost in the throes of a death march, there in the red dust and thunder of the pits. John Lester Grimes bears little resemblance to his daughter except around the eyes, which remain in a perpetual squint, as if he'd burned himself earlier in life staring into the glare of a solar eclipse. Grimes, a mechanic, likes to suck hard on Pall Malls and let the smoke roll up from his mouth and disappear into his nostrils.
"I give her the car," Grimes said, looking damned proud of himself. "I quit driving three years ago. The car set out in the yard, doing nothing. Then Donna said she wanted to drive. I said, 'You sure you want to drive, baby?' She said, 'I'm sure, Daddy.' "
Somebody asked Donna Bouchat, who is 33, if she was ever intimidated by the competition -- or by the aggressive males she must fight for dominance on the track -- but before she could reply, her father said, "I give her all the credit in the world, yessir."
Donna: "The men always overpower me out . . . "
"Behind her 100 percent," Grimes said.
"It's a lot of fun, but the men . . . "
"Never thought I'd see the day when a woman was driving," John Lester Grimes said at last, "let alone my own daughter."
"I try," Donna said, and shrugged her shoulders.
Three hours after Jim Gardner said he would not stop at the intersection of the figure-eight, somebody driving a mule-heap slammed into the flank of the car with No. 12 painted on each door. Big Jim, who has never needed prayer or drink to feel good in this life, was in that car. The crash was so terrific, it was like stuffing your ear into the belly of a lightning whelk and hearing a thousand oceans belch at once. Folks in the bleachers stood and applauded, and one fellow of good conscience was heard to say, "Jim Gardner's been running like a maniac this year."
There is a dream Jim Gardner has of America, and it begins behind the wheel of a 1950 pickup truck, the one his father bought to help the family haul farm equipment and supplies. In the dream, young Jim Gardner -- driving this brand-new, uninsured vehicle -- has coaxed a friend into the cab and talked him into giving the shiny beast a trial spin. They are out on a country road, and Jim is running the big engine at such an accelerated rate the truck seems to acquire a savage mind of its own. There is no controlling it, and no controlling the hot rush of exhilaration Jim has come to feel. Who can figure the boy's need to test the mortal shell of flesh he wears over a spirit he figures will live forever? "The sucker turned over three times," Jim Gardner was saying three hours before crashing in the final race of the night, bruising four ribs and cutting open his arm. "We totaled it, a new truck without insurance. I was sick with worry, but I knew I'd just had some fun. My heart was beating like a drum. And all my daddy said was, 'Boy, what did I tell you about going so fast?' "