November 5, 2012
My favorite racetrack in the summer of 1996 was a little asphalt bullring near a town named Oxford, a few miles outside of Lafayette, Indiana.
Benton County Speedway's “Thunderbowl” had been good to me. The bigger, high-banked tracks didn’t really suit my driving style at the time and I had little experience at speeds over 130 miles per hour. As a result, my efforts at places like Winchester and Salem were disappointing. But Benton County Speedway was different.
The oddly-shaped Thunderbowl demanded a driving style that made me appear to be a better driver than I really was. The car never came out of a turn and it never stopped sliding. It was more like a ballet than an auto race. My only win of the previous year had come at Benton County in September and I was always fast there.
But on this particular night in the summer of 1996 I had my hands full. The newly installed engine in my car was overheating. When the green flag dropped to start my heat race, I kept careful watch on the water temperature gauge and prayed that I could go the distance.
Sliding across the rumble strips and squeezing the throttle in Turn 4, the car felt loose. The temperature gauge soared above 230 degrees and I was running in the back half of the field… a rarity for me at the Thunderbowl.
The next lap was even worse. I should have guessed that the boiling coolant in the engine had pressurized and spilled into the radiator overflow container, but I didn't. Centrifugal force blew the scalding fluid out of the overflow and onto the right side tires of the race car. A more experienced driver would have figured it out sooner.
Flying along the backstretch at 110 miles per hour, I looked in the rear view mirror and saw only four cars. I sailed into Turn 3 and put the car into its anticipated four-wheel slide. The tail end was looser than ever. I applied full opposite lock and barely saved the car.
But by this time the rear end of the car had a mind of its own, swinging back like a pendulum and twitching violently as I sped into Turn 4. If I had any hope of saving the car, it was gone the moment I hit the rumble strips. The tail end swung wide to the right one final time and this time there was no stopping it.
As the car slid backwards toward the concrete wall, I stomped the accelerator. The rear wheels lurched forward, broke traction and billowed out a sheet of white smoke as the car’s momentum slowed dramatically. I then impulsively let off the gas and mashed the brakes as hard as I could to bring the car to a stop.
The car came to rest dead center in the middle of the racetrack, sitting sideways with the driver’s door facing oncoming traffic from Turn 4. I had left a long trail of hot water splattered along the track.
As the car rolled to a halt, I watched the first two cars slide to the outside of the track and flash through the narrow gap between the tail of my car and the concrete wall. Seeing my vulnerable position, the third driver yanked the wheel to the right and barely managed to slide his car through the same hole that had admitted the other two cars a fraction of a second before.
I looked out the driver’s window of my race car and saw one final machine hurtling at me at nearly a hundred miles per hour. He hadn’t seen me. The two seconds it would take him to reach my position seemed like an eternity.
The sudden stop had killed my car’s overheated engine and I was surrounded by a weird silence. Sitting with a dead engine in the middle of a hot race track is quite an experience. The silence of your own engine is so bizarre.
The cars to my right let off the throttle anticipating a caution flag. But the sound coming from my left was different. The last remaining car was still screaming along at full tilt. Blinded by the intervening competitors, the driver had not seen my car as it sat helplessly in the middle of the racetrack. If he hit me, it would be in the driver’s door. There is no worse place to be hit.
Through a foggy visor shield I watched the scene through a square hole in my window net. It was like watching TV. Although my heart had stopped, I did not tremble or wince. There was no reaction whatsoever, only the detached realization that if he hit me, it would be a very, very bad thing.
I wondered when he would finally see me, and which side of my car he would try for. Would he try to turn his car underneath me and pass between my car and the pit lane? Or would he shoot for the gap between the tail end of my machine and the outer concrete wall?
I remember wondering if he was a good a driver. The turn he was making was smooth, clean and fast… he seemed to know what he was doing. Then again, he was running in last place. He might be terrible.
I could not see through the glare of the other driver’s helmet visor, but I knew the precise moment he saw me. He looked dead at me… not at my car, but at me. I can only imagine what my face must have looked like. Insert “deer in the headlights” joke here.
His gloved hands, resting on top of the steering wheel, disappeared in a swift but smooth jerk to the left down below the level of the dash. The car responded in an instant. Its leftward slide exaggerated. He fought for control. He was going to try and pinch the car down in front of me, searching for a dry spot that would offer some bite. Good idea. I was rooting for him.
The good news was that he was trying. The bad news was that I was going to have to watch. Unlike the other three cars that had passed behind me, this final car would be in full view until the moment of impact… if an impact occurred. The tail of his car twitched in protest and the back tires broke free. His car was sliding badly now. He was making a grand effort to salvage the night for both of us.
As the yards between us turned to inches it occurred to me that he might make it. I pressed the brake pedal as firmly as possible to prevent my car from rolling forward even the slightest bit.
My attention turned to his sliding right rear tire. If anything hit me that would be it. But by some miracle his car roared past my front bumper cleanly without a thousandth of an inch to spare, still motoring along somewhere north of 90 miles an hour. To this day I have no idea how he avoided slamming into my driver’s side door, let alone missing the entire car. It was one of the most amazing pieces of driving I've ever seen.
Although I didn't get plastered like an ant under a sledge hammer in my heat race, the night still went from bad to worse. Our overheating issues wouldn't go away no matter what we tried. In the feature I drove from last place into the top ten before the engine temperature got completely out of control and I had to pull in and settle for a DNF. My sponsor was there that night. It was really embarrassing.
I continued racing that modified stock car, outdated and underpowered, until it met an untimely end against Anderson Speedway's Turn 3 wall in August 1998. I never drove another modified again. Eventually, Benton County's Thunderbowl closed and was sold at auction in 2002. It was revived a few years later, turned into a dirt track, and promptly failed again.
Oh, one more thing… I asked a few friends at the next race but never did find out who drove the car that missed me. So if you happened to be driving an open wheel modified at Benton County one night in the summer of 1996 when some dumb kid with an overheated engine slid out in front of you… well… thank you,and I'm sorry to be sending you this letter 17 years late. You're a pretty good shoe.
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