by Brendan Davern
The mile-long walk from my apartment to the speedway passes the restaurant bar I’d otherwise be at on a Friday night. There’s a “No Trespassing” sign taped inside the glass front door, which is blocked by a horse gate. Below it, on the sidewalk, is a vase with four wilting petunias. The owner pinballed his Kia off two telephone poles the other night after bringing an overdrunk regular home. He’d just started opening at six, for breakfast, hoping to exploit the town’s lack of a diner. After lunch and before happy hour, he’d walk back to the small apartment he shared with a cook and two dishwashers to nap. One bartender told me he looked tired as hell that night. A town gossip of uneven repute told me her friends were first on the scene and that his head had gone through the windshield. He was still alive but dying. A stringer’s photo of the wreck seems to show the windshield intact, caked with airbag dust, with a streak of his blood across it. However it went, EMS called off the medevac and declared him dead right there.
I turn left at the crosswalk at the top of the hill, at the three-way intersection where this old milltown surrenders to a metastasizing commercial district. The south side of Main Street is all former company homes, subdivided, crowded together on three blocks along the railroad tracks. Here the noise from the speedway becomes truly distinguishable from the intermittent Harley clusters passing through town.
It’s presumed any adult walking around town either can’t afford a car or has too many DUIs. I let the downhill spring my gate to project that I’m of neither camp. The stigma is a pain to navigate during these pockets of temperate weather.
Another left, across the tracks, and the neighborhood opens up to the spectator entrance to the speedway parking lot—a dusty gravel tract that serves as a driving range during the daytime. Pickups file in, from which men in sooty neon tee-shirts pop out. They hurry to eat pre-bought sandwiches and catch a buzz; none seems new to this. The next wave of spectators will be family men who stop home first after work. The last will be the newly adulted who arrive drunk in sun-faded Grand Cherokees.
He’d turned forty just a week before he died; the last time I saw him he showed me pictures of him and his two kids celebrating his birthday, stacking cairns on a rocky beach in Cape Elizabeth. In one, he wore a contented smile and wrapped each arm around the hunched shoulders of a teenager doing the bare minimum to appease their dad on his birthday.
The entrance to the speedway proper has evolved considerably since the days my dad used to bring me. What was a utilitarian chain link arrangement has been replaced by a stained-wood pergola with permanent signage attached to a cabin of box offices. I don’t know exactly how much it costs to get in, but I figure it’s an expense I best avoid right now. So, I trace the perimeter gate, hoping to find some secret, free vantage to see some racing from.
The first leg of my quest is a two-hundred-fifty-yard straight shot measurable by the driving-range markers it parallels. Trucks with trailers park shoulder-to-shoulder along this northeast edge of the paddock. Pickups like these cost as much as I get paid in two years, and the trailers they drag are no less extravagant. Some trailers are as big as campers and carry more than one race car.
It costs upwards of six figures a season to field a car in the top divisions here. Even to run a street stock with a skeleton crew would be prohibitively expensive for most. Many drivers have eponymous sponsors—Such-and-Such Motorsports, Such-and-Such Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep, and such. The local gentry share a half-dozen Latinate surnames and are represented here by the speedway’s owners, whose two adult sons race in the two highest divisions.
To skulk in the shadow of such ostentation convinces me I’ve been had. Arrogant dreams of class ascension propelled me through six years at colleges and universities whose curricula pivoted on the farce that meritocracy is real and good, and convinced me that I, de jure, stood to benefit from it. But beyond the gates, through a series of failures both personal and professional, I was quickly made to realize that I have neither the means nor outsize talent to be a working artist. And all the real capital I traded for cultural capital has confined me to a space where a fine arts degree is a cold sore. And now I’m just some fucking guy who can’t afford to get into the racetrack.
His family soon confirmed they’d have to sell the bar to cover his debts. Some employees organized a sort of Irish wake in there the next day but unwisely leaked the date and time to Facebook, where the landlord caught wind and changed the locks overnight. Hundreds showed up to the makeshift memorial at the public park across the street. It was dour and boozeless; he would’ve hated it.
Wads of tire rubber like black cat turds pepper both sides of the fence around the northwest end of the paddock. There’s also a veiny rubber dildo in the grass—perhaps jetsam from the number sixty-nine car pitted nearby. The elderly delivery driver from the town’s House of Pizza slips a box under the fence to a half-suited driver like its contraband. This edge of the paddock being elevated from the parking lot, the delivery guy was made to climb a steep ten-foot berm, and now he’s on his knees, peeling up chain link. I’ve never seen this man unannoyed at work, but here he seems eager to genuflect at the feet of some teenage racing hobbyist.
The kitchen briefly opened for breakfast the morning after he died, before the manager permitted everyone the day off. That night, some of us convened in a regular’s backyard, for need of somewhere to not be alone. No one else there had so deluded themselves into believing the bar would ever open again. “Either way, it’ll never be the same,” one offered, rightly sensing that this was all revelatory for me. I left with frozen air in my lungs, knowing that, without the context of the bar, I’d never again spend time with many of the people who’d endeared me to this adopted hometown.
The best spot to see, hear, and smell the cars is behind the backstretch, near the south entrance that mostly only those with paddock access use. The cars line up here before entering the track, and only the fence and a twenty-foot band of grass separate us. They’re now doing their qualifying runs. The drivers turn off their motors until their heat is waved on, billboards muffle the track noise, and it’s nearly tranquil.
It looks like the track used to be oriented differently. A huge new video wall hides a quadruple stack of modified shipping containers that perhaps once held the press box. There are several unsightly outbuildings back here as well. One has a little window and looks to have been a box office. I hesitate to peek inside for fear of stirring a bird, bat, ghost, or otherwise. As soon as I decide to go for it, the drivers restart their motors and startle me all the same. I’m consoled by the musk of exhaust fumes and cooking rubber as the half-dozen cars take to the track.
This being the last qualifying heat before what I recall tended to be an exceedingly amateurish rendition of the national anthem, I further follow the fence until it leads into the backyard of a woman who’s out front packing suitcases into the trunk of her hatchback. Her little ranch house is longer than her backyard is deep. A wall of pine trees cruelly blocks what might be an unreal view of turn three, but the enduring track noise prohibits my asking her what it’s like to live here. She returns my headnod with a defeated half-smile of a sort I’ve seen at wakes. I wonder if she leaves town every weekend.
A haunted Keno screen still flashes inside the bar. Some allege that the landlord’s wife goes in there to play and drink wine, as was her habit when the bar was open.
My last effort to get a ticketless view of the track brings me to a corner of the parking lot abutting turn four. Here, three chain link fences form a taunting vertex behind a Honda Ridgeline. The wall of pines relents only to give way to a press box perched on a web of support beams. The last of the cars on the track decelerate and return to their pits. The sun falls behind the turn one grandstand, casting long shadows on an infield that must be coarse as straw for lack of rain lately. This is the kind of dusk when the foliage on the foothill behind turn two assumes a bluescale. It’ll be dark soon. Moths will coalesce in the floodlights’ glow, the air will crispen unexpectedly, the bleachers will become cool under your butt, Dad will lend you his flannel, and the whole night will amount to a collection of sense memories you won’t come to cherish until they’re made inaccessible.
Brendan Davern is a pest control professional living in the northeastern United States.