Speed is colorblind

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The first thing you notice is the noise. A constant stream of stuttering engine rattle, like the choke of a stalling lawnmower: the very sound of internal combustion. And then down on the asphalt, a foot drops and the rumble whips into a roar, the kind that hits your solar plexus first and then shoots upward, an electric jolt to your skull that sets your eardrums jouncing. And the shriek fades back down and the rattle starts again, almost quiet for the comparison, except not, because the next car is seconds away from screaming just like the first, tearing the sky open with its powertrain howl.

And you think: no wonder this isn’t televised. Watching it from your couch, even with a six-pack and an order of wings, you could never feel the force of that gut-shaking, juddering roar. Nor would you get that smell—the second thing you notice as the cars rear up on two wheels and take flight, thick billows of blue-gray smoke pouring out behind them. That acrid smell of gasoline, scorched rubber and something cloying, sickly sweet, almost like sassafras. The smell that sucks the air right from your lungs.

NASCAR works on TV; so does Formula One. They’re all about the skill of the drivers, the sprint for first and, maybe, deep down in that reptilian part of the brain, the hope for the heart-stopping spectacle of a car bursting into flame. It’s nice to make it out to Martinsville or Talladega or Indianapolis for a race, but TV will do.

Not so with drag racing. The shriek, the smell, the proximity to living, breathing speed: all essential to the thing, as necessary as wheels and a motor and a track.

Because that’s what drag racing is. Speed. Speed, Aldous Huxley’s “one genuinely modern pleasure.” Sex, art, friendship, music, a good meal—they’ve been with humanity since we stopped dragging our knuckles (and some before that). But speed? That’s something new. Something primal and yet necessarily modern. And chasing it is what brings dozens of men and women, young and old, to a stretch of track outside Waynesboro week after week after week, year after year after year.

It’s certainly what’s kept UVA history professor John Edwin Mason coming back. Mason’s been a car freak since he was big enough to see over the steering wheel of his dad’s car and mime taking hairpin turns while sitting stationary in the driveway. Now, four decades older and as professorial as they come, Mason is the Eastside Speedway’s unlikeliest fan.

Mason loves anything fast with a big engine. Over the course of our interview, he talked himself into driving down to North Carolina for a race that was happening that night. So when he first read about the Eastside Speedway in the Daily Progress, he had to go. He drove over the mountains in 2002 and found what he was looking for just a few minutes outside of Waynesboro.

“It blew me away,” he says, “to go in with one set of expectations and have it turn out to be completely different.” Mason knew the old stereotype of gearheads in the rural South being “a bunch of dumb rednecks,” but he figured at the very least, he’d see some fast cars and get something of the thrill of speed, however vicariously.

But what he found was enough to inspire a racing photography blog and a fistful of academic articles. “Being a good academic, I went to the library. Nobody had written about this,” he says. These nine years later, he has an entire book of photos and commentary that he’s currently hashing out with publishers.

What was it Mason found? In his words, “easy, unselfconscious racial integration in a working-class setting, where you expect it least.”

Mason estimates that a good 30 percent of the drivers he saw when he first started going to Eastside races were black, and there were a few women too, not to mention the Puerto Rican and Mexican bikers who to this day share a drag strip with the hot rodders. Unlike NASCAR or Formula One, where cars are owned and driven by a moneyed few, the relative affordability (and “relative” is a key word; more on that later) of outfitting a car to drag race found a happy marriage with the iconoclasm that had been inherent in drag racing culture from the very start.

Yet Mason found that Eastside racers and fans did things one better. They weren’t just hitting the track with people of other races out of reluctant necessity. They were forging friendships, relationships with one another that stretch back in some cases 35, 40 years, to when integration in Virginia was still an uneasy truce between resentful whites and terrorized blacks. He calls it “the Democracy of Speed.”

It’s speed as the great leveler. You want to make your car go fast, I want to make my car go fast. And thus comes the building block that a select society is built on. It’s the myth of post-racial America made real, through the startlingly simple alchemy of shared interests.

To get to the Eastside Speedway, to see the Democracy of Speed (which is also the name of Mason’s forthcoming book) at work, you head just past Waynesboro on Route 340 until you hit a nondescript sign pointing you down a country lane toward the Eastside Speedway, the scream of the engines just a muted purr when heard from the highway. But if you turn down that street and drive toward the sound of screaming cars, you’d better be prepared for that noise and that smell.

And you ought to know that Mason isn’t wrong. That over the mountains, far from “enlightened” Charlottesville, with its great bulk of unacknowledged, wished-away racial problems, the great American fantasy of Life After Racism is very real and very alive. And even if it’s a spell that breaks as soon as the drivers and fans leave the track, it’s at least circling something that’s still only a dream even for the People’s Republic of Charlottesville.

Ask Alan Pritchett. Pritchett’s a laconic bus mechanic for the Albemarle County Schools by day, but just about every evening there’s a race on, he hauls his custom ’84 Camaro over to the track. He’s been bringing a car—this is his second, after he got all he could out of a Chevy Vega—to the races for more than 20 years, sharing ownership, maintenance duties and occasionally the driver’s seat of the Camaro with Ivar Dowell, a black Charlottesvillian. When asked about this characteristically diverse, harmonious arrangement, Pritchett just shrugs and says, “Everybody helps one another.”

You start to hear that line time and time again once you talk to even just a few regular Eastsiders. Tim Curry, a tire salesman from Stuarts Draft who races a largely unmodified early ’90s Mustang: “Everybody gets along. Everybody helps each other out.” Tim Southern, track manager: “Drag racing is one big happy family. It makes no difference what your nationality is.” And on and on.

But it’s true. You see it in the stands, where black guys crack open smuggled-in beers with burly bubbas in overalls. You see it on the asphalt ahead of the starting line, where drivers of all ages and most races shoot the shit and crack jokes at each other’s expense while they each wait their turn to stomp on the accelerator. You see it in Devin Dudley, a biracial kid from Charlottesville who just graduated from Monticello High in June but has been coming to the track since he was 2 years old, when he started by helping out his grandpa and great-uncle, who both still race.

“I kind of grew up with it,” says Dudley. “I want to do this for the rest of my life—for as long as I can.” Most likely, he will; it’s in his blood. And all signs point to that being a good plan. Dudley’s only been driving at the track for a year—he’s only had his license for about that long—and already, he’s won four races, with an average purse he estimates at $500. Even the best racers might go an entire season without a single win in an off year.

Even though he’s a good bit younger and maybe a bit more talented than a lot of the other drivers, Dudley’s as good a pick as any to represent the whole crew of drag racers. Point being, you might be a black guy from Friendship Court or a shaggy-haired teenager with a peach-fuzz moustache or a paunchy white dude from deep in the Augusta County sticks or a liver-spotted retiree who started drag racing when the damn thing was invented back in the ’50s. But as soon as you put on that helmet and rev the engine, you’re just another anonymous adrenaline freak chasing the feeling of pure speed.

That’s Mason’s Democracy of Speed. But maybe “democracy” isn’t quite the right word. Because democracy as we know it is a relatively new development. This is something more primal. This is tribalism, a fundamental human bond that says, “This is us. This is ours. This is not yours because you are not us and never will be.” This is worship at the altar of speed.

Maybe it’s exclusionary; maybe it’s just another form of the familiar old “us vs. them” mentality. But then, what human being on the planet doesn’t hold some notion of not-me otherness in his head? Even the most proudly open-minded, “Coexist”-bumper-sticker-bearing Charlottesville liberal seethes at the thought of the great hordes of savage red state dupes. Worshipers of speed vs. the snail-paced masses—there have certainly been more harmful demarcations between people in the history of the world.

Still, there are elements of the speed society that hint at the impossibility of keeping larger racial and socioeconomic forces at bay. Bruce Hensley, a trucker from Orange who drives a dragster—one of those impossibly long, pointed hot rods that look appropriately rocket-like as they tear down the strip—reckons there are about half as many drivers as there were just a few years ago. Allen Hunt, a spectator and Eastside employee (most of the folks in the stands, you’ll find, have some connection to the speedway: a relative who drives, a car in the races) says that while the annual Easter race attracts dozens and dozens of drivers and packs the stands with about 5,000 fans, most nights are like the Friday night I spent at the track, with maybe 60 drivers and just a few more spectators. Track Manager Tim Southern confirms it, though he does say that Eastside is doing fine financially.

Everyone blames the economy for the downturn. Get into the top class of cars—super pro, with its dragsters and NASCAR-quality custom jobs—and you’re looking at $40,000 to $80,000 just to get a car off the lot, never mind the cost of constant upkeep and gas. The bottom two classes, trophy street and footbrake, might see cheaper cars, like the ’88 Dodge Dynasty I spotted limping to the starting line with a 12-year-old kid at the wheel (an adult replaced him in the driver’s seat before the car hit the strip). But there’s no getting around maintenance and fuel. Sure, there are sponsors for some of the top competitors, but at this level of racing, where most of the drivers are mechanics or truckers in their other lives, the extent of a corporate sponsorship might be a thousand bucks or a new set of tires in exchange for a big sticker on the hood.

“It ain’t a cheap hobby,” says Alan Pritchett. There’s prize money to be won, but it doesn’t come close to covering expenses. Even Tim Curry, with his mid-class Mustang, guesses that he’s spent about $7,000 on car repairs just since January, and this isn’t an unusual year.

But longtime fans can’t help but notice, as Professor Mason has, that the recession’s biggest hit has been to the number of black drivers. It’s a trend that speaks to a reality on the ground that the drivers do their best to ignore at the track. According to the most recent Labor Department figures, the unemployment rate for black Americans is above 16 percent, compared to whites’ 8 percent.

The growing expenses and the increasing loss of a vital part of the drag racing community—all those drivers, many of them black—seem to be getting to the Eastsiders. “How long have you been doing this?” was answered with, “Too long,” by half a dozen wives of racers and spectators. “How much do you spend in a year?” Three separate wives: “Too much.” Too much time. Too much money. Just too much. There’s a real sense of fatigue at the track, if not among the drivers and the die-hard fans, then among the family members worried about their jobs, their bank accounts, their livelihoods.

But despite anxiety, fatigue, money problems, the great god of Eastside remains. Even the most enervated wives can’t help but stand up and whoop when a driver like Marty Dabney hits 160 miles per hour in under five seconds. This is Huxley’s modern pleasure, screaming out, declaring its presence to open sky and the silent stands of oak trees that surround this place. The Eastside Speedway. The altar of speed.

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