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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Oodles of New Ways to Waste Time 

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Banger Racing 

I considered my recent assignment in England as a manufacturing consultant to be primarily an opportunity to travel the world on the company's dime, but it should have come as no surprise to discover that when a corporation decides to make the investment and dispatches an employee on international assignment, there is actually quite a bit of work for him to do when he gets there. Particularly in the first weeks of my assignment, the job required ten and twelve hour days, six days a week - none too much for a high powered executive perhaps but for a recently-promoted-to-management-from-engineering-type it was super-sufficient.

It was the time of year when daylight in England is a rare commodity and after the first few weeks I began getting slightly desperate for some sort of communal activity. Chatting with the tiny Moroccan man at the laundry or the girl with braces at the grocery store checkout was not getting the job done. I was entirely receptive when, one Friday afternoon as work was finishing, a coworker invited me to go with him to the Banger races.

This was not, as I first suspected, a race where men push sausages down the road with their noses while their hands are tied behind their backs. Despite my correctly having identified the English term for sausage, my coworker shook his head.

"Very funny, no. That race is not until the springtime, during the lamb festival. Banger racing is with cars."

Apparently the races were conducted by an amateur auto league; cheap junkers and backyard rebuilds contesting in a noisy weekend tournament. In response to my initial skepticism, I was promised a spectacle:

“It's fantastic, nothing like the stock circuit. Crashes you've never seen in the States. You’ve got to go, words can’t describe it.”

My coworker spoke with obvious relish, like a boy telling firecracker stories.

“It’s demolition derby, only the cars are Minis and Raleighs and Vauxhalls. You know, they've got these tiny cars over here," he leaned towards me, his hands close together and said quietly, "It's like a bunch of clown cars racing. The track is small, very tight. They're all locals, they drive all over each other, it’s great, lots of neighborhood competitions." His voice was getting loud again.

He went on enthusiastically. "The last time I was there, there was a crash so bad that two cars flipped end over end down the track. We thought they were going to explode.” His arms flailed in circles.

With the prospect of such glorious entertainment, I was eager to attend and not just for the crashes. In the first few weeks of my secondment, I was finding the remote setting to be psychologically taxing. I'd had it with ruined abbeys, twee country houses and their fecund gardens.

The town was a dense cluster of streets in an otherwise rural shire. Located on a peninsula jutting into the sea and surrounded by tidal mud flats, it seemed about as far removed from civilization as you could get and still be in England. The crowds of bicycling laborers, hunched over their handlebars as they commuted to and from work come rain or gloom, had come to represent the whole sentiment of the place to me, that we were together in our suffering only as a crowd, each one close to another yet alone in his exertion.

Oh, the English were polite and friendly enough, recommending sights to see and places to eat when out touring around. Once or twice we went out for a few pints at one of the franchise bars downtown but they never invited me into their homes or even asked me to join them for dinner out on the town. It wasn't until I was about to go home, many months later, that I went to a real "local," a neighborhood pub.

My biggest problem was that my family was back in the States and I had been living in a hotel room for some time before I found a decent flat to rent. On some days, my most personal conversation was with a hotel maid. Despite the fact that the maid was a charming young blond with a boyfriend in Australia, this only ended up contributing to my disillusionment.

Even my American coworkers had been reticent. I found most of the Yanks only wanted to do one of two things; complain about the local culture or brag about their travels. We were working so many hours that all anyone really wanted to do was sleep when they got off work. I could understand why nobody had taken me up on my proposals to hike in the nearby mountains on one of our few days off. I wasn't that I held this lackadaisical behavior against them, it simply meant that I did most of my touristing alone.

Yet here was a friendly fellow offering to show me some local color. How could I refuse? It took absolutely no delay on my part to agree to meet my new friend on Sunday morning. The races started at noon, "to give everyone time to get back from church." We arranged to meet at his house at half past eleven so I could follow him to the event.

I endured two more nights in the hotel, eating electric kettle noodles and watching the bloodiest game I had ever seen on television: rugby union. This is a national pastime? Boxing aside, I've never watched a team sport where a man could walk off the field with a broken nose and be sent right back on again after wrenching and taping the cartilage back into place and staunching the blood. It's nothing but the thinnest veil of an excuse for bloody mayhem. What kind of men are these, I wondered, that impact against each other with such thunderous claps, with so much bloody warlike anger that they break themselves? Was this apparent national ferocity the same feeling that inspired them to drive their cars into one another on the weekend? Was this the sort of spirit I was about to witness?

Sunday morning couldn't come soon enough.

The Raceway turned out to be hidden in the middle of an abandoned industrial area, behind a power plant. I would never have found it on my own, nor dared to venture down the uninviting road if I had stumbled across it. It was rundown and remote, like driving into a 70s' horror flick. Zombies or violent street gangs were bound to appear from behind every pile of tires.

We drove in at a crawl. The road itself was nothing more than a dirt track, bordered by disintegrating warehouses and long crumbling factory spaces, red brick with corrugated metal roofs bleeding rust. Hard-packed dirt worn down to gravel filled ruts seemed designed to either warm you up for the races or facilitate an ambush, with muddy potholes large enough to swallow a car or at least break an axle and bend the frame should you choose your path unwisely.

Grateful to be in a rental, I followed my buddy as he drove up the road, meandering from side to side to avoid the pondments. Signs had been hand lettered on the brick in white paint, “Drivers – Teams: Do Take Your Tyres and Wheels.”

The entrance fee was five pounds, about nine dollars, which seemed steep considering the setting and even more so when I got to the track and discovered that there were no bleachers or even much of anywhere for people to sit except on the rocky dirt path around the track. Wise with prior experience, my friend had brought a couple of folding chairs, which we carried in with us.

Race fans were forced to walk to the track from the gate, on more of the same rutted dirt road as the parking lot and driveway. There were more huge mud puddles, along with scattered pieces of unidentifiable auto parts. We passed through the race team's pit area, where men and teenage boys in oil-stained coveralls with grimy faces and black hands gathered around their cars.

Some of the men had a factory logo on the front of their coveralls from the now-defunct company that used to own the factory where I was currently consulting. They were former employees, victims of an economic downturn and the mass layoffs that came with it. I hoped that when they realized I was a foreigner, they didn't make a connection to their old jobs. After all, I’d come there, a foreigner, to work at the factory under the new management, the management that had 'right sized' their jobs not so long ago. These men could tell an American at the turn of an athletic shoe, I was sure of it.

The drivers and their teams appeared hostile. They were hard, angry men, scowling at us as we passed. I tried not to look any of them in the face, focusing instead on the cars with their gaudy hand-painted stripes and the slogans in big bright letters; Techno Burn, Dodgy, Banjo, The Wrecking Crew. There were women’s names, though those were in much smaller script and were usually located on a rear fender panel.

A fat guy in a white jumpsuit clambering out of an empty windshield with a wrench in his hand. He climbed over the hood and stood in front of his car, looking at us as we went by. His glare was heavy and dark, underlined in grease. It clearly said "you're not welcome here."

We kept moving around the track to the back of turn three, well away from the pit area, towards the spot where we had arranged to meet up with a group of our fellow Americans. I could feel angry eyes following us the whole way, but we managed not to cause a riot with our presence and found the area where we intended to sit.

Tiny chairs, the kind you might find in an elementary school classroom, were scattered in the verge outside the track. The were rusting and dirty, bent, thrown into the narrow, trash filled strip between the fences that circled the racecourse. We set up our folding chairs as close to the outer fence as we could, which put us within feet of the track. We could see the entire raceway.

The track itself was a small oval depressed into the ground by a few feet, barely an eighth of a mile in circumference and less than 50 feet wide. Screeching techno blasted from tinny PA megaphones mounted around raceway. Cars howled and backfired as they warmed up.

“Yeah, you’d never be able to get this close in the States,” was my friend's shouted response when I remarked on the apparent lack of concern for viewer safety. This thought was reinforced in the first lap of the first race, when an early heat banger crashed and flipped into the rail right in front of us. There was a tremendous bang and we ducked for cover. Small bits of rubber and metal zinged through the fence, over our heads.

I suddenly realized the reason for the child sized seats: to keep our bodies low behind the fences and the mound of dirt that separated us from the track and its flying debris.

A race official in a yellow coat with fluorescent tape on it ran over to the crash, fire extinguisher in hand. I observed to my friend that the coat looked suspiciously similar to the ones used by our employer's fire department. He pretended not to hear me.

"Woo, good one ... look, he's pinching off the fuel line," my friend said, pointing. The official was just in time, as the fuel line had split and was running gas all over the track. He operated the fire extinguisher with one hand, firing short bursts in to the still growing pool of gasoline while he pinched off the leaking fuel line with his other hand. The shaken driver climbed out from under his car, unhurt. When he got to his feet, he kicked the door of the car. He said, "Bloody crap, it's the bone yard for you."

While men with shovels and brooms cleaned up the mess on the track, I looked around at the crowd. They were an amazingly dirty assortment of working-class families. Drivers looked no dirtier than the friends and family they joined on the sidelines after each heat. People were filthy, covered in the racecars oily exhaust, freckled with bits of carbon, but it was more than that – their hair was lank and greasy, their clothes were stained and worn. They looked comfortable with their condition, as if such filth was a normal state.

There were scabby-kneed boys playing in the rubbish piles of construction material mounded up next to the factory buildings. They were using sheets of splintered plywood as sleds to ride down the piles of trash. No adult chided them for this or for running in and out of the gutted buildings. Most of boys were wearing soccer gear, which consisted of Umbro shorts, leather sneakers with huge lolling tongues and a down-filled nylon coat flapping open to expose their team jerseys. Their families stood drinking tea and watching the races while the boys played behind them.

Some cars had been allowed to drive up close to the track and there were tailgate cookouts going on. Despite the relatively nice weather, (it wasn't raining) heavy waterproof winter coats and leather boots were the uniform of the day.

A sour looking teenage girl in dirty white parka with a fur-lined hood was walking around the track with her boyfriend. They ran into a group of boys that began to joke and spar with him. Suddenly marginalized, the girl leaned against a parked car and lit a cigarette. One of the boys had a rugby ball and the boyfriend began to toss the ball back and forth with his friends.

The girl crossed her arms and smoked. Her foot tapped. She looked disgusted. Every few minutes she would say, "Come on, then!" in a whiny voice.

Each time, her boyfriend would laugh and wave his hand at her. He said, "Half a sec, I'm with me mates."

A few feet down from us, a man sat with a boy at the edge of the track. They were having a kind of arm wrestle, with the man twisting the boy's fingers and wrist backwards until he turned a pirouette. The boy was laughing as he shouted, “Ow ow, stop!” and it seemed to be a family affair, so I was inclined to stay out of it. I buried my nose in the program.

I was not encouraged by a Very Important Notice in bold print, calling for an end to Violent, Threatening or Abusive Behavior on race day.

The races were sponsored by the Chuck Wagon, a food stand on wheels serving burgers, hot dogs, drinks and sweets. Despite my disparaging comments about the name, which is the name of a dog food in the US, I was assured that the food was edible. At the interval, I braved the long line and tried a hot dog with cheese.

Given that the temperature felt to have dropped forty degrees once the cloud cover moved in, I also went for a hot tea. I was thinking that, given the country I was in, tea was probably a safer choice than coffee, However, after I watched the grill man make my drink with the same tea bag he used for the previous customer, I could only imagine what kind of horrors swam in the coffee urn.

Before the end of the Mini Stox final, which was the first race after the break, my rumbling gut made me aware of what an unfortunate decision a hot dog from a mobile stand could be. I followed up with a Mars bar in an attempt to placate my violated stomach and it seemed somewhat mollified. I managed to sit through to the finals.

The second to last event of the day, the 1400cc Bangers Final, was nearly indistinguishable from the last event, the 1400cc Bangers Destruction Derby. The cars were a motley lot of refuse, having in common only the things they lacked; bumpers, grills and glass of any kind. Much of the body work appeared to have been done with a sledgehammer. At their best, freshly banged out and tuned up, they arrived with mufflers held on by baling wire, their rear ends crumpled or bent up to expose the springs.

The noise was high pitched, deafening, abused rubber burning and spalling as it dragged around the track. For the first few laps, the cars were in nearly constant contact, a pack of banging hounds hard on each other's heels. At least one driver had his tire ripped completely off the rim, but it didn’t stop him from grinding through the laps.

With no knowledge of the favorites, I was free to cheer a slick pass, a hot straightaway run and a dashing maneuver through the car park in turn two.

Cars fell out of the final quickly, abused mechanicals able to take only so much between hitting the walls and the inevitable crashes. I never saw a finish flag for the Final, cars just started slamming into each other with greater and greater vigor and it became obvious that the destruction portion of the derby was now in full swing.

The drivers smashed and spun each other out, more times than not ending up spun out themselves. Two teammates, identifiable by light blue and purple coloring with the words “Bong Crew” painted on the sides of their cars, pulled around and begin racing around the track in the opposite direction of the other cars, veering directly at them as they came around the bends, trying to force a head-on collision.

Since their behavior could be explained by some sort of drug use, I scoured the race program trying to find any rule about being under the influence while driving. A glossary revealed that "bonging" meant going round the track the wrong way, "on oppo," which was certainly not the meaning I had assumed from their actions.

One of the Bong Crew caromed into another car, then continued around with his hood buckled and only one front tire turning. The driver held up one gloved hand to make an ‘OK’ sign to his teammate.

Four cars had piled up in turn two, almost completely blocking the track. Smoking, disabled vehicles were scattered around, drivers leaping out to run for the center of the track and its dubious safety.

One of the last few cars remaining on the track smashed the wrecks in turn two out of the way. Pieces of car big enough to crush a man exploded across the track.

The problem was that blockages were causing the bong crew to do figure eights through the center. I could hardly see how it was any safer there and neither could the dismounted drivers, as they scrambled to climb on top of the huge concrete blocks that were placed strategically around the center oval.

In the end, the Bong Crew did a head on collision with each other in turn two, joining the other cars they had smashed off the track with a bang and a cloud of hissing radiator fluid. With the Destruction Derby at its inevitable conclusion I asked my friend, when the last two Bangers collide head-on and both are disabled, how do you declare a victor?

Cars were scattered across the smoking asphalt, mostly in pieces. The race was over. My ears were ringing. My friend never managed a satisfactory answer to my question about declaring a victor. Soot coated everyone and everything, particles of burnt muffler pipe and rubber, greasy smears of brake fluid, coolant and unburnt gasoline. I had grit in my teeth and a napkin came away smeared with black grime when I wiped my face. I realized that I now looked like everyone else – I was filthy.

Where was the hostility and resentment I had seen upon arrival? I looked around, amazed at the change that had come over the racetrack.

Drivers were sitting on the hoods of their mangled, steaming cars and smiling as they waited for the tractors to come haul them off the track. Boys were joking with each other, leaping about as they replayed the most spectacular crashes of the day with each other. Crews laughed and shook their heads in amazement as they used come-alongs to winch the mangled wrecks onto flatbed trailers. Everyone was laughing and gesturing. We crowded easily together through the wide gate, rubbing shoulders. People were helping each other around the puddles. There was a jubilant feeling among the people headed for the exit.

I know that the hostility I saw was real, I just wonder if I wasn't according it too much significance. Sure, there's a knob or two out there who'll jostle your elbow on purpose to make you spill your pint, but there are many more who'd be quick to buy you another if they did it accidentally. Those angry looking men in the pits before the race were just expressing their natural sense of competition, stressing about the upcoming race, whatever – they weren't hating me just because I was a foreigner. These people weren't going to riot, no matter how they felt about me.

The crowd had come to see roaring races and colossal collisions and they were satisfied. I had come seeking entertainment and had found something more. For a few hours, I had shared a bit of something fun and unique, and I had never been in any danger of personal injury, aside from a flying muffler or two. Even though I knew I was destined for nothing more than a shower and another night of noodles and rugby, I was content.

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