It's a cool desert morning. Fog lingers in the air. Soon the temperature will hit 112° and an 80 year old man will drive 250 MPH down the lakebed in a ‘39 Ford Coupe shaped like a wedge of cheese.
This is land speed racing, Southern California style. For one weekend every month in the summer and fall, the dry lake is filled with bizarre looking contraptions designed for the sole purpose of going as fast as possible in a straight line. Built and piloted by speed junkies from all over the region and nary a life insurance salesman in sight.
Rainwater hides the lakebed for a few months in the spring before evaporating in the summer heat, revealing a hardened dirt floor cracked like a 3-mile long mosaic of all brown pieces. Only half of the lakebed is used for the races, the rest is filled with people riding dirt bikes and dune buggies, or small aircraft pilots using the flat surface as a makeshift airfield. The two halves are separated by a row of orange cones stretching three miles. Some of the racers have parked their RVs and trailers along the cones to watch other cars run and to help keep the dirt bike kids off the fast track. An old man states matter-of-factly that this is the only racetrack left in the world without a physical barrier between the spectators and the cars.
The vehicles are all different, but all designed with the same goals in mind: maximum horsepower and minimum aerodynamic drag. Some of them are shaped like teardrops, others like wingless airplanes. A few look like half torpedoes, so low to the ground that you think the other half must be buried under the dirt. Still others are old hotrods chopped and channeled and sectioned and narrowed and modified probably hundreds of times by hot rodders who have spent 60 years on the perpetual path of just a little bit more.
A few of these racers have made it to the 200 MPH club, affectionately called the "Dirty Twos". There are a handful of people in the 300 MPH chapter (five, to be exact) and the maximum record is set at just above 308 MPH. The limited length of the track doesn't lend itself to the higher speeds seen at Bonneville; the drivers only have 1.3 miles to get up to speed and only about a mile after that to slow down before the lakebed stops being flat and starts becoming a fence.
A hundred miles southwest of here, the residents of Los Angeles are commuting in Hybrid Honda Civics and minimizing their carbon footprints. Meanwhile on the lakebed, a car with dual supercharged V8 engines races by at 280 MPH with an exhaust wail that would make Zeus dook in his cargo shorts. It is the most spectacular display of raw power this side of the Space Shuttle. A regular guy with a garage, some disposable income and a fuel injectors spraying nitromethane like a fire hose.
If you own a motorcycle and can save up a few hundred bucks for safety equipment, you can come out and ride it as fast as it will go, flat out and screaming in your helmet. If you want to custom design a $50,000 full blown racing car and take it up to 300 MPH, you can do that too. Just be careful; it's easy to get caught up in. You can spend your life trying to go just a little bit faster. And then just a little bit faster. And then just a little bit faster.
At Bonneville they call it salt fever. Out here they don't have a name for it; it's just the essence of the place. It's really all there is; there's no money, there's no fame, no bikini girls selling energy drinks, no box seats and no celebrities.
In the Post-War era, auto racing exploded in popularity all over the world. It became something else, something bigger than a few kids trying to outrun the cops. But in most racing series' there are successive periods just as consequential that further shaped those sports into what they are today.
In the late 1960's, sponsorship showed up. By the 70's, the cars in some racing series were all starting to look the same. In the 80's the TV cameras arrived and racing became big business. In the 90's the sport boomed in popularity, and now the drivers are rock stars and the cars have more engineering than the Hubble telescope.
El Mirage has, in a lot of ways, never moved out of the Post-War era. While the rest of the racing world was clamoring for the money, the people out here just kept doing what they were doing.
It is tempting to say El Mirage is a place that time forgot. More suitable is to say that El Mirage is a place that sponsorship and television never found. Sure, there are cars that are thirty years older than I am, but they're not in a museum. They are part of the event because their owners are part of it. It's not history and it's not stuck in the past; it just is what it is because no one ever tried to change it.
I can't help but wonder what this place will be like in twenty years, when all the old-timers are gone. Will it live on for the next 50 years the same as it has been for the past 50, in the lives of the few younger participants? Will it become something bigger, with sponsors, and TV coverage and a barrier between the racing and the spectators? Or will it slowly vanish, leaving barns full of rusting cheese wedges and a few fading memories of incredible speed? Only time will tell.
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