Sooner or later, something happens that lets you know where you stand in the pecking order. For me, realizing my place in the motorsports world happened at Willow Springs Raceway in California's Mojave dessert. All without even driving.
An article in the newspaper caught my eye. Riverside International Raceway was being torn down. The once isolated track was a victim of urban sprawl. Being a student of motorsports history, I was upset. The track was an icon of American racing. Now it was going to be a shopping mall. For some unknown reason, I had never been to the track. I had been at countless events, even attending races at the long defunct Ontario Motor Speedway, but never Riverside. Cal Club was holding the final race on the track, an SCCA National, dubbed "The Last Lap of Riverside". There was no doubt I was going to be there.
It was an especially hazy weekend as the LA smog tended to stack up against the hills. Nobody cared. It was a celebration of Riverside's passing into history. The fields were full as everyone wanted a last run on the track. I walked a full lap of the track, thinking about all the historic events, the drivers, and those who had lost their lives at the track. Ken Miles, Rolf Stommelen, Joe Weatherly, to name a few. Riverside never was a particularly safe track and you could see why. Even the spectator areas wouldn't pass muster today. When the racing was over and it was time to go, it didn't seem enough just to buy the T-shirt and leave. So I bought a Formula Ford. Turns out, the T-shirt would have been the more popular souvenir at the Mintun household, but hey, that's another story.
It was a Crossle 32 with some reputation for speed. I hadn't run the car but a handful of times when I got a phone call from Dennis Firestone. Dennis, you will remember, spent several years running Indy cars for the Raynor team. He was also SCCA National Champion in Formula Ford…in a Crossle 32. An event was being held to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Formula Ford class. It was to be a big shindig with past champions and current racers gathering for the weekend at Willow Springs Raceway. Dennis needed a ride. I had the same type of car he drove to the championship. Could he borrow it for the event? Sounded like fun to me. Sure.
We met up at the track and Dennis had company. Ken Dieter, the North American distributor for Crossle Cars had come out for the weekend, and John Crossle himself had flown over from Ireland with his daughter. We were going to have the "A" team in our pit! Dennis and I are about the same size so fitting him to the car wasn't an issue and we tweaked the chassis to his liking while the assembled group tried not to show their obvious disdain for my tool and spares organization.
When it came time to qualify, our tires hadn't arrived so we were forced to wait and qualify on the second day. On day two, it rained. (Yes, it does rain in SoCal once in a while.) Since this was a non point, special event, some of the rules had been relaxed…such as field size. The wet second day effort netted 42nd starting spot in a field of 64. Not exactly what we had been hoping for.
As the time approached on Sunday for the 20 lap main event, Dennis was fired up. This was his first time in a race car since his bad Indy qualifying crash and months of recovery. Once the field rolled off we stationed ourselves along pit wall to watch this massive swarm of Fords attack the fast Willow Springs track. The flag dropped and Dennis didn't waste any time. He came rocketing up through the field passing cars three and four at a time. He was flying around the track so much faster than any other car that it was impossible not to notice. Another team's crew member standing next to me looked up at me and said, "THAT'S your car?!" I nodded, "Yeah, but it doesn't do that with ME in it!" It was quite a show. Dennis went from 42nd to finish 4th in a 20 lap race of theoretically equal cars. He would have easily made the podium but he encountered a car that was very fond of third place. Dennis was shown the dirt several times. Rather than push it and return my car in a ball, he elected to ride around the last three laps and finish fourth.
Dennis clambered out of the car and exclaimed, "DAMN that was fun!" His little demonstration hadn't gone unnoticed by the track announcer and he was summoned to the podium anyway. When you are used to the speeds of an Indy car, you are mentally miles ahead of a Formula Ford…and it showed. It left me pondering the gap between what he got out of my car and what I got out of my car. Not a gap, really, more like a canyon. Let's face it, he didn't run at the front of the Indy series either. That made it worse. My place in the order of things was clearly marked that day.
Not long after that, I was strapping into a cockpit at the Skip Barber Racing School. Egos are fragile things. It's only taken 20 years, but I've gotten past all that. I have come to grips with the fact that I am distinctly average as a driver. That's OK. I have a lot of fun. That's really the point. Unless your living depends on it, you don't have to be pro caliber. There's a place in motorsports for all of us.
This piece was written and submitted by a Jalopnik reader and may not express views held by Jalopnik or its staff. But maybe they will become our views. It all depends on whether or not this person wins by whit of your eyeballs in our reality show, "Who Wants to be America's Next Top Car Blogger?"