Like two dancers executing half a pirouette, the two 3000-pound late-model Sportsman-class stock cars spun out side by side, squealing their tires, as their rear ends slid toward the crash wall and their front ends toward the infield, beginning their spin at 70 miles per hour, then slowing fast. The 01 car and the 1 car belonged to a father and son, Jerry and Danny Gay — Danny had clipped his father on the rear left panel 6 laps into the 40-lap feature at Cajon Speedway as the two cars went into the second turn of the three-eighths-of-a-mile paved oval. On the bottom of the banked curve, Danny’s car had pulled, was slow to turn, and he drifted up, had “collected” his dad, in the parlance of the track. Danny went into the infield but Jerry skated back, smashing the rear of his car against the wall, and was done for the night. The yellow flag went up and he limped away.
Jerry’s voice came over the radio to his crew chief, Mike Hagerman, “My own kid, he hit me. He hit me twice.” Maybe Hagerman said something back, maybe not. That had been another of Jerry’s problems that day. His radio was broken. “Actually, it was a bad day from after breakfast on,” Jerry told me. “Mike said he could hear me, but I couldn’t hear him. Usually he’ll tell me if there’s a car coming up on me, or I’m coming up on a car, or when I get by the car if I’m free, or to watch out for something on the next turn, or if there’s something on the track, but that night there was nothing.”
Danny kept going, but his troubles weren’t over. It was only his second race in a Sportsman this season, having just moved up from Street Stocks. In 1999 and 2000 he had been Street Stock Champion, and in ’98 he had been Street Stock Rookie of the Year. He held the record at Cajon for main-event wins in a season with 14, held the record for fastest laps in a main event with 25, and had tied the track record for the fastest times in a season with 17. At 27 years old, he had 32 career main-event wins. Now he had taken out his father, the reigning track champion with 135 wins over more than 20 years at Cajon.
Eighteen cars had started the feature that May 5th under a full moon as a crowd of 2600 watched. Nine finished. Then in the 19th lap Danny pushed too hard and took a sudden trip up and over another car and that was that. Ron Overman, the 58-year-old, two-time track champion, went on to win the race in his number 2 car.
Danny’s problems had been going on all day. “We had motor problems, we had all kinds of problems. We lost an oil pump, an oil pump drive, and a distributor. Most people would have gone home. Nope, not us. We were going to get that thing running, no matter what it takes. It took us two and a half hours to find a pump, first of all. We had to take apart our spare motor from the Street Stock to get the oil pump drive out of it. We borrowed a distributor from my dad. We finally get it altogether. We were one minute late to 6:30. After that you can’t qualify anymore. So we missed the heat race. [This 8-lap race establishes the driver’s position in the 40-lap race, so by missing this race Danny had to start at the back of the pack in the feature.] After two and a half hours of thrashing to get it done. The week before that they started out 45 minutes late, but I’m 1 minute late and they won’t let me qualify. Ruined my whole night. Didn’t matter where I finished. Actually, I finished last in the points, as far as that goes. [Points are given for the number of cars passed in a race.]
“Then I caught my dad’s car on the sixth lap and took him out. I should have been more mellow. I was overdriving for the most part. But I’m the rookie so I get blamed for everything. My damage was mostly cosmetic — lost my whole right side — except for the damage to my J-bar; that’s what kept me from finishing.”
When Danny calls himself a rookie, it’s with a mixture of modesty and irony, seriousness and sarcasm. He is a handsome young man — tall and blond with light bluish green eyes and a brooding quality, seemingly still and explosive at the same time. As for J-bars, I was to hear a lot about them from Danny and his dad and others at Cajon. It’s a bar in the rear of the car that keeps the rear axle, the differential, and other components from moving side to side. A high J-bar adjustment keeps the rear end tighter, preventing the back end from sliding upward through the turns. When it’s too tight, gravitational forces push the front end upward through the turns.
“Danny’s had a pretty rough outing so far this year,” said Steve Brucker, the promoter and one of the owners of the track. “You don’t get any points for flying through the air. Those particular cars are too expensive to use as bumper cars. What’s important is still being around at the end of the year. Hitting his dad, Danny was just saying hello. But after Danny hit Jerry, yeah, there was no love lost for a while. Actually, I think Jerry’s very proud of his son. And the fact that we have a father and son racing against each other is good for the track. The Gays have generated a lot of interest because they’re in the Sportsman class.”
One day I asked Jerry how his son happened to hit him. Jerry’s car was on display along with Danny’s and three others at a mini-celebration at the Home Depot on Fairmount. There was a small stage, loud guitars, staticky speakers, and blasts of feedback. Jerry Gay is a tall, thin man of 49 with red hair, a red mustache, and a reddish face. He had on an orange shirt and blue pants, a cap and dark glasses. He tends to stand with his arms crossed as if looking over something he might want to buy. His red hair and mustache give him a foxlike aspect.
“Danny just drove into the corner too far and his front end went, you know, back here.” Jerry pointed toward the rear quarter panel. “He drove in over his head, yeah. You need to let off the brake in order to make the turn. You just can’t drive in full throttle. It was just a rookie mistake and it had to be Dad. So then for a while he was Daniel, not Danny. The next day, Sunday, was my granddaughter’s birthday party, so Danny comes walking in carrying his daughter, you know, and I say, ‘Hi, Daniel.’ He says, ‘Hi, Dad,’ in a low voice. It’s always been that way. Whenever he was in trouble as a kid it’s Daniel. ‘Daniel, get over here!’ ”
Few relationships are more complicated as those between a parent and child. It was one thing for Jerry to call it a rookie mistake, but when I suggested it had been caused by a lack of experience, Jerry bristled.
“He don’t have lack of experience. He drove a Sportsman a few years ago for two races and he finished fifth and lowballed himself and it wasn’t near the car I had. He just needs a good shake.”
For any driver, the jump from one class to the next higher can be a big move, but the jump to Sportsman is the most ambitious. The Sportsman, as Danny told me, is a lot less forgiving than a Street Stock and more expensive. To build a brand-new Street Stock might cost $10,000 (Danny has built two); a Sportsman might be between $60,000 and $70,000. And each year there are technical changes, new features like aluminum heads to keep the car competitive, and in three years the car is already outdated. Tires cost $108 each, and drivers generally need to buy two each week. Rims are $80 each; Jerry Gay bought 16 at the beginning of the season. He also paid $1500 for the fiberglass body. And these are the small expenses.
I asked Danny about the difference between driving a Street Stock and a Sportsman.
“There’s a huge difference: weight, brakes, tires are bigger. You got way more horsepower. My car’s got about 430 horsepower. Nothing on this car is stock, versus last year: all suspension, driveline, all that kind of stuff was stock parts. These are easier to drive than the others. I think it’s because you’re so comfortable and the car reacts so good and is so responsive. The other car’s a lot more wishy-washy. You don’t have to turn the steering wheel very much in this car, only a little bit. In that other car you’re turning it all around, you’re working it pretty good all the time. Of course, in this car one little mistake would cost you a lot more, that’s for sure, but that’s just because the class is more expensive. It seems like when you get loose in this thing and you’re going to get bumped, it seems to me like it’s easier to save her when you get out of control, because for one thing the rear end’s not locked solid, both wheels don’t spin together. They’re locked when you’re on the gas, but when you’re not, they’re free, so that helps control the car. And this car has almost 200 horsepower more, all lightweight. The car weighs 300 pounds less. The brakes are bigger, the tires two inches wider, all that.”
So a big difference between Street Stock and Sportsman is the money it costs to run them. But there’s little money in victory. The winner of the Sportsman-class main event receives $800 for first place, about twice what the winner of the Street Stock division gets. Second-place Sportsman gets $600. There is additional money paid for the fastest qualifying time in each division ($25 to each class) and to the winner of the heat race (another $25 to each class). At the end of the season, all points winners get paid the same, regardless of class. Top finisher receives $1000 for the year; second place gets $800; $600 goes to third. The winning Sportsman driver who collects the most passing points in a race receives $200. But this money — even for the winners — isn’t nearly enough to pay the driver and his crew for their time and expenses.
So either a driver has to have good sponsors or be wealthy. Jerry Gay has his own shop where he does metal fabrication, welding, and automotive work. Being self-employed allows him to adjust his hours to work on his car, but his day job will never make him rich. He shares the ownership of his car with a man in Ramona: Jerry owns the car and the other man owns the motor. Danny’s day job is working for a guy who owns a mortgage company and on the side buys and sells about 10 to 15 houses a year. “They’re pretty much always dumps,” Danny told me. “We go in, fix them up, and he sells them. We work all over the place.” A major benefit of the job is that his boss lets him take time off for racing and travel to other tracks in the fall after Cajon Speedway closes.
Danny bought his Sportsman — a ’99 Monte Carlo with a 355 Chevy motor — at the beginning of the year, then he and his crew chief, Heath Parsons, and the rest of the crew worked on it through the winter and spring. In March, they began running it at the practice sessions at Cajon Speedway. The season at Cajon runs from April 7 until October 6, but not every division runs every week. The Sportsman class might run five weeks in a row, then take a week off. Besides the Sportsman there are street stocks, bombers, modifieds, ponys, legends, speed trucks, boat races, destruction derbies — where station wagons back into each other until only one is able to move — and train races: three cars linked together by a metal bar with a person in the front as the driver, a person in the back as the brake, the middle car empty, five or six trains doing eight laps on a figure-eight track and a crash every race. These more exotic races are crowd pleasers that elicit sneers from the serious drivers and their pit crews, because the primo class is the Sportsman and the primo race is the Sportsman’s 40-lap feature, even if most of the fans come to watch the clown stuff. On a good Saturday, 95 to 100 cars will be racing before an average audience of 3000.
The 2001 season opener was rained out and Danny’s maiden run had to be delayed until April 14, then it rained again the following Saturday, and the week after that the Sportsman class didn’t run. There are two eight-lap races, a slow heat and a fast heat, for any main race. When the feature begins, the slow-heat cars are positioned, in order of how they won their race, in two lanes in front of the fast-heat cars, though a driver may elect to take a place at the back. In the fast-heat race, Danny pursued his father the whole way. Jerry won and Danny was second. Jerry’s time was 2:13.30 — five seconds faster than the winner of the slow-heat race.
There were 14 cars in Danny’s first feature race. Because he had qualified second he was right at the front next to his father but behind the slow-heat cars. But at the green flag, he was quickly able to move forward through the slow-heat cars, and by the third lap he was in first place and clear of the pack. For lap after lap Danny was able to maintain his position. There were a number of single-car incidents as cars spun out and the yellow flag went up five times, but none of this jarred Danny from being in the lead.
It must have been a tremendous thrill. Here he was in his first race after his jump from Street Stock to Sportsman and it seemed he had it in the bag. Behind him were the old guys, the drivers who raced and won year after year. Todd McLauchlan was in second place, then Jerry Gay and Mike Mendenhall were neck and neck, then came Ron Overman. On the 34th lap Mendenhall was able to pass Jerry for the third position.
Then on lap 35, Danny’s luck turned bad. Another yellow flag went up as a car slid out, and just after the restart the rotor broke in Danny’s distributor and his car began to backfire. His speed started to slip and McLauchlan, right behind him, was forced to slow as well. Mendenhall, in third place, was now able to move forward and was passing McLauchlan down on the inside out of the second turn on lap 38. Going into the third turn, Danny hit it hard. He could see Mendenhall gaining on him, and by going in over his head, as his father might say, he hoped to protect his lead. But Danny went into the turn too fast. He started losing control and slid sideways in front of McLauchlan. Mendenhall was still at the bottom of the track and had moved into second place. Unable to turn toward the infield because of Mendenhall, Todd McLauchlan roared up over the top of Danny’s car, peeling away the roof like peeling the top off a can of sardines. Mendenhall shot by Danny and went on to win with Jerry coming in second.
Later Mendenhall was quoted in the Cajon Speedway press release as saying, “On the restart I’m thinking Danny has this in the bag. When Danny broke, that slowed Todd down. I thought, Look what just fell into my lap.”
“Yeah, him and Todd got into it,” Jerry told me. “The rotor broke and I don’t know what else happened. There was fiberglass everywhere.” Jerry chuckled benevolently. “And after the race Todd says, ‘Man, your kid watched you too much. It was just like following you racing.’ ”
So in Danny’s first race the top was stripped off the car, and in his second race the side was stripped off and the J-bar got messed up. Danny’s pit crew was angry at him. His wife was angry with him. His sponsors were getting seriously pessimistic. And his father was calling him Daniel. What had seemed for most of that first race to be a brilliant start now seemed a questionable enterprise.
Jerry Gay grew up in a tract house in Brookside, between Spring Valley, La Mesa, and Lemon Grove. He told me quite a few guys at the track grew up in that neighborhood. He got involved with race cars in his early teens, and by the time he was 16 he had built a figure-eight car, which was like a Bomber stock car — nowadays V-8 Novas and Chevelles, beat-up Road Warrior cars. Since Jerry was too young to race, the kids in the neighborhood had to chip in to hire a driver. Jerry began racing at Cajon in 1971, then he took a few years off to get married and have Danny and two daughters. Though he worked on cars during that time and was often at the track, he didn’t drive again until 1977, when he built another car. Since then he has driven nearly every week, starting with Limited Stock Cars, then Street Stocks in ’82, then New Street Stocks in ’84. In 1990 Jerry switched to Sportsman, driving six different cars in six years with a new car this year. Together he and Danny have won seven championships, and at the racing banquet this year the announcer made what has become the often-heard joke: “Welcome to the Gay Banquet.”
As indicated, drivers make little money at racing, even the successful ones, and the time spent on the car is often 40 hours a week. Jerry has a crew of six or seven men of whom about half work on the car in his shop three or more nights a week. “They have other lives between eating and sleeping and race cars,” said Jerry. “Mine’s a little different. And what do I like about it? It’s like a heroin addict, I need to get my fix. When I was in about seventh grade a friend of mine’s dad took me to the races, and I said to myself, ‘That’s what I want to do someday.’ So I basically work to race. You don’t do it for the money, it’s nothing about that. There’s competition, but I’ve won a lot of races here. It’s how you race. Each time it’s different.”
His son explained it by saying, “My dad’s been doing this a long time. It’s in his blood. He don’t have a choice.”
Situated next to Gillespie Field in El Cajon, the speedway had its first race in the summer of 1961. The owner, Earle Brucker Sr., had leased the land from the county and hoped to lure a pro baseball team to El Cajon, then he tried football, at last he settled for stock cars. Now his grandsons Steve and Kevin run the track, although various other Bruckers also do various jobs. None of the Bruckers have ever raced stock cars themselves. There is some discrepancy as to when the present lease will run out. “The original lease [signed in 1955] was drawn until 2005,” said Steve Brucker. “But five years into the contract, though, the county changed the conditions and had my grandfather re-sign the lease, which states that the term is valid for 50 years from the date of signing.” The amended lease was signed in 1960, effectively granting the Brucker family the use of the land until 2010. The county contends that the amended lease did not restart the clock and that the original term is the one that they intend to respect. Presumably as 2005 approaches lawyers will begin to swarm like bees. There are endless theories about what might happen, mostly pessimistic, as to the future of the track. After all, San Diego always has a need for more malls and subdivisions.
As for Danny Gay, he’s been around Cajon Speedway since before he was born back in November 1973. “Like, I was in my mom’s belly at the races,” he told me. “My sister was almost born there. My mom went into labor while she was at the races. I mean, I grew up around the track. It’s all I’ve ever really known, really. But I remember being little — too little to be in the pits — and my dad put me in the closet of the motor home and made me stay in there for a while, because they were in line to get onto the track and until they were on the infield I had to stay in the closet, they didn’t want me running around. Because I was out of control when I was little, I’d just run around. I had to have been about 4. I’d ride my bike up and down the pit road and get in trouble. And I loved watching the races. Me and Heath started going later when we were about 10. [Heath Parsons has been Danny’s crew chief for the past ten years.] We were little, but we were the only kids that were really paying attention to what was going on. All the other little kids were running around and playing down below under the stands and all that stuff. But we were always watching. I always watched my dad’s races, though I did do a fair share of playing down below too. Then when I was about 14 I started out racing with go-carts. They teach you a lot, as far as what racing and driving is at least.”
It seemed only inevitable that he would move up. As Jerry Gay told me, “One of Danny’s neighbors came over and asked, ‘How come you spend so much time working on cars?’ And Danny said, ‘That’s kind of how I was raised.’ ” Then Jerry continued, “I built his first race car for him when he was in high school. It was a Pony Stock. We had a deal going called Racers Against Drugs, so I figured that he could keep his mind occupied on racing, you know, that he wouldn’t go down the wrong way with the wrong guys. He really wanted to win a race while he was still in high school, and he did do that, so. That’s what started him at Cajon.”
Danny emended his father’s recollection. “Yeah, he helped me build my first Pinto, my Pony Stock, but I built it and he told me what to do. Pony Stock is your basic start-’em-up class, really, is what it is. Once you move up, then you think back on it, ‘Hey, those were boring, they’re so slow,’ but they were a lot of fun to drive when I was a kid.”
Danny won his first stock car race, in the Bomber division, at El Centro Raceway in 1990, then in ’92 he was nominated Rookie of the Year at Cajon in the Pony Stock division, and in ’93 he was named the Most Improved Driver in the Pony Stock division. But it was expensive. He had few sponsors, found it difficult to find sponsors, and didn’t race all the time. Danny was born and raised in El Cajon and now lives in Lakeside, where his mother is from. “I like Lakeside,” he told me, “a hillbilly town.” Many of the drivers and their crews are from that area — Santee, Spring Valley, El Cajon, Lemon Grove. Like the audience at the track, they are 99 percent Anglo. Mostly they are a laconic bunch — though Danny can be talkative when he chooses to be — men who make remarks rather than conversation, who show little trace of emotion unless they have been drinking or become angry. Perhaps if they win or lose a race some passion will bubble to the surface. Here is a short discussion between two men conducted in an absolute monotone. First man: “You went low, Evans went high. You all git the green, then Evans jumped you. Doc bounced off the wall and hit Scott.” Second man: “It was one of those melee deals where I was on the gas just hoping nobody would come back into me, but that’s when I nailed him.” They could have been talking about mowing the lawn.
These are men who are geniuses about race cars, but for the majority it is extremely hard for them to go out to ask people to give them money.
I talked to Steve Brucker about this. He’s a gray-haired, soft-spoken man, heavyset and with a dry sense of humor.
“Most of these guys aren’t very good at marketing themselves. They wait till the end of the season to start knocking on doors. It’s tough. They’re working a 40-hour-a-week job and 40 hours a week on their race car. It’s a serious commitment. And it can be hard on a marriage unless you can find a woman who likes watching TV and handing you wrenches. And they pay for a lot of the car’s damage out of their own pockets. It’s not like the old days when you could go to Dale’s Auto Wreck, get a five-dollar hood, and go home. Marketing is just not their forte. Like a driver comes to me at the end of the season and says he lost one of his sponsors. I say, ‘Did you call him, did you send him a framed picture of your car?’ No, he did nothing. So because he didn’t spend 11 bucks, he lost the account. They have no business sense. And the place that sponsored him, they’re not going to feel like sponsoring anybody else. So he’d ruined it for other drivers.”
And this was also true of Danny, who had at most about five sponsors. At the beginning he had practically no sponsors.
Danny Gay’s luck suddenly improved when he rolled his Ford Pinto Pony Stock three times across the finish line of the Cajon Speedway back in 1995. Tonya Rowell was sitting in the audience, and when she saw the car roll something did a little flip in her heart. She’d met Danny before, but now something suddenly changed. On Monday she got busy.
“I was living in Palm Springs,” Danny told me, “and Tonya didn’t know where I worked or what my number was or nothing. She knew I worked at a Cadillac dealership, that’s it. So she called the city council or something, found out the names of the Cadillac dealerships — there’s only two, so she called them and found me at work.”
“I told him,” said Tonya, “ ‘I saw you roll your car and I was hoping you were all right.’ ” She paused and gave a thoughtful smile. “And everything just went from there.”
Danny and Tonya went together for five years, then were married in March of 2000. Their baby girl, Ali, was born in February. Tonya is a small woman, very pretty with long brown hair that falls halfway down her back.
“I’d like to have my child race,” she said. “Danny certainly wants more kids.” She laughed. “I imagine having daughter after daughter, but there’re women who drive too.”
Tonya works for a bank, Washington Mutual, and taking her banking skills and natural marketing skills she immediately began raising money for what soon came to be called DG Motorsports.
“She has been absolutely relentless in her pursuit of sponsors,” Steve Brucker told me, “and that’s what it takes.”
“I went through the Yellow Pages,” said Tonya, “then called 1000 businesses. Afterward, I cut my list down to 200 that seemed interested, then I sent out our newsletter to 100 of those. So I started with 8 sponsors and doubled that to 15. Then I kept calling businesses in order to raise the quality of the sponsors so we could get more money. And the ones that seemed promising but that haven’t given us money, I’ll contact three or four times a year. But a lot would say, ‘Oh, no, I sponsored a car for a few years and I never heard from them. They never called or anything.’ And there was a pizza parlor not far from the track that said they’d sponsored a car and they said the driver and crew would come in on Saturday nights and drink beer and eat pizza, then get drunk and abusive to the other customers, and the guy never wanted to have anything to do with race cars again. But I kept calling him and going over there and I promised that none of us would ever go in there drinking on Saturday night and all we wanted was three pizzas on Tuesdays for when the crew was working on the car and that’s what we got.”
The names of the sponsors are displayed on the car, team shirts, merchandise, and media material. On the car itself, the hood is the most expensive and the sponsor’s name and logo can run $15,000, then the rear quarter panels on both sides can run $10,000, the door panels are $8000, the rocker panels are $5000. There are also the rear bumper, deck lid and spoiler, front fenders, windshield, and panels by the side window, which go for different prices depending on the size of the name. Sponsors receive additional benefits such as billboard space at the track, ads in the Cajon Speedway program, a number of promotional events, intercom announcements as the car enters the track, and several other treats — the extent of each depending on the original outlay of money. And then the car is also used outside the Cajon racing season at races in such places as Las Vegas, Irwindale, Altamont, and Bakersfield, but also locally in parades, street fairs, and fund-raising events.
Every week during racing season Tonya lets the sponsors know how the car did on the weekend. She also writes a monthly newsletter. She has printed up stacks of postcards with a color photo of the car on one side and a picture of Danny, a list of his accomplishments, and a list of his sponsors on the other. She sends out marketing plans to prospective sponsors; she is on the phone; she is never timid, retiring, or laconic, although one would not know this when talking to her. In our conversations she seemed rather mild-mannered — a friendly and reserved young woman who didn’t talk much.
“I was surprised when she and Danny got together,” said Steve Brucker. “They’re like apples and oranges. He’s real outgoing. She’s quiet, almost shy.”
Yet given her determination, it would be hard to call Tonya shy. She had chased down the Cadillac dealerships in Palm Springs, looking for the guy who had rolled his Pinto across the finish line. She had been the one to seek out the sponsors, not Danny. And it was the sponsors who had allowed Danny to move up from Pony Stocks to Street Stocks and then to Sportsman.
“Tonya had approached me three years ago,” said the director of advertising at Lloyd Pest Control, who preferred that I didn’t use his name. “She was a banker by trade but a marketer at heart. Great instincts. And what she lacked in polish, she more than made up for in persistence. I told her to keep us in mind for the future and to keep me included on her mailing list of press releases. I followed Danny’s ascent. Rookie of the Year in Street Stocks, and track champ twice. And right when I needed them most, they were stepping up to the big leagues — Late Model Sportsman. Lloyd started back in the ’30s, and we now have 250 employees. We had some morale problems, and I thought more could be done to bring management and the workforce together. It took some convincing, but in the end, I got management to see what I saw — an opportunity to attract new hires, an expenditure that would provide entertainment geared at the demographics of our employees, the resulting pride, and some incidental and collateral advertising value that would probably offset our costs through sales. Unfortunately, rain delays and canceled races have hurt the momentum that I had hoped for, but last week [May 26] proved to be the best employee attendance thus far. We sell discounted tickets ($5). Nearly 30 employees showed up with family and friends. I would like to see that number be closer to 75 or 100. On the brighter side, every employee who has attended the races has attended more than once. On July 21 we will be doing a special tailgate barbecue party at the track for the families of our people. The race season mirrors our own bug season, roughly April 15 to October 15. Tonya’s goal is to make our people ecstatic with their team — and with the mouse car. Both she and Danny are outstanding pitchmen (pitchpeople) for their cause.”
Lloyd Pest Control bought the hood, the doors, and the rear panel. And they wanted them white, not pink, as they had originally been. Displayed prominently on each is the company’s logo of the running mouse — a creature almost too cute to kill.
Danny’s third race was on May 12, before a small crowd, only 1700 — a night so cold that people joked about snow. In order to race, a driver has to be a member of nascar or a member of the Cajon Speedway Racing Association. Drivers have to register by 2:00 p.m. on the day of the race, and so it is possible for a driver who has never driven at Cajon before to show up almost at the last minute.
Danny was uncertain about his car, talked about the rear end being loose. But tonight he meant to take no chances. Too many people were still unhappy with him because of his earlier accidents. Tonight what he wanted most was just to finish.
Heath, his crew chief, kept crawling under the car, poking around, trying to discover what was wrong. During the day he works as a mechanic at his dad’s Chevron station. He is tall, thin, blondish with a goatee. As laconic as the rest, he seems somewhat standoffish, although around the car he is quick and businesslike: a perfectionist.
Jerry’s car was parked next to Danny’s in the pits. Jerry chatted with his crew and with friends, standing with his arms crossed, eyes hidden by sunglasses, a man seemingly without doubts.
I sat with Tonya in the stands as the various classes went through their different heats. The lower the class, the more accidents there seemed to be, as if the drivers grew more careful as their equity increased. Dozens of children ran around clutching junk food. Steve Brucker had told me that the number of women in the audience had been increasing and had now reached about 45 percent. Cars spun out and banged into each other or slid into the infield. Some had to be dragged away, some crawled away on their own. The yellow flag would go up and the other cars would slow and get back in position. When the coast was clear, they’d rev up, get the green flag, and rush off again. Whenever any car began to shiver, shake, or wobble a chorus of young boys would begin to shout, “Crash, crash, crash!” If no crash ensued, they would groan in disappointment.
In the Sportsman class there were only four cars in the slow-heat race, which was won by John Manke. So few cars meant that the winner of the fast heat would have an even better advantage than usual.
Tonya told me that the track owners wanted crashes for the crowd. “The track wants excitement,” she said, “and by putting the slow-heat cars first and making the fast-heat cars try and get around them, it causes more accidents and more excitement.”
I asked Steve Brucker about this and he was indignant. “We put the slow-heat cars first to create better racing. It’s certainly not in our best interest to create accidents. If only the fast cars were in front, they’d just disappear and leave the others behind.”
Sixteen cars were in the eight-lap fast-heat race. Right away Jerry took the lead with Danny right behind him. Tonya nervously leaned forward with a radio pressed to her ear, listening to whatever Danny and Heath might say to one another. At 70 mph the cars were about six inches apart, rushing past with grim throat-clearing noises. Several cars spun out and several times the yellow flag went up. One of the cars that spun out had gone into the infield, and coming back onto the track the driver tried to take up his previous position. An official in a red coat by the gate to the far left lifted his left leg and gave himself a pat under the knee as a sign to the driver to go back to the end of the line. The track hires 25 officials for a race, including scorekeepers, though only 6 officiate for the race itself.
Slowly the green number 12 car, driven by Mike Mendenhall, who had won the first race of the season, crept up to Danny on the inside. Jerry kept his lead and won the race. Danny and Mendenhall had seemed side by side, but the officials gave second place to Mendenhall, even though Danny felt certain that he had come in second.
Tonya was unhappy with Mendenhall. “That green car bumped Danny three times on the back end, and if you do that you spin out. I didn’t like that. Danny wasn’t going to pass his dad in this race. It wasn’t worth it. He wasn’t going to win anything. He was just racing for position in the 40-lap race. So in the big race he’ll be positioned third after the slow cars. Actually, it’s okay to push the car ahead of you, but if you push him too hard and he spins out, then you have to go to the back of the pack for making him spin out.”
When I talked to Danny, he seemed even more uncertain and spoke of the difficulty he had had on the curves. Heath dove back underneath. Three of the other crewmembers worked on different parts of the car. I asked Danny about his decision to move up to the Sportsman class and his father’s reaction to it.
“We don’t really discuss racing a whole lot together. He does his thing; I do mine. He didn’t really want me to come up in this class, didn’t want me to put all my money in it. But it’s not that he didn’t want me to race, I don’t think. He’s never owned his car so he probably thinks that it’s way too big of a jump for us to try and afford something like this, but he knows as well as I do that once you get the car that it costs the same to run. The tires on this thing are like $108 per tire. If you buy a Pony tire, it’s $95. Well, those guys need to buy tires every week too, so how much of a difference is 10 or 13 bucks? Gas costs the same for all classes. So he just didn’t want me to jump up to this class, but I don’t think it was because of the competition. I tend to think so, but then again he never said that. Who knows, maybe he didn’t want me to beat him. I don’t know, but I doubt it. We just don’t discuss racing a lot. It’s been like never. He doesn’t help do anything with what we do, and I don’t help with him on anything he does. It’s not like we don’t like each other. It’s just that as far as racing goes, we do our own thing.”
Then I asked Danny if he had ever been hurt in one of his cars.
“No, never. Crashed a couple of times pretty good too. Rolled over a few times. Never been hurt though.”
Shortly I asked Jerry how he felt about his son moving up to Sportsman. He laughed. “Three weeks ago when we tangled I didn’t like it at all, but it’s fine.”
Then it was time for the feature. With a roar, the 20 cars came zigzagging onto the track, scuffing up their tires to free them from the small rocks and debris picked up back in the pits. Swerving back and forth also heats up the tires, giving the cars better traction. As the cars took their warm-up laps and formed into pairs, it became clear that the drivers of two of the slow-heat cars had chosen to race at the back of the pack, leaving only two slow-heat cars in front — Wayne Morse in the 47 car and John Manke in the 10 car. Jerry was behind Manke on the inside with Danny behind him. Mendenhall was behind Morse on the outside, and McLauchlan, who had ended up on top of Danny during the first race of the season, was behind Mendenhall. Right away on the first turn on the first lap after the green flag Mendenhall gave Morse a bump on the right side sending him into a spin into the infield and Mendenhall shot ahead. Morse was unable to reenter the race, and Mendenhall took the lead with McLauchlan second. By the time Jerry and Danny got past John Manke, they were almost neck and neck with Jerry having the edge.
And they stayed that way. Beside me in the bleachers Tonya again leaned forward with the radio pressed to her ear. Danny was down below on the inside; Jerry stayed in the middle of the track, and Ron Overman, who had won the previous week, was stuck behind them unable to go anywhere. Again and again Danny pulled even with his dad and several times was able to go neck and neck around the entire track, but he couldn’t get any bite off the corners, was just roasting his tires as he said later, and he fell back. But if he fell back too far, then Overman would try to overtake him. At one of his runs at his father, Danny began to go into a slide and Tonya gave a little scream. Then Danny recovered and drew back. Twice he pulled ahead of Jerry about half a length, but he couldn’t keep it up, even though his car has at least 50 more horsepower. Through it all Jerry didn’t budge. It was as if his number 1 car was on rails. And there was no yellow flag for the entire race, nothing to slow them up, make them change their positions. In the meantime, Mendenhall kept the lead with McLauchlan behind him.
As I watched Danny racing beside or behind his father, it seemed that he couldn’t quite get the determination to pass Jerry, as if he knew the odds; that is, the more he pushed to get by, the greater was the chance of an accident, and Danny wanted to avoid an accident. He couldn’t afford one; his crew couldn’t afford one; his sponsors couldn’t afford one. So he had to let Jerry beat him. In a way, Jerry was testing him. He wouldn’t budge from that centerline. He knew that Danny would have to take a big risk to get by, and he didn’t think Danny would take it. So they went round and round and Jerry was not going to give him anything, nothing. That’s why Danny had taken him out in that previous race, trying to get around him when Jerry hadn’t given him an inch, and now Jerry still wouldn’t give him an inch. As if Jerry was saying, “Okay, Daniel, hit me again.” And Danny, if he couldn’t see his way clear on the curve, then he wouldn’t take the chance. But he also must have been torn. Part of him must have wanted to pass no matter what. But he also knew what would happen if he had another accident. And Tonya, beside me, seemed to have been turned to stone except for an occasional sharp intake of breath. At one point she confided that after each race she had to eat practically a whole roll of Tums. The race ended as it had run since the first lap, and Mendenhall set a new track record.
Afterward I caught up with Danny when he had crawled out of his car. His face was running with sweat, and he was on his way to the Porta Potti. “My car’s a lot faster than his, but he was taking up the whole track. It wasn’t a matter of him blocking me. But I wanted to finish the race in one piece.”
And why had he begun to spin out on that one corner? “I was just loose. I was like that every lap, but that one was more noticeable. That one it got away from me.”
A few days later I visited Danny in the garage attached to his house in Lakeside where he works on his car and asked him again why he hadn’t been able to get by Jerry.
“Dad takes up the whole track. He’s been good forever. He knows how to drive a line which takes up all the lines. At one point or another the line he’s running is ruining another line that’s available on the track. For example, if I were to go on the inside of him, if I didn’t hit him and got ahead of him, and he couldn’t see me, then at another corner when he comes down, well, we’d hit and he’d spin. I’d be at fault and so on. If I try to go to the outside of him going into the corner — he enters so high you just can’t get out there. So the line that he drives — until you get up next to him completely and start driving him out of his line — you’re not going to get by him. That’s what his line does. It stops you from getting all the way up there. When you can get next to him, it’s at the point where he’s already turned. If you were able to get in there and control how he comes off the corner, that’d do it, but that’s something I couldn’t do. Your car has to work good enough on the bottom of the racetrack, which mine didn’t. If I were able to get in there and get next to him on the bottom and stop him — just take the whole way away from him so he can’t go there — then I’d have been able to get him, but the car was too loose so I couldn’t go into the corner really good low. I could go in really good high, but not low. Loose meaning that the back end wants to come around on you when you go into a corner. In a tight situation, like it was in the middle of the corner, is when you turn the car but it still wants to go straight — it’s not going. I don’t think I ever got ahead of him, never. The only time I got next to him, that one time was when he made a mistake, his car was a little loose, and I was able to get in there. But what enabled me to get in there was his mistake. I wasn’t able to get in there because I was on the gas. Now, when I got up there, if my car hadn’t been so loose, I would have been able to motor by, but since I was so loose I was just able to get next to him, and with him having a better run on the corner it gave him the edge again going into the next corner.”
I asked Danny if he thought he had been particularly cautious.
“Of course. If it was anybody else, I probably would have rubbed him a little bit, moved him up, you know, when I was next to him or forced him behind a lap car or something like that. But since we’d tangled last week and everybody was complaining and saying I was out of control or whatever, then I was just going to show them I could be as patient as the next guy, but I guarantee that the same stuff is still going on with somebody else, and sure enough it did. I got blamed last week for taking out Morse, who was driving the 10 car. And it happened again — he has two cars, number 10 and number 47 — well, he drove the 47 car on Saturday night. The driver who starts behind him always seems to take him out. The guy just never goes. He doesn’t go when the green flag drops, right? Well, Saturday night the same thing happened. Mendenhall, the guy who won the race, came up behind him and took him out. He’s got a good car and was just out there in front. He took out the 47 car, broke Morse’s wrist, and with that car gone it moved that lane up and put Mendenhall in the front. Now, when Mendenhall takes out the other guy, it’s okay. They blame Morse — how he’s always in the way and this and that. When I do it, well, ‘It’s a rookie mistake: he’s too impatient, he’s driving through people and is trying to win in the first lap.’ That’s what they say. But when Mendenhall does it, it’s a different story. So Saturday night, exactly the same thing happened as last week, but I wasn’t involved in any of it. I was Mr. Patient and come home with no scratches. That was my goal going into the night. I didn’t care where I finished as long as I came home and we didn’t have to rebuild the whole body again. I mean, the first week it was a complete body minus the roof. The second week it was the whole right side.”
I asked Danny if he felt more stress racing against his father.
“No. No, to me he’s just another driver. But Saturday it was different because I didn’t want to… Saturday it was as if I’d just gotten in a situation with somebody, anybody, the week before and was trying not to do the same thing again.” He laughed.
So I suggested that the same thing might happen next week. He stopped laughing.
“Yeah. Well, that’s where we’re going to make the adjustment. We’re going to try to make the car work better on the bottom of the racetrack. So if I do get stuck behind somebody that’s taking up the whole track again, well, I’ll go down there and run on the bottom. If you can get the car to work on the bottom of the racetrack, it’s going to work up top too. If it’s working down below where it’s flat, it’ll just work all the more better when you’ve got some banking to work with.”
Then I talked to Jerry, mentioning how he wouldn’t budge.
“No, I stayed right in my line. Oh, Danny got beside me. And actually he was ahead of me a couple of times, I think, but not enough to move me over, so. I just had to drive a little harder. I didn’t think we’d drive 40 laps without a yellow. I figured he’d pass me just because I couldn’t get the car to turn on some of the corners, but I was better than him off the corners. He was spinning his tires off the corners. He was too loose — the back tires wouldn’t hook up. But I wasn’t sure, you know, we just up and drove as hard as we could. In my car the front end was pushing — that means it’s too stiff up there, you know, when I’m set to turn. So I was having to pump the gas pedal. You drive a race car with your two hands, your butt, and both feet. Your butt has to be set in the seat comfortably. Just go drive down the street, then try and get a little erratic without your seat belt on and see how well you do. Then put your seat belt on and tighten it down and see how you do and you’re feeling good because your arms are stronger. If you have a loose seat, you’re trying to move yourself in the seat, spread your legs or whatever, and you won’t do as well. Anyway, we both drove hard. Mendenhall, who won the race, his crew wasn’t even watching him. They were watching Danny and me.”
Later in the week I talked to Danny again in his garage. He and his crew were still working on the car, trying to discover what was making it loose. I asked him what they might do to fix it.
“Well, there’s all kind of options. The J-bar, the thing that keeps the rear end from going side to side. You can move it up and down and it’ll change the way the car reacts. You can loosen it up or tighten it up, depending on which way to go. You can add brake jacks in all four corners [he pointed under the hood toward a tire], like these things right here, sitting on top of the spring and screw — we have these in all four corners. You can turn those, like in a zigzag pattern, and that’ll take cross-weight out or add cross-weight. If you add cross-weight, it’ll tighten the car up; take cross-weight out, it’ll loosen the car up. You can do it with tire-stagger — sizes of the tires in the back, you only run, like, only two and a half inches difference in the total circumference. You can bring that spread closer together and it would tighten the car up; farther apart and it would loosen. So there’re all kind of options. The angles of the upper A-arms — see how you have shims right here. You can shim the A-arms, move the A-arm back and forth, and that’ll change how the car turns in the middle of the corner. What you do depends on where the car is loose or tight or whatever. The way it is right now, we don’t know what to do. We need to do, like, a spring change or something. Probably go down on the right rear spring — which I can’t see happening, because it’s already soft in the middle — maybe take the spring rubber out of it. That spring rubber in there is stiffening up that spring a little bit. So we’ll either go down on that spring or go up on that other one, or we could adjust the shock over there. A guy that — our consultant, or whatever you might want to call him — he’ll be able to tell us what to do. In fact, he already figured it out. He called me on Sunday. He knows what he’s doing. He’s worked on these cars forever. My dad used to work with him a long time ago. My dad’s crew chief and this guy used to work on a car and they don’t like each other, can’t stand each other, in fact. And that’s the main reason why he wanted to help me when I got this car, so he can be working with a guy that beats whoever that Mike’s working on. So I just ask him things.”
Tonya had brought in Styrofoam containers of food. Now and then she would bring the baby out for a visit. Heath had crawled under the front of the car and was working on the radiator. Danny held a new fan in place while Heath tightened it. Now there was a problem. The bracket on the fan didn’t fit and they had to make a new one.
“Racing,” Danny said, “you got to love it. It’s different every time. One day the bracket on the radiator lines up, one day it doesn’t.” Then he pulled a shiny red-and-chrome distributor out of a box. It was a foot long and shaped like a torch. “This is $350 and equivalent to Tonya’s gold necklace that she likes.” It replaced the distributor that Danny had borrowed from his father.
When I visited the pit before the race on Saturday, May 19, I expected to find the car working well. After all, Danny’s consultant had said he had the problem solved.
The first person I saw was Heath. “How’s the car?” I asked.
“Terrible, we haven’t figured it out. It doesn’t work anywhere. It doesn’t turn right; it doesn’t turn left; it doesn’t turn anywhere.” He was very serious and didn’t like being interrupted.
Danny was also hurriedly working on the car, as were other members of the crew. Several were underneath; two were looking at the springs on either side of the motor with worried expressions. No one was happy. The hood was leaning against the trailer. “Got a handling issue,” Danny told me. “Haven’t got it figured out yet. We always have trouble.” His optimism of a few days before was gone. The car was still loose and pulled. He had not taken it out on Friday for the practice session, partly to save the tires, and he hadn’t bought new tires for today. A pair of left tires is rarely able to make it through two races, while four new tires can reduce lap times by up to three-tenths of a second.
On the track the Legends were rushing around smashing and getting into trouble. They looked like miniature gangster cars of the ’30s. When one crashed badly enough so it couldn’t move, a wrecker with a great pair of tongs came out and lifted it up as a dowager might pick up a squashed mouse. The cars made high, whining noises. Two had a serious smashup, and one had what appeared to be flames coming from underneath. It was almost dark. “Crash, crash,” chanted gangs of kids. Danny was disdainful of the Legends and Pony Stocks. “Who cares?” he said. This night was much warmer than the previous Saturday night, and 3000 people had come to watch.
Eight cars participated in the slow heat. John Manke, who had won the slow heat the previous week, came in second.
Even though Danny’s car wasn’t working right, Danny and Heath made a few last adjustments, hoping the problem would be at least diminished, then Danny drove out onto the track for the fast heat. Once the green flag was dropped, Danny hurtled forward, passing several of the slower cars, but three times he began to slide out on the turns. He dropped his speed and settled down just to finish. Jerry won with Overman and Mendenhall second and third. Danny came in sixth out of eight.
I was back in the pit when Danny drove up. The drivers’ windows are covered with a rubber net because some years ago a car rolled and a driver’s hand was cut off. Danny was furious and his face was bright red. He dropped his net and hurled out his chewing gum, nearly hitting me. Then he looked chagrined and apologized. The car was just as bad as ever. His crew got to work immediately. Three crawled under the car so only their legs stuck out. Three more were leaning over the front. Danny was spinning the tires to see if they were true. He tried to be polite when I asked nagging questions. “If I knew what was wrong, I’d tell you. It was pushing going into the corners, didn’t want to turn, then it was loose coming off. It’s got a bind somewhere. It could be anything.”
Ten feet away, Jerry was standing next to his car receiving people’s congratulations on his win. He was quite chipper. The napa name and logo decal were now fixed on his blue hood. “We changed three springs and adjusted the shocks. We’re not 100 percent for the race, but it’s going okay. We still need to adjust a few things. I’ve still got napa’s check in my pocket. I haven’t cashed it yet.” He wore a benign expression, a wily smile, and seemed not to notice all the unhappiness next door.
I was struck by the fact that despite Jerry’s experience, Danny wouldn’t consider asking his father what might be wrong. I asked Tonya if Jerry ever gave Danny advice. She said that since Jerry didn’t own his own car but raced it for someone else, it wouldn’t be ethical for him to give Danny advice. As I’ve indicated, this wasn’t quite correct since Jerry had told me that he owned the car, but not the motor. Last year, however, Jerry drove a car owned by his crew chief, Mike Hagerman.
Then I asked Jerry if Danny ever asked him for advice if he had a problem he couldn’t solve. “Danny now and then asked me advice about his car last year when he was running Street Stocks,” Jerry said. “But now he says I’m out to lunch. This year we only rock and roll.”
Danny’s crew had begun to roll the car back and forth. They bounced on the front, then bounced on the back. They brought out peculiar tools and dove under the hood, then once more dove under the body. They worked on the car like an ER team working on a heart transplant.
I asked Danny the question that I had just asked his wife and his father.
He couldn’t imagine asking his father for advice. “I don’t drive like he does, so I wouldn’t want to set up my car like he does. Every driver sets up his car a little differently in a dozen different ways — pinion bar angle, J-bar, springs (soft or stiff), weights per wheel, and so on — like having different-size tailor-made suits. So if a driver got into somebody else’s car, he’d know it immediately and wouldn’t like it.”
Each week a particular class gets a special introduction at the intermission. This week it was the Sportsman class. The cars were pushed onto the track by the drivers and crew — a mini-parade. Sixteen cars were in the race, eight fast and eight slow. The crews and drivers were introduced and cheered, the most successful drivers getting the biggest cheers. The names of sponsors were reeled off. Winning tickets were awarded prizes — towels, sandwiches at local cafes, movie tickets, gift certificates. The people on the track waved; the people in the stands applauded.
Then the cars started their engines, accelerated, took their warm-up laps, got into position, and were given the green flag. John Manke’s second-place slow-heat car rushed out in front. Despite the fact that it was old and heavy with iron heads, he took the lead and held it, while Overman, McLauchlan, and Mendenhall, previous winners with faster cars, were unable to catch up. Once again Danny tried to be aggressive. Though he started in the back, he moved up. Again, however, he had trouble on the corners, barely keeping his car under control. Soon he settled into fifth place behind Mendenhall. Over the radio he told Heath that if he hit the brakes just right, the car “turns pretty good, but it still doesn’t come off the turn good.”
Jerry was right behind his son riding the middle line, not trying to pass but not letting anyone else pass either. Danny kept sliding on the curves, then on the near curve at the left of the stands he slid a lot. The cars behind him dropped back. Danny straightened out, slowed down a little, and took no more risks. He told Heath over the radio, “The car’s pushing real bad.” Twice Danny scraped the crash wall but managed to recover.
It wasn’t clear to me why Jerry didn’t pass his son, but maybe he couldn’t. Then something began to vibrate in the back of Danny’s car. He asked Heath, “Is my dad helping me out on the corners?” Meaning — Tonya said — is he hitting me, but Jerry wasn’t even close. Cars kept spinning out without making contact with other cars, and the yellow flag went up twice. Only one car didn’t finish.
Manke stayed in front and when he won, Tonya was fuming. “That guy qualified slow so he could start in the front and then he won. So obviously he was faster than he seemed, which to me is cheating.”
The term for what Manke had done, Jerry told me, was “sandbagging,” meaning intentionally qualifying slower than the car can run. Manke brushed off his win as “just a fluke deal.”
When I met Danny back at the pit, he was angry about his car’s performance, but he tried to contain it, tried, in fact, to be philosophical. “We came through it. That was enough. I’ve been frustrated all night, but we still got fifth. We’ll just have to be glad that we finished. We’ll go over the whole car when we go home, measure everything, and hopefully we’ll find it. But we’re rookies and the season’s still early.” Once more he pronounced the word “rookies” with both modesty and sarcasm.
Nearby, Jerry stood in his familiar, easy, arms-crossed posture. “We did all right,” he said, “came in sixth. Just got in the wrong lane, that’s all. Danny looked a little tight on the curves, kept brushing the wall. He’ll get it figured out.”
I suggested that Danny and his pit crew saw him as their main competitor.
Again came the relaxed chuckle. “I’m just focusing on the race. So’s my pit crew. My crew’s a lot older and mature.” He laughed again. “Mike’s like 55 or 56, others are in their 40s and 50s, so I mean, you know. We really don’t have anybody under 30. All Danny’s guys are still in their 20s. I’m sure his pit crew feels that they’re, like, looking to take the old fox, whatever. But they can focus on me all they want. We all have to have dreams. So that’s their dream.”
It rained again the following week, which gave Danny and his crew an extra week to work on the car. In the Friday practice session before Saturday’s race on June 2, Danny checked their adjustments. For instance, the J-bar had been moved up to make the rear of the car hug the track better. During his practice runs he posted record lap times of 16.20 seconds. But he felt that the car was still loose on the turns, which obviously would be a problem when he was among other cars during a race.
Because they had done so many things to the car, Danny wasn’t sure of the reasons for its greater speed. When he has been driving fast and under a lot of pressure, Danny’s eyes get bleary and red as if he’s been on a binge. “But the car still isn’t moving out of the bottom right,” he said. “It’s too loose when I step on it.”
The night before the race, Danny had the car up on the scales in his garage and he and his crew spent several hours moving weight around. Beer cans and Copenhagen stains accumulated on the floor. Jerry showed up for a friendly visit, but with an eye on the problems. He asked the crew when they would start running aluminum heads, not realizing that Danny had had them since the second race. Jerry was now one of the last drivers with iron heads, as well as John Manke, who had won two weeks before.
Unfortunately, in the qualifying race Saturday afternoon it seemed that Danny’s car was worse than before. Danny ended up with the seventh fastest time. For an hour and a half before the heat race they worked on the car, adjusting and tinkering. In the heat race the car was not much better. Danny fought to keep the car down low on the turns, slid a little, and barely came in fourth. Jerry came in second. John Manke once again won the slow-heat race. In the hour before the feature, Danny and his crew again frantically worked on the car. Nobody knew what to do to make things better. More bolts were tightened. More weight was moved. Tonya was anxious but optimistic. “They don’t know what’s wrong, but they’re going to fix it.”
The Street Stock division ran a 25-lap crashfest before the Sportsman feature. Nearly half the original field of 20 cars was wiped out in multicar accidents, and the air reeked with the heavy, sweet stench of burning oil on hot manifolds. Wrenched and broken fiberglass littered the track. The winner had forced his way forward from the 16th position winning through a mixture of aggression, skill, and default.
That Saturday night was the biggest crowd so far — over 3800. There were 16 cars in the feature and Jerry and Danny started out fourth and sixth. This was a break for Jerry because two of the slow-heat drivers had chosen to start in the back. In fact, Jerry had spoken to the drivers before the race about the possibility of dropping back if their cars weren’t quite up to snuff.
Jerry was quoted in the speedway’s press release as saying: “David is new and I talked to him.… I said I had a big favor to ask. I told him I didn’t mind him starting where he’s starting. But if the car doesn’t feel good, [think about dropping back]. Then Ray came up and said Jerry, I’m not going to screw you up either.” So instead of the two slow-heat cars starting four and sixth, those spots went to Jerry and Danny.
At the start of the feature race, the cars came out onto the track, swerving back and forth to clean their tires and take their warm-up laps. Danny still couldn’t tell if anything had changed, but by the green flag, he suddenly knew differently. Everything had fallen into place. The car worked. By the end of the first lap, Danny had moved into third place behind Jerry and the car driven by John Manke. Then, Danny moved past Manke, and by the second lap Jerry was in first place with Danny on the inside, trying to get by him.
Once again Jerry rode the center line as Danny tried to pass underneath, running next to his dad a couple of laps, unable to pass, then slipping back again. Jerry’s crew chief, Mike Hagerman, fed him constant updates through the race. “He’s two and a half lengths behind you. He’s one and a half lengths back.” Jerry’s undercarriage was sparking up forward, a result of an exhaust leak, and hot fuel was hitting the fresh oxygen. Several times when Danny got up next to his dad, another car would spin out on the track, the yellow flag would go up, and Danny would be forced to drop back.
Then in the 15th lap, John Manke’s car developed a fire under the hood — which must have pleased Tonya — and the race was stopped. After the restart, a series of yellow flags kept slowing the race, which worked to Jerry’s advantage since Danny wasn’t able to make use of his car’s greater speed on the straightaways. Jerry had no trouble maintaining his lead. All this time Mendenhall was pressing Danny from behind, especially in the last 15 laps after Manke was knocked out. In the last lap, Mendenhall, making one last attempt to get around Danny, gave him a nudge, nearly turning him completely around. In order not to hit him and be knocked into the infield, Mendenhall dropped back. Then Danny recovered and went on to take second place behind his father. It was a victory of sorts. Although his car had gotten tighter in the second half of the race, their earlier work had paid off. He had taken second and had come through unscathed. “Another big night for the Gay clan,” blared the track announcer.
Asked later about how his son did, Jerry said, “He did great — behind me.”
“I just got through traffic sooner,” Jerry told me, “and had the run of the racetrack and could move where I wanted, so Danny couldn’t get around me. Danny’s car was a little loose. He just couldn’t get off the corners. Then he got tight after the red flag and lost some stagger — like either the left tires grew a little or the right ones shrank. You want the left smaller for when you go around the corners. But the fans liked it, I think.”
Back at Danny’s pit, Mike Mendenhall came over to congratulate him. “I’m glad you got straight. I didn’t want to pass you when you were sideways.”
At the end of the night’s racing, dozens of kids lined up for autographs and free Hot Wheels cars — part of a promotion from a new sponsor.
In Danny’s garage, the celebration party with his crew went on until 4:30 in the morning and a lot of beer was drunk. Danny had won $600 for coming in second. His dog Dover, a chow-mutt mix, ran laps around the garage. The dog was named after the Dover Downs International Speedway in Delaware, perhaps a symbol of what lies ahead, because in the not-too-distant future Danny would like to move up to a Winston Cup car and race in the Winston West circuit. And this is Tonya’s ambition, that Danny spend at least a year in Winston West and then a year in the Bush series. The difficulty, as she admitted, would be in getting sponsorship, though if anyone could get it, she could.
But in the meantime, he was still hungry to win his first race in the Sportsman class. One day I had asked Danny how Jerry might respond if he passed him. “He’ll probably like it if it’s a clean pass. But if it’s not clean, then he won’t like it. I mean, if I moved him out of the way, like if I gave him a little bump.” The idea amused him and he chuckled. Then he went on: “What do I like about racing? Competition’s the driving force, I guess. The acceleration. It’s all the above — everything, atmosphere, people. The thought that it’s not just one person, it’s everything altogether — car, team, driver, everybody. Adrenaline, I like the adrenaline.”
Jerry had collected $200 in the race for picking up the most passing points and $800 more for winning: his 136th career win. The Sportsman didn’t race the following week, and the old fox got rid of his iron stock heads and bought aluminum heads. “Now I’ll have more horsepower,” he told me, “so I’ll have more straightaway speed. It’ll make me more competitive with Danny, Mendenhall, and Overman, and some others. I’m sure Danny’s going to win a few races. He’ll beat me at some point, but I ain’t going to roll over and play dead.”
Two months later I checked back again. Danny had remained one of Cajon Speedway’s top drivers while also suffering a lot of bad luck. For instance, on June 23rd there had been two 30-lap races. Danny won the first easily, leading from the second lap and winning by 20 lengths for his first win of the season. In the second race, he was clipped by Mendenhall on lap 24, proceeded to climb up over Mendenhall’s car, then up onto the crash wall, which he skated along all down the straightaway until he took out a signal light, doing significant damage to his car. “For a split second I was scared,” Danny told me, “because all I could see was the sky. The brakes and wheels, nothing worked. I mean, I was just along for the ride. I thought, ‘Wow, what’s going on here?’ ”
During the next week he rebuilt his car in time for the next race, came in second but blew out his brakes. On July 21, Danny’s car was purposefully rear-ended by another driver. When his car was raised off the pavement, his engine was revved up to the extent that a piston blew. The driver who hit him was later fined and suspended. Danny then used his Street Stock motor from the previous year for the next two races, managing to come in fourth and third, while the damaged motor was being repaired. It was finally replaced at the end of August. All this took a toll on his crew. Heath quit after a dozen years and four other men quit as well. They haven’t been replaced.
When I asked Danny in mid-August how he saw the season so far, he said, “Well, we’re still holding our own. We’re in the top five, although as far as our championship hopes are, they’re over. Basically, we can’t catch up with the winner. Right now Overman’s got the lead in points. We’re setting our goals on making fourth place and that will mean passing my dad. [Since June 2nd Jerry Gay hasn’t won a race, though he came in second on July 28th.] At the beginning of the year our goal was to be in the top five and that’s what I hope we’ll have. As for Heath, I get along great with him and since he doesn’t work on the race car anymore we don’t argue anymore. The whole crew has basically quit since then. We’ve got just a skeleton crew and the guys who are left are the ones who are really dedicated, the ones who really love it. So it’s more fun. Sure it takes more time, but that’s the life I got into.”