Jun 12, 2013


[I write more than rants and unfounded opinion pieces. Sometimes I lie for the fun of it (write fiction). This is a story I wrote for a long-dead Southern California motorcycle magazine way back in the 80’s. I still like it. I hope you do too.]

All Rights Reserved © 1988 Thomas W. Day

Hemingway would have loved this sport. McQueen did, he came here all the time. No moody pampered tennis players for those guys. Speedway. The queen of England ain't gonna show up here.

If the Queen isn't coming, the King's influence is strongly felt. Speedway is a motorcycle sport that has rules more like a moral code than a list of laws. Arthur and the Round Table are alive on the round track. Speedway rules promote sportsmanship and outlaw chance's miss-step. This is not just a man's sport, but a gentleman's sport; like jousting or dueling. There are no "acts of God" here. God has nothing to do with speedway racing. The sport looks out for its participants better than any god that I've seen evidence of.

The racers work every week, at a handful of tracks, sometimes for twenty-year careers. Blue-collar labor on a tenth mile dirt oval. They earn twenty-to-forty-grand annually and a speedway career is probably about as dependable as high-tech engineering. A man can't expect to retire after having done the same job for forty years, but he can make a good living for a decade and then hobble off and learn how to do something else. I guess this is why speedway rules are just and humane; otherwise the racers would join a union like other blue collar guys.

I really want you to understand that this sport is not like other motorsports. Like motocross, for instance. Motocross is like Real Life in the Real World. The Real World that has a real sun that most college professors never see the light of. The Real World where economics is just another brand of pseudo-philosophical-alchemy. The Real World where the closest thing to Hollywood's Super Cops is the seventeen L.A., blue-suited, street-thugs who pounded on an unarmed black traffic offender and claimed "occupational stress impairment' and retired on pensions that would keep Donny Trump happy. Motocross is that kind of Real World game. For example, you lead a race by a mile or so and keep it up for thirty-nine out of forty laps, beating your body to hamburger on terrain that mountain goats would pick their way through. You get twenty feet from the finish line and a hot-dog stand falls over, into the track, and kills you. You lose. The next guy behind you wins, assuming he misses the dog stand. Everybody else who finishes beats you, too. Just like the Real World.

Speedway does not tolerate the Universal Disorder. The rules of speedway protect the competitors from disruptive environmental intrusions. In speedway, if the dog stand scenario occurred, you get squished, but you win. You'd be dead, but a winner and that's more fair than you can hope for in this world. The concession-stand-aborted speedway race ends with the racers finishing in the positions they were in at the moment the tube-steaks ended the race.

Just to keep this train meandering away from the story I eventually plan to tell, but solidly into the philosophy of speedway, let's put you back out in front of the pack. Coming out of a corner, the guy behind you bumps into your rear tire and you both dump it. So does the guy behind him, he crashes into the heap that you and the other guy made. This happens in the fourth lap of a five lap race. Two other guys pass your metal and skin pile and finish the race, but you still win. That's justice. The guy behind you gets booted out of the race and the guy behind him finishes second. When you fell down, the founders of this sport kindly carried the finish line back a few feet behind where you got clobbered. The race ended there.

The Real World will not harm a speedway rider while he is on a sanctioned track. Acts-of-God will not effect the fairness of the speedway universe. You've suffered enough; having to ride a seventy horsepower bicycle in chemically treated dirt, without brakes, in a terribly noisy environment, under eye-damaging Hollywood-style spotlights, risking your life and left leg, chasing other equally disadvantaged guys around the track at sixty miles an hour. If God or Fate wants to screw you up, they will have to wait for Sunday morning; or until the races are over and you are back on Real World freeways. That's why I love this sport. It's as fair as a John Wayne movie.

Anyway, I'm at the races. Friday night in southern California. In a fairgrounds in the redneck part of southern California that most of the country doesn't even know exists. While the folks in Kansas dream of crazy, trendy, immoral Hollywood, I sit on bleachers with a few thousand transplanted Okies, Arkies, and what other breed of Midwesterners managed to earn enough gasoline to find the Golden State.

The structure we are sitting in is only a part-time speedway bowl. It was built to be a rodeo stadium and fairground arena where four-H kids show off their pet calf before sending him on his journey to the feedlot and packing plant. The track is ringed with wooden bleachers and the wooden bleachers are surrounded by concession stands (beer, pizza, hot dogs, speedway t-shirts, more beer) and the rest of the county fairgrounds. We're bruising our buns on the bleachers, soaking up beer from big milky-white plastic cups, chewing hot dogs smothered in red, yellow, and green chemicals.

The track officialdom meanders out to the fake grass hump surrounded by the oval. Referees, linemen, TV cameramen, assorted racer's girlfriends, a few little kids, and The Promoter find places to stand in the center of attention. The brilliant lighting makes the contrast between the track and the plastic grass and the white fence circling the track seem unreal. Like a cross between the vision of Norman Rockwell and Salvador Dali.

When the opening public address system squeal dies down, we notice that Motormouth isn't announcing tonight and a new set of vocal apparatus is at the microphone. We've never seen him, not even seconding Motormouth. In seconds, the new jaw gets tagged "Mushmouth." He's probably related to The Promoter. In California, everybody with a uniform or a microphone has a well- placed parent.

Anyway the Mushmouth's worthless, I can't understand a thing he says and nobody around me can, either. He's not cutting his words out right. No diction. He has his m's down though, every damn word sounds like it owns at least four m's.

Somebody gets vocal, "Makes you wish whats-his-face was back, doesn't it?". Motormouth. Yeah, I do kinda miss him. He can tell a joke and I can make out the punch line. He doesn't know diddly about racing, though.

The stars and stripes are waving and the p.a. blares out a pitiful version of "Oh Say Can You See." Stand up and act like Republicans. While the cheesy, scratchy, distorted recording of some Sow Cal high school band blares on, the crowd talks loudly, makes soggy bomb noises, or sings along, dive-bombing Jimi Hendricks-style at the rocket's red glare. When the tune is mostly over, I drop to my bench synchronized with five thousand other phony patriots. I don't know why they bother with that stuff here. It may be John Wayne county, but this is Saturday night with Ma and Pa Biker. The flag and Oh-Saying-and-Seeing don't symbolize anything more than the God-given right to beat up on faggots and non- whites to most of this bunch. I'm drifting philosophical, again.

The first bikes turn out and the riders sit on their machines waiting for the announcer to read off their names. While the bikes get push-started and sputter onto the track, Mushmouth mumbles away in some foreign language. When I can make out a few of his words, I try to match them with whatever is happening on the track. This guy isn't adding much to my Big Night Out and I'm losing concern for my fellow man, in his case.

Occasionally, a rider will stop, hike the rear wheel off the ground with his right foot peg, and let the rear wheel spin free, warming the engine up and protecting his clutch from frying before the race starts. Then he drops the back end to the track and roars off toward the starting gate. The racers finally line up, four riders across the center point of the oval track, splitting the grandstand straight in half.

The starting gate is a pair of poles on each side of the track, mid-way down one of the two straights. A pair of cables are pulled tight between the two poles. A two foot collar holds the two bands apart and onto the two poles. A giant rubber band is pulled tight through a pulley when the gate is down across the track. A solenoid releases the collar and the gate jumps up like a Polish guillotine.

Mushmouth has been babbling since we finished ignoring the national anthem. My friends are starting to complain about him. I am curious: I wonder if you could see his lips move if you were close enough to see his lips.

One of the guys I came with shares a joint with our row of bleachers, then we all split a bowl, and I'm buzzed. The first heat takes off. We are sitting at the apex of the first corner and the bikes slide by us. The track splatters up over the banister into my beer. Usually, I put my hand over the cup to protect my investment, but the grass has made beer as important as day-old soda. I have gone beyond caring about a little dirt in a cup of piss-colored pop.

Being stoned always makes me industrious and I make a project out of Mushmouth. I'm gonna figure out what he is saying. Off and on, for the last twenty years, I did time in assorted rock and roll bar bands. It takes an unusual sort of training and ability to figure out the lyrics to R&R tunes and I can do it. I am probably among the best in the country at figuring out the words to your favorite pop songs. I probably even know the words to "Louie, Louie." I can figure out what this guy is saying if I concentrate. Dope makes it easier for me to concentrate. I am single-minded, normally, but pot makes me hyper-monotracked.

The first race circles the track twice, then half the field goes down in a pile at the opposite end of the oval. They will re-start. Our man-at-the-mike will make noises into his equipment, probably explaining in great detail what is happening and why. I identify a few words this round, "..sum toms it takes a wall to git thuh feel of thuh track...have seen three ah fo re-starts afoe..." and so on. He isn't that tough. In fact he probably talks as clearly as about everyone I know. I bet cruddy public address systems have suppressed as much information as the Pentagon. That may be, but, in the Real World, a man has to compensate for the obstacles that are thrown in front of him. Motormouth gets understood on the same system. He never says anything worthwhile, but it is understandable. In fact, Motormouth never says anything that wouldn't be immediately obvious to an extra terrestrial stepping out of his saucer into the middle of the track on his first trip to Earth. But Motormouth says his nothing with distinct tees, hissing esses, open ohs, and long eahs.

The race starts, the bikes circle the track five times, shooting the fans with dirt. And the announcer drones on. A couple of elimination races go by, we watch the third-division beginners crash into each other, the walls, and invisible barriers strewn in some pretty harmless looking sections of the track.

After the beginner bodies are removed from the track, the first of the semi-finals is on camera. As the bikes line up and the roar of the engines all peak together, I suddenly decode the announcer's secret language, "Watch him on the right, Number Nine," I interpret. He uses the racer's perspective and describes the way the riders see the start. "He'll jump right in, drop into the middle, and block the track off. There, watch him go!" That's me interpreting again. Mushmouth probably used forty ems in two sentences.

The gate springs into the air, dirt rooster-tails behind the bikes, and they leap toward us. "There he goes, turn, turn, turn, right there! He got it." The fucker did it. Mushmouth called the race right from the beginning. Right on schedule. Dead nuts! He called it and Nine did it, right on cue. Just like he said it. I'm stunned. Now, I'm convinced that this guy is no ordinary fan, he is a super fan. I look at my friends to see if they got any of this. The one guy who really knows about racing is looking back at me. He grins and says, "He does know his racers." I nod back, wide-eyed and speechless. I have to tell you, I am blown away. You are told and I can go on.

Nine wins the race. He was gone, after that incredible start. The other three guys fought it out for positions two through five, but the first spot was never in question. The crowd actually gets off of its collective butt and does some serious screaming. A fair number of people trade "all right" with "shut the hell up," directed at Mushmouth. The announcer is screaming with the rest of the multitude, but he doesn't make sense.

We sit through six more races and he guesses the start four out of six times. The two races he guessed wrong on were restarted twice, because the hot guys couldn't get through the corner using the line Mushmouth thought they would try. Mushmouth called the shots like he had a screenplay on every one of the Division One races. He didn't do so well with the lower division races, because fate has more to do with winning than skill with those guys. They fall down when a cloud covers the moon and the track gets too slick for them maneuver on when it snows in Tibet.

The amateurs aside, Mushmouth is an undiscovered speedway psychic genius and is going to stay that way. It bugs me because he is made for this crowd. This lot of thousand short-sleeved lower-middle-classers is easily the most knowledgeable bunch of sport spectators in the world. This place is full of experts. A bunch of speedway connoisseurs and this guy is a gourmet of gourmets. This great fan who can read races and talks the talk and knows the inside stuff and has a racer's crystal ball, is here to talk to the perfect audience and they can't understand a word he says. Because his eyes sound like ohs. He should talk to his mirror with marbles in his mouth for ten hours a day. Rembrandt without a paint brush.

If these people knew what he is saying, they would be awed. He would be famous. They should love each other, but the affair is as one-sided as a Midwestern twelve year old lusting after Mick Jagger. Mushmouth insists on shoving the mike halfway down his throat because it makes him sound larger than life. No mike technique. He's not alone. Rock and rollers and evangelists do that, too. God has a big boomy voice, so Billy, Jerry, Jimmy, and that whole race of grown men with little kid's names and a set of collection plates have to boom, too. It doesn't matter that nobody understands what those guys are saying because "It's not the meat, it's the motion." I don't know who rock and rollers are trying to imitate.

A sports announcer is heard or hated, heard and hated, or heard and loved. Sport fans don't appreciate an evening of amplified mumbling.

The guy really needs diction lessons. Now! I bet my generation is stacked with stunted geniuses like this sucker. Lost at sea with his cotton-mouth. Poor lip and tongue control. No snap on the tees. He probably couldn't pronounce a vowel in front of a firing squad.

Another third division race is up. He warns some guys along the second straight, "Back off fromat fence...hot and heavy there, bad fur you and the rahders. Sumbuddy git those guys off the fence." The track was starting to hook-up too good. Before, the fast guys were sliding along the fence when they shot out of the first corner. If the beginners did that, somebody would scrape the paint off the ads and the teeth off the fence sitters. Sure enough, two tyros demolished themselves on the wall. The spectators had backed off and only got a little dirtier than the rest of us.

Third division demolition ends and we get back to the pros. A rider skips off the wall at the edge of a turn. He flounders around for a dozen yards and barely gets control of his bike before throwing it into the next turn. I think Mushmouth called him a schlockmeister, "Go tuh Europe an learn tuh really beah Schlockmeister. Learn tuh tripup widout losin it." I guess the fumbling rider had done just that, spent a few years in Europe learning how to stumble but not fall; and hold his position.

Mushmouth tried to lead the "more beer" cheer. It kinda worked, but he got about as many boos as yeas. He yelled, "Who wants to see ... win it?" Somebody behind me yelled, "Who wants to help me shoot that jerk?" That got a standing cheer from our section. It is obvious that these people really dislike the guy. Nothing he mumbles gets any respect. Steinbeck said "no in-between anywhere." Mark one up for Steinbeck. Mushmouth does have a hard act to follow. Motormouth isn't bad. He's clever, he knows some stuff about speedway. He knows something about most every kind of bike racing. "The voice of motorcycling," even. But Mushmouth knows speedway. He called a race, perfectly. He picked the winner and read off his game plan, step-by-step. Motormouth couldn't do that if the number one plate was riding in a third division race.

The crowd is pretty small tonight. A lot of the really hot guys are in Europe, competing in world class speedway. So the racing isn't quite as hot as the best of times. Some of the horde are leaving early, before the main events. His muffled voice calls out, "Come owan back, the races are juss fian. The ress rumes aranent krauted. Ters loss ah rume an tease guys are blowin it out fur you. Hey, here we go!" Another heat takes off, flinging mud that slowly fills the rows of beer cups standing empty on the bleachers. After topping my mountain, I'm bored. This is a short story because I have a short attention span. Mushmouth isn't a challenge anymore and I'm through interpreting for you.

We leave after the handicap final. Sometimes I like to watch the trophy girl get mugged, but my friends have had enough and we go. We leave with a majority of the crowd. I don't think anyone is staying to hear my boy mumble about who won tonight.

The End

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