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It occurs to me that an old race driver is a lot like an old Rodeo cowboy. His often broken and mended body gets stiffer and stiffer as the years go by and he usually ends up alone and broke wondering where it all went wrong.
This is the story of how I avoided that fate and came out the other side on a journey to simplicity and essentialism…
Racing it seemed had been my downfall. The best part of the prime years of my life evaporated chasing a dream that never fully materialized.
I’d spent all the money I had and then some. All too often my only reward was lying in some emergency room looking up at those bright neon surgical lights with a plastic collar Velcro-ed around my neck. I hate emergency rooms. They’re so sterile and cold.
I was at the far end of middle age with whatever talent I possessed ebbing away as the years clicked inexorably by.
But however futile a gesture it seemed I was down for giving it one more shot.
“Cary Richards?” The woman in the plywood booth just outside the gate asked in that bored monotone usually reserved for department of motor vehicle clerks?
A thin line of smoke curled up around her greying hair from the cigarette that dangled expertly out the side of her mouth.
“That’s me” I said.
She stamped my pit pass and handed my credentials back through the window.
“Good luck” she said half sarcastically.
I spied my brother Brad as I walked into the dusty pits. He’d driven down from Seattle to lend moral support and help with the setup of the race car.
As we greeted each other I started to wonder what the hell I’d gotten myself into again.
It was a feeling I knew well.
I usually had a moment or two of trepidation before strapping myself to a 4 wheeled guided missile to do battle with 12 or 15 other maniacs who would just as soon see me put hard into the wall as say hello.
I’d been given a chance by my old friend Fred Greenfield to drive his 410 Sprint Car in a World of Outlaws race. I’d known Fred for years and although no one came out and said it. I think we all knew this was my last chance at the big time.
And there it was, one of the prettiest 410 dirt sprinters I’d ever seen.
It was candy apple red. The large aluminum wing bolted to the top of the roll cage gleamed in the afternoon sun. The car was clean and prepared with a great attention to detail. Old Fred always fielded a very nicely done race car.
Testosterone laden, bare knuckled and intensely competitive a Sprint Car is quite possibly the most intimidating, brutally powerful type of racing machine ever invented by man!
Predominantly a phenomenon of the American Midwest an Outlaw sprint car consists of four large tires, no fenders and an 800 horsepower aluminum block V-8 engine bolted to a simple tube frame chassis that weighs about 1000 lbs when it’s full of fuel.
The power to weight ratio of these beasts is roughly equal to a Saturn 5 rocket ship!
The sound that an un-muffled aluminum block V-8 racing engine makes at full song is almost indescribable. Secure a large aluminum wing on top of the roll cage, fill it up with Methanol fuel, install the bio-servo mechanism (Driver) and run about 15 or 20 of them around a ¼ mile clay oval and you have the makings of a very loud, dusty, dangerous but exciting Saturday night!
These things will scare you to death just sitting there at idle. At full throttle they’ll tear you a whole new reality. The kind of situation that’s always been right down my alley!
The night started off pretty well, I won my trophy dash and qualified well for the B main heat.
The B main went OK but I was having trouble getting the rear of the car to slide like I wanted it to so I lost a few places. We came in 5th and that meant we’d line up 5th for the start of the A main. We made some adjustments to the suspension and hoped for the best.
I love the atmosphere at a Sprint Car race.
It was a warm spring night, dusk was creeping in. They had watered down the track to keep it tacky and reduce the amount of dust that the cars kick up. The frying onions from the concession stand, The wet clay out on the race track, The exhaust from the race cars, (a strange fusion of Methanol and other chemicals that smells like a cross between Clorox and Fritos corn chips) all melded together to produce a perfume that made the adrenaline surge through my veins.
The sodium lights began to come on around the race track. Several thousand people had packed the grand stands and were milling about murmuring in impatient anticipation of the final race of the night. I’ve always found that the race track becomes its own little universe at times like this. I have to concentrate so hard and have such laser focus that especially when it gets dark and the lights come on, the track becomes otherworldly. Nothing else matters!
It was time. I zipped up my two layer Nomex suit with Tony’s Pizza Parlor embroidered on the front, a holdover from a long gone sponsorship. Put in my ear plugs, pulled on the fireproof hood, slid my helmet over it and buckled the chin strap.
I climbed in, over and around the roll cage and squeezed myself into the upright aluminum seat. This is the time that I start to talk to myself. Going over my starting position, who is in front of me, who is behind. What I think I can get away with on the start.
The crew helped me buckle into the six point harness. A belt around the waist, two up from between my legs and a two inch strap across each shoulder. No one says much, the only sound is the clank of metal against metal as the straps are worked around and snapped into place.
It’s deafeningly quite compared to the roaring, controlled chaos that is only moments away. They make sure that the HANS (Head and Neck Restraint System) device is properly placed under the shoulder straps. By the time I’m all strapped in I usually feel like I’ve been laced up into a running shoe.
When I was all set, Brad reached in, clicked the removable steering wheel into place and gave both shoulder straps an extra hard tug to cinch them down tight. The last thing you want if there’s trouble are lose belts. He gave me the thumbs up sign. I grabbed his hand with both of mine and gave him a wink. Then I slipped on my favorite lucky pair of fireproof gloves, the ones with the single layer calf skin palms. I never raced without em.
They pushed me away. The push truck got me up to speed and I clunked it into gear. The big V-8 roared to life
Now it was just me the car and the race track,
Plus nineteen other maniacs who would just a soon see me go over the wall as say hello.
The Grays Harbor race track is a 70 ft wide roughly ¼ mile long clay oval. Two straight-aways connected by two banked sweeping turns. They call the first one turns 1 and 2 and the second one turns 3 and 4 which never made a lot of sense to me. (I mean it’s really just two big turns connected by two straits.)
Made of imported Midwestern clay it’s sticky and slippery all at the same time. Surrounded by a four foot high cement retaining wall, the grand stands line the front strait.
Tonight they were packed and everybody was on their feet.
I made my way up the entrance road and idled out onto the race track looking for my place on the grid. Third row inside behind the yellow #58. I checked the gauges making sure everything was up to temperature.
One lap around slow, Waiting for the rest of the field to cue up. The other drivers jockeyed back and forth looking for their starting spots. The Methanol fumes from the car in front were making my eyes water. There was an occasional burst of exhaust note as one of the drivers stepped down hard on his accelerator.
I was impatient to get going. The car is sprung very stiff so at this slow speed it bounced and jostled over the uneven clay surface. I let go of the steering wheel with one hand then the other flexing and releasing my fists trying to relax. “Remember to breathe!” I reminded myself.
The other drivers had found their places, so we made one more lap around slow. The field bunched up going into turns three and four. Then we came two by two, nose to tail onto the front straight at a low idle. The drivers alone with their own aggression, straining to detect the slightest movement in the starters tower over hanging the track halfway down the straight.
The starter waited, seconds seem like hours. My foot was itching on the accelerator then suddenly he was waving the green like a mad man!
20 Sprint Cars leapt forward as one in a furious veil of dust, sound and exhaust fumes. Each driver searching for every ounce of traction he could wring from the writhing beast he was strapped to.
Dirt clods exploded in brown starbursts against the safety screen attached to the front of my roll cage. The cars to the front and to the side of me were bucking and weaving under maximum acceleration. If any of our tires happened to touch, the results would be catastrophic.
We screamed down the front straight into the first turn. I set the car into a smooth four wheel drift and got back on the power, the big V-8 roared its approval. Just as I had anticipated, the yellow car in front of me lost traction and slid up the race track in the middle of the turn leaving an opening. I stayed low and left my foot planted on the accelerator. Out onto the back stretch and I’d made the pass.
Rushing headlong down the straightaway the engine was screaming out its smooth powerful symphony. One thing I’ve always enjoyed about racing is the feeling of controlling that potent monster that I have a hold of. Bending it to my will and becoming one with the machine.
The other thing I enjoy is the shear competition. Beating the other guy is such a rush.
The three cars ahead of me had pulled out a few car lengths but I was secure in fourth for now. I laid the car into the turn and for the first time noticed how it was handling. We had set it up for the long A main race to be a little tight at first, knowing that the track was going to get slipperier as the night wore on.
Out onto the front straight again and I’d gained a few lengths on the blue car in front of me. I decide to stay on the bottom edge of the track looking for a little more traction down there. The blue car just ahead of me went in low as well. Now I was right on his tail. If I could get a good run out of the turn I may be able to pass him down the backstretch.
Suddenly and without warning the blue car ahead exploded in a ball of flame and white smoke! His engine had come apart in spectacular fashion. Eight quarts of oil that had been in his crankcase were now spewed all over the race track. His car spun on its axis directly in front of me. In milliseconds I went from planning a pass to being virtually blind from a combination of thick white smoke obscuring the track ahead and engine oil all over my visor.
I made a split second decision. I couldn’t go left, we were already on the inside of the track, I darted right and accelerated past him only to realize that my tires where covered in oil!
I was past the smoke screen and could see clearer now but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. The outside wall was rushing towards me. Up the slippery track I slid fighting the wheel jabbing the accelerator trying to get the front end to bite. I was trying everything I could to rotate the car. It only took a couple of seconds but it seemed like forever. “Oh shit!” was all I couldn’t think.
I hit the cement retaining wall a glancing blow at about 120mph kicking me high into the air. I tumbled awkwardly down the back stretch. They tell me I hit nose to tail six times before coming to rest upside down in the middle of the race track. I don’t know because I lost consciousness somewhere around the second impact.
The next thing I remember was voices. I could still hear race cars off in the distance but now I could hear voices. It was very confusing to me. It seemed like it was foggy all of a sudden. Then I realized I was lying on my back on the race track. The EMT’s had gotten to me almost immediately as I hung motionless in my belts. They unbuckled me and dragged my limp body several yards away from the wreck in case it burst into flames.
The car lay there with several of its wheels pointing in the wrong direction, its wing crumpled into a piece of aluminum scrap metal. Its once beautiful candy apple red composite bodywork now cracked, splintered and streaked with mud and oil. Its frame grotesquely bent, the engine steaming and hissing. It looked like a beetle that God had smacked with a giant rolled up news paper.
I was regaining consciousness. The emergency workers were telling me not to move a muscle. It occurred to me that they were being a little bossy. They took my helmet off carefully as I was beginning to realize what had happened. One of my first thoughts was “Oh boy, Jeannie (My new wife, we’d been married only a week earlier) is gonna be really pissed off”
Feeling started to return to my limbs. My whole body felt like it was a tuning fork. It felt like it was vibrating all up and down my spine. It seemed like there were little pin pricks all over my skin. I purposely tried to move both sets of toes and both sets of fingers. Reassuringly, they all responded to my commands
The EMT’s placed a plastic neck brace around my neck which began digging into the skin under my chin and made my neck hurt worse…
Then came the questions.
“What’s your name?”
I started to answer and then realized I was going to have to think about that one for a minute.
“Cary” I finally blurted out feeling very proud of myself.
“What’s your address?”
“Wait a minute” I said “I know this one”
But of course I didn’t. By this time they had me strapped down to a back board. One strap across my forehead and several across my body with my hands folded over my chest like an Egyptian Pharaoh. I was starting to notice that I had quite a bad ache in my neck area and a very intense dull pain in my left forearm. They had an inflatable cast on it already.
As they were loading me into the Medic 1 truck Brad suddenly appeared at my side. He and I knew the drill. We had both been there before.
“Hey, you broke your racer” he said sarcastically.
“Seriously, how do feel”
“I think I broke my damn arm” I said
“Nothing else is broke is it?” He asked
“I don’t know man, my neck kinda hurts.”
“Well just don’t move around much till they check it out OK? You want me to call Jeannie?”
Oh yah, my new bride I remembered. “I guess you’d better” I said.
“OK man, hang in there I’ll see you at the hospital”
Off he went. I didn’t envy him waking my wife up out of a dead sleep with the news that her husband of 14 days was being admitted to the Valley Medical Center.
The aftermath of the wreck was not good. I had a severe neck sprain, a concussion, a spiral fracture of one of the bones in my left forearm and I had knocked something lose in my inner ear creating equilibrium problems.
The result was that my employer decided that a guy who was lurching around like Frankenstein with equilibrium problems, who couldn’t think straight half the time and was popping pain pills every hour and a half was not a very good fit for his sales force.
So, you guessed it. I got fired.
That was back in 2007 and it was the event that really started us down the path to a simpler more fulfilling life.
Its funny how something that seems like a real tragedy and that has far reaching consequences can turn out to be a good thing in the long run.
It’s been quite a ride but without that wreck and the loss of my job we wouldn’t live in our cute little cottage by the woods today.
I would have never decided to pursue my entrepreneurial dreams and begin writing and internet marketing…
We have a beautiful life today and that wreck was a real turning point to getting us pointed in the right direction.
When things look bleak and you think it’s the lowest you can sink. Just keep in mind that if you stay focused on what’s truly important to you and never give up, you’ll come out the other side in most cases stronger, happier and with much more perspective.
In simplicity and love
Cary David Richards
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