Boy, did my 2009 racing season get off to a lousy start. Saturday, I had a great qualifying run at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. I would start the race third in class and fifth overall (out of about 30 cars) – at the sharp end of the field, ready to slug it out with fellow Mazda drivers and a bunch of fast BMWs.
The green flag fell. We screamed through Turns 1 and 2 – the NASCAR oval – at NHMS. As we approached Turn 3, I was right where I wanted to be: on the bumper of a BMW that was my bogie, on the outside of the right-hand turn, ready to trap some cars when we got to the next turn, a left-hander.
But at NHMS, Turn 3 is a notorious accordion on the first lap of any race. Cars slow from 100+mph down to 35 or so. Ugly things happen.
In my case, the ugly thing was a tap in the rear bumper that turned me good and sideways. My car was perpendicular to the race track, and I braced to get T-boned – but didn’t, thanks to heads-up driving by the rest of the field.
I saved the car without losing too many spots. The red mist descended: I was pissed at losing all those positions, my race more or less ruined after 20 seconds. But at least things could get no worse. I gritted my teeth, flew up the hill from Turn 3, and grabbed third gear.
There was no third gear.
Whether as a result of the half-spin or purely by coincidence, my transmission was down one gear – a common problem in RX-7s. I babbled this info over my radio and watched the pack vanish over the horizon. From a starting position of fifth, I was now DFL – dead bleeping last.
My crew calmed me and told me to run the race in second and fourth gears. I began to do so. The problem is, NHMS requires a lot of third gear, so I was well and truly crippled. Oh well, I thought, limping around 4 seconds per lap slower than I should have been: at least things could get no worse. I would pick off a few slower cars, challenge myself to do the best I could, and earn points for the season-long series.
While thinking these thoughts and cruising, I should have been watching my gauges. My motor seemed to run flatter and flatter as the laps wore on, and by the time I checked my oil temperature it was off the charts.
I’d blown my engine.
That race reminded me of this little backstory passage in Dirty Pictures, the second Conway Sax book. Conway, protagonist and narrator, is recalling when he met his friend Floriano Mendes:
It turned out Floriano came north with a Brasilia-based pro racing team. Then the stud driver jumped ship for a more prestigious ride in Europe, and took his sponsorship money with him. The team folded twelve hours later, left a dozen Brazilian techs high and dry.
When Floriano told me all this we shrugged and both said, at the exact same time, “That’s racing.” Laughed.
Then I told Floriano I used to be a driver. NASCAR Busch Series, a step below what was then Winston Cup. He asked if I ever ran a Cup race. I said no, made the glug-glug gesture for drinking. Floriano said, “That’s racing too.” We laughed again. Been friends ever since.