MY RACE AGAINST BO DUKE AND THE GENERAL LEE! YEEHAW!!!!
By Carl Kozlowski
There are some things the human body is not meant to do. Racing down 90 miles of desert freeway at 120 mph is one of them.
Unfortunately, I realized this five minutes before I was due to strap on a helmet, twist myself like a pretzel, and wedge my body into the shotgun seat of a Corvette for the most terrifying ride of my life-a run through the Silver State Classic Road Rally, in the heart of Nevada.
Sure, the 'Vette was specially-modified with a roll cage and a safety harnesses. Sure, the man behind the wheel had driven in 14 previous Silver State races. Sure, I had no reason to fear for my life. "Only" one person had ever died in the 15-year history of the event. That is indeed a pretty sterling safety record for a race that takes place twice a year and averages more than 120 cars each time. But…
And so there I was, with five minutes to spare before the race, doubled over inside the narrow confines of a Porta Potty and emptying my breakfast into its gaping hole. I should have known better than to go out there, for I am a 275-pound desk jockey who, until recently, has barely lifted a finger in exercise my entire life.
Three months prior, I had fallen asleep at the wheel of my ratty Toyota Corolla and turned my car into an accordion. Perhaps I was seeking to overcome that memory and reclaim my right to the road, or to exorcise the demon that overtook me anytime I found myself in a fast car since the accident. Either way, I had no time to psychoanalyze, for Jim, the driver, was headed toward me in full-throttle fury, screaming for me to get in the car and looking like he'd turn the Porta Potty upside down if he had to.
I took a deep breath, ran out to the Corvette, wedged my way in, and tried to jam the helmet over my head as Jim strapped my harnesses around me. Of course my helmet wouldn't seem to go on without requiring me to crack my skull, and my harness had to be wedged so tight around my crotch that I was certain I would never father children. (Or maybe Jim was just pissed and making it more painful than it had to be.)
My glasses slipped off my head and hit the floor, but I had no room to bend over and pick them up. I was certain I'd either step on them mid-race or they would become deadly projectiles when we had our inevitable squealing-tire car wreck. I just knew I'd wind up blind by the end of the race-or to be more precise, within the hour. But, there was no point in worrying any more. Jim had roared his car's engine to life, rolled to the line, and we were counting down to the starting signal. When the traffic light at the starting line turned green, I was to hit the timer on his stopwatch and keep my mouth shut.
Green! There went the timer. Bam! My head rocked back into my seat. We were off.
"I used to race motorcycles, and then I road-rallied cars in Bolivia before racing from Ensenada to San Felipe in Mexico each year. We then wondered why no one was doing road races in America," explains Steve Waldman, the polite but tough-talking executive director of the Silver State Classic, who is also a compact barrel of energy. "Having been in the hotel business in Vegas a long time, I knew a lot of people in the state government. When the copper mines shut down around the town of Ely, they needed extra income for the town, so they made the nearby highway available for the race so that racers and their friends would come and spend tourist dollars."
That was back in 1988, and indeed the effort has paid off handsomely for everyone. Waldman estimates that the race has brought in over $14 million in non-gambling dollars to the economically depressed area over the last 15 years. Waldman and an extensive board of nonprofit directors and volunteers organize the race on 90 miles of Highway 318 each May and September. With up to 233 cars participating at its peak and an average of four people traveling in each car, "that's more than 900 people right there each race season, spending a minimum of $300 per person over four days, that's over $300,000 right there in one shot."
When I first heard about the Silver State Classic, giddy visions of automotive anarchy filled my head. In reality, the race is a lot more scientific and refined. Each car is assigned a speed class, ranging from 95 to 180 mph, based on how jacked-up its engine is and how specialized its safety features are. Each speed class is timed out to an exact minute at which the cars should cross the finish line-for instance, 150 mph-class cars should finish the 90-mile race in 36 minutes-and then each individual car tries to cross the finish line at precisely their assigned time. Timers calibrated by Global Positioning System satellites measure each car's finish to 1/10,000th of a second.
"There are three radar points along the way to make sure you're staying within your speed class: one that allows you to order a souvenir printout proving how fast you are racing, one at the finish line to make sure you're crossing without going too fast or too slow in order to hit your time goal, and one that's hidden to just flat-out bust and disqualify speeding drivers," explains Dale Schaub, an eight-time racer who now serves as one of the Silver State's racing instructors. "You can miss your time target by 2/10th of a second and kiss the trophy goodbye."
Each car starts the race one minute apart so that the drivers are able to put a couple miles of distance between one another and limit the chances that cars will bunch up and endanger each other. After all the speed-class cars have finished, one final class of cars starts two minutes apart: the unlimited class, whose drivers are allowed to race as fast as possible in an attempt to flat-out set the fastest time for the race. The record for the Silver State Classic is a car that averaged 207 mph across the entire 90 miles-a feat that also set the Guinness World Record for fastest open-road speed, period.
But even with the race's format of each driver racing against him or herself, the risks are ever-present and extreme. Any curve in the road can result in a spinout, and any spinout can lead to a car hitting rough terrain and flipping over.
There's a reason it costs anywhere from $395 to $695 for drivers to enter the race: someone has to pay for the cost of insurance and the logistics of 285 volunteer course workers, several crews of EMTs, two Medevac helicopters, emergency vehicles and the sheriff's deputies needed to shut down 90 miles of state highway for 9 hours. The costs also include a safety course on the professional speedway at the Derek Daly Racing Academy outside of Las Vegas and a full technical inspection that can eliminate a car and its team for any factor from leaky fluids to imperfect tires.
And what do you get for all the fees, troubles, and the cost of customizing your car to the tune of $50,000-70,000?
"It's not about the money," says Wayne Motes of Tucson, who was part of a four-man crew on a half-ton pickup truck that could go 170 mph. "If you win, you get a commemorative plate. This is about pride, bragging rights, and friendship. What more do you need?"
What I needed was to find someone with fast wheels, an open shotgun seat, and a willingness to have a potentially sniveling copilot along for the ride.
Drivers take on a copilot to navigate and act as lookout, keeping their eyes open for sudden turns, drops, and foreign objects in the roadway ranging from fellow racers' cars to stray parts or the occasional burro. In other words, it was a lot of responsibility for someone to accept if they couldn't promise not to puke.
I was not able to make such a promise, but Waldman, the director, assured me that once I got rolling in the race I would enter a state of "speed hypnosis," in which my body would numb itself to the potential dangers and just accept the fact that it was hurtling through space at 120 mph as a completely natural state of existence. I was assured that I would have my moment of glory.
The road to glory began at about at 8 a.m. Thursday, my first full day in Vegas, when I joined the full class of first-time drivers and navigators for a racing class on the speedway of the Derek Daly Driving Academy. I didn't need to put on a full fireproof suit because we were "only" going 90 mph around the course's rapid-fire twists and turns, but like a kid in a candy store I grabbed one off a wall anyway, slipped it on along with a helmet, and hopped into the passenger seat of a spiffed-up BMW.
In the interest of providing a you-are-there perspective on what it's like speeding on a racetrack for the first time, I switched on my mini-tape recorder before we hit full throttle and recorded my thoughts for your edification:
"Oh shit! Holy fuck! Holy shit! Oh fuck! Is that legal? Are you sure? Is this safe? We're going sideways! What's that mean? Oh, that! Don't do that! That's crazy! Don't do that! Oh shit! Holy fuck!"
Normally my speech is as pure as the Pope's.
The driver-Daly's chief instructor and a former pro racer named Richard Zimmerman-said the most important part of the class was helping new racers learn the impact that G-forces have on the human body. It also was designed to teach how to respond to sudden obstacles in the road, ranging from blown tires to bunnies, and how to absorb the impact of hitting an animal if they simply can't be avoided.
"When you're going that fast, amazing things happen. I've seen a bird get hit and get sucked into a headlight," says Zimmerman, who set the world record for closed-course electric-car racing by zipping along at 110 mph. "In racing, cornering at high speeds makes blood run away from your head, and the bigger you are the faster it happens. You have to be physically fit or it'll wear you out, and if you're physically or mentally tired that's when you'll make mistakes."
One fact gives a pretty thorough depiction of the town of Ely: Stephen King set up shop here at the classic Old West-style Hotel Nevada for six weeks back in 1995 and emerged with a novel he entitled Desperation. Yet if you're of a sunnier disposition than the Master of Horror, you can find all the eccentricities of classic Small Town America - and then some.
Ely is a town with one Catholic Church and two brothels, yet even in the flesh trade times have taken a tumble as the legendary Green Lantern bordello serviced its last customer five years ago. It's the kind of town with an abandoned elementary school but a thriving old-fashioned soda fountain. The mayor works part-time and from home, and the only two bars in sight both offer wet-T-shirt contests and really loud, really bad cover bands for weekend fun. There are no movie theaters, the big prospective teen club sports a sign saying "Opening Someday" and the high school kids cut loose in the fields and mountains on the outskirts of town.
All of these factors point out why the Silver State Classic means so much to the town's 4,119 people. They're proud and excited to see people from all walks of life - doctors, lawyers, mechanics and engineers, even an aerial photographer for the DEA - come from all over the country in all sorts of cars, ranging from a 1935 Dodge to the latest Lamborghinis and Porsches.
But they're most excited by one car in particular, a vehicle that is instantly recognizable throughout the nation and perhaps the world by the Confederate flag on its roof and the "01" emblazoned on its side door. That's right. If you grew up in America from 1977 to 1984-or knew someone who did-you know the car I'm talking about: The General Lee.
I walked past without noticing it on my way back into my hotel, but there was no way I could miss its driver when he stepped into the elevator with me. As a boy in Arkansas, I had grown up believing this guy was the greatest American ever: John Schneider of "The Dukes of Hazzard." Sure, he has made a big comeback playing Clark Kent/Superman's dad on the WB's "Smallville," but if you're from the South he will always be first and foremost Bo Duke.
Ely's nightlife choices consists of two bars with wet T-shirt contests. And both of them had their bartenders reduced to begging for contestants by offering free drinks. When my buddy Earl noticed that the women were expected to dunk their chests into children's' plastic swimming pools, he suddenly thought of his 8-year-old daughter, felt extremely guilty and suggested we find other entertainment. There was only one place left to go: the front bar of the Stardust Ranch, the less-scary-looking of the town's two bordellos. We assumed the place would be packed with dozens of the racers out to have even more fun than would be legal anywhere else.
The vibe of the place was more mid-'70s rec room than actual bar, and any sexual shenanigans were out of sight and hearing out back - unless you counted an Asian woman rubbing up against a guy who looked like he otherwise could be eligible for a Grandpa of the Year award. While Grandpa was considering his thrills, Kelly Gibbs of the Silver State Classic's board of directors tried to explain the appeal of the race.
"The fact is, you've got people with cars capable of going well over 100 mph but nowhere they can safely and legally push their cars to the limit," said Gibbs, who no longer runs in the race personally. "It's one of the last great ways to get a full adrenaline rush for a sustained period of time, and it's a way to challenge yourself and your car and your senses on every possible level in an extreme situation. But when you factor in all our safety precautions, our records are still far safer than any stretch of normal highway in a city like Los Angeles. There's been some spectacular crashes but in reality, this is a very safe event."
Still, the legendary crashes played through my mind: the Porsche that blew a rear tire at 190 and rolled end over end for 100 feet, leaving its driver alive but hospitalized for three months. The guy who blew his front tires out at 200 mph and took more than a mile to skid to a stop. And of course, the greatest tale of all, that of a man named Dennis "Mad Dawg" Antonucci of Huntington Beach, California. Even John Schneider-a man who spent seven years and 154 episodes taking flight in the General Lee-gives the man his props for fearlessness.
"The whole reason I got into this is because I saw a picture of 'Mad Dawg' crossing the finish line with his entire car in flames," said Schneider, incredulously. "My dad's always been into cars and I grew up loving movies like Bullitt, but there's nothing like seeing that happening in real life to make you sit up and take notice and say I've gotta be part of that."
Schneider was in the race not as a gimmick or as a paid promotion for the race, but as a genuine average guy who just happened to drive one of the most famous cars in America. It was more than a little surprising to see a TV legend standing around with his dad, who served as his navigator, mixed in with his fans and fellow racing aficionados.
"Racing fans are the most genuine people in the world. If you're down to earth and just want to be treated like anyone else, they'll respect that and just be your friend and be great to you," he explained. "But if you try to act like you're greater than everyone or something special, they're not gonna tolerate that and you'd find the exact opposite reaction. I've always just seen this as a good job and racing as something I love to do, just like anyone else here."
Schneider was speaking Saturday afternoon from the town's high school football field, where all 122 racecars had come for their technical checkups and the drivers were showcasing their cars for each other and the townspeople. Sure, there were dozens of cars tricked out, painted flashy and ready to rock the road, but at that moment only one car mattered other than the General Lee: "Mad Dawg's" Pantera. Talking with him proved to be a lesson in just how serious and risky this race could be.
"This is the same car that got burned up back in '99, when I caught fire at nearly 200 mph with a mile to go before the finish line. I knew that if I tried to engage the fire compression system it wouldn't work unless I completely stopped, and that they had safety crews with fire extinguishers on the other end of the finish line, so I just decided to go for it," recalls Antonucci. "I crossed the line at 170 mph, completely covered in flames, and I remember hearing a lady screaming 'Why doesn't he get out? Why doesn't he get out?"
He did make it out, his fireproof suit limiting his burns to his wrists, but his car seemed lost. But because the car was one of only 4,000 to enter the US during its early-70s production cycle, Antonucci was determined to save it and try racing again. He received donations and encouragement from thousands of racers around the country and had the car back on the road a year later.
"I was scared to do it again, but it's like when you get thrown from a horse you have to get back up or else you're always going to look over your shoulder wondering," said Antonucci. "I was a Vietnam vet and was a commercial diver so I grew up in formative years in extreme professions, so I was looking for something exciting to do and thought what could me more exciting than racing on an open mountain road?. Its the danger and excitement."
As my date with destiny and potential disaster approached, I had the sober business of my own final preparations. There was a medical information form to fill out that asked for our blood type and next of kin information; I couldn't remember my blood type and was damned if I was going to terrify my parents by asking them about it. They thought I was just hanging out in Vegas, not potentially hanging out of the wreckage of an overturned car in the desert.
I also had experienced the frustration of finding myself turned down at the tech inspection. My car was fine - I was supposed to ride along in a Corvette convertible, whose driver cackled "What good is a soft top gonna do you anyway?" The problem lay in my fireproof suit from the racing academy, which had a tear in the right elbow. I thought it was no big deal, but my driver laughed again and said "It's not likely we're gonna catch on fire, but if we do, even a small hole like that can lead to you cooking like a hamburger."
I was told I could come back and ride in the next race in May, but that things weren't looking good for my riding shotgun now. I had to either find a way to patch the material with the high-tech cloth designed to make it fireproof or find a car in a slower speed class that would be less likely to blow up. I was bumped down from the Corvette at 175 mph to another 'Vette in the 115 class.
And so it was that I was teamed up with Jim Marz-Vietnam vet, retired cop, beer drinker extraordinaire. (Albeit that last quality only came out after race time.) A burly tank of a man with a boisterous laugh, Marz told me to be ready at 6 a.m. Sunday for the ride out to the starting line. A long night lay ahead-meetings for all the racers and navigators to hear the final rules of the race, a separate meeting for press to learn how to take pictures of the speeding cars without becoming road kill, a festive dinner in the lavish basement of the Hotel Nevada.
At midnight, the only sounds on the streets poured forth from the bars, and the racers were nowhere to be found. It was time for them to sleep and rest and dream of fast open roads and trophies to be won. But for me, a new guy with fear in his veins, sleep would be hard to come by.
It's 8:45 a.m. on Sunday, and I'm in Jim Marz's Corvette, the world a blur as we shoot through the desert at a speed I could only dream of. I am doing all in my power to just maintain my composure and keep my pants clean-on the inside. My breath is quick yet measured, pressed up against the inside of the helmet, fists clenched in balls of tension, my stomach doing flip-flops. Mentally, however, I'm starting to feel the speed hypnosis-my mind tuned to a Zen-like state in which I would be hard-pressed to freak out verbally if my life depended on it.
Meanwhile, Marz is the picture of calm. He's been down this road before, literally, many times, and is confidently engaged in a race against himself - hands firm on the wheel, eyes no doubt locked in a steely gaze behind the shade of his helmet visor. This is what it all comes down to for the people involved, more than the car shows and camaraderie, the costs involved and the daunting dangers that lurk around every corner.
And as he lurches through an area called The Narrows, where the road tightens and turns in what seems quite risky fashion, Marz punches a fist in the air in quiet exhilaration. A bigger punch comes when he crosses the finish line, along with a cackle of pure satisfaction. Marz looks at his timer and mutters because he is late by six full seconds-an eternity in this race, where hundredths of a second often separate winners from losers.
Yet as Marz struts over to his fellow drivers for a celebratory cold one, I step out of the car to find my entire body is about to explode. For the second time in one day I make a beeline for a Porta Potty.
Later I learn that my switch into the slower car had been a lucky one after all. It turned out that Jim Marz had picked his 115 mph speed class because there were only three cars in it, period. Six seconds be damned, we were guaranteed to win. And I've got a giant silver plate with an engraved three-dimensional car leaping out of it to prove it.