'Twas idle curiosity that brought me to the dirt track races in Phoenix on September 30th. I'd never seen live dirt-track motorcycle racing before, but I came away converted - no - I should say, addicted. Truly, a high Blood Adrenalin Content is priceless, and these dirt-trackers came across with plenty of the good stuff.
The races were held on a Saturday night at Manzanita Speedway, a former dog track in the middle of a junkyard no-man's-land in South Phoenix.
It was 103 degrees when I hit town at 4 p.m. Whitelining through close-packed freeway traffic slowed me up, and I lost more time backtracking on surface streets to find the speedway, out on Broadway at 35th Avenue.
I found the racetrack just before sundown. A sign at the street entrance said parking inside was full, but I could see rows of bikes with room for more, so I rode in and parked my jalopy enduro in line with a few hundred gleaming Harleys. A one-acre dirt lot across the street was filling up with cars, raising enough dust in the air to darken the sun.
Two ticket booths flanked the track gate - one for sales, with a short line, and one for reserved ticket pick-ups. Before I made it to the reserve booth I was politely stopped by one of the staff for a bag search - no food or beverages allowed inside except water. I made it through the search, got my reserved $20 general admission ticket, and squeezed in through the "one-at-a-time" gate.
Between the gate and the back of the grandstand was a long crowded arcade lined with smoky snack-food stalls, and cluttered with souvenir stands.
I picked up a race program for $5. Just as I did the racing engines started - they were waiting for sundown to start the practice and warm-up laps, so the riders wouldn't come flying out of Turn 4 with the sun in their eyes.
I was too late for the pre-race "pit party", so I just skirted the grandstand and found a place to stand, up against the trackside fence where Turn 4 opens into the front straightaway. The pit area was in the infield, across the track from the grandstand - orderly rows of RVs and colorful tent pavilions lined up, with a few bikes growling around. Several bikes were out running fast laps on the track. The first race wouldn't start for over an hour, so there was time to look around and size the place up.
Manzanita has the seedy, informal air of a semi-pro boxing gym. It reminded me of racetracks in old photos from the 1920s, where they'd paint "RACING NECK AND NECK WITH DEATH" in 6-foot letters on the outside wall to draw in the crowds. The grandstand bleachers might seat 2500 on a good night. The white paint on everything was peeling, past due for a fresh coat. The track's overhead lights were far enough apart that the flood lamps lit the half-mile oval with pools of light in a twilight matrix, like streetlights on a deserted back road. In the world of spanky plastic big-money sports, "Manzy" is a working-class arena, funky in a rare, cool, bygone way.
To my left, over a barb-wired fence in the junkyard next door, I saw two guys sitting atop a 20-foot stack of wrecked cars. They had a perfect view over the wall into the turn. I was tempted to join them, but I'm suspicious of junkyards - I could imagine myself climbing a tottering pile of rusty junkers with a Rottweiler hanging off the seat of my pants. I had a good spot, so I stayed put, and checked out the evening's program.
There was plenty of racing ahead on the Manzanita Half-Mile. The PACE/SFX "Formula USA Wrenchead.com National Dirt Track Series" runs two classes: Pro Singles, and the National Championship. Pro Singles would race three 6-lap heats, an 8-lap Last Chance Qualifier, and a 12-lap Main Event. The National Championship riders had three 8-lap heats, two 8-lap Semi-Finals, a 10-lap Last Chance Qualifier, and the 25-lap Main Event. 12 races totalling 66.5 miles of hard fast riding on the clay oval. Many of the riders race in both classes.
The Pro Singles engines run up to 400cc, or 500cc pushrod - engines with more displacement are required to put a flow restrictor plate between the carb and cylinder head. They're said to make about 50 hp. There's a wide variety of engines racing in the class - 12 makes now, from the latest air or water-cooled motors, to the old pushrod BSA.
National Championship race bikes are open Singles like the 600cc Rotax, and V-Twins like the Harley-Davidson XR750. I'm told the open Singles make about 80 HP, the XR750 about 100. That's some sharp engine tuning.
The bikes are lean, stripped to the bare essentials, with a minimum weight of 220 pounds dry for Singles, 310 for the Twins. The engines are slightly muffled to bring the sound level down to 95 decibels - about the same as a 747 on take-off. The engines' roar shakes the earth, but 95 dB is well within safe limits for the brief exposures spectators get at the track.
This was the first year of the Formula USA national series, and Manzanita was the ninth round out of the season's ten. Pro Singles riders Kenny Noyes, riding a Husaberg DT400, and Glen Schnabel, Jr.,on a Wood-Rotax, both had enough points for a shot at clinching the season championship here. Noyes had enough of a lead that he only had to make the Pro Singles Main Event to win the series title.
The Pro Singles "support class" purse is $5,000 at each event, and the National Championship purse for half-mile tracks amounted to $40,000. The winner of the night's National Championship Main Event would pick up $7,500 - in addition to any manufacturers' contingency awards.
In the National Championship class, Chris Carr had the "Number 1" plate on his 600 Rotax, among a field of well-known riders, including world-famous veteran racer Jay Springsteen, riding a Harley-Davidson XR750. The crowd was in for a night of high-powered professional speed.
And it was getting to be quite a crowd. The grandstand bleachers were packed, and people were spreading out along the fence toward the turns, standing room only. After dark, by the start of the first race, I guess there were 6,000 people watching along the front straightaway. There were a lot of bikers, and it was a family night out with the wife and kids. People were standing four or five deep behind me. From what I overheard, most, like me, had never seen the classic American motorsport of dirt track racing. We got our first taste of it with the National Championship heats.
The bikes were ridden out of the pits in first gear, muttering, growling, and spitting, to the three starting lines in front of the grandstand. The engines revved up, the starting lights turned yellow. Then the green light, and we were hit with the roaring sound wave of 13 racing motorcycles on full-thrust take-off.
The sound level dropped slightly as they raced around the far side of the oval, then rose again, echoing off the back wall like a thundering of jet engines as they accelerated on the backstretch, flashing through pools of light from the overhead lamps. The riders threw their bikes over into Turn 3 at full speed, and the sound grew louder as they raced around the turn right toward us.
The pack came at us around Turn 4 sliding half-sideways and racing wheel to wheel, fighting for position. The booming, penetrating roar of thirteen racing engines flooded into us like a vibrating gut-shaking shockwave. I could feel it inside, and it set off a charge of adrenalin from some primitive reflex. Watching the riders wrestle their bikes sliding and bouncing around the turn at high speed and close quarters multiplied it. Then they were past, howling down the straightaway into the second lap.
#9 Jay Springsteen leads the third heat into the straightaway.
There were eight laps per heat, three quick heats in a row. On every lap, more adrenalin added to the rush, and by the third heat we were fully charged, yelling and banging on the fence as the bikes thundered past us. There were shouts and screams as some of the powersliding bikes hit holes in the track at 75 mph and bounced out sideways, fishtailing, the riders getting it under control and rocketing down the straightaway. The junkyard crowd, now about 20, were yelling and banging on the car hoods.
After the checkered flag, the bikes circled the track on a cool-down lap and exited to the pits at Turn 4. Wisps of smoke drifted under the lights on the straightaway, and there was a bitter whiff of burned engine oil in the air.
Chris Carr won the first heat; Kenny Coolbeth the second; and Jay Springsteen the third. They'd face each other in the National Championship Main Event, along with nine others who'd earned a starting position in the heats. Six more would make it to the Main via the two Semi-Finals and a Last Chance Qualifier.
Three 6-lap Pro Singles heats were next up. I knew because I had a program, and it made me a popular guy - the track's cheesy PA system was so feeble even people at the ends of the grandstand couldn't hear a word from it, and most of us were pretty clueless most of the evening. Clueless or not, we were all getting a huge kick out of the racing - and there was plenty more to come.
There was a lot of excited laughing and lively conversation going on, but we all piped down when the bikes came out for the Pro Singles heats. When eight highly-tuned racing engines started revving for the start, you couldn't hear a thing else anyway.
Starting lights yellow, then green, and the sound wave walloped us again as the bikes took off. Noyes wheelied off the line and gave the lead to #10, Dan Stanley, on a DRZ400 Suzuki.
The pack came sliding around the turn like a howling mob at 70 mph, pumping more adrenalin into every one of us. Every eye was on the action, and when somebody tried a close inside pass, you could hear the crowd's roar over the engines when neither rider gave an inch and the two sped down the straightaway with their handlebars knocking. Five more laps to the checkered flag, and each lap got us more charged up and rocking.
National Championship racing - fast, close, and inside.
On the third lap Noyes caught and passed Stanley and took the lead. At the flag it was Noyes, Stanley, Scooter Vernon on an ATK, Tim Eades on a Rotax, and Tony Souza, Jr., on a CCM. All made it to the Main, and Noyes had the premier season Pro Singles championship locked.
Two more 6-lap heats sent another10 racers on to the Main. The top three from the Last Chance Qualifier would fill out the 18-rider event.
Between races someone behind me said, "I hear there's a chick out there doin' that!"
The guy next to me raised his eyebrows. "A chick??"
"Yeah - and I hear she just turned 18."
I looked in the program. "That must be Jennifer Snyder. Number 15n. I guess that's her in the blue leathers". I don't know how old she is, but she was out there all right - competing in both classes, and riding in five races out of twelve that night - three in the National Championship, and two in Pro Singles, including the main event.
A break in the action was a welcome chance for a deep breath and a cold beer. The night was hot, but the beer prices were relatively reasonable, and empty cans were piling up in drifts against the junkyard fence. Alcohol and adrenalin make a wild combination, but everybody I saw that night was cool right to the end. The people around me were obviously hyped-up, laughing and talking fast and loud as adrenalin junkies do, and we were having a rip-roaring good time without any hassles. I guess watching people risk their lives a hundred times every three minutes keeps any little problems in perspective.
Twice during the evening there were breaks while the track was repaired. The riders walked out from the pits in their leathers, looking for the holes that had put them out on the ragged edge of control. Sliding around the curves at high speed, just a few yards from the track's concrete retaining wall, is plenty dangerous enough, even among expert riders on a perfect track.
There was a brick-sized hole at the exit of Turn 4 that had given some of the riders way too many thrills. Two maintenance men came out and filled it, then signaled the track's big water truck to come and run it over, to pack it down hard. One jabbed his finger at the patched hole, nodding and waving the truck in.
The water truck came on, and picked up speed, bearing down on the hole like a locomotive - and rumbled on by, missing it by six inches. The repair man threw his hands up, then smacked himself in the head. They left it at that.
At the start of the next heat we got right back into the racing. The action kept us hyped up through six heats, two National semi-finals, and two Last Chance Qualifiers. Every race was different, the racing fast and intricate. I had a solid adrenalin buzz waiting for the final two races.
The crowd noise dropped away as the motorcycles rolled out to the start of the Pro Singles Main Event.
Eighteen engines were revving on the grid. One rider jumped the gun and was sent to the rear of the pack. Yellow lights, revs up, green, and they were off, full-bore racing right off the line. Noyes, Schnabel, and Bryan Smith led the pack into Turn 1, the three of them dog-fighting for the lead on every lap.
Noyes streaking into the front straight ahead of Smith and Schnabel.
Near the end of the 6-mile race it was Smith in the lead, Schnabel second, Noyes third. On the last lap Noyes passed Schnabel, then blew past Smith into the short half straightaway to the finish line, taking the race, along with the championship. Coming in behind Noyes were Smith on an ATK, Stanley on a Suzuki, and Schnabel on a Wood-Rotax. Davey Durelle was fifth on a Suzuki,, Tim Eades sixth on a Rotax, and Jennifer Snyder seventh, also on a Rotax. Snyder finished the night holding seventh place in Pro Singles points, out of 127 listed riders.
Next up - the National Championship Main Event.
Nineteen riders went out to the start. Bryan Bigelow used his one "Provisional Starting Position" of the season to make it to the Main Event in spite of mechanical problems in the elimination races.
Chris Carr was in the points lead with 604, in contention for the season championship with Jay Springsteen, who had 528 points. Glen Schnabel, Jr., hot off his fourth-place finish in the Pro Singles race, was holding third in National Championship points with 505.
The race start was delayed long enough to make the crowd restless. Somebody behind me explained they were introducing each of the racers (to each other, I guess, considering the quality of the sound system); but I later learned somebody had leaned against a light-pole and accidentally thrown a switch that shut off some of the track lights. The track was none too bright to start with, and it took the maintenance crew a while to figure out what the problem was.
Turn 4 was a good place to catch the action, and some of the people around me were Manzanita regulars who attended the truck and sprint car races the track usually hosted. I looked at the size of the crowd, and asked a guy next to me if the sprint cars drew that many. He made a wry smile and shook his head, with a look that said, "Not in their wildest dreams!"
Judging by the crowd reaction, if they got 6,000 people in to see dirt track racing this year, they'd better be ready for 30,000 next year. Manzy might not cut it.
Once the light problem was sorted out, the riders took a quick lap around the track, and lined up for the start. In the front row, from the inside, were Roeder, Kopp, Davis, Carr, Springsteen, and Coolbeth.
Carr led from the start, with Springsteen right behind him, and the other 17 riders racing to keep up. In the early laps the front-runners were close, but with each lap Carr opened his lead on Springsteen and Springer opened his lead on the rest.
Carr, Springsteen, and everybody else. It would take half a dozen mega-watt speakers to reproduce the sound of these 19 motorcycles racing on the clay track.
Kopp, Coolbeth, Roeder, Rich King, and Terry Poovey were racing for third. Kopp broke out ahead of the pack and left them fighting for fourth. Poovey got past King on the 20th lap straightaway. Coolbeth and Schnabel also passed King to hold fifth and sixth. On the last lap Schnabel got ahead of Coolbeth and took the fifth spot.
Carr slides the roaring Rotax Single racing around Turn 4.
Carr and Springsteen were giving it the whip and increasing their leads over the rest. At the checkered flag it was Carr, Springsteen, and Kopp, with Poovey fourth, Schnabel fifth, Coolbeth sixth, and King seventh. Roeder, Bigelow, and Davis finished in the top ten.
That concluded the evening's racing. The top three finishers in each Main Event crowded on to a small podium for trophies and photos. The gates in front of the grandstand were opened, and the spectators were able to cross the track to visit the pits.
Hundreds did. The racers and pit crews were busy packing up, but they're friendly folks, with time to swap a few remarks. Harley-Davidson's factory-sponsored rider Rich King was sitting under his team's awning, autographing programs for a crowd of race fans. His single-shock Rotax was on display close at hand, but the XR750s were under wraps.
There's a persistent rumor that King will race a factory-sponsored Buell Blast in next year's Pro Singles, but official sources deny any knowledge of the project.
The winning bikes were under the bright lights of the impound enclosure, waiting on a tech check for rules compliance.
It was fun, but it was late, and I had 220 miles ahead of me - most of it on outback two-lane roads across Arizona's mountains and deserts. It was an all-night ride under a sky full of stars. I didn't get home til 5:30 Sunday morning, but I was awake and alert for the whole ride. That adrenalin is priceless.
Cocaine? Don't need it. I know what the good stuff is and where to get it. See you at the races - Joe Peralta
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The Formula USA Wrenchead.com National Dirt Track Series wound up the season at the de luxe Del Mar Mile near San Diego, California, October 7th and 8th. For the story on the grand finale and Chris Carr's $50,000 National Championship season finish, check out Jim Vincent's race reports at grandnationalchampion.com.
My thanks to Jim Vincent's reports, and also to the official Formula USA website, for additional details on the Wrenchead.com Dirt Track Series.
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