Roseburg Nights: The ballad of nameless racers

My wife and I are probably looking forward to seeing Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby more than most. Sure, we are well aware that it isn’t going to be taking home any oscars and the plot (insofar as there is one) is going to be simply ridiculous, but sometimes it is nice to just go to the theater and laugh at the spectacle.

This movie has gotten me to thinking of my youth, and how close I came to going down the road to calling myself Donnie Joe. It’s probably not much of a story, but it is what I am thinking about, and thus it shall be typed.

Roseburg, Oregon doesn’t really have much to offer. It has gotten a lot bigger since the time I spent there as a child, but it is still nothing more than a fuel stopover on your way from California to Eugene or Portland. The population began to boom when I was a child, as that was the time when Roseburg Lumber (which is actually located twelve miles away) was the best paying job in the county, and every able-bodied man was taking up a job there. They began to marry off and start families in the Winston and Roseburg areas, and somewhere in the early 1970’s the population of children was probably larger than that of the adults.

It was fortunate that there were so many children though, since there really wasn’t anything for us to actually do other than play with each other. Since Roseburg Lumber was such a large supplier of forest products, there were train tracks criss-crossing the town that effectively cut it into zones (at least for the children who weren’t allowed to cross the tracks without a parent -that being all of us-). Roseburg was actually quite a beautiful town, with many lush parks for the children to play in, all connected by miles upon miles of paved bike paths. All of which were also across tracks, so most children weren’t allowed to tread them without an accompanying adult.

When I was around six years old, a rumor began to circulate among the kids that a girl was murdered on the bike trail. I was never able to actually confirm the information through my parents, but the fact that they wouldn’t actually deny it either led me to believe that it was probably true. After that point no kids were really allowed on the bike trail without their parents. Not that it was a law or mandate, unless you consider boundaries established by parents to be such. This turned the whole town of Roseburg into no more than one block to me; bordered by railroad tracks to two sides and major (4 lane) streets on the other two.

If I would have been older when I lived there, I would have had access to a car and a little bit more freedom. In that case, I could have seen how big it really was. The town went on in fits and spurts for miles. The names would change as you left the city limits, there were names like Green, Melrose, Winchester, all still part of Roseburg (at least most considered them so), but just on the outskirts. All of them were small, and the citizens were pretty territorial, but we were all part of that wonderful little community. A community that was exactly one block to me.

Roseburg had a drive-in movie theater, as well as a traditional one. Some of my greatest memories involve watching movies there. I watched E.T. at the traditional theater, on opening weekend. It was during a canned food drive, so the entrance fee was literally a can of corn (creamed in my case). I watched a double feature at the drive in with my Mom and Brothers. The movies were Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn, and Beastmaster. I actually watched Beastmaster, but fell asleep during Star Trek. The only thing I remember about that one is the I had nightmares about earwigs (slang for a type of bug) for weeks afterwards. The drive-in has since closed, and was subsequently replaced by a warehouse foods store. The other theater may still be there, but I think it only had two screens, so it probably lost in competition to AMC or Harkins by now.

A trip to the movies was the ultimate night for a kid, but it required extensive planning and willing parents. My parents were willing to go to the theater, of course, but for reasons that I couldn’t understand back then, they didn’t want to see the same movie 9 times. Roller skating was another popular activity, but it also required willing parents. This one was easier achieved though, since they could just drop us off at the doors and pick us up three hours later. The skating rink was managed in a way that it was not possible to get in without a ticket (exceptions were made for parents), and the doors were locked to keep out any unscrupulous, bike-trail murderers (of course you could get out from the inside, you just couldn’t get in. It was effectively a large baby-sitting room for the three hours that we were there).

The only other forms of entertainment were the ones that we created ourselves. Every kid with any sort of a reputation had an obstacle course for bicycles in his back yard. If your yard was too small, you could still be one of the in kids so long as you took the time to build a nice little action figure war zone for the myriad G.I. Joe, He-Man, Transformer, Go-Bots that we all had. As I say, we were all limited to that one block, we really had to reach for entertaining things to do.

Roseburg did have one event that parents as well as children really enjoyed though (and I probably should put fathers and sons, but I don’t want to be sexist): Racing. Every Saturday night (I am sure there was actually a racing season, but in my memory it was every Saturday), drivers would flock to the local fairgrounds to battle it out for nothing more than bragging rights. I don’t think there was a trophy or a points system, just a bunch of guys who wanted to race and took advantage of the opportunity.

The race track was small, I think it was a quarter mile. The 8 cars would line up to start and the rear cars would be in the final turn. They would go around a lap or two awaiting the green flag, then the engines would roar in the way that only a racecar (or the amplification from the covered grandstands, not sure which) could. The night would disappear in the smoke of the tires and thunder of the engines as the cars tore through the turns at speeds possibly in excess of thirty miles per hour. To the strightaways, where the drivers would again gun the engines hoping to pass the guy in front of them, or stay ahead of the one behind them, before the next turn, which could really only be taken in single file. After some amount of laps (or when the audience got bored), the checkered flag would come out and a victor would emerge. Until the same time next week when it all happened again.

That was the stock cars though. And the stock cars was by far the least exciting event. The stock cars all had logos covering their freshly painted bodies, and many of the drivers were not local boys, we wanted to see the real racers. The real racers (in my eyes) were the ones the competed in the other two events: J-cars and Sprint cars.

The sprint cars were a hell of a lot of fun to watch (if you are unfamiliar with them, you can see what they look like here). Sprint cars really thrive on small tracks like that. They are small and nimble enough that they don’t have to lock up their brakes before the turns, and because of that, there was a lot of edge-of-your-seat action as you watched. You would be praying that they made it through the turns without rolling over, but at the same time hoping that they would roll over. The crashes were amazing to watch, as there was never a minor fender-bender with a sprint car, it was pretty horrific if they missed a turn or rolled over. There was one event where we watched one of them miss the corner, crash through the wall, and tumble several times before stopping several hundred yards out of the stadium. Always fun to watch, the sprint cars.

The J-car event was always the local favorite though. I think J-car is supposed to stand for jalopy, and these cars definitely fit that bill. The sprint and stock cars were mostly in actual racing circuits, and Roseburg was small potatoes to them, but the J-cars were all local boys, none of them sponsored, all racing just to race. The cars were as varied as they could be, since anyone with an old Ford Fairlane and a roll cage could sign up. We all had our favorite local driver, and though I have long since forgotten his name, my favorite was the one that drove the 07 car.

The J-cars weren’t meant to be a demolition derby, but since the cars were all just beaters with horsepower, and the drivers were a proud bunch, they often became little more than that. The drivers weren’t afraid to trade paint (well, primer) in the turns or gently nudge someone (read: push them off the track). The cars didn’t go very fast, I don’t think they had anything more than the dated stock suspension, but the drivers didn’t let that keep them from competing harder than the drivers in the other events. At the end of the race, whoever was ahead (or whichever car was able to finish under its own power) would get kissed by a pretty girl. I really think that was the only award for winning: a kiss and bragging rights.

Something about the J-cars captivated me. I really wanted to be one of the drivers. It had to be a J-car though. The audience would actually boo most of the stock car drivers, and the sprint cars looked like toys (although with adult eyes, I can see that they were easily the fastest and most dangerous of all). The J-car was what I hoped to someday race. When I put a numberboard on the front of my bicycle, it wasn’t because of any bicycle or motorcycle racing I had seen, it was to emulate the J-cars. Each time we went to the races, I would patiently wait for the J-cars to come out before starting to cheer like only a child can. That was truly what I hoped to do with my life.

Perhaps I should be thankful that my childhood innocence (at least as far as racing goes) would be stripped from me before it became an obsession. During one of the J-car events, there was a crash. One of the cars smashed into the the tower that the guy with the flag stands in (which is obviously made of reinforced steel) and caught on fire. The driver was knocked unconcious on impact and it took rescue crews a couple of minutes to get him out of the car. I am not sure about the severity of his injuries, but I do know that that was the last time I ever saw his car racing at the fairgrounds (to be fair though, he wouldn’t have been able to race that car again anyway). That was the very first time that it ever occurred to me that you could be injured while racing. And that effectively ended my racing career long before it ever got going.

The racing continued after that horrific crash, and following the pattern of racetracks being reactive about safety (as opposed to proactive, which would save a lot of needless injury), the flag tower would be surrounded with a whole bunch of car tires. Think about that. All it would have taken to keep this guy from impacting the tower and getting (possibly) horribly injured was a stack of used car tires, but no one took the time to wonder what would happen if a car hit the reinforced steel tower at full speed. I continued to watch the races, but with far less enthusiasm than I had before I saw what could happen when things go really wrong. So someone else’s misfortune probably saved me a great deal of my own.

As we step into the theatre to watch Talladega Nights, I have no doubt that it will bring back memories of those nights spent at the racetrack when I was but a lad. No doubt Will Ferrell will be playing a character that sees racing much as I saw it when I was so youth, and I am sure it will be fun to watch. If it does nothing else, it has already made me recall something that I hadn’t thought about in twenty years: a happy memory of time spent with my Father. If you have read many of my posts, you know that I am always trying to come up with examples of those, but they always escape me. This is one of them. Those nights spent at that little racetrack in Roseburg, Oregon. I felt like we were friends, not Father and Son. We would talk about the drivers and the cars while we shared a popcorn and a soda, and basically just left everything else behind. Tomorrow would be different, he would be the Father again, but for that time spent under the grandstands, we were just a couple of guys watching a race. Maybe that is why it is so difficult to think of specific examples of happy memories spent with my father; it’s not as though there aren’t any, it’s just that I found happiness in such mundane activities.

But for the love of God, did we really have to wear matching Goodyear ballcaps when we went? Sure, I did it because I wanted to be like my dad, but imagine the crap he probably got from his friends for sitting with his son -in matching caps- and sharing a popcorn and a soda, instead of drinking beer and hanging out with them. I guess he really did just want to be a good dad sometimes.

Leave a Reply