St. Petersburg, Florida
April 3, 2005
Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
What follows are the observations and half-baked thoughts of a total racing neophyte, an automotive slob who wouldn’t know a spark plug from a flux-capacitor.
Our hero is P.J. Chesson the 26 year old race car driver from the gentrified horse country of N.J. This is his second year racing the Menards Infiniti PRO Series, which is like the minor league of IndyCar. He racked up 3 consecutive wins and a number of top 5’s in his first year racing on pavement. P.J. is driving for a new team this year and things are tense, he crashed during qualifying in the first two races of this season. (The drivers are responsible for the damages themselves if they are incurred outside the actual race). The team is a real step down from his rookie season and the car reflects this. His girlfriend is Echo Johnson, she is somewhat older than P.J. (though I lack the conviction to ask how much) she is a former Playboy model from Austin, Texas.
P.J. seemed unaffected by the same thoughts I was having when I stepped into the ‘hot pit’. My first thought on coming close to these diminutive fighter jets, with one extra wheel, is something like ‘you’d have to be a jockey to fit into one these little f*ckers’….The national anthem is over, worked over with a butchers clever by some American Idol hack. The honorary starter is Andrew Firestone, I regret to report that it looks like the Queer Eye Guys have gotten there hands on another one. The engines roar to life and Echo and I are told to get off the track, an order which we ignore only because it was said with such little authority… The second warm-up lap is over and the green flag goes up, supposedly, though who the hell knows, it’s too loud and the Florida sun is too bright to notice the little things. I will say dear reader with total honesty and full disclosure that I am fully recovered from Friday nights debauchery in New York, though I had the flight down to think about it.
As P.J. predicted there was a disaster on the opening lap, apparently the first turn is at the end of the straight away and is pretty hairy when the field is all bunched up. A young Brazilian named Jamie Camara was wiped out 3 seconds into this race, though I couldn’t see much from here in pit row. We cannot feel to badly for him as apparently he is the son of the Brazilian Ted Turner, but with no doubt a wonderful Portugaise style that Ted’s mustache could never match. But you can hear the slick little missiles blowing by you at over 150 mph on the straight away, you can feel the power of the engines, you can smell the rocket fuel exhaust.
Another spin out at the 21 lap mark, it gives us a chance to asses P.J.’s race. He is 5 mph off the pace of the leaders, it appears his car not only looks slightly inferior, with its faded blue and white paint job, but it races that way as well. The good news comes in the form of a gangly, somewhat slippery looking Aussie, no doubt descended from a long line of pocket pickers, he assures Echo that P.J. is getting faster with each lap, 2 seconds faster before the latest caution flag. The flag gives him a chance, and all the other stragglers, to catch the leaders and condense the race. A much needed mulligan, that cost someone serious dough and a possible trip to the school nurse. I haven’t given it much thought before, but I guess it is designed to make the race more exciting, tighter for the fans, as there is not speed limit for anyone as long as you don’t pass the guy ahead of you.
Eventually you can catch up to the leader who is being held back by an extremely ugly pace car (actually a truck). A boost for the little guy. A hold out for democracy in an America where evil empires and dynasties reign supreme.
Anyway, I neglected to inform you that the slippery looking ‘bloke’ also told Echo that PJ was saying his brakes were getting soft, even to me this didn’t sound promising. Apparently all the drivers were reporting the same, they are not used to braking much around an oval track, which most of these guys have cut their teeth on. PJ does not strike me as someone who has ever considered using his breaks for any reason.
Echo appears to be a real distraction for the S.P.F.R. fire fighter next to us, standing behind an open 40 gallon barrel of water. What good that will do is totally suspect. 10 laps to go, let’s pray there are no fires near me needing the attention of this valiant lecher… The rather sparse crowd has gone up in a round of applause, I can tell by the subdued nature of the cheer that it is not a firey crash these vultures are applauding, but a skilled pass somewhere out there. Marco Andretti is beating other drivers with names like Unser and Drake, most with JR, III, or the IV. PJ has moved into 7th place with another driver spinning out.
I want to take a bottle of water out of the cooler next to me, but I dare not offend the natives, with their colorful garments and funny head wear. Clearly I am an outsider trespassing on a world of insiders. It’s a good thing I know one of the chiefs and happen to be standing next to his beautiful concubine.
5 laps to go, surely only a disastrous miracle will propel our man into victory lane, or anywhere near it. But a victory was not expected by anyone but me, who knows less than any of the morbidly obese children starting to fill the stands behind me in anticipation of the big cars racing later today. The drivers and their girlfriends, however, are descended from a different stock than their fans. The girlfriends can easily be identified from all the other women track side by their bleached and surgically enhanced good looks. Is it my imagination or are they all taller than their men? More research is needed, Ill have to survey them on this at the next race and get back to you… Race car drivers may be the only short men with fast cars able to successfully compensate for their lack of stature.
It looks like Marco Andretti, the 18 year old phenom will drive himself into victory lane. Another victory for patrimony, empires and dynasties everywhere, non the less a well deserved win for the kid. The media swarms the champ, a lot of Japanese media come sprinting down pit row, with their wonderful straight black hair. But wait, here come the blonds, very impressive. Clearly I should have been behind a steering wheel, not a golf ball, from a very early age.
PJ is helped out of his car and looks very pleased. He gets a big hug and a kiss from Echo and congratulations from a number of official looking guys. We’re standing looking at the circus going on around the winner’s car. I sense he is happy with finishing 7th and I ask as much, “I finished a f*cking race in ’05 baby” clearly a weight off his shoulders….PJ talks shop with some of the other racers and his crew for a while. We all jump on the scooter PJ, Echo then me, when I realize that this is about as close as I’ll ever get to a playmate.
As I am standing under the car lift platform, attached to the back of the customized 18 wheeler, in an attempt to find some relief from the unrelenting Florida sun, I hear a soft whining. The sun/shade line is slowly moving across the tarmac, when I come to the conclusion that the mischievous natives are letting me know my place in the strict social hierarchy of their highly evolved culture. I attempt to look cool and collected, calm in the face of their passive aggressive behavior. I barely avoid being slowly crushed by the powerful hydrolic monster, I can hear a few deep grunts.
Perhaps now that I sit here in the Tampa airport, next to a family from one of the outer-boroughs, all of us on our way back to JFK and God only knows where from there, as they verbally abuse two generations of the family, one in a wheel chair and one in a baby stroller, and my head is totally clear of Marquee cobwebs I can say that the pit crew did not see me standing under the car lift and that they were not in it to spill some blood, that warm cloudless Sunday afternoon in St. Petes, but if I don’t believe it neither should you.
April 4, 2005
These drivers, and PJ more than any I have met so far, are afflicted by some atavistic need to compete for resources, engage in the hunt, with death not in the shadows but right in front of them, all around them. This Infinity Pro Series seems even more dangerous than their bigger brothers of IndyCar who race the same courses, at only a very few seconds faster per 1.8 mile lap. Why is it, or does it seem, more dangerous if the cars are smaller and slightly slower? The danger lies in the drivers themselves, as I look up from my scratchy writing to notice my Arab friend, whose name I would no doubt need George Tenet to pronounce for me, hurls us at top speed ever closer to certain fear and possible destruction, while playing with his cell phone in one hand and jabbing at his nostrils with the other. I get the distinct feeling we are walking a tight rope at this point and his Israelie girlfriend is screaming at us not to look down at her… The point I so callously veered away from was that these drivers are more dangerous because they are less experienced and they are driving for their lives (no endorsements down here in the minors). I will say however, that their girlfriends appear to be nearly as good looking as those of the IndyCar drivers, with Ashley Judd a more refined exception.
This car ride home is getting really hairy now. We barely made it over the Williamsburg bridge with our lives and now my driver is getting jumpy, he can smell the finish line, victory lane is within his grasp and no one is going to keep him out. There may not be any a hoard of media and groupies, and the purse is barely enough to cover the gas, but these guys race for reasons you and I cant begin to understand.