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Einstein was right; time is relative to expectation and fear

This is a throwback to 2000, part one of a two-part post, courtesy of my dad (originally published in the October and November 2000 issues of Roundel magazine). In this article he recalls my race in our old BMW 2002 at Grattan Raceway. Midway through the race, I didn’t return.

Grattan Raceway, Grand Rapids, Michigan BMW 2002 Yellow Vintage Race
Our BMW 2002 Race Car

By Dave Farnsworth, “The Navigator

The track is Grattan, which Chicagoans rhyme with “rotten,” but the natives rhyme with “flatten.” It’s a twisting, turning, pitching roller-coaster of blacktop that wraps itself sinuously over and around a picturesque and scenic plot of land just a bit north and east of Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you ever want a challenge to your driving and learning ability, this track invites your best efforts. It will tax your ability to learn, challenge your sense of balance and rhythm, and teach you to plan ahead. It’s an absolute blast to drive―and an even more fun place to race.

I am still in my driver’s suit, having won my first race in a hard-fought contest with the car that qualified ahead of me, so my mood is great when I pull onto the false grid to turn the ’02 over to my son Matt for the vintage/historic event. And from the flag, Matt drives a great race in the vintage group, turning very consistent times, right around mine―not bad for someone who hasn’t seen the track before this morning. Fresh neurons and no fear, I mutter to myself, almost a match for old age and treachery.

If you hang out at race tracks―watching and cheering friends on, thumbs poised over lap timers, pit boards at hand―you know what it’s like each time the second counter gets near your driver’s lap time. You feel that warm, anxious anticipation flowing upward through your gut as your eyes focus on that certain spot on the track where your car usually appears. You mentally tick off the cars you know you’ll see first: Yes, there’s the Datsun 240Z, the Alfa, pristine little bug-eye Sprite―which seems to be slipping little off the pace; maybe we’re going to gain a position. Then―as long as your car crests the hill or turns the corner on schedule―your mind slips back to the mundane task of remembering to hit the lap timer at the right spot, then reset it for the next lap. You jot down the time, maybe raise a few fingers to the guy with the pit board for the next go-around. You relax as you watch the car pass, your ears noting the engine’s song, then follow it as it disappears around the next corner. And so goes each lap until you see the checkered flag, or spot the corner workers flashing the thumbs up, or hear the cars audibly slow for the cool down lap.

Grattan Raceway, Grand Rapids, Michigan BMW 2002 Vintage Race

But that’s when everything works. Those of us who watch, and wait are also painfully familiar with that sinking feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when the second hand tells you your car should appear―and it isn’t here.

For the first few seconds, you force out silent homilies: He’s caught in the back-markers, no chance for a safe pass, missed a shift. Common enough realities, harmless delays―and reasonable assumptions. But you hold your breath as you glance back down at your stopwatch. Ten seconds late: You think minor off-course excursion, a trip through the grass, or even a light spin―maybe a position lost, at worst two or three. You tell yourself the growing sense of dread is unwarranted. Take a breath, you tell yourself. Relax, he’ll be here.

Fifteen seconds: Now you conjure an impatient driver, off the track and sitting through the interminable wait for the corner worker’s signal to re-enter the track safely. You’ve been there; you know it seems to take forever. Maybe the engine stalled; it’s a bitch to get running when it’s hot. But as the second-hand turns―twenty seconds, then 25―you know there’s been plenty of time to re-start a car, but it still isn’t here.

Thirty seconds: Darker thoughts begin to intrude. An incident? Still you hold out for something mechanical; that stuff happens all the time. You start an inventory of the possibilities: Broken throttle cable, I bet; I knew we should’ve changed it. You picture disassembled, dangling shift linkage; a clogged fuel pump; wheel bearings, U-joints, axle splines all headed south. You start to chant the litany of all the pieces in a race car that have to be working perfectly for it to run; it only takes a minor failure to end your driver’s race. Heck, wasn’t it a five-dollar bearing that cost AJ Foyt from winning the Indy 500 in the turbine car? But the song playing in your head doesn’t extol the mechanical; it is a dirge for the potential disaster.

As the time mounts up, dread clouds your thoughts like a thunderstorm moving across a summer sky―and still the seconds drag, a time warp stretching them into some cosmic taffy. Your eyes lock on the horizon, willing the car to appear with ever-diminishing hope, but with a growing urgency, as if by staring hard enough you could see the whole track. You watch for the rescue vehicle to fire up its flashing lights, thankful it hasn’t moved, infuriated that it hasn’t moved. Is the car lying upside down somewhere? Is it wrapped around the stately tree that’s shaded Turn Four since MG-TDs were the E-ticket ride? What happened, and how bad was it? Is everybody okay?

Is my son all right?

That’s the question that makes your stomach constrict like a hungry python. The kid you introduced to the sport when other kids were playing with action figures; the kid who grew up thinking everybody changed their own rotors; the kid who thought having a garage full of cases of oil in different weights was normal; the kid who wanted, craved, needed his driver’s license with a hunger the average teenager couldn’t fathom―the kid who sought his competition license with even greater determination―that kid, your kid, is… missing. Out there somewhere on the race track in some kind of trouble.

Feelings collide: guilt, anxiety, remorse, frustration, a dozen questions starting with why: Why hasn’t he come around? Why don’t they say something? Why aren’t they DOING something? But finally, after an interminable hollow period―one the stopwatch calls a mere three minutes―the loudspeakers crackle to life: Matt has pulled off the far side of the course, apparently with some kind of mechanical problem.

In the typically facile way of the human mind works, I instantly switch from fear and concern to thinking how mad he’ll be that he wasn’t able to finish the race. But, then, he’ll have a chance tomorrow, I think, when we race again.

And that’s when this whole exhilarating, tension-loaded, adrenaline-soaked thing starts all over.

And you think soccer moms have it tough?

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