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of cars. The guy with the baddest toy wins."
An eight-time Figure 8 champ who got his start in demolition derbies, he has
develop the timing instinct necessary to careen through that X with enough confidence to beat down fear. Those who sign on realize there's a chance of checking out. Knowing your opponent offers an edge, which means rookies on the track clutch a little too snug on an already
back home; Irwindale drivers get only about eight per season. Barefoot knows Bear and McMurtrey will be hard to beat. Nevertheless, the glaring differences between the local hard-asses with their roughshod hot rods and the pedigreed Indy fellows with their babied rockets doesn't seem to create tension, and, even at a few grand, the prize money seems more a formality than a driving force.
Absent tonight is car No. 666, driven by motorcycle czar Jesse James, founder of West Coast Choppers. His rep for molding bikes out of metal from scratch with his tattooed paws has made him an anti-star-a blue-collar boy straddling the tracks, never committing fully to the old life of rags or the new one of riches. This caught Discovery Channel's eye. Several docudramas about
quent injections. Practicing a hobby without being harangued by autographbegging ankle-grabbers, alongside men a lot
like him but with a lot less money.
"I'm the most feared driver in Figure 8," he tells me. ''All of those fuckers know that I will hit them. But it's funmeaningless and balls-out."
Says Westbrook with a shake of her head, "I'll never forget when he flipped this awesome car over-666. All the oil drained out of it. You can't drive a car without oil, but he did. He said fuck it, he didn't ask for more oil, he kept going. They flipped him back over, and off he went. He blew a brand-new motor trying to finish a race."
James can now afford to do this, and you'd think
it might piss off some of his fellow Figure 8ers. His trademark affable arrogance
laving big balls is a top priorjty in.. Figure 8, but experience IS king.
earned his peaceful air of deference. Barefoot, decked out in a Cherry-red fireproof jumpsuit and ordinary spectacles, is framed in a frazzled halo of unkempt locks that, though clean, tell you he's a dirty boy. This tow-truck-driving bachelor shrugs off rnarriage; says he knows if it came down to him getting new tires or his wife getting a washer and dryer, the rubber would win out.
I note that his bare feet are not nearly as wrecked as you'd expect after decades of trudging through junkyards. According to lore, Barefoot has never worn shoes-not even in school. "I just never liked wearing shoes," he says, shrugging. He claims he wears them when he races only because he has to. He confides that his daddy, busy working
in the oil fields, couldn't muster the might to enforce shoe-wearing by his motherless brood.
Having big balls, Billy says, is a top priority in Figure 8, but experience is king. Only trial and error can
hairpin trigger. "Last race, I got hit by a guy who'd only raced three times," Barefoot says. ''There's no stop signs or red lights at the intersection. It's a matter of timing. If you run up there and stop, you need to know a lot of different factors. We train the rookies out there." He chuckles ruthlessly.
It's at the X that the rnen are separated from the boys. A ticket broker can become a fearless champion; a plumber might make his rival look like a pussy. For the racers it's simple: Live or die.
Most competitors here are from nearby; many are acquainted with each other's backyard barbecues or their garages, tinkering under the hoods of beloved hot rods. In the mix tonight are a few strangers, among them Indy big boys Fred Bear Jr., who won this same Irwindale Speedway Figure 8 last year, and Curtis McMurtrey. With spit-shined Indianapolis Speed rome specials they towed for long hours to show up and show out, they run Figure 8's 40 times a year
his craft and lifestyle have been produced. The series Monster Garage made him famous. Still, something was missing.
Irwindale Speedway, not far from his Long Beach, California, headquarters, has become a reality check for James, offering a place to escape the gold-barred cage of fame in which he's found himself imprisoned. Girlfriend Sandra Bullock comes along now and then, and nobody bothers them. They're allowed to be people, not stars.
"Being a regional track, James is always a draw for us," says Wendi Westbrook, a former racecar driver turned sales-and-marketing girl, announcer, and pacecar driver for the Speedway. ''The track appreciates the fact that when it comes time for him to test out a new
MG creation, he brings it out here. It helps us. The bottom line is, it's a good relationship."
Figure 8 mainlines adrenaline, and Irwindale Speedway enables James's fre-
doesn't faze. He fits in, doesn't act like a diva, doesn't make special requests for
his pits. James is one of them. His car most definitely will blow others away in style and might (1,000 horsepower NASCAR-style, running on alcohol), but it's just a car and he's just a man. He might be a celebrity, plastered in magazines kissing movie star Bullock, but he knows-as do the other drivers-that the difference between them isn't any broader than that intersection in the eight.
In June 2004 James proved that he bleeds and breaks just like everybody else. A head-on crash into a wall nearly killed him. On crutches, still nursing an ailing ankle, he avoids the track tonight because not being able to race hurts
a hell of a lot worse than broken bones.
"Crashing and walking away is bitchin' ," he says. ''I've done it a bunch of times. But crashing and being knocked out and trying to wake up and open my eyes and wondering
for a split second if I was dead? Sucks. I will race again when I'm 100 percent. My cast has been off two days now. I broke two bones in one shot."
The recent spark of interest in Figure 8 can be attributed in part to James's presence. "Keep in mind," says Barefoot Billy, "it had gotten to the point that we were racing three cars for 35 bucks in a main event-and we'd tow three hours to get there. Jesse's helping put the spotlight back on it."
In the pits, Figure 8ers gather and crews lounge about, talking shit, dreaming of postrace beer drinking.
Figure 8's history is negligible to the mainstream, but for those in the know, it is passed down like folklore. Spending time with racers and crews, the greasy metal tapestry of the sport unravels. Childhoods spent at the gone-but-notforgotten Ascot Park watching Daddy race, or Grandpa.
"I grew up thinking the national anthem was the Ascot song," says "Hot" Rod Proctor, a track favorite who drives car No. 21 and is a restaurateur in nearby Riverside. "On July 4th, I remember asking why they were playing the Ascot song. They always gave me shit about that."
He leans against his car, grinning. His son Mike says he's gonna race one day,
when dad loans him the car. "They said I was too much of a pussy to come here and win this, so I came out and did it," Hot Rod tells me.
The pits are a paved campground.
Everyone sits around on trailers, stacks of tires, folding chairs. This is family. Rivalry is either hidden or healthy, so it doesn't factor into fellowship. Hell, we can't be rivals, says one guy. We might need to borrow a part from somebody.
But long ago Barefoot decided that if anybody was going to be his rival, it would be Rusty Stewart. Stewart. 45, has been racing since 1976. Stewart's crew waves over Earl Cox, the oldest Figure 8 racer at 65. "I still get just as excited as I ever did," he says. "You get to my age and you got to have something to keep the blood circulating."
Driver Tony Curtis, with only five years in the sport, talks about the cost of gas-$5.85 a gallon for 11O-octane. Like most racers here, he's not sponsored. "There's no budget like broke," he says with a laugh, dragging on a cigarette. "Doing 50 laps, you definitely don't wanna run out of gas. I had to buy four new tires and rims, so tonight I put my cap out to all my friends and they gave me $5Cl---€nough money to race tonight. It's a lot more difficult to wreck, because all you see is dollar signs. This is all
"Last calf for happy hour, folks!"
my own money. Sometimes I've gotta be real conservative."
Shortly after 9 P.M. it's time to find out who's going to hit whom in the X.
Wendi Westbrook is harried, impassioned, urging me to jump in the pace truck with her-a glimpse of what it would be like to be them, gripping the wheel with a prayer and just the hint of a deathwish. Relieved of her announcing duties, Westbrook is now responsible for guiding these mad bastards into a mean parade of potential damnation.
Although the cliche about it never raining in southern California usually holds water, suddenly rain freckles the windshield. Westbrook is aghast, groaning as she leans up to look at the sky. "Uh-oh, I see raindrops. Shit, look at it. This is not what we need. It hasn't rained since April!" she says, shaking her head, hugging the wheel.
But this isn't a picnic, so raindrops be damned. The first couple of laps, no driver gets close to any other, but with each lap, the cars draw nearer.
McMurtrey, No. 49, starts in the front row and bulldozes onward, leading the first two laps. Clearly he's undaunted by the wet track, but others slide like ice skaters. Fellow Indy bad boy Fred Bear Jr. is sniffing his ass, however.
"Number 12 is practically two wheels in," Westbrook howls, whacking the steering wheel with a palm. We've got the best seat in the house, parked slightly off to the side. Sparks fly out from under a sliding car. Westbrook moans between whoops.
The Indy boys keep dominating, although Bear jets ahead, with Ron Chaney, No. 57, tailing.
It's a pinball game of cars at several points because of the slick course. Then comes the first crash: Harry Kuenninger, No. 77, and Ron Chaney broadside in the X. A red flag flies and the race stops so the damage can be assessed.
There are no serious injuries. The drivers regroup. Westbrook and I lead the pack again, and then it rains. No more drizzle-rain. Eleven laps in, and the race might be called. The possibility of this has Westbrook shaking her head. But in the stands, no one seems to notice the inclement weather. They're in this for the long haul.
The wet track is becoming more of an issue. Westbrook, via radio, is ordered to get on the course-not just the oval, but the eight. She complies: "Run the course. Okay." Not fast enough, comes the reply over the radio; go faster. We haul ass. "Go with me, go with me," she urges the racers.
Westbrook spots some tools on the front stretch of the track and reports them, then hits the gas. This helps warm the course to dry it off, she explains. The
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truck makes a racket as it trembles and peels. "Feel that?" she asks. There's a thumping sound all around us. "That's the rubber coming off of the tires."
We lean in on the turns, and I understand not just what Rgure 8 is, but how it feels.
Shepherding our big metal herd of 11 remaining cars back into the field, Westbrook turns to me and says, "This is the epitome of the old days of dirttrack racinq.ion this wet course." This girl's racing days might be behind her, but they're definitely still in her.
Jeff Marguet. No. 12, was wounded early on and has become part of the obstacle course on Turn 3. Miracles alone keep him from being splattered.
Steve Cook, No. 36, glides out of control but is able to recover, barely missing the wall. Westbrook hollers, hammers the steering wheel, curses like a trucker. She's in heaven, providing a running commentary that comes from knowing each racer and every square inch of the course as if it were her driveway.
It stops raining during Lap 16, which is almost a disappointment; the bad conditions have added to the excitement. A couple laps later, No. 17 is smoking like he's losing his engine. "He's out," Westbrook says. Meanwhile, No. 36 keeps sliding. No. 12, still a sitting duck, is probably deep in prayer.
At Lap 24. the bottom falls out. It rains for the next several laps, soaking the track, making things ever more interesting. Slip-sliding away. No. 42-emblazoned with WING AND A PRAYER-pirouettes on Lap 26.
And through it all. the Indy guys are fearless.
Steve Cook is the little engine that could, dragging his tail behind him, his bumper half ripped off from an earlier collision.
Rfty laps. Fred Bear takes the cake and the $3,000 prize. Curtis McMurtrey, hurtling in at second. gets a grand, while John Carlson, a fireplace installer from Seattle, grabs third and $600. My buddy from the pits, Earl Cox, gets $450 for finishing fifth.
After accepting his accolades and beaming before the wet spectators, his wife and kids among them, Bear walks over to Victory Lane, with me in tow. Flushed and smiling, full of adrenaline, he's an out-of-towner who has stolen the show. I ask him where he got the deep scar on his head; he looks at me sideways and says it was from a bottle. We both laugh.
This is a man's race after all, reeking of pride so thick and meaty, it's way too tough to cut with good sense.o+es
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