From Behind the Windshield – An In-Depth Report on Midwestern Speed
The shoulder straps of the seat belt rub against my neck and I press my heels as hard as I can against the foot brace, making my legs almost cramp. I lean into the turn, knowing that if this tiny car began to spin off or roll my efforts to stop it would be futile. The moment we burst out of the curve the driver, Randy Lamp, hammers on the accelerator. I had almost choked myself with the strap of my helmet when I put it on, yet it still feels as though it wants to rip off and go tumbling down the racetrack behind us, leaving my head and face vulnerable to the more than 100 mph rush of air. My head wobbles back and forth from the force. I feel as though my head may burst from the adrenaline. Lamp hits the brakes as we come up on the orange and white curb that marks the next corner. Right, then left, then around a portion of track labeled Everybody’s Favorite Turn. I find it just as terrifying as the other turns. Another 30 seconds and my eyes are pinned to the exit ramp as we pass it for the second time.
Hallett Motor Racing Circuit, located almost 40 miles west of Tulsa, Okla., isn’t an ordinary race track. There are fewer than 100 road race tracks in the United States, and only about four or five are located in the Midwest. Instead of the oval track used for dirt racing or by organizations such as the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, road race tracks emulate an actual road or highway with both left and right-hand turns and is the type of racing popular in Europe. Picturesque Hallett is draped over low rolling hills in a small woodland. The track is nearly two miles of winding, patched asphalt with narrow, sharp turns and elevation changes. There are is a small pond, grandly named Veronica Lake, and two small tree groves, one located in the center of the paddock and one inside Everybody’s Favorite Turn on the far side of the track. Instead of hard, unforgiving concrete, the track is surrounded by tens of thousands of used tires laid out two deep and three high in an interlocking herringbone design. On either side of the track, outside of the tires, is chain-link fencing. Visitors and drivers must cross through gates in the fencing, across the track, to get to the paddock where the stands, pit, garages, asphalt access roads and rows of white aluminum car ports are located.
Earlier in the day as Lamp, myself and Tim Webb, another race car driver, walk along the access road on our way to the newest and largest of the two garages at Hallett Motor Racing Circuit, Lamp tells me that after his first year of road racing, his doctor asked him during a physical if he had been running or walking to get in shape; heart rate increases and gravitational forces cause car racing to have an aerobic effect on the bodies of drivers. We are heading to the garage because Lamp’s Ariel Atom, the car I am supposed to be riding in, is having problems. The garage is at the bottom of a small hill, and there are several pricey cars parked outside. I recognize a silver Porsche under one of the car ports, a yellow Corvette and a blue Shelby Mustang. Three motor homes are parked outside as well, two of which cost at least $100,000. Inside the garage are the sharp, tangy smells of oil and radiator fluid, but it is clean and organized. At the other end is a black Viper, and another expensive-looking Porsche painted with orange and green racing colors. Webb tells me it is worth about $175,000 and both cars belong to a racer from Finland, whose family used to own a very successful shoe company.
“He’s the sledgehammer and the other guys around are the flyswatters,” Lamp says.
Everyone in the garage is standing around the lifted car quietly discussing the problem and ways to solve it. There is an issue with the cooling system and one of the water pumps is broken. The Hallett crew members are working with Lamp to get the car fixed.
“The Stephens family owns the shop and is kind enough to sometimes let drivers use the shop when they ask. Most other shops don’t do that,” Webb says. Webb, who lives in Fayetteville, Ark., is an investment banker for First Southwest Company, a large financial advisory firm with headquarters in Dallas. He has a quiet voice, easy manner and wire-rimmed glasses, and is one of the fastest drivers on the track.
Webb has been interested in racing since he can remember. He grew up in Europe where road racing is a major sport, and raced motorcycles since he was a kid, though his parents disapproved and were never involved in it.
“I ski fast, I…well, just speed is my thing, it always has been. As I have gotten older it’s very much a cerebral sport, meaning that you have to be concentrating all the time, that you have to work – for every hour that you are on the track you’ve put in many, many hours behind that.” Webb’s face is intense and he waves his hand, adding, “For most of us who want to do this, this is all we think about. It’s all I think about.”
Webb usually drives a Formula Ford. Formula cars are racers with certain specifications that every car must meet, and most have an elongated cone-shaped body made of fiberglass with wheels that are uncovered, meaning the axles stick out away from the body. A little more than a year ago, Webb’s car was wrecked during the 40th Anniversary of the Formula Ford class in Elkhart, Wis., when a kid in his early twenties made an aggressive move into the corner in an attempt to overtake him, he says. Instead, the kid smashed the left-rear wheel and gear box of Webb’s car and the right-front wheel of his own. Webb has had to put his car up until he can pay to finish fixing the $10,000 in damages. Webb says the kid, who is financially backed by his father, was back on the track in the next race.
The men decide the water pump is beyond repair, but there is another driver who said we could use his car. Lamp and I head back up the hill, this time in the Mule, a small utility vehicle used by the crew to get around the track.
As the Atom hurtles around the track for lap three, I begin to relax in tiny increments. The fear of flying off the asphalt is subsiding. Still, I harbor a small hope that this will be the last lap. If I were queasy there would be a reason to pull off the track, but no. Lamp’s gloved hands grip the wheel and yank it to the left. As we pass Veronica’s Lake, his right hand gives me a thumbs up. Because of our helmets and the force of air, we can not talk to each other, but this thumb is asking a question – do I want to stop and leave the track when we finish this lap, or am I okay to keep going? My muscles are still so tense I have to jerk my hand out from between my legs, where they have been clenched. Before I know what has happened Lamp has received a returned thumbs up. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I have no stamina.
The track was originally built by racing enthusiast Anatoly Arutunoff in the 1970s. It was leased for 13 years then purchased in 2001 by the Stephens family. Connie Stephens is part owner of the raceway, and is one of the few women at the track. She is tall and slender with cropped salt-and-pepper hair, and is the go-to woman at the track. Her late husband Mike had been operating the track with his family’s help for thirteen years before he and Connie, with their sons Shayne and Scott, bought the track in 2001. Stephens is a professor of English at the University of Tulsa, but after Mike passed away in 2007 she began devoting almost all of her time to the track.
The event going on this weekend in October is the Competition Motor Sports, in combination with High Speed Touring, called the COMMA Challenge. It is a series run eight times each year, March through November. While racers get points toward a trophy at the end of the series, the HST drivers do not. Stephens is vehement about the distinction between racing and HST; HST is for street cars that are not race prepped. On the track, the HST cars can not pass each other in corners or be overly aggressive, but the drivers can go as fast as they want.
“We call it a pre-paid speeding ticket, ‘cause we’re gonna let you go as fast as your car will go,” she says. The interest in HST has created more business for Hallett, Stephens says. Today there are as many street cars as race cars participating, she says.
he Ariel Atom is technically made to be a street car. With its steel tubes, leather seats and exposed mechanics, the Atom looks at first glance like the larger, but sleeker cousin of the go-kart. Imported from England, the Atom was designed to be the ultimate low-cost super car. The starting price is about $50,000, but most race cars that can go as fast as the Atom cost three or four times that much. Weighing only 1,300 pounds, 2,000 less than a Porsche 911, the Atom has the same 350 horsepower as the Porsche and can go from zero to 60 miles per hour in 2.9 seconds. This rivals the launch from the Powder Keg roller coaster at Silver Dollar City. The driver – and passenger – can get serious whiplash, and the Atom was to be my first race car experience.
The owner of this Atom is retired drag racer Eddie Hill, a friend of Webb and Lamp. At 74, Hill, who now lives in Texas, has won hundreds of awards and championships for racing dragsters, drag boats and motorcycles, and is still the only person to carry record speeds for drag racing on both land and water. As we stand looking at the black interior and the few pieces of gleaming, red carbon fiber body, Hill joins us from the grandstands across the road. He is immediately recognizable by his signature shock of white hair, hawk nose and intense blue eyes. An injury he sustained while working on a drag boat a few days before has give him a temporary limp, but despite this he is youthful and vibrant. Later, when I comment on how young he looks, he says, “I’m the world’s oldest teenager,” and laughs.
Hill stands on the other side of the Atom in his race suit, the arms tied around his waist and his chest bare, listening to the compliments raining down on his car. Ariel Atoms are part of the reason Hill got into road racing at Hallett, he tells me. When he bought his first Atom, he came to an event here called the Atom Fest. People came from all over the world with their Atoms to attend.
“They shut the whole factory down in England, where the car started,” Hill says. “The owner and all the hands flew over here for that,” Hill says, waving his arm around. “It was a hootenanny. It was just fun, a lot of fun. A lot of smiles, a lot of yucks and no stress.” Hill says it attracted him because it was so different from the drag racing he used to do. Road racing has more actual driving time, and drag racing had lost it’s fun for him over the last several years.
“There was just a lot of corporate pressure to perform, and very money intensive. We spent $2.2 million one year, $2.3 million another year. In return for that money, the sponsors pretty well owned you and your time,” he says.
Webb and Lamp make the arrangements with Hill about using the car. There will be the first ride at 25 mph for two laps so that I can have a look at the track, then later we will be in the High Speed Tour for five laps at racing speeds. Lamp and Webb stand around for a few minutes talking about doing 25s and 29s, short for lap times of one minute 25 seconds and one minute 29 seconds. Then it’s time to get swaddled into the car for the first two laps.
Like most actual race cars, the Atom has no doors. Drivers and passengers have to step in over the side of the car. By being very careful I manage to prevent my foot from taking out the side mirror, and then slide down into the seat. Lamp leans over to strap me in, apologizing for having to handle the buckle located just above my crotch. The Atom is the pace car for this drive and is supposed to keep at 25 mph or less, so we won’t be wearing helmets. Lamp, who has driven Atoms thousands of times, will be my driver for both rides. Lamp lives in Rogers, Ark., and runs a computer company. He is stocky with a jowly but pleasant face. Aside from his Atom, he also drives a race car, a Formula B, which Webb tells me is worth many times more than his own Formula Ford.
Most racers wear clothing usually made of fire-resistant Nomex. They have Nomex shoes, long-sleeved black T-shirts with a high collars made of Nomex, sometimes a hood to cover their face and then their fire retardant racing suits made of Nomex, Kevlar and Arimand. Each layer builds on the number of seconds before a flame will touch the skin. Lamp doesn’t wear any of this clothing in the Atom except his suit, which can withstand five seconds of direct flame. The level of hazard is low on the Atom, which is easier and faster to get out of than other racing cars, such as his Formula B. I was only told to wear a long-sleeve shirt and long pants.
“Also, you get piled up with all that stuff and it’s really uncomfortable,” Lamp says.
The Atom is comfortable; it is roomy compared to other race cars and the seats have small sides to help you stay in place. Lamp makes his way down to the track entry just in time to lead the other cars out. Without the helmets, and with the open cockpit of the Atom, the air buffets us even at 25 mph. “The rule of racing is no coasting,” Lamp says as the speedometer immediately starts creeping toward 30 mph. “You should always be as hard on the brakes or as hard on the accelerator as possible.”
My first ride around the track feels like a Sunday drive; slow-paced, with easy conversation and pastoral views. Lamp decides to give some lessons about tire grip theory – the more the tires of the car are pressing down on the asphalt, the faster the car is going to go and the less likely the driver is to lose control.
“You get into a rhythm with the car. Each corner, you know by feel if it’s right,” Lamp says.
“That’s how you know you’re going fast; when everything starts slowing down and you feel like you’re just out for a ride,” Webb says.
Though cars hurtle around the track, engines roaring and brakes protesting, the center of the raceway is peaceful. The noise of the cars is rhythmic, and when I sit for a moment at a picnic table, it becomes lulling. The air smells of dust, grass and hot brakes. Next to the car ports are open trailers that look like garages inside – some even have tiled floors. There are men of all ages standing around or sitting on lawn chairs inside the trailers. A couple of young guys are hovering over an orange Corvette. I walk a little closer to check out some of the cars, making sure not to touch any that I have not been given express permission to do so, then head down to the cafe.
The Finish Line Cafe is located on the first floor of the timing tower. The timing tower is a large, square brick building painted white with a wide red stripe around the top. Aside from the small kitchen and ordering counter, and the metal chairs pulled up to long folding tables, the cafe could be the office of a car repair shop. Mismatched desks are shaped into a rectangular space for Stephens and two other women to work at their computers and print schedules and racing forms; drivers also come here to rent transponders used for tracking lap times. Next to the door is a wall of box shelves with randomly stacked T-shirts in red, white and black. The floor is black and white checkered and the walls alternate red and white. It also smells of oil, just not the kind for cars. There are maybe forty people inside, mainly drivers but also crew and a few wives or girlfriends. Drivers stand in line to order lunch, the arms of their racing suits tied around their waists and their faces red from sun, wind and the pressure of their helmets. Men eating fried shrimp or cheeseburgers at the tables occasionally stop chattering to watch a 32-inch flat screen, which has slideshow photos of the cars on the track. I sit down at a table seating seven or eight guys.
One thing about racing at Hallett is that it is safe. Because road races are less aggressive than other forms of racing, there are less incidents between cars. It is also more expensive to fix the cars since most of the drivers have to pay for it themselves. When accidents do happen, the grassy knolls and the tires that circle the track at Hallett are more forgiving than the concrete walls that enclose most other asphalt tracks.
Sean Smith can attest to that. He used to drive circle tracks: dirt for a year, then asphalt.
“I spent all kinds of money, fixed [my car] up ready for the new year, went out for practice…I was coming through a turn and I four-wheel drifted and it never hooked so I went straight into the wall. I was going about 90 mph to zero sideways. I couldn’t open my right eye for about three days. I had bruises all over my body, everywhere the belts are – if it wasn’t for that, you know, I’d be dead,” Smith says. He didn’t race again for about 10 years.
Now Smith and his friend Trent Dockstetter drive an inexpensive class of race cars called Legends. Legends look as though pint-size mobsters from the 1930s should be waving their tiny machine guns from the window as they flee a bank robbery. The half-size design mimics the original NASCAR Ford coupes. They have motorcycle engines and transmissions, and parts are cheaper to replace compared to most other race cars New Legends cost $12,000 to $14,000, but often they can be found used and fixed up for less. Smith runs a dry cleaner in Lawton, Okla., where both he and Dockstetter are from.
“With circle track, you have all the cars so close together you are having to kind of bang into each other, trying to get around,” says Dockstetter. “Whereas here, you might pass somebody but you’re not going to try to bump into each other.”
“This kind of racing is totally different than roundy-round,” Smith says. “It’s way more technical; you know, you got a lot of turns, you don’t just have two basic turns to work with.” But that’s not the main reason he comes to Hallett.
“The people is the biggest difference. [Here] they’re very nice, more family-oriented, given that circle track is more cut-throat, aggressive. Especially dirt, you don’t hardly talk to nobody, nobody talks to you. There are little groups and those groups stay together. You get a lot of fighting,” Smith says. Dirt racers have small entry fees, about $30, and can win enough in a race to cover that plus some. Entry fees for road racing at Hallett are $220 for a weekend and winners get a medal, but no money. “Here, it’s just for fun.”
Buying a car and maintaining it while racing, added to the cost of travel and entry fees, can become very expensive. While fees at Hallett may seem expensive, racers are actually attracted to Hallett’s comparative affordability.
“There’s an old saying in racing: ‘How do you make a small fortune in racing? Start with a big one,’” Webb says. “COMMA is a very low income threshold series, because you basically can show up with whatever you brought. As long as it’s safe and meets certain safety rules, you can race it at that track.” More organized series’ such as Sports Car Club of America have higher standards for car specifications, and can be far more expensive. Webb is a member of the SCCA.
“When I went to the run-offs in ‘08, including travel I may have spent $6,000 or $7,000 for the year to race. I know people who spent $50,000 or $60,000 to race that year. It’s just not going to happen for me,” Webb says. “Hallett’s cheap. Hallett’s the biggest bargain in the entire country.” For his regular SCCA events at other tracks, the cost is at least doubled for less than half of the track time than at COMMA events.
Forrest Tindall has been racing for 50 years. He is tall and lean, with white hair and a bristly white beard. He and his son Bruce built their Mazda in 1992.
“It’s not cheap, it’s an expensive hobby, but it’s rewarding,” Forrest says.“When I started out, entry fees were $25; now they are $250. Over the last ten years I’ve probably spent $35,000.” He used to spend $600 to $800 a year, and now he spends $3,500 a year, he says. This is a on the lower spectrum of what many racers spend during a season.
“I always say it’s kind of like cigarettes and liquor: it’s addictive once you start it,” Forrest says.
Bruce, tall, muscled and tan, is a security contractor in Iraq. He only started getting on the track about two years ago. Bruce has a wide range of interest in extreme sports and it took him a while, plus an infusion of time and money, to come around to racing, he says. After going in on a racing suit to fit both him and his dad, coupled with helping to build the car, Bruce finally decided it was time to start. I later see Bruce in the beat-up white Mazda – his massive arms and torso fill the cab and his short hair brushes against the roof, making me wonder if he will be able to get his helmet on.
It is lap four in the Atom and my muscles have started to twitch. We have been on the track less than six minutes, but I am starting to recognize the turns by feel rather than sight. I have a nervous feeling that Lamp’s “speedlust” has revved up with the appearance in front of us of the back two cars. I sense a determination in the way he is pushing the car for more speed. We pass a silver Prius with such haste that I perceive the Prius to be slowing down. We go up a small incline and then down into a turn called The Bitch. For good reason. For the briefest of moments, the car wiggles on the pavement, more a of a tease to spin off rather than a threat. It only takes that brief moment for Lamp to correct it, just a small matter of tire grip, and we shoot off again after a blue Miata, leaving my stomach behind us.
Drivers need more eyes than their own in corners, especially ones like The Bitch where accidents happen often. Karen Fearing, in layered orange and white T-shirts, her strawberry-blonde hair crammed under a ball cap, is one of those pairs of eyes. She as been a corner worker for 13 years and can spend 10 to 12 hours working a corner, depending on the type of race, she says. Fearing is about as hard-core a racing spectator as can be found at Hallett.
“It’s five seconds of sheer terror mixed with hours and hours of sheer boredom,” Fearing says. “But it’s the second-best seat on the track.” Fearing got into corner working because her dad was a flagger and finally convinced her to come with him. After that she just kept doing it. For some events Fearing gets paid, but for others she volunteers. She calls herself an adrenaline junkie.
“You see a lot of great passing, too. It’s not always about the wrecks. I love to see some drivers close, side-by-side, a good battle, switching places. Really giving each other a hard time. I would rather have that than wrecks,” Fearing says.
Fearing is working the first corner today, located directly after the longest straightaway on the course. The small canopy is set up mere yards from the track, with only the tire wall between them. The middle of the canopy is clear, with stuff lined on along the side, such as a folding chair that holds a novel titled “Cold Blood,” and a small table laden with curled up flags in the front. Over her walkie-talkie comes the fuzzy masculine announcement from the control tower “…four, three, green and ready.” A few minutes later cars come soaring past us: Porsche, Corvette, MINI Cooper, Charger, Porsche, Ariel Atom, Corvette, Charger, Miata, Civic. Some engines scream, others spit or sputter. A yellow Mustang accelerates as it comes out of the turn, its engine yelling “Whooo hooo!”
Working the corners is an exhilarating but dangerous job. She points out places where cars have rolled over or landed on the tire wall. Workers stations are generally located in spots where drivers can’t see the road ahead so workers can communicate to them if there is any problem they need to be aware of, but these are also areas where drivers more often lose control of their cars. Fearing has a safety routine she keeps when she is working the track.
“As you get to your turn and you set up your turn. You check your fire bottles [and] you check your flags. You find your escape route,” Fearing says. Flags are used for communication with the drivers and fire bottle is a term for a fire extinguisher. A fire bottle is an important piece of gear for corner workers since fires can be frequent.
“I got to one, it was an Aston Martin, or a Ferrari…you know, a beautiful car,” Fearing says. “There was no back end to it. It had been on fire for quite a while. And he gets out of the car, and he looks at me and says ‘Was I on fire for a long time?’ and I said ‘Yes, quite a bit’ and he says ‘Oh.’” Fearing admits she doesn’t know much about the kind of cars she watches on the track; she can’t tell you the make and model. But she can tell you about smells.
“I love the smell of burning rubber,” Fearing says. “Hot brakes…hot brakes are quite fun. You know what burning oil smells like, too. That’s very distinct.”
A silver Miata goes past, and then we hear the sounds of squealing tires. Our heads jerk around in time to see the car start to spin. Fearing grabs up the yellow flag and waves it to let other drivers know there is a problem on the track, then holds it still once he goes off into the grassy section on the right side. The car and driver seem fine, and as he starts to slowly move back on the the track, Fearing rocks the flag back and forth until he is gaining speed and out of sight. There are nine different flags that can be used for different meanings, though some are only used at the start/finish line. Black flags mean a driver must stop to discuss an infraction, while furled black flags are merely a warning for inappropriate behavior. Yellow flags are for slick surfaces, though Fearing has used it for turtles crossing the track, she says.
Her walkie-talkie pipes up again, this time a tinny female voice. “The…course is clear, we’re ready for the open-wheel 12 lap.” Minutes later formula cars are shooting by like the bullets their fiberglass bodies try to mimic.
As we finish the fifth lap in the Atom, I feel the car start to decelerate. We were on the track less than eight minutes. Lamp moves the car onto the exit ramp and back up Hill’s trailer on the paddock. Webb and a few other men gather around, interested in my reaction. I just sit in the car for a minute before fumbling to release the buckle on my seat belt. As I stand up in the seat, my legs tremble. I have to focus to avoid the mirror as I step out, but I manage to not fall flat. Shock has painted a grin on my face, and comprehensible words have been exchanged for nervous laughter. I try to express my terror while still my mouth is still in rictus.
“Are you okay?” Webb asks. I answer yes, but I have to go sit down on something solid, like the concrete grandstands. As I cross the road I realize the seat of my jeans and my back are damp with sweat. I touch my neck and feel burn marks from the shoulder straps of the seat belt. I am sick with adrenaline, but after a few minutes on the stands I return to the men to ask about our lap times. Our fastest time was one minute and 31.3 seconds, with a peak speed of 112 mph.
It is about 30 to 45 minutes later that I start to regret the fried shrimp I had for lunch. I am coming down off the adrenaline rush, so I decide to head to my motel to rest for a bit before returning to the track for the appreciation dinner the Stephens family is throwing for the drivers. It takes 30 minutes to get to the little motel and check in, and by this time I am starting to crash hard. The room is a bit shabby, but clean, and I never felt more thankful for a motel bed. I collapse on the bed, and I give up on returning for the dinner when I realize I am too exhausted to get back up. I feel as though I have spent hours working out. After laying there for a few hours, I change, eat and sleep, then find myself in the bathroom around 3 a.m., revisiting my evening meal.
When I wake up the next morning, my neck and head are so sore it is difficult to move them, but the fear I felt during the ride the day before seems a vague memory. I know that I was terrified during the ride, but I can’t quite remember what I was feeling, like what happens to women after they give birth, when they forget the pain of labor after seeing their newborn child. I get up, stretch, and open my motel door. It is a bright, cool fall day; perfect for racing.