Club Speed - The Explorer: Sports

Club Speed

NW hot-rodders turn dirt-track laps for kicks, cash

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Posted: Tuesday, July 1, 2008 11:00 pm | Updated: 8:02 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Neither snow, nor rain kept John Buerger from steering his 500-horsepower Chevrolet Camaro toward a stab at the checkered flag.

Mud, however, equals dead weight.

The Northwest-side postman lovingly sprayed down his modified stock car with baby oil, the improvised dirt repellent making its No. 40 decals glisten under last Saturday’s sunset, at Tucson’s USA Racepark.

“We just like to smell good,” Buerger joshed on the oil. “It doesn’t have to do with anything else.”

In a quaint rivalry separated by concrete highway barriers one pit over, Dana Boatwright tweaked his own Camaro. The 32-year-old Oro Valley racer, clad in a blue fire suit, warned the two never perform well racing the same event.

“As long as it’s one of us winning, I don’t care,” Boatwright said. “But hopefully, he won’t win between us.”

Minutes later, tools rattled in their trays — a seismograph-worthy moment as the pair simultaneously fired up their engines. Pedestrians recoiled from dust-ups conjured by fresh rubber, as the garage-built Frankensteins lined up for 80 mph three-eighths mile heat laps.

Twenty minutes after thrilling the grandstand, drivers returned and pit crews broke out drywall tools and hockey sticks. They scraped mud out of fenders and cowlings like snow pack.

“I don’t care if you come in first or last, you’re always working on the car,” said Buerger, winner of that first heat. “It’s never fast enough.”

The racers’ friendship, forged over nights of clutch adjustments and yielding a handful of wins and places, dates back to their days racing factory stocks at Central Arizona Raceway.

A few years back, their dirt-track hunger forced the pair north when Tucson Raceway Park was paved. Boatwright — “raised” at that track — said the thrill of sideways momentum gets lost on paved ovals — where “whoever’s got the best setup wins.”

Now, with fresh ownership running USA Racepark for the past year, the two get their speed fix somewhat closer to home, off of East Los Reales Road on Tucson’s Southeast side.

“Everyone’s at the point of being out of control,” Boatwright said of the track. “You’re right on that border.”

Race geeks say that control is an illusion behind the dashboard. Neither local driver claimed to ever swap paint with the afterlife, though they admit luck is a welcome passenger.

Buerger’s mechanic, 66-year-old Jim Hindley agreed.

A stocky, soft-spoken character peering through soldered-frame eyeglasses, Hindley traded the driver’s seat for the wrench bench years ago, racing on the East Coast during the 1970s.

“My thing is making them run and hum,” Hindley said.

High-speed hijinks idle in Hindley’s bloodline, like many of the families lining the pits. Hindley just finished building an engine for his grandson, who’ll soon enter the midget-car circuit on his 16th birthday.

Meanwhile, he tends his 39-year-old adoptee’s gears.

“Anytime I break something, he’s the one I come crying to,” Buerger said.

As the rows of pull-trailers stuffed with spare parts attested, things get broken at the track. Boatwright, who spent “30 hours” wrenching the pre-race week, refused to disclose his cash flow, fearing marital discord.

Across the divider, Buerger’s Camaro sported fresh suspension and fender repairs — and bare-scraped sheet metal scars — after another driver “walled” him last month, during an “overzealous” qualifying-lap chase for second place, he said.

“They don’t get paid for (heat laps), so why do they have to drive like this?” Buerger said, pointing.

As luck would dictate, that driver — Terry Hill, of Tucson — drew pole, front row and right next to Buerger for the start of Saturday’s race.

Hill harbored no ill will toward his competitor. The 15-year racing vet was content with the outside lane, noting that if anything, G-forces would pull Buerger’s car into his own.

“I just hope it comes out clean. But he’s holding a grudge against me from the other week,” Hill said. “He’s a postman, you know.”

A loudspeaker voice clattered the impending start of the feature race. Modified stocks would run the evening’s third feature, just before the 115 mph-buzzbomb sprint cars showered fans with dirt.

Buerger hopped into the car’s window, buckled his restraints, and the engine growled with malevolence. The rough-sawn machine took its place ahead of the pack, “The Mailman Delivers” emblazoned on the spoiler.

Boatwright’s crew, however, labored to reassemble his car’s rear suspension. Dancing flashlights lit a pinion angle adjustment, solved by the quick flash of socket wrenches.

“If it works, we’re heroes. If not, oh well,” Boatwright quipped.

He pulled into the starting queue’s midsection, two minutes before the track became Tucson’s Roman Coliseum, internal-combustion lions unleashed.

Buerger fought to dart around Hill, driving the No. 1 car with a quick lead that stretched. Boatwright held his position, the No. 22 car running almost perpendicular to the track’s turns.

In pickup trucks shielded behind crash barriers, families and crews cheered their drivers, inaudible against engines reverberating off the stars.

But by lap 12, Boatwright’s camp began to trade looks and shrug, as their car slowed, pitting at lap 16.

Boatwright climbed out and removed his helmet. A bad case of rear-end shake, which he speculated came from the drive shaft, ended his evening.

“I was just going to try and finish, but it just got worse and worse,” he said.

Buerger, distant from Hill but well ahead of the pack, attempted to pass a lapped car on the next go round. But the slower driver shifted his line and bumped the postman’s right front panel, carving up his rim and tire.

In the pit, Buerger’s crew swung the jack under the Camaro to change the wheel. The car hoisted dirt as it bolted away, but Boatwright’s grim prophecy bore fruit, as the 20th lap expired.

Of 17 cars, Buerger and Boatwright finished 14th and 16th, respectively, miles from the $350 prize.

Hill — whose car Buerger acknowledged “ran hooked up” — sped handily to the win.

“I’m running second, and I got taken out by a lapped car because he can’t hold his … line,” Buerger sighed.

“But hey, that’s racing for you.”

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