We Take Our First Weekend JauntThis is the ninth season of Street Stock racing for my dad Earl and me. It's hard to believe, really, that it's been that long. In that time, the farthest we've gone for a race was two hours away. Primarily, we have been home-track guys-first Ventura Raceway, and now at Perris Auto Speedway, with just two trips to other tracks (one at a now-defunct Victorville track and the other at Pearsonville). Once we get the car set up and working on a track, we have no desire to travel around and make a bunch of changes.

But there was this Darrell Stevenson guy and his wife Faye. They kept bugging us about racing at the big-money race at The Speedway of Southern New Mexico. We usually said something like, "Yeah, well, it's too complicated to travel that far and race. Thanks anyway." So they'd call again the next month.

We kept in contact for about a year and a half. Gradually, they convinced us that the weekend would be a lot of fun and kept upping the ante by making it easier for us. "We'll come get your crew to transport and work on your car all weekend. All you have to do is drive," they'd say. That made it nicer. "I'm telling you, you're going to love this place. The track will advertise that you're coming, and you'll be a big star. You don't realize how much people love your articles. The chance to meet you, heck, even race with you on the same track, is a big deal." Everyone has an ego, so that sounded like fun, too.

We finally agreed, and Darrell put everything together. My dad was excited; my mom decided to go with us. My sister Cathy was ready for a vacation, and she brought one of her daughters. My aunt and cousins live in Las Cruces, New Mexico, so we turned the trip into a small family affair.

The eight-hour drive was easy in Cathy's Suburban, and when we arrived in Las Cruces, we couldn't believe how many race cars were in town. Every hotel parking lot, gas station, and stoplight had a bunch of race cars on trailers. This was clearly different than what we were used to. This was an Event with a capital "E."

The Man With the PlanDarrell hooked us up with Claude Lenderman. He helped us throughout the weekend and was tremendous. Claude knows his stuff like no one I've ever met. After he felt he had gained our confidence (it took no time at all for us, but he was being cautious and waited until after one day of racing was over), he started making some recommendations: leaner jetting, more timing, more toe-out, harder compound tires, less stagger, and so on.

Let me tell you, the man made a difference in the car! My dad and I are slow to change, especially if the car is working. If 38 degrees of timing has always worked just fine, we have never seen a reason to try 40. Claude kind of gave us a kick in the pants and made us feel comfortable trying a bunch of different things.

On DisplayAt the track, the management put our car on display right at the main entrance. That was cool. The track announcer mentioned us many, many times. He's a local deejay, and he talked about the race on the air for more than a week. He mentioned the Saturday Night Buildup car a whole bunch of times. As fate would have it, the Learning Channel's The Secret World of Stock Car Racing was rerun a few days before the race, and that was the perfect advertisement. My cousin, Julee, collected newspaper ads for me and even recorded the radio spots. "Boy, I hope they're not expecting too much," I told her.

We wondered how the other racers would treat us. They were reserved at first, but after running strong in the heat race on Saturday, there was a noticeable change. A lot of drivers stopped by our pits to chat, many of whom had read "Saturday Night Buildup" for years.

Some said they actually decided to get into racing after reading the articles and thanked my dad and me. We shared some laughs about the dumb screwups I'd written about in the past-running out of gas, forgetting to tighten the lug nuts, leaving my driving suit at the dry cleaners, and others. Virtually every driver I talked to said they had done the same kinds of things but surely didn't want to tell the entire readership of Circle Track about it. We compared the highlights, too, like the very first main event win, winning the biggest race of the year, starting to feel like a veteran, and other memorable moments.

A New ExperienceWe found the racetrack to be extremely cool. With no walls around the track (except the front straight), it's a very forgiving place. The track conditions changed radically as day turned to night, which resulted in a real challenge on car setup. Our first heat race went great. I started out around 10th and passed a bunch of cars to finish third or fourth (I never did check). That got the racing off to a good start.

The last race of the day on Saturday found us making a bad tire selection for the dry/slick conditions. Heck, I never made a tire selection before; just get a set and run them all year. We wore out the right rear in one race!

This was a new experience. The car was pushing up sideways on the track. I was sure I'd get T-boned, but every single car stayed low and missed me. I threw it into reverse and whipped around to get going again. No yellow. Speaking of that, the track races back to the yellow like in NASCAR. I've never done that and found it unsettling. Blasting past a car stalled in the middle of the pack in order to maintain position seems odd.

Anyway, with the tire situation, I kept racing terribly. Darrell Stevenson continued to reassure me that it was clearly not the driver that made the car slow-it was the wrong tires. "Naw, they saw you in the heat race," he said. "They know you can drive." Then I got a look at the right-rear tire and saw that it was nearly gone. Wow, that was weird.

At the end of Saturday's A-main, the checkered flag fell-only I couldn't tell. It was dusty, the sun was low on the horizon, and it was directly in the driver's eyes. I couldn't see the flag. Maybe it was yellow, I thought. Since the track races back to the yellow, I thought I needed to haul butt back around to the flagstand. When the car in front of me slowed down to pull off the track (he knew it was the checkered), I slammed into the back of it real hard. When I came around the next lap, the flagman shook the black flag at me. I felt like saying, "Yeah, yeah, I know. I feel stupid."

A "No Touch" Policy?I talked to the guy the next day, and he was not a happy camper. He had spent several hours repairing the damage to his car's rear end. I told him I didn't mean to hit him. I explained what happened and admitted it was a lame reason, but that was what was going through my mind and I thought I at least owed him an apology. At least he knew I simply made a dumb mistake and was not a complete jerk. I know some drivers don't care, but I like to drive hard and clean. Sometimes I screw up and, unlike the NASCAR guys, I'll admit it and say I'm sorry. None of this "I hate it that it happened" noncommittal stuff. I did it, and I feel bad. Period.

What made it worse is that the track has a "no touch" policy. You don't bump other cars going into the turns, you don't stick your bumper into their door, and you don't use another car as a berm to turn. I was stunned when I learned of this rule. I had never heard of such a thing. It works, too. The drivers race hard and they're competitive, but they're not yanking 10 wrecked cars off the track each main event.

To me, it illustrated a very strong point. Track management decides what they are willing to put up with during its races. If every week is a bash fest with half the cars destroyed, you can blame the track for not putting a stop to it. Tough enforcement leads to clean racing. There was plenty of action and excitement on the track at The Speedway of Southern New Mexico without the yahoos driving into everyone. I've got to credit Wilma, the track manager, for this policy and the strict enforcement that makes it work.

Over Too SoonGoing home (to the hotel) on Saturday night, knowing that we were going to do it all over again the next day, was fun too. We (Claude, actually) made a bunch of changes to the car and were eager to get going. The A-main finally arrived on Sunday, and we were starting near the back (seems like our constant curse). The race got going smoothly, and I started out in the high line, but that wasn't working anymore. A couple of cars passed me. I moved down to the low line and found that the car was working perfectly there. I passed a couple of cars and felt like I was going to be able to get up to the front by the end of the race. A couple of cars spun, which helped me gain some more positions. Then a car spun in Turn 4 and couldn't get clear of the track. With everyone racing back to the yellow, there were cars passing him both high and low. With the dust and sun glare, some drivers (myself included) couldn't tell if the yellow was out, so the racing for position kept up for two full laps (I really don't like this racing back to the yellow business) until the second time I passed the stalled car. I went around the top, and two cars went around the bottom. I boogied along to maintain my position, and as the two cars came back up the track, the furthest inside car shoved the middle car into me. I nudged the wall just hard enough to break a tie rod. As strange as it may seem, I've never broken a tie rod before.

That was it. After about five laps, I was done. I pulled into the pits and watched the rest of the A-main. I hope to return to The Speedway of Southern New Mexico next year with my entire family.