Nostalgia and Intrigue at the Willamette Speedway

About halfway through the evening at the Willamette Speedway, it finally happens. Hurtling around the dirt track’s third turn, two cars collide. One spins 180 degrees and lands with its rear end facing forward, lifeless, while the other car skids sideways and bursts into flames. A small crowd gathers at the chain-link fence that separates the spectators from the oval track. Two red emergency trucks and a white tow truck, crane projecting from its rear, speed to the scene.

“That was a good-looking crash,” the announcer says, over the refrain of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.”

My notes document the diagnosis: “Ruptured fuel can.” The announcer narrates the procedure: “Whoever it is, he’s out of the car. He’s trying really hard not to blow up.” A child, calling to his just returning friends, expresses the crowd’s barely masked excitement: “You guys missed it! You missed it!”

What is it about the races? In the bleachers, I introduce myself to Laura Nelson. She and her husband live in McMinnville and have been going to regional races for years. They even own several racecars. When I ask Laura why she likes the races, she says, “I like the noise. My dad took me to the races. I like the smells.”

Like Laura, I grew up around motor oil and machines. My dad is a farmer, and the smells of the racetrack remind me of his shop, where he would work on big tractors and farm equipment. The bleachers we sit on and the girls in cheerleading uniforms practicing routines down front remind me of Friday night high school football games. The soundtrack—lots of ACDC—reminds me of homecoming dances. The ride we take in the monster truck and the Mike’s Hard Lemonade we drink remind me of poor decisions made in boyfriends’ jacked-up trucks.

So is it simply about the souped-up cars with loud motors? The hovering odor of dust, grease, and hot dogs, and the nostalgia they invoke? Yes, I think nostalgia is a lot of it for me, but I wonder: could it also be about the feeling I get in that moment when two cars collide and one winds up in flames? The feeling that has to do with being alive and watching others face danger?

As I write this article, I receive email news updates on two tragedies. In Arlington, Virginia, a gunman opened fire on a GOP congressional baseball practice, injuring a congressional representative and others. And in London, a 24-story high-rise caught fire; by midday, 12 people have been counted dead.

As I witness these unfolding, unrequested tragedies while trying to write about stock car races, I remember the Romans and their Coliseum. I think about modern wrestling, football, and mixed martial arts. I consider the outdoor activities beloved by Oregonians: kayaking, rock climbing, and mountain biking.

The mode it takes depends on your social circle, but I would wager that you, like me, nurture some kind of regular, ritualized danger. These places, activities, and adventures exist as a sanitized mirror of life, wiped clean of all but a manageable level of chance or participation. Mine is not an original observation, but as I get older it feels more and more concrete.

I make this comparison not to criticize our fragility but to validate it. The world is dangerous and confusing, and I guess it’s OK that we sometimes need to confine that danger and confusion to a one-third-mile-long, clay racetrack.

Where else will I see a minivan race over piles of dirt, its rear door hanging open and flapping like the claps of the crowd?

Stock car races are held at the Willamette Speedway in Lebanon starting at 6 p.m. every Saturday. For more information about the Saturday races and special events, visit www.trophymotorsports.com or http://www.facebook.com/trophymotorsports.

By Maggie Anderson

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