Commentary

Big racing thrills in Small-town USA

Updated: August 17, 2011, 10:06 AM ET
By Duff McKagan | Special to ESPN.com

All of the sports talk this past weekend seemed to be heavily slanted toward the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen, and the rain, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. not winning a race since 2008. Stock car racing, as we all know, is a huge deal, and rightly so. It is fascinating drama that unfolds right (er, or left) in front of us, and at ridiculously fast speed.

Duff McKagan
Courtesy of JP Portrait Studios Duff McKagan, right, squeezes between two competitors on the go-kart track.

Have you ever wondered where these drivers come from? How do they get to be this good, or how do they get started in the "minor leagues" of this sport of auto racing?

I tour all over the world for a living, and when I get home, I like to get up over to Small-town USA for some summer fun. One of the things I like to do with my wife and kids is go to the Wenatchee Valley Super Oval, the "fastest quarter-mile in the Northwest."

In Central Washington, one can forget about being a "hipster," or otherwise "keeping up with the Joneses." People over here are hardworking and honest, and thus will take an outsider like me at face value. It ain't about what you have done lately over here, it is about if you know how to hold a ratchet, or if you can watch a super oval quarter-mile race and pick out a good driver's technique.

If you have had trouble getting into car racing as a fan, may I suggest taking a trip out to one of the small tracks somewhere on the outskirts of where you live because this is just plain, old, good-time fun.

And the minor leagues for car racing are here. Some of the best racing out at this oval track is done by the Youth Hornets, 14- to 17-year-olds who race fairly stock 3- or 4-cylinder little Nissans and Toyotas and such. This is where these kids initially learn the rubbin' is racin' edict. Either you've got the killer instinct, or you don't, and it becomes apparent pretty quickly in Youth Hornets who the rising stars are in racing.

The next big notch up in oval racing -- and where the stakes can start getting real, money-wise and getting-spotted-wise -- is the Super Mod. These are souped-up and extremely light modified cars that are built just for turning left. At well more than 500 horsepower, these 2,500-pound cars can get a-movin' in scary fashion.

But back to the "Small-town USA" aspect of this whole thing.

  • Ticket prices to this thing are $10.
  • Candy is 25 cents.
  • 50-50 raffle tickets are $1 (if you win the raffle, you get half of everything they take in that night).
  • They don't sell beer, it is free (or rather, you can buy a wooden chip for $3, and then trade the chip in for a beer from the same person you buy the wooden token from).
  • Midway through the races, they bring all the cars out. They then open a gate so that all the fans can come out and get a close-up look at the cars and meet the drivers. The drivers put candy out on the hoods of the cars for the kids in attendance.
  • Kids can ride around the track between one of the heats on a "fun bus."
  • Because it is a small town, you are apt to meet at least one of the drivers somewhere in town. In my case, the guy we met, and ended up pulling for, came in second in the Mod class. Totally respectable. We felt like we had a "dog in the race." Nice work, Ben!

    The next night, I took my daughters down to the K1 go-kart racing track in town. In big cities, we are used to paying $60 at one of these places. But in Wenatchee, you are only gonna pay a whopping $10.

    These tracks are where the entry-level racers who just saw the super oval races the night before try to get a sense of what it feels like behind the wheel. My girls were psyched, and so was I. ( I mean, I had to race too, right? I had to protect my girls out on that track, right?)

    As the race started, I could feel my testosterone and adrenaline pumping. I gassed it, and saw another grown man, and we began a heated rivalry. I totally forgot about my mission of protecting my girls. I needed to beat those other dudes.

    We fought it out, and I have faint memories of pushing someone into the tires. But that's racing, right?

    Wrong … I spun out my youngest daughter. What a schmuck.

    Musician Duff McKagan, who writes for Seattle Weekly, has written for Playboy.com and has his autobiography due out later this year, writes a weekly sports column for ESPN.com. To send him a note, Click here and fill out the form.

    Michael "Duff" McKagan, a founding member of Guns N' Roses, writes a weekly column for Playbook Sounds and is a passionate sports fan. McKagan is currently playing in Loaded and Velvet Revolver, is a prolific writer, including an autobiography, "It's So Easy: And Other Lies."