Chapter 12: Since I Last Saw You
“We were together, I have forgotten the rest.”
~ Walt Whitman
When her brother, Nathan, first introduced Ali to Isaac, she thought her heart would stop. He wasn’t classically handsome, though she did find him unbearably attractive. Six feet tall with an athletic build, Isaac had an easy smile and pastel blue eyes that radiated sincerity.
Ali was immediately and utterly charmed. Later, she would come to appreciate Isaac’s intelligence and wit, but what initially drew her in was more basic than that. It was the way he smelled. Never in her life had she noticed a man’s natural scent before, but Isaac seemed to emit a musky fragrance that she could only describe as entirely masculine. She felt slightly embarrassed by her pheromonal attraction; it would be years before she confessed it to this man who would be her husband.
Nathan had always been the quintessential athlete. Although he had intellectual interests, he only felt truly alive when he was physically active, so it was no surprise to his family that he found a way to turn sports into a career. Preferring the less mainstream sports, he showed strong abilities in swimming, golf, track, and tennis. When the winter snow arrived each year, he grabbed his skis and his snowboard and headed for the Cascade Mountain Range. Crystal Mountain, White Pass, Snoqualmie Pass, Mission Ridge—he knew them all intimately.
Never having the ambition to play sports professionally, Nathan combined his love of physical fitness with his ability to teach and opened up his own Pilates studio in Bothell. In the winter, he scaled back the Pilates classes and worked as a ski instructor at Stevens Pass, which is where Nathan and Isaac met. They hit it off immediately.
Isaac craved activity, too, but while Nathan focused on skills, Isaac thrived on thrills. The faster and more dangerous the sport, the more he loved it.
Having grown up in Ohio, where molehills were considered mountains, Isaac didn’t learn to ski until he moved to Denver for college. What he lacked in years of experience, he made up for in fearlessness and passion. By the time he met Nathan—a natural athlete who practically grew up on skis—Isaac, who had only been skiing for five years, nearly matched Nathan’s skill level. Neither Isaac nor Nathan ever met a mountain they didn’t like, but they both favored Stevens Pass because of the diversity of challenging runs and the night skiing.
Ali and Chloe were driving back to Seattle after visiting their cousins in Yakima, in Central Washington, when they decided to pay a surprise visit to Nathan at Stevens. It was nearly noon, so their chances of catching him on a break from giving ski lessons were fairly good. Sure enough, they found him in Pacific Crest Lodge and convinced him to join them for lunch at Iron Goat Pizza.
The server had just delivered their food when Isaac walked in. Nathan spotted him from across the room and waved him over.
“Iceberg! Hey, it’s good to see you. How’re you doing?”
“Couldn’t be better! There’s nothing like a couple of really great runs to start a day off right.”
“Isaac, I’d like you to meet my sisters. This is Chloe and Ali.”
“Your sisters? I wondered how you got so lucky as to have the two most attractive women in the room sitting at your table. Do you mind if I join you?”
“You’re here alone? That’s surprising. You usually have at least one ski bunny trailing after you,” Nathan teased.
“Ski bunny? Really, Nathan, what century are you from?” Chloe said, making a pretense of sounding indignant.
“I guess that did sound rather sexist and condescending, didn’t it, sis? Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,” Nathan said, pounding his chest in feigned contrition.
After giving the server his order, Isaac turned his attention back to the group and observed, “You two aren’t exactly dressed for a day on the slopes.”
“No, we were just driving over the pass on our way back home, so we thought we’d stop and make our brother buy us lunch,” said Chloe.
Ali hadn’t yet said a single word. She was still waiting for her heart to start beating again. Maybe if I exhale I might be able to join the conversation, she thought. Who was this fabulous guy, and why hadn’t Nathan introduced them sooner? She looked skyward and sent up a silent prayer that she wouldn’t say or do anything stupid in front of him.
Apparently, her prayer was answered, because the next day Isaac called her and asked if she’d like to meet him for coffee.
“Skagit Speedway? You want me to go with you to Skagit Speedway?” she asked.
“Yeah. So you’ve heard of it?” Isaac asked.
“Heard of it? I grew up five miles from the track, in Mount Vernon. How do you know about it?”
“I discovered it when I moved to Seattle in 1990. I was really happy to find a sprint car track so close to the city.”
“So you’re a racing fan?” Ali asked.
“That’s an understatement. I’ve been in love with auto-racing since I was a kid. When I was a Cub Scout, I won my first pinewood derby race; I must have been about seven or eight years old. Then I graduated to soap box derby cars. When I got old enough, my dad bought an old jalopy and we used to spend hours tinkering around on it. It drove my mom and my sister nuts when we talked about it at the dinner table.
“Growing up here, you must have been to the speedway a million times. It’s probably old hat to you.” Isaac guessed.
“Actually,” Ali admitted, “I’ve never been there.”
“Never? Not even once? Why not?” Isaac sounded genuinely shocked and bewildered.
“As far as I’m concerned, cars are just a convenient mode of transportation. Auto-racing never really appealed to me. In fact, I should probably be embarrassed to admit this, but I don’t even know what a sprint car is. I mean, I know what it is—it’s a racecar—but I don’t know why it’s called a sprint car or what makes it different from other kinds of racecars.”
“No need to feel embarrassed. I prefer someone who admits when they don’t know something to someone who pretends they do.
“They’re called sprint cars because they’re designed to go a short distance at a very fast pace, similar to track-and-field sprint runners. They’re usually run on an oval, dirt track. The track here at Skagit is three-tenths of a mile. I don’t want to get too technical on you, but sprint cars have a very high power-to-weight ratio so they can really fly—up to 140 miles per hour.”
“You lost me with the power-to-weight ratio stuff,” Ali admitted.
“All that means is that the cars are designed with high horsepower engines and light-weight bodies. That’s how they get their speed.”
“How can sprint cars be lighter weight than other racecars?”
“Easy. They take out all the unnecessary stuff—like the starter and the flywheel.”
“The starter? Gee, call me silly, but I would have thought a starter was pretty important in a car!”
“Okay, you’re silly, because you’d be wrong. To eliminate the need for starters, sprint cars use ‘push cars’ to get them going.”
“Alright, enough of the mechanical info. What is it about racing that you love so much?”
Although Ali asked the question with genuine interest, she also felt her hopes for romance deflate. She just couldn’t see herself getting serious about a guy who was passionate about racing. Is this relationship doomed before it even gets off the ground? She wondered.
“What do I love about it? Wow, where do I start? Well, for one thing, it’s exciting! The speed, the competition, the adrenaline . . . when you’re racing around that track, you know you’re alive! You can’t take anything for granted—not your car, not your body, not the other drivers, not even the dirt on the track. You’re totally consumed by the moment. It’s incredibly intense—in a good way.”
“What about the danger of getting hurt? Aren’t you scared?”
“Sure, there’s some danger and some fear, but that’s part of the excitement. You’re challenging yourself on so many levels—mentally, physically, spiritually.”
“Spiritually?” Ali sounded both surprised and skeptical. “What kind of spiritual challenge is there to auto-racing?”
“Well, I don’t know if other drivers feel it, but it makes me think about my life and how I want to live it. It makes me appreciate what I have and the people I love. It reminds me that it could all disappear in the blink of an eye. Some people might call it ‘living dangerously’; I call it ‘living.’
“It’s too easy to get complacent about life. I never want to be a person who coasts through life, always taking the safe and easy route. I like feeling excited! I think that excitement is one of the things that makes life worthwhile. Don’t you?”
“Hmmm. I don’t think my need for excitement is on the same level as yours. There are a lot of other things—safer things—that make me feel life is worthwhile.”
“Such as?” Isaac asked.
Ali liked the fact that despite his obvious enthusiasm for his own point of view, he also wanted to hear hers. How many dates had she been on where the guy was so self-involved that he talked on and on about himself and his interests without ever asking about hers?
“People, mostly. It’s the people in my life that give it meaning.” As Ali said this, she thought to herself, Oh, geez, he’s going to think I’m really boring.
So she tried to redeem herself. “It’s not that I don’t like to be active, it’s just that who I’m with is usually more important to me than what I’m doing.
“That’s why I’m really careful about who I spend time with. I choose to surround myself with positive, caring people. Negative people suck the life out of you. They aren’t worth the energy they demand. Especially the drama queens.”
Isaac was a little worried now, because he really liked Ali, so he felt compelled to ask, “Does my love of excitement make me a drama queen in your eyes?”
Ali paused for a moment before answering. “You know, on first glance, it would seem like drama and excitement are synonymous, but maybe they’re not. I’ll have to give that some thought.”
“Well, here’s something more to think about. It’s not just the excitement that makes me love racing—there’s the social aspect, too. Like you said, it’s people that make the difference.”
“Are you talking about the other drivers?” Ali asked.
“Yes, but not just the other drivers. There’s the pit crew and the racetrack staff, and the families.”
“The families?” Ali asked.
“Believe it or not, going to the races is really a family activity. Fans come in all ages and sizes, but they don’t usually come alone. Even if they don’t always come with traditional, blood family members, they make families among themselves. Most fans come weekend after weekend for the entire five-month season. Granted, the drivers don’t get to participate in that side of things so much, but we see it happen and it feels good to know that we contribute to it. So, yes, I agree with you. It’s our relationships with people that give life a lot of its meaning.”
Ali took a deep breath and thought to herself, maybe this could work after all?
“Okay,” she said, “let’s go to the races.”
Ali had a hard time getting to sleep that night. It wasn’t the caffeine that kept her awake—coffee to a Seattleite is like wine to a European—rather, it was her date with Isaac. She was attracted to him in so many ways and for so many reasons, but his affinity for dangerous pastimes made her more than a little uncomfortable. Before she had a chance to process the information about his love for sprint car racing he started talking about his passion for skydiving. And she already had firsthand knowledge of his skiing exploits.
Racing eleven hundred pounds of metal around a dirt track at speeds of a hundred or more miles per hour. Swooping down mountainsides, dodging trees and avoiding cliffs with strips of fiberglass strapped to his feet. Dropping out of the sky from twelve thousand feet up in the air and trusting a sheet of nylon to break his fall. How is it, she wondered, that this man is still in one piece?
Then again, horseback riding wasn’t totally devoid of danger. Her parents had been hesitant to let her learn to ride for fear that she might get hurt, but her obvious love of horses eventually persuaded them to give in. Though she’d fallen from her horse a few times over the years, she’d never been seriously injured. If anyone ever tried to convince her to give up horseback riding because of the potential for injury, she knew she wouldn’t. Shouldn’t I give Isaac the same latitude, or is this part of his personality a deal breaker? She knew she needed to give this serious consideration . . . while she could still retreat with her heart intact.
When they first drove through the front gates of the speedway, Ali was surprised to feel right at home. She had attended her share of Mariners and Seahawks games over the years, but this had a very different feel to it.
“I’m already beginning to think I really missed something all these years,” she said. “I grew up so close to here, and I never even gave the speedway a second thought. To be honest, I always thought racing was a sport for rednecks.” Ali cringed a bit when she heard herself make that confession. “I hope that doesn’t offend you,” she said apologetically.
“No, it’s nothing I haven’t heard before. I don’t know why that’s such a common misconception. I think you’d be hard pressed to find ten thousand people in Western Washington who qualify as rednecks.”
“Ten thousand spectators? Every week? Where do they all come from?”
“Being from just across the river in Mount Vernon, you know that Burlington, where the track is, is halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., so the track is really well located. Enthusiasts come from all up and down the I-5 corridor.”
“And where do the racers come from?”
“About ninety percent of the drivers are local hobbyists, but some are professionals who come from all around the country. It’s a really expensive sport, but the prize money can be pretty substantial . . . anywhere from twelve hundred to twenty-five thousand dollars per race.”
“How expensive is ‘expensive’?” Ali asked.
“I’d say the average sprint car costs between thirteen and fifteen thousand dollars to build. After that initial expense, the engine and the tires are the things that need replacing the most often. Tires run about two hundred dollars each and usually need to be replaced every two to three nights. A good used engine costs between ten and twenty thousand. A brand new engine costs anywhere from twenty-five to forty thousand, and lasts for about fifteen to twenty races. Like I said, it’s an expensive sport, even if you have sponsors. That’s one reason I don’t race full time. It’s also one of the reasons I went into the auto parts business!” he said, with a wink.
“What are the other reasons . . . for not racing full time, I mean.”
“Well, really dedicated, or maybe I should say addicted racers, spend two or three nights a week working on their car. Then, the races themselves are pretty much every weekend for five to six months out of the year. I love racing, but not so much that I want it to be my whole life. There was a time—from about age fifteen to twenty—that I really wanted to go pro, but I took a good hard look at the kind of life that the pros live and I decided it wasn’t for me. I want a more balanced life than that. Eventually, I want to get married and have a family. It’s not impossible to do that as a professional racer, but the odds are against it.”
“The huge commitment of time and money are at the top of the list. Then there’s the fact that the pros have to travel all over the country and their spouses—yes, there are professional women drivers, too—can’t always go along. These guys get treated like rock stars by the fans, and that can lead to a lot of temptations on the road. It’s pretty hard to resist after a while . . . I’m told.”
“You didn’t mention the reason I thought would top the list.”
“The danger of getting hurt or even killed!”
“Yeah. That can cause some tension in a marriage, too, but it’s really not as dangerous a sport as you might think. Accidents are common, but serious injuries aren’t. Deaths are even more rare,” Isaac assured her.
“Even so,” Ali insisted, “I can see how the fear and worry could cause some serious stress that would be hard on a relationship.”
“Like I said, I decided it’s not the lifestyle for me.”
Since this was more or less their first real date, Isaac had considered trying to impress Ali by taking her to a fancy restaurant for dinner before going to the speedway. Instead, he planned it so they would arrive at the track about an hour before the first race. He wanted a chance to show her around and introduce her to some of his friends who worked at the track.
To prove to Ali that chivalry was alive and well in the racing world, Isaac took her to the souvenir stand to buy her a memento.
“Choose anything you’d like,” he said with a dramatic voice and a flourish of his arm. Then, in mock secrecy, he leaned over and whispered loudly to the girl behind the counter, “There’s nothing over twenty bucks, right?”
Ali laughed and played along. “Where do you keep the diamond studded racing goggles?”
Despite the joking, she really did want something tangible to help her remember this date—in case she didn’t get invited on a second one. She decided on a sequined sweatshirt with the year “1996” printed beneath a picture of a sprint car.
Isaac held Ali’s fanny pack while she put on her new sweatshirt, then took her hand and led the way to the stands.
As their fingers intertwined, Ali felt a shiver run through her. She thought to herself, here I am, a grown woman, and just holding hands with this guy makes me weak in the knees! I could be in real trouble here.
At the same time, Isaac was thinking, handholding is really underrated. How can something that looks so innocent be so sensual? It’s like publicly sanctioned foreplay.
When it was time for the first race to begin, they settled into their seats and Ali turned to Isaac. “Isn’t it a little strange for you to be sitting in the stands instead of racing?” she asked.
“It is, a little, but I was a fan before I was a driver, so this feels very familiar and it’s still fun for me. I love being a part of the crowd. Remember when you asked me what I love about racing and I said part of it is the social aspect? Well, a lot of these people come every weekend and sit in the same seats next to the same people, so they get to know and care about each other. It’s more fun to watch the races surrounded by people you know and like. Some fans even take it a step further. On Friday evenings, after work, they pile into their campers—usually with their kids in tow—drive to the speedway and stay all weekend! They park in the same spot, next to the same people every week. It’s like a giant tailgate party. There’s definitely a community feeling to the whole experience.”
“What’s a race day like for you as a driver?”
“You know, even after years of racing, I still get butterflies on race day, so I’m usually up and at ‘em by about eight in the morning. There’s a lot of ritual to the day. First, I meet up with my pit crew for breakfast. We each have our favorite place nearby so we rotate locations. Mine is Bob’s Burgers and Brew—they have a great Sunday brunch, by the way. Ted, one of my crew guys, prefers Farmhouse Restaurant out on La Conner- Whitney Road. He says it’s because they make their pancakes from scratch, but I think it’s because they make a killer Bloody Mary.
“By nine-thirty or ten we’re giving the car an initial once-over and getting it loaded in the trailer. Then I pack my racing bag. I always do it myself because if anything I need is missing I don’t want to be able to blame anyone else for the screw up.”
“Your racing bag? What all do you keep in there?” Ali asked.
“It’s a combination of practical and personal stuff. A driver’s racing bag is pretty sacred, even though it’s really just a glorified duffle bag. Mainly it holds our racing suit, gloves, goggles, shoes, socks, and helmet. The bags usually have inside pockets where we store extras like protein bars, water bottles, eyeglasses, and that kind of stuff. Plus, every sportsman has their superstitions and good luck charms, so most of us keep some sentimental items like pictures of loved ones, rosary beads, award ribbons—that kind of thing.”
“It sounds like the inside pockets are where the real treasures are kept.”
“That’s probably true, but it’s a lot easier to race without a rabbit’s foot than without your driving shoes.”
Isaac continued describing the race-day schedule, trying to give Ali a complete picture.
“The pits open at four in the afternoon, so we usually head for the track around three. That gives us time to unload the car from the trailer, check the tire pressure, check the track conditions, and get suited up before the five o’clock drivers’ meeting. That’s when the officials announce anything new and important, and remind us to play nice. At six, the qualifying time trials begin and at seven o’clock, the main event starts. The whole thing wraps up around ten. Of course, after that, we break out the beer and sit around telling tales of our victories and defeats until the wee hours.”
As if on cue, the announcer’s voice came over the PA declaring the start of the first race. “Welcome race fans to Skagit Speedway! You’re in for a thrill tonight so sit back and enjoy a great show! Tonight’s events will be . . .”
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Posted by Alice Kuder, January 19, 2014