My buddy frowned and shook his head. “Bad news,” he said when I met him at the entrance to the race track.
“What happened?” I asked. “Did they close the track?”
He shook his head.
“Did somebody get hurt?”
He looked at the ground. His shoulders slumped.
“Oh, my God, did somebody die?”
He took a deep breath before looking up at me. “I was wrong about the feature event,” he said matter-of-factly, like someone who understood that it never helps to embellish bad news. “The school bus races are tonight, not next week.”
“What the – “
I caught myself. Not his fault. Anybody could make a mistake. It was easy to misread a website schedule. It wouldn’t do any good to get emotional.
My buddy didn’t say anything. He just handed me my ticket, said he’d meet me inside, and left me to deal with my thoughts.
And for the record, here were those thoughts. You’re not supposed to run into a school bus. You’re not supposed to knock it on its side. And you’re certainly not supposed to cheer when it happens.
Welcome to Figure-Eight School Bus Race night, where old school buses go to die. These buses don’t rust away in a junkyard, waiting to be parted out like so much automotive organ donation. These buses go out in a blaze of glory, with collisions that knock the buses – and the drivers – all over the infield grass.
Now, I don’t go to the races much. My buddy used to drive these little tracks (the one in question is just a third-of-a-mile), and he likes to relive those days by pushing an imaginary clutch in the stands while he watches. We’ve always avoided school bus night, though, because it sounded … well, it just sounded stupid.
Most of the crowd saw it differently.
How popular were school bus races here in central Ohio? Well, how popular were gladiators in ancient Rome? Even early in the evening, while buses paraded around the track to build anticipation in a kind of mechanized foreplay, fans picked the buses they hoped would get crushed.
“Look at the pink one!” someone said behind me. “It’s says Pink Panther! Bust it!”
Apparently, it was open season on Pink Panther buses. And there I was without a hunting license …
No worry, though. The buses hunted each other.
There were real car races that night, too, so it took a few hours to get to the main event. Finally, with the crowd whipped into a frenzy of bus-destruction lust, the race started. There were about 10 buses involved, none in anything close to good condition.
One of the buses was covered in what might have been graffiti, but the artist’s only talent seemed to be the ability to sort of hit the broad side of a bus with spray paint. One of the buses was a testament to failed relationships, with the name “Lisa” painted on the side in bold, black letters, only to be crossed out with a big black X and replaced by “Stephanie.” (Maybe Lisa couldn’t handle the gravitas of figure-eight bus racing.) Another bus didn’t have a rear door. One dragged its front left bumper with a rope; when it turned corners, the bumper swung straight out like Wile E. Coyote over a canyon. One bus even had a targeted message on his bumper: “Uck you, Derek.” Yes, uck you.
The figure-eight course was simple: one straightaway through the infield, then onto the corner of the track, then another straightaway that intersected the first one, and then the other corner of the track. It reminded me more of demolition derby on Wide World of Sports than a real race. (Demolition Derby: now, that was a sport …)
The green flag waved. Drivers started grinding gears, forcing their buses up to speed. They weaved all over the track, either trying to avoid or trying to hit each other. (I’m guessing a little bit of both.)
The race made it through – count ‘em, everybody — one lap.
I saw the crash coming. The leader approached the intersection with little concern, but a bus trailing far, far, far behind lurked on the other straightaway, as if lying in wait. (I’m not sure how easy it is to lurk when you’re a rumbling, ancient school bus; you might need to suspend your disbelief a bit more here.) On cue, the lurker accelerated as the leader lumbered through the middle of the infield and drilled it in the backside. You know those slow-motion movie explosions where the star flies through the air? This was exactly like that. The bus soared several feet before flipping on its side when it hit the ground.
The crowd erupted. The public address announcer shouted, “Was that what you were waiting for, everyone?” The wooden stands bounced and creaked more than, well, an old school bus on a dirt road.
Emergency equipment rolled into the infield. The crowd still buzzed as a large bulldozer approached the fallen bus. The bulldozer – a giant Tonka Toy, really – hesitated while the driver, somehow intact, crawled out the back door of the smashed bus, then the bulldozer flipped the bus back up on its wheels.
Most of the other buses idled in a clump on the track, but one bus waited by itself in the corner. That driver turned on his warning lights and put out his “Stop” sign. His dedication to detail and safety made it obvious that he was the only one out there who had driven, you know, an actual school bus.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the P.A. announcer said, “the leading bus lost an axle and can’t continue. The number eight bus that hit it can’t continue, either; its radiator’s lying in the center of the track. And the number four bus is out, too, because it broke its steering trying to avoid the crash.”
The crowd booed. I wasn’t sure if they were upset because there’d be fewer buses, or because one of the buses tried to avoid the crash.
After about 10 minutes, the race restarted. The rest of the 10 laps went without incident; in fact, the drivers seemed to be slowing down as they approached the intersection to avoid another accident, which just pissed off the crowd. I started to wonder if they’d rush the track and knock the buses over themselves.
Finally, mercifully, the race ended. The winner climbed on the hood of his bus and held the trophy over his head as the public address announcer congratulated him for his fourth figure-eight bus win, breaking the record of three that he’d shared with two other drivers. The crowd cheered as if the guy was Dale Earnhardt, Jr., trading more of his race cars for Diet Mountain Dew.
Meanwhile, I did the math in my head. Good Lord, they’d had at least 10 of these races.
“What,” I asked of nobody in particular, “is wrong with these people?”
Looking back, there really wasn’t anything wrong with them. This was their culture, and I was an interloper trying to make sense of it. I admired them for being honest about what they wanted, even if that was to see large machines crush each other. Let’s face it, the drivers knew the crowded wanted crashes and drove anyway. The p.a. announcer knew that and embraced it. The track owner certainly knew it, which was why he jacked up ticket prices 50% that night.
I stood outside the track afterward waiting for traffic to clear. These were honest, hard-working people who liked to let loose on the weekend; if that meant cheering for screaming pieces of metal flying off buses as they flew through the air, so what? Heck, change the word “buses” to “linebackers,” and it could’ve been professional football.
A woman hurried from the parking lot into the road, holding up her hands to stop traffic. She stooped in the middle of the road to pick up something so precious to her that she needed to run in front of cars to save it.
Turned out it was a cigarette.
She plucked the burning cigarette from the road, waved thanks to the stopped cars, and puffed away as she strolled back toward the parking lot. I just shook my head. A perfect end to a perfect night.
We watched the woman until the glow of her cigarette faded from view. Then my buddy sighed and said, “Well, I’d better hit the road. We should do this again soon.”
Really? Oh, what the heck …
“Why not?” I said. “Count me in.”
(C.W. Grody’s latest book, Since Before You Were Born, is a collection of humorous stories based on his childhood. It’s available here: http://www.amazon.com/Since-Before-You-Were-Born-ebook/dp/B00EHT3B5G. Grody has also published 12 books for children and hundreds of articles in national magazines, including Sports Illustrated, Sport, and Boys Life.)