Dad is too drunk to drive, so I take his keys and lay him into the back seat with a plastic water bottle. The sun’s beating down on the Sonoma hills and the roar of hot rods exploding down the track is loud. We will have to find out who won from the Sonoma Raceway Radio on our way home, but it does not really matter that much. Not to me.
“Drink Dad,” I tell him. “Finish the bottle.”
He sits up — too quick — and snarls at the back of my head. He seems about to speak. Instead he flips off the plastic cap and chugs the water bottle dry, tossing it out the window into the dirt parking lot. I consider going after it, but it’s best to get the hell out before the race ends. I do not want to sit in the heat and traffic all the way home.
His hand grasps my seat as he tries to catapult himself into the front. I pull the car back, reversing out of the parking space fast, and dislodge his grip, then lurch forward as I pull away, dropping him into the back seat.
“Shit, let me drive,” he grumbles. But we are already on our way and he lets it go.
I drive through the exit gates, passing an empty cop car and some bored looking traffic attendants. I turn the car onto the highway. Back to Sacramento.
* * *
The day had been mostly good. We woke early on Sundays, almost as early as a regular day because most Sundays Dad wanted to get church finished and over with early so he could spend the rest of the day doing what he pleased. Sometimes it was brunch. Sometimes it was the lake. Today it had been the race. It was always drinking. Sunday was the only day he would drink before noon.
“Come on kiddo,” he had said that morning, finishing his cup of sweet, black coffee. “Let’s go see the hot rods.”
Mom stepped quickly into the room wearing a knee-length pastel dress, ready for early service. She looked Dad up and down and asked him why he was not dressed.
“No church today,” Dad said. “Today me and the kid are going to Sears Point. It’s a rite of passage now that he’s got his license.”
We had seen hot rods at Sonoma before, but this would be the first time since I started driving and he kept telling me that until you drive you can’t really understand racing. But I always understood racing. It was all about spending time with my dad.
* * *
Dad knew someone at the track who always got us pit passes that gave us access to the drivers before the race. We would hang out at the staging area where hot-rods, funny cars, and motorcycles had to wait their turn to run the track. We could stay with the drivers until they were called up. From here we could watch them fire up their engines and shoot away toward the finish as we were left in a haze of nitro-fueled smoke. For the rest of my life the smell of nitro-fuel, or even just gasoline, will always remind me of Sunday with my dad. The smell was powerful and after a dozen or so races standing downwind, we had to make our way up to the concession stands just to keep from passing out. That’s when Dad would begin the day’s drinking.
“Shot and a beer,” Dad had said to the bartender behind the portable bar in the large red and white tent. “And a coke,” he added, looking at me. I was his buddy, his “wingman.”
“A wingman has your back,” he said.
“I’ve got yours and you’ve got mine,” I answered. We clinked our drinks together in a toast. It always started off so well. The first two or three drinks lifted his spirits and gave him an edgy, sarcastic wit that people found amusing. He would flirt with young girls and say he was just trying to find a bride for his kid. All for laughs.
“That’s what being a wingman is all about,” he told me.
It was usually around the fifth or sixth drink that his slightly sarcastic wit turned very sarcastic, and lost its wit. I could sometimes draw him away from the bar by saying I had to pee, which of course he would too. But if he were on a roll, as he was today, he would just point in the general direction of the restrooms and tell me he’d wait right here. By the time I returned he was drunk and really just an asshole. The girls had left and there were two Latino bikers sitting next to him looking just a bit annoyed as he went on about the smell of nitro-fuel.
“Sometimes I’ll bring trash bags down to the track to capture a big whiff,” He yelled. “Next week I’ll pop that vintage right open and get a snoot-full. Sometimes it still got a real kick that’ll knock me on my ass.”
The Latino bikers were doing their best to ignore him which was getting him even more riled up. I knew we needed to get back to the car, so I pulled him around to face me.
“Come on, Dad,” I said. “Let’s hit it.”
He looked at me blankly. I waited for my request to settle in. The bartender placed two plastic bottles of water on the bar next to us.
“The last race is done,” I said. “Let’s get out before everyone else.”
“Sure,” Dad said slowly. He opened one of the water bottles and drank it down. I took a bottle in one hand and his arm in the other to guide him out the open flap of the tent.
“No point hanging around here anymore,” he said.
* * *
Dad is sprawled out in the back with his eyes closed. I keep the radio low so it does not disturb him.
In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream…
An old Bruce Springsteen song comes on the radio. I can just hear him singing along in the back.
We gotta get out while we’re young. ‘Cause tramps like
us, baby we were born to run…
I look at his face and see him mouthing the words so I turn the volume way up.
Written by: Sean Carlin
Born in California, raised in Israel, served in the military, educated in film and television, documented environmental and social justice work, produced and directed commercials, Sean Karlin is a filmmaker and creative director who lives in San Francisco with his wife Orli.
Art title: Sixtyfive
Art by: Adrian Ordenana