It's hard to describe the atmosphere at a big dirt track race, but it's easy to understand it when you hop into a truck and start ripping sideways around the track with a complete stranger.
Matt and I have just parked our RV and walked into the Eldora infield (here's why) when we see them: mean-looking pickups, sat on meaty dirt tires, spattered in mud, and sporting big wood boards mounted on their front bumpers. These are the push trucks, and stood ahead of them are the push truck drivers.
Now, it's possible that we had spoken with a NASCAR media official or two who had said we'd never be able to get a ride in one of the push trucks. Something about liability and lots of paperwork. I can't say anything about that. But I can say we asked the push truck drivers (and their boss) about getting a ride with them. A few minutes later and I'm in a mud-splattered Silverado powersliding through slick mud in turns one and two.
I take a look out the back window and it's a bit like Lord Humungus is chasing us. Blazers and Ramchargers absolutely wheeling. A Ford in front with stacks slipping all the way out to the edge of the track. Mud coming off the tracks in spray and in big, football-sized chunks. Splattering on my shirt, just missing busting my camera lens.
"The hardest thing to learn," Susan tells me, "is to stay on the gas. Your first instinct when you start sliding is to lift off. You just have to stay in it."
There are five women push truck drivers in the country, and I'm sat next to one. Susan came up to Ohio from Oklahoma a few years back, and not long later she wanted to go see a local late model race around here. And she didn't want to pay for it. But her husband Mike is a truck driver, so he told her to take his push truck. "I can't do that!" she said, but out she went, and after a race she was hooked. She's been driving push trucks for four years now.
"I was up in the stands one race, just watching the dirt dry, you know, and I there was a little girl sitting next to me. I had on my Eldora push truck driver shirt and she asked me, 'Do you really drive a push truck?'
'See daddy? Girls can drive!'"
The water truck is coming around again, and Susan turns into "the messy stuff" and with one hand on the wheel we countersteer all the way through the back two turns. We are deep into America, not far from the Ohio/Indiana border and very far from anything that isn't a corn field. People across the country have no idea that NASCAR trucks are going to race here on this five or six-car wide dirt track. They have no clue that a bunch of truck drivers and car nuts are wheeling their pickup trucks sideways across the mud, getting the moisture down so the track stays tacky. No clue that late models are about to run.
Well, I say about to, but we're running in these push trucks for quite some time. Forty laps? Fifty? I don't even try and keep count. We pass Tony Stewart in a truck on sprint car Hoosiers.
A Ramcharger passes us on the inside and another on the outside, both siding the whole way through the turn. Susan points out that she puts RainX on the windshield so that the mud clumps fall off when they dry. It's a useful trick.
These push truck drivers all know each other, seeing each other at every race and having bonfires after.
"I tell my blood family, if they plan anything anything and it's during a race, I won't be there," Susan smiles through turn two.
Matt is riding with a guy named Greg. Big dude, 44 ounces in the cupholder. He says that sometimes he hides chicken wings in the truck. One hand on the wheel, one hand eating chicken.
They're characters, all of them. And this was all done with no planning whatsoever. We just told them we were media and were went off. I've never been to any event whatsoever that was as relaxed.
The call for just five more minutes on track comes over the radio. Susan tells me we'll be coming in in not too long.
"I could do this all day," I tell her and she smiles. 'I don't know why I enjoy sliding cars on dirt so much, but sometimes it's better not to ask questions."
Susan's smile turns into a smirk, and we go ripping across two more turns, sun coming down low across the drying track.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove