It happens every year and I’ve been around a lot of years now, but it still manages to surprise me every time. Thursday and Friday were picture postcard perfect days here in the Keystone State. Apparently a cold front snuck in through the mountains after I turned in Friday night. I tend to wake up slowly and at my leisure these days. But I woke up Saturday morning with a sense of unease. Firstly, it was after 7 a.m. and it was still pitch black out. That happens this time of year. Secondly, as I let one of my big toes out from under the comforter it was cold in the bedroom. Not brisk. Not chilly. Not crisp. Frickin’ cold. Which explained the tapping, groans and occasional bang which had probably woken me up in the first place.
Again I shouldn’t have been surprised. This happens every autumn. Yes, I suppose I should have done a test fire of the heater prior to this weekend but it’s hard to remember to do so when it was in the 90s less than a week ago. Fall is a sneaky bastard. My home is heated by propane, a far more efficient and inexpensive method than the heating oil I used at my old place Eyesore Acres. But after sitting dormant all summer it can be difficult to get started. I can say the same of some of my friends.
So kneeling down and cursing out the darkness I dug through the drawers until I found my “Strike on Box” kitchen matches. Hit and hold the “pilot button” somewhere between five and 10 minutes and ignite about 20 matches, curse vividly, bang on this pipe or that a few times and finally there’s an orange flash and a “whoompf” that indicates the process is finished for another year, unless I get delinquent on checking the tanks when March begins teasing the area.
This growing older stuff is not for the faint of heart, the weak of spirit or quitters. “Listen you cranky old bastard,” I muttered at the heater. “I’m not expecting you to work well but let’s make a deal and just don’t completely break down, all right?” “Back at you, boss,” the heater might have muttered in reply if it could have.
Fast forward a couple hours (not quite enough time as it turned out) and I was prepared to take Saturday face on and run down the street to Dunkin for a cup of Joe. But that departure was going to be delayed. The windows of the Jeep were covered by a light coat of frost. So it was time for an archaeological dig into the cargo area of the Cherokee. Under a leather jacket, a bag of dirty laundry, the tow chains, various and sundry half used bottles of automotive chemicals, a broken fog light and a highly moldy forgotten pack of dinner rolls lay my scraper. “Eagle Auto” it says on it.
The business went under almost a decade ago. I used to work there. There’s no sound like the plastic blade of an ice scraper biting into the frost windshield. It is a sound of fear and defeat. Winter is in fact waiting in the wings. Last year we got our first accumulating snow before Halloween. Last year I was very cranky from the end of October until March. Have you ever wondered why you capitalize the names of months but not seasons? Seasons are nothing but a three-pack of months after all. Probably not. That’s the sort of stuff I wonder about during the winter. Which may explain why I get cranky.
But autumn isn’t without its little celebrations, even if you are too old to run around with a pillow case shaking down the neighbors for candy. Saturday was also the last car show at Macungie for the season. They have the big hot rod show at Macungie the weekend before Labor Day, and it is quite the to do. The monthly shows are smaller but still highly anticipated. You won’t see many trailer queens or show ponies at Macungie. Most cars drive in which is the coolest type. And most of them are fast and loud, in addition to being cool, or I suppose that goes without saying. The old car clan I first started hanging with in high school has grayed somewhat. It’s only later in life — once the kids are gone and the mortgage paid — a lot of people can afford really big toys for themselves.
We hit the afternoon show in my buddy Andrew’s 56 Chevy. It’s a pretty righteous old car a lot of folks call the Creamsicle because of the two-tone hugger orange and vanilla white paint job. It’s got a warmed over mid 80s Corvette Tuned Port small block, a fully restored interior and a classic set of 15 inch Cragar SS wheels.
I won’t lie and say it’s an 11-second car, but that old Chevy (we affectionately call her “Lucy”) runs fine on pump premium and is about as reliable as an anvil. Lucy never leaves us walking. Never. Swapping in an overdrive 4L60E transmission is towards the top of this winter’s to do list. Of course, if I recall that transmission swap was also at the top of last summers to do list.
Per usual, the half hour ride up to Macungie aboard Lucy elicited the standard honks, thumbs up, waves and smiles. At lights the standard questions are, “What year is it?” 1956 Belair. Is it fast? Not particularly. What’s something like that worth? As an old car to cruise around? Somewhere between 15 and 20 grand. But it’s not for sale because as a time machine to take two guys in their 60s for a quick trip back to adolescence it’s priceless. But this was the last show of the season and it’s time to put Lucy away until the spring rains have washed the local byways free of road salt. Pity that. Happens every year. Surprises me every time. Next the cover goes on my Harley. Have I mentioned that ever since I gave up on snowmobiling as the stupidest hobby ever I don’t care for winter? Back when I had snowmobiles it never snowed around here.
We left the show before sunset Lucy purring her contentment. Along the rides I watched the Amish farmers beginning to harvest their crops with what looks to all the world like Clydesdales but are actually Belgians, a near relative to the Bud Horsies. They prefer not to be photographed so I put my phone down and watched as the older farmer went about his task with a certain degree of urgency. He was always looking forward, never over his shoulder as he worked towards his goal. There’s a message there I suppose. The farm implement he was using wouldn’t have looked out of place at Mount Vernon or Monticello, but it seemed to work fine.
In part of the fields that were already harvested Canadian geese were gleaning what they could. I think now officially “Canada Geese” those damned birds are the foulest of fowl. They are noisy, aggressive, quick-tempered and filthy. Most of them seem to have given up on migration around here, choosing only to fly cross-county from a business park off of 202 to a corporate center off of 23 several times a year for reasons known only to them. Canada geese are dumber than a sack of hammers. Still, when they decide to take off there is a great beating of wings, and obnoxiously loud honking (and a whole lot of crapping) as they form the lopsided V of their flocks another sure sign winter is also in the wings.
With the sun setting to the west behind us, huge shadows of Lucy’s bulbous shape stretched 20 yards ahead of us. Best to have her safely back in the garage before dusk. This time of year around here the whitetail deer are practically suicidal and seem determined to cause havoc crossing the highways and lanes. Hitting a squirrel may make you feel bad, but hitting a buck can total your car, and if he comes across the hood and through the windshield you might suffer a grievous personal injury. Hitting a deer on a Harley may lead to a ceremony where everyone says nice things about you and struggles with a suit a bit too tight. Even if they were referring to you as Baba the Idiot Boy on the ride to the funeral home.
In the end, all these, are as they should be and as they always have been as autumn takes hold and daylight grows short. You will note, however, the NASCAR schedule is still dragging on like an unwanted visit from a distant relative with Tourette’s who even the dog is sick of. After Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway, we have one more three-race round of the playoffs (Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix), followed by the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway where a champion will be crowned.
There was some hopeful news in press conferences concerning the merger between International Speedway Corporation (ISC) and NASCAR (which heretofore were said to be, nod, nod, wink, wink, swarmy smirk, separate entities that just happened to be headquartered out of the same building and run by the same family,) that even they realize that the current season is far too long. They hinted radical changes to the schedule may be in the cards, There was some talk of trying to end the season by early September when the Big Bad NFL broadcast schedule kicks down the door and sucks all the oxygen (and viewers) out of the room. May I suggest (for at least the 10,000th time that the season be allowed to conclude with the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend? Or would someone with the power to do something about it blatantly steal that idea and trumpet is as their own.
While there’s still four weeks left on the schedule undeniably this year’s slate of Cup races is far closer to the end than the beginning. This time of year, for decades, I fretted about the upcoming stretch of off weekends with no stock car racing on TV Sunday afternoons. Yes, there was a time that “NASCAR Winter Heat” racing on ESPN was appointment TV for me, the little flask of brandy strapped to the collar of a Saint Bernard to get me through to Daytona. Like the last several years, this year I’m looking forward to the off-time.
After all, there are many things in life, that like the NASCAR schedule, are closer to the end than the beginning. Among them are my career and my life. I have reasonable expectations that Andrew and I (and beloved Lucy) will be heading out to the first Macungie show of the year next April.
I’m not ready to hang up the keyboard just yet, though my doing so is one of those “Closer to the end than the beginning” realities. Racing will resume next February at Daytona. Given demographics as of late there will be approximately 10 percent less NASCAR fans by then than there are now.
As the late Tom Petty once sang “The good old days might not return, and the rocks might melt and the sea might burn……” NASCAR, itself, turned 70 this year, and you don’t have to be Ecclesiastes to realize the sanctioning body is also closer to its end than its beginning. What is left to see is will it be a mercy killing or a long drawn out death? The current TV deals expire after 2024. TV money is the lifeblood of the sport, and doubtless the new reality is going to look like a severed artery. Given current trends, it is highly unlikely that Cup races will still be broadcast on over-the-air TV except maybe one or two per year. I’d not say that cable TV will even exist in 2025 the way everyone is “cutting the cable” now and going towards less expensive options.
Who knows how we’ll receive entertainment and news by then? I haven’t even figured out what 5G is but in some corporate headquarters they are already messing about with what will become 8G. Cars will drive themselves. A robot will vacuum your floors, Alexa will warn you your zipper is down or you’re running a fever and all you’ll need to do is stay out of the way.
Certainly, there will be less races on the schedule after the Deluge. Those races that remain will be markedly shorter. There will be less cars entered in each of them despite the fact that it will be markedly less expensive to field a team. It has to be. The current business model no longer works and hasn’t for years. Those cheaper cars will probably sound more like blenders than hot rods as NASCAR moves towards electrical propulsion. As sedans and passenger car sales continue to fall beneath a tsunami of crossover vehicles, NASCAR type race vehicles will get boxier helping solve the aero problems once and for all. Even if they are better suited to hauling a kitchen set to hauling butt.
If you choose to watch at home on whatever entertainment devise replaces the TV, you might not be able to tell which cars are real and which are virtual, which are real drivers actually at the track racing and which are some ten year old kid named Chet sitting on his couch in Des Moines.
Cars have fallen from a young person’s pride and most cherished possession to obnoxious affronts to the environment, at least in the minds of those certain polar bears will be extinct by New Year’s Eve and that we’ll be worse off without them. The virtual world is a lot more interesting to some than the real one. Three-plus hours watching a single sporting event may soon be banned under the Geneva Convention’s torture rules. Internal combustion power plants are going the way of urban lamplighters and abacuses.
If you choose to watch a race there will probably be an option on your entertainment reception device to add back in simulated sounds of big block racing engines as long as you attest that there’s nobody under the age or 18 whose delicate hearing might be damaged by the noise nearby. The cars might seem to change colors, appearances and sponsorship decals during the race. Thus, we might eventually see Kyle Busch in a bright pink Kia sponsored by My Little Pony. Cars will not change appearance during stage breaks because there will be no more breaks. NASCAR will finally admit that the stage breaks were their dumbest idea since NASCAR night in Hollywood or moving the Southern 500 to Southern California.
The fields stripped bare now will sprout green in the spring again. The leaves that are so brightly colored now will fade to a sickly brown and fall. But come spring the blossoms will sprout into green again. The heater will fall quiet again, days will get longer and warmer temperatures will return.
To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. And so it goes.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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