The race roars on long after the checkered flag — and a book is the result.
By Erik E. Esckilsen
Read along with the author:
O N E S U N N Y W E E K E N D in October some years ago — it had to be the most agreeable autumn day that year, maybe of any year — I took Robert Frost’s advice about the road less traveled and traveled in the completely opposite direction that Frost would have traveled had he been there, on that day, to see the Vermont foliage at its peak. Instead of heading into the crimson- and gold-dappled hills to hike or meander in quiet contemplation, I went to a stock car race.
The setting: Thunder Road International Speedbowl in Barre, Vermont — the self-designated “Nation’s site of excitement.” That day’s race program included the season’s finale, the coveted Milk Bowl. A quarter-mile asphalt track roaring with engine noise inspires little reflection on the beauty of the changing seasons. But change was definitely in the exhaust-tinged air that day, and I’m grateful to have been there to breathe it in. And from the grandstands inspiration struck me — struck with the force of a racecar slamming into a wall.
A racer by the name of Tracie Bellerose was on her way to winning the Thunder Road track championship in the Late Model division, the top tier. I wasn’t really much of a fan — of Bellerose or of auto racing, for that matter — but I decided to concentrate on her car as she ran, if for no other reason than to witness the novelty of a woman competitor in a male-dominated sport. Keep in mind that auto racing is a competitive arena in which women and men battle it out on equal footing — unlike, say, basketball, track and field, or, somewhat inexplicably, billiards and bowling.
A few laps into Bellerose’s first race I could see why the season had been hers. She was clearly the best driver out there: patient, persistent without being reckless, and immovable from any piece of track she claimed. Two other aspects of her racing persona, I came to discover, added to the buzz about Bellerose: First, obviously, she was a woman; and, second, she was from New Hampshire. As a native Vermonter, I wasn’t sure which of these characteristics represented the greatest challenge to the Thunder Road status quo. Vermont has had a rivalry with New Hampshire for a long time. It’s a long story, and it goes back a long way — centuries, really. For these and possibly other reasons, Bellerose’s racing skill stoked a curious energy coursing through the grandstands.
Bellerose didn’t win the Milk Bowl that day, though some say she should have. From the perspective of some fans in my row, Bellerose was held up in the closing laps of the final race by a car that had lagged way behind and didn’t move off the racing line to let her pass — a violation of the rules that, unfortunately for her, went undetected. Still, she was dominant throughout the day’s races, and she closed out the season with the most points.
Like I said, I wasn’t a huge race fan the day I went to the Milk Bowl. But I remember walking away from Thunder Road with a blend of impressions that could — maybe should — add up to something. Whatever form it took, it would have to do with the excitement of auto racing, the sense of community one finds at a short-track race, gender politics, and a bold challenge to the existing order. It was the germ of a story; I could tell. But what story, specifically? I didn’t know.
So I kind of dropped the idea of writing anything about Thunder Road. What did I know about stock-car racing, much less about being a woman driver on a race course full of men?
Well, as it turned out, those questions kept coming back up in my thoughts, along with the memory of seeing Bellerose race the Milk Bowl, as if I were already subconsciously committed to writing about the experience but just hadn’t found the time to get started. I’d been haunted by the stirrings of story ideas before — enough times to take this as a good sign, a sign that I might be looking at a story that would sustain my interest and attention long enough to turn it into a novel. So I decided to take a run at it. My starting point was obvious: the track.
Thanks to Tom Curley and his staff at Thunder Road, I enjoyed open access to the pits, was introduced to drivers — among them, several young women competing in the tiers below Bellerose’s Late Model division — and was even able to drive a car around the Road’s high-banked turns. I tried very hard to stay out of the way, but the more often I visited the speedbowl, it seemed, the more there was to learn. The drivers, pit crews, and track staffers were kind to let me hang around, asking questions.
Eventually, I’d have the chance to acknowledge my gratitude for their help — inside the cover of my third novel, The Outside Groove, which was published in hardcover by Houghton Mifflin and later released as an e-book. The book’s main character is a young woman named Casey LaPlante, who learns to race stock cars as a way of asserting herself in a community where she’s overshadowed by her older brother, the fictional town’s next great hope at big-time racing glory.
My education in stock-car racing was a humbling experience, as, I suppose, most education is. Equally valuable were some lessons about writing that I took away from The Outside Groove.
First, I was reminded that the cost of staying corked up at the writing desk too long, instead of delving into the kind of research that brings you face-to-face with people with a deep understanding of your story subject, is a missed opportunity to give your story a sense of vitality and authenticity. I’d learned this lesson once before, when I spent some time with five Mohawk teenagers in upstate New York as research for my second novel, Offsides. It’s a lesson worth revisiting with each new writing project.
Second, I came to a deeper understanding of stories — at least in their earliest stages — not so much as hypothetical events arranged in the more or less linear shape that we recognize as a story but as a set of disorganized possibilities — questions that the writer either is or isn’t inspired to pursue.
Finally, I was reminded that the best place to end a story is when a new, maybe even more transformative story is about to emerge for the characters — when their main problems have been solved, only to engender new, even bigger challenges just starting to appear on the horizon. That’s how I read the ending of The Outside Groove, which may explain my nagging sense that the story isn’t really over, even though obviously it is. I can’t do any more work on it. It has been published.
This premonition that another story idea is about to start haunting me stems from something I saw during my research for The Outside Groove.
One evening, as I was driving to Thunder Road, I passed a truck headed in the opposite direction. The truck was pulling a trailer with a mangled racecar on the bed. It was early in the evening, so I figured the driver had either failed to qualify for his division’s featured race, or he’d wrecked seriously enough to be out of contention. Either way, I could tell from the look on his face he was very, very unhappy.
But what struck me most wasn’t the driver’s scowl so much as the look on the face of the little girl sidled up next to him. Eight, maybe nine years old, she wore a sad expression that revealed, in this private moment, depths of some undifferentiated feeling. That’s a pretty dry way of saying that, in that instant, my mind raced with questions about what she was experiencing: Was she sad because she knew how much her father looked forward to the race night, tinkering with his ride after work all week long? Was she sad because she didn’t know how to cheer him up when he got so down? Did she wish that her mother, whoever she was, wherever she was, were there with them?
I can’t hold a copy of The Outside Groove in my hand now without thinking of that little girl, even though she’s not in the book. While it’s unlikely our paths will cross again, I know I’ll see her in a story. I know this because I’m still thinking about her. The story setting will probably be a racetrack like Thunder Road, because I can’t seem to get that place out of my head either.
Erik E. Esckilsen is the author of three novels for teen readers, all from Houghton Mifflin / Walter Lorraine Books: The Last Mall Rat; Offsides; and The Outside Groove, which is now available as an e-book.
Music on the recorded version of this essay, “Snake Spoke,” “Old Loop,” and “Instrumental #1” was provided by Lucio Menegon from Soundtrack Instrumentals (Music for Driving & Film, Vol. 1) — www.kingtone.com
Radio announcer Dave Moody is featured on the recorded version of this essay courtesy of Thunder Road International Speedbowl and Big Jim’s Videos.