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It's Fun in the Relatively Fast Lane : Hobbyists Race Tiny Cars Just for Joy of Driving

April 17, 1986|DAVID WHARTON | Wharton is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Rick Galbraith stands alone on a cement platform overlooking the pit area. Below, a mechanic is making last-minute adjustments on a sleek, green racing car. The Wankel engine revs up to 6,000 rpm, spitting white smoke and the smell of gasoline.

The other drivers have clustered around the registration desk to hear rule instructions from race officials. Galbraith has heard it all before. The tall, thin 22-year-old won the last major race at this track in the fall, and he has run a 52.41-second lap, which makes him one of the hot foots. He remains coolly to one side.

"You're never the fastest," he says, shaking his head and gazing out onto the course. "There's always someone else out there."

An argument erupts at the rules meeting. Art Charles, referred to by the other drivers as "the John McEnroe of racing," stalks angrily away from the official's table, waving his arms in the air. He is upset by a ruling that may keep him from racing in what is considered to be the fastest car on the track.

'Forget It'

"I'm the best driver out here, so I want to go with the best," he shouts. "Now with this bull you guys are pulling, forget it."

A race official runs after Charles, hoping to console him. The public address announcer welcomes racers and spectators to the opening night of the 1986 Virage Cup spring racing league. Driver Tony Woodford smiles widely.

"Racing cars is what I live for."

The Virage Cup isn't exactly big-time racing. In fact, you might be hard-pressed to call it racing at all. This is no Riverside International Raceway. It is the Malibu Grand Prix amusement center in Northridge. Anyone with $1.75 and a driver's license can drop by seven days a week to take a spin around the five-eighths-mile course in cars that are miniature copies of real grand prix cars. No one ever hits the wall at 180 m.p.h. and bursts into a ball of flame. About the worst that can happen is that a driver will spin off the track and have to suffer the indignity of waiting for an attendant to push him back onto the pavement.

Tightly Twisting Track

But the cars are equipped with wide racing tires and 28-horsepower engines that will propel them at speeds up to 40 m.p.h. along the backstretch of the Northridge course's tightly twisting track. And, among a small circle of regulars there, racing Virage cars has become a passion. Galbraith, of Encino, spends a lot of money to drive as many as 75 practice laps a week. Charles is a 43-year-old film industry carpenter who averages 50 laps a week. Scott Kerfoot, 22, showed up with his own helmet and custom racing gloves.

The regulars, known as "the club," are almost exclusively male, ranging from teen-agers to men well into their 40s. They are students, manual laborers and office managers. Some also race dirt bikes or sports cars. Others have only the Malibu Grand Prix to come to for competitive driving. These drivers have honed their racing technique, running laps that are consistently 10-15 seconds faster than the average driver's. They walk away from the cars drenched in sweat, with arms and legs shaking and sore. When asked what it is that inspires them, the racers most often answer, simply, driving.

"It's the idea of going out there and controlling the car, making it do what you want it to do," Woodford said.

"There is a skill to this. There is a discipline," said Scott Fisher, a 30-year-old technical writer from Canoga Park. "It's something you can learn and get better at. It's come in handy once or twice on the Ventura Freeway."

Galbraith shrugged his shoulders.

"It's the art of driving."

Financial Trouble

For Malibu Grand Prix, the Virage Cup is something entirely different. Corporation officials hope that the racing series will attract a few more customers, said Fred Nelson, a manager at the Northridge track. The Malibu Grand Prix people, who operate five tracks in Southern California and about 41 more around the country, have recently been beset by debt from improvements and acquisitions of new parks. Bad weather at tracks in the Midwest and East has forced frequent closures. The corporation, many of whose facilities also offer video arcade games and miniature golf, lost $6.3 million in 1984 and $4 million in the first three quarters of last year.

The entry fee for the eight-week series is $20, plus another $10 a week. There are weekly prizes of $30, $20 and $10 for the top finishers, plus a season-ending race that pays $300, $200 and $100. But Nelson was careful to point out that the Virage Cup was designed to be a moneymaking venture.

Estimated-Time System

After much arguing among the 21 drivers who showed up on the first Wednesday night of the season, the rules were finally worked out. A drag-racing format known as the "estimated time" system would be used: The driver must predict what his average speed will be for five laps. The driver who clocks in closest to the average speed he has predicted--whether that speed is fast or slow--wins.

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