Glendora Mountain Road has over 130 curves along the bottom 8 miles. It's way too early on a Sunday morning and we're all hung over, but Jarret's excitement is infectious. "I can't believe it!" he shouts as he flies the truck sideways into a curve past the gate. "They repaved it! Is this a great country or what?" Apparently we're in for some first class gravity car racing. And no, it probably isn't legal.
Gravity cars are high tech soap box derby cars, a strange cross between skateboards and go karts. They're little 85 pound racecars without engines. Underneath the flexible one piece fiberglass body shell, you've got a full steel tube rollcage, a five point safety harness, four little go-kart tires, brakes, and a steering lever. The bottom half of the body is a one piece fiberglass belly pan, strapped on with nylon zip ties. You lie on this floor an inch off the ground. Run over a rock as big as a golf ball and you'll feel it scrape along right under your butt and your back.
Jarret is meeting a couple of friends for a day of practicing. Martyn has been doing it for about six months, and last time he hit Jarret so hard that Jarret's car went into an embankment at about sixty miles an hour, airborne and backwards. Nothing broke and nobody got hurt, but everyone feels free to tease him about it. Dave, on the other hand, has been riding gravity cars for over a year, and furthermore was one of the pioneers of high speed skateboarding way, way back in 1977. He crashed hard last year and was in the hospital awhile, but hasn't lost any enthusiasm for gravity cars. "Just the other day I was clocked by a cop going 94 miles an hour," he says, laughing. "I had to take the top off and let him see that it doesn't have an engine."
Apparently you don't need an engine to get going so fast that you can break the tires loose in a corner. On this particular road, the gravity cars have been timed at over 80 miles an hour. Keep in mind that they turn harder than just about anything else, period. The manufacturer says that in a full steer at 45 mph they pull 4.1G. That's 4.1 times the force of gravity, sideways. A brand new Corvette can barely turn 1G.
The first order of business is to let the guys go on a practice run while Terry and I case out the road in the truck. The cars have to be trucked up the hill, and Dave's truck can carry two easily, although he's been known to stack four on at a time. When we get to the starting point, Dave and Marty are laughing because Dave's fell out during the climb. It didn't get hurt.
The boys strap in, and we push them off the shoulder onto the road. They're so low they get stuck in gravel. Once they're on the tarmac, they look really small. It's hard to imagine that they even hold a full grown adult. They just look like oversized Fisher Price toddler toys with little helmet heads plugged in. The joy of them of course is that they are, in fact toys for big kids. The toys start rolling away slowly.
But that doesn't last long. These guys are speed junkies after all, and don't use the brakes. "You start out at the top of a hill with a certain amount of potential speed, and try to carry that speed all the way down to the bottom," says Jarret. "Hit the brakes, and you lose some speed that you'll never be able to get back. Same thing goes for taking corners too roughly and scrubbing off speed." So they're not using the brakes, and can turn on a dime. Before you know it, we're mashing the gas pedal WFO on the straights, trying to keep up in the truck, but they keep getting away.
There's no throttle to work with, which dictates your battle plan. This plan apparently includes charging totally blind into corners on the wrong side of the street. Traffic today is pretty light, just a few motorcycles, a handful of hot rods, and some couples looking for a romantic scenic vista to ignore. The gravity cars are banging into each other as they whip wildly into each corner, using the entire road as if it were a racetrack. We race along behind them watching in disbelief as they swerve around cars going the other way.
These guys are living proof that you don't need an engine or a tall bridge to get going fast enough to kill yourself. We come around a corner and Jarret is sideways in the middle of the road. The three of them are laughing hysterically. The skidmarks in the road tell the story of a collision, some sliding, and a little spinning. Jarret needs a push to get pointed downhill. Martyn is wedged up against the dirt embankment at the side of the road, and I figure he needs a push, too, although he's still laughing and can't talk. Then they roll off again.
They're doing about sixty when they pitch into the dirt parking lot at the bottom of the mountain. All three of them stay off the brakes until the last second, at which point they completely lock up the tires, filling the air with blue smoke, dust, and rocks. More laughing. They're trying to squeeze out of the cars to take off their helmets. Dave hitches a ride up the hill to get his truck.
Dave returns and we go up for another run. This time we take pictures, and it turns out to be really easy because we can talk to the cars. Usually shooting vehicles is a complicated deal involving elaborate hand signals, radios, and confusion. But it's easy, once we talk the guys into driving slower. But being maniacs, they make up for the slow speeds by crashing into each other. A lot. Dave at one point gets wedged under the truck from behind for a second and they all think it's hilarious. Jarret hits Dave hard enough to get wedged under him. After the run Dave has to split because he has to work.
So on the next run we put Jarret's car in the truck, and tow Martyn in his car up the hill. During a real race the tow truck tows ten cars up the mountain at once. The only place to attach a tow strap to a gravity car is the roll bar, and it's a rather strange arrangement because first of all the strap hits the drivers head, and secondly the attachment point is behind the car's center of gravity. The precariousness of this situation becomes apparent in one corner as the strap goes too slack. When the slack gets taken up, it jerks the car violently, and the car gets flipped over and dragged upside down for a few feet. Martyn and car are relatively unhurt, but his helmet ends up with a very nice patch of road burn. Martyn doesn't care.
The next run is the best run because it's my run. I got into the car at Jarret's shop before we left, but now it seems kind of weird. Here we are, out on a big old mountain, by a big old truck, and I'm trying to slide into a missile 12" high. It involves getting your legs in, and worming your way forward. (Your feet are right in the nose of the car, so if you hit anything hard enough to break the nose, your feet are gonna get crushed. Dave knows about it.) Then you have to fit one shoulder in at a time, and suddenly you're basically lying down with your head propped up by the roll bar.
The brake lever is on the left side, and you push it forward to slow down. "I just fold it back so it falls flat on the floor during a race, so I won't touch it," says Jarret. "That way I can use my left hand to hold onto my balls when things get really hairy." The steering is done with a lever on the right side. Push forward and it steers right. Pull back and you go left. Jarret explains that it's an exaggeration of your body's natural lean when you steer a liedown skateboard. I'm no liedown skateboarder and the steering is not intuitive to me. As he's pushing me off the gravel onto the roadway I can feel individual pebbles through the floor.
The first thing I figure out is that this is a blurry ride. There's no suspension. You can either crane your neck forward to clear things up a little and get neck cramps, or you can rest your head on the rollbar and look at a blurry world of jumping shapes. I'm just supposed to go fifty feet and stay in my lane, but I screw it up. I turn left when I meant to turn right, and suddenly I'm backwards on the wrong side of the road. Martyn tells me to steer lightly, and Jarret tells me to try weaving slightly. Both turn out to be good advice, and I manage to get around a corner without either hitting the curb or going on the wrong side of the road.
Disaster strikes and a car appears going the other way. I opt to ditch a little on the right side, and I scrape along for a good thirty feet. The car quickly fills up with gravel and I can smell fiberglass smoke. I am filled with fear unlike anything I have experienced before. I race motorcycles, have jumped off cliffs into water, and have done a lot of dumb adrenalin things, but this is a new kind of fear. I feel like I'll do the wrong thing and get run over.