Surrounded by civilization is a five thousand acre island of cement squares stretching almost to the horizon. On a typical day these squares wobble and thump as ten thousand pound fighter jets steamroll over their smooth surface. An occasional streak of black rubber defaces a few of the squares most days, but this day was different. I believe in patriotism and I support my country's resolve for freedom, but that was not the reason I came to NAS Coronado naval base in San Diego California this day.
I came for the ear piercing shrieks of one hundred thousand dollar engines rocketing their one-manned catapults from one end of the racetrack to the other. I came for the popping backfires as twenty cars whir passed me quicker than Nolan Ryan's famous pitches. And however cynical it is, I came for the uncontrollable spinouts hidden in plumes of melted rubber smoke caused by an accidental bump as one driver relentlessly attempts to pass another.
Occasionally, I noticed that I was not the only one covering my ears as the thunderous roar of autos completed a 1.6-mile lap, then moved on to the next. For a time, I almost felt like a bystander of a crowd at a tennis match; surrounded by heads moving from right to left; slow at first, then accelerating to straight ahead and back down to slow until the next car caught their peripheral vision. It was like this in the stands; mostly comprised of men and their sons excited by the realness of it all. But oblivious to them were the adamant photographers merely separated by two-foot wide concrete slabs defining the edge of the track. They would stand there leaning over the waist-high barrier to get the perfect shot, unaware of the flying pieces of gravel and dust narrowly missing their steady hands.
It was here that I realized the true nature of it all - that this wasn't about money and fame, and it wasn't about being the best. It was about grown men living out life long fantasies shared by the sons in the stands. An adult's version of Matchbox and Hot Wheels, but much louder and much faster.
The first race included pre-1941 sports cars. These were the beasts built by anal-retentive mechanics desperate to prove their knowledge of cars superior to the next guy. The next group of racers included 1947-1955 sports cars. It continued this way throughout the event all the way to early seventies cars.
After one of the races, I caught a glimpse of a metallic blue 1963 Cobra resting after coming in a close second. Contrary to common overuse, this is one car that deserved the double white racing stripes running vertically along the frame. Far too often I find myself driving on the freeway next to a four cylinder Honda drenched in stickers and logos. They often have racing stripes and shopping cart spoilers meant to say they're fast, but in reality they are closer to the caliber of a modified lawn mower. A racing stripe is a bold statement. Only a car with the speed and power of a Cobra should be allowed to have such a stripe grace the hood.
Fred Galloway owns the number seventeen Cobra I was looking at.
"I came in second place to Phil Gallant's number twelve cobra by .001 seconds" he said. In that race, all 10 cars were led by the only three Cobras entered. If that doesn't make a bold statement, I don't know what does.
Speed is like a drug. It has an addictive quality. For as long as the automobile has been invented, man has been trying to break records with it. Each time it's done, there are those who want to go faster. Some of these people are drivers at these races. They spend their life fine tuning their machine in hopes that some day they'll find a way to be one-tenth of a second faster.
Half awake, I lay in bed this morning trying to understand why I was hearing what I could only imagine was a full out aerial assault on my country. I envisioned another round of terrorist attacks taking place not far from my apartment. Somewhere between a couple of thunderous booms and wiping sleep from my eye, I realized I was late for the Miramar air show.
On my way to the base, I questioned how many accidents there had been from drivers unable to resist the impressive display of fighter jets darting over the freeway. As I expected, security was tight; especially considering we were entering a classified area containing weapons of mass artillery. This is where it all happens. When the president dials 9-1-1, these are the men and women that answer. After two commercial airliners slammed into the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11th, the men and women on this base were ready. This is what they're trained to do, the cause they devote their lives for.
Fighter jets from bases all across the country were deployed on that day for patrol. Once a year these expensive, finely calibrated jets and their pilots are allowed to display the awesome power of the United States military, here, at the Miramar air show in San Diego, California.
Once again I entered a flatland of cement littered with vendors and sponsors trying to make an honest buck from the hundreds of thousands of people attending the show. I made my way through the maze of tents and retail outlets to the front lines. Occasionally my attention was stolen by a model fighter jet, or a well done airbrushing of an Apache helicopter, but the rushing sound of an F-14 Tomcat quickly recaptured my focus. With wings swept back, the jet quickly sliced across the sky like a hot knife through butter. About two seconds after it passed directly in front of me followed the glass shattering sound. The best way I could describe it would be to imagine what it would sound like to be standing about 20 feet away from the origin of thunder during a horrific storm.
With quite a different sound is the buzzing whir of the P-51 Mustang. The P-51 performed aerobatics varying from corkscrews, to spins, to enough loops to make even the most frequent roller coaster enthusiast nausious. From the ground, the sound and view of the P-51 resembled a large housefly against a scenic San Diego sky. It moved left, then right, allowing easy visibility by the trail of white smoke artistically leaving creative shapes against the blue. In the 1940s, these were the fastest planes around. That held true until the jet engine was developed.
Jet engines push tons of metal faster than the speed of sound, and with nothing but open space ahead the only limitations are the effects of gravity and wind resistance. But what if an engine like the one on the F-14 Tomcat was put on, say, a Mack truck? The result is Kent Shockley's Jet Truck, proven by the Guinness Book of World Records to be the fastest truck in the world. Clocked in at 340+ Mph, it'd be tough to imagine seeing a truck like this flying down a closed off runway, but it did just that. Flames launched 30 feet from the rear, smoke stacks became flame-throwers, but this was just to get the truck warm.
As a most impressive display of competition, the Jet Truck lined up to literally race the P-51 mustang from one end of the runway to the other. And the race is on. The Mustang flies about 30 feet above, slightly ahead as the truck takes off. Like a horizontal space-shuttle liftoff, flames launch from the back of the truck making it easy to find at the other end of the airstrip. One expects to see a fighter jet with the sound Shockley's truck expelled, so it was quite odd to see that coming from something with four wheels. And here it comes, rocketing down the runway faster than anything I've ever seen move on the ground. The P-51's propeller redlined to full throttle, the truck catches up and slowly moves into the lead. The crowd goes wild as mouths drop. The truck wins, proving again that under the right circumstances, anything is possible.
Immediately after, followed a Father and Son act. The wording of this may resemble circus stunts, but for good reason.
"Jim Franklin will now fly his single propeller plane doing aerobatical maneuvers while his son walks on the wing," the announcer said nervously. Hands were drawn over mouths and eyes widened as the father began flight with his son on the brink of disaster. It reminded me of an audience in a suspenseful movie as they anticipated a startling moment. Much like the P-51, Franklin led his son on loops, twists and turns while he held on for dear life thousands of feet in the air. Quite different from a circus, the only safety net here were thousands of acres of concrete beckoning below. The wing walker: a man with a death wish? Quite possibly, but more than likely it's for the attention, to draw a crowd, something this father and son team does quite well.
The announcer's excited comments throughout the show kept the attention of the audience at high energy all throughout. Before I knew it though, the planes were all grounded, Kent Shockley's Jet Truck was masked off for viewing, and the vendors began closing up. I quickly headed to the exit to beat the traffic. I couldn't wait to go home so I could watch one of my favorite movies: Top Gun - which by the way, was filmed right here at Miramar. And while I'm safe at home watching Mavrick go after Jester on my couch, our military's finest would begin the transformation back into the secure shield that protects this great nation.
By Josh Edelson, San Diego Correspondent.