Tales From My Youth: The Track Day Detour

In high school I ran track for a couple of years. My freshman year I lifted weights and my senior year I skipped sports all together after suffering multiple injuries the year before. But my sophomore and junior years I ran track with my friend Josh. He and I both ran hurdles and were each the other’s main opponent. We were of similar size and speed with Josh often just being a step or two faster than me. Our hurdling forms were opposite. I led with my left leg and led with his right. This meant that I trailed with my right arm and he trailed with his left. When we ran in lanes next to each other, if he was on my right, we ran the length of the race smacking each other with our trails arms. Those races were always our slowest times and usually the ones that got us eliminated from advancing to future rounds.

Despite our opposing forms, we were good friends and traveled to practice and meets together in one of our cars once we were old enough to drive. Our school in the country only had a dirt track so we practiced at the track in town for the city’s larger high school. This is also the track where our school would host other schools when it was our turn to host a track meet since our school lacked sufficient facilities for such an event.

One such weekend, Josh and I were headed from my house into town for a track meet. He was driving his old late 70’s model Chevy Nova and we had taken a back way into town. The school’s track was on the far west side of town and we lived to the southeast. Rather than drive all the way across town, Josh decided to take an alternate route that would cut across diagonally more or less along a path that we had taken before.

Luck was not on our side that morning as the main route was blocked by a train. We turned to go down a back road. We snaked around the narrow residential roads until we found a crossing that was not blocked by a parked train and turned in that direction.

Josh liked to drive fast and that day was no exception. Add to the fact that we were running behind and didn’t want to get into trouble by our coaches for being late, Josh hit the train tracks going a bit too fast. The car jumped, and I do mean airborne, before crashing down on the other side of the tracks. The car stalled and we came to a stop. We got out and checked under the hood. The battery had jarred loose and slammed into the radiator, punching a hole in the car’s cooling system.

We were able to get the car started again and get to the track just in the nick of time. We ran our races, won our medals, and then prepared to drive home. We were unsure if the car would even start after the meet had ended but even if it started there were concerns about the car’s dependability given the leak in the radiator thanks to our earlier misadventure.

After some discussion, we decided to take a back way home. We wanted to avoid the main road with the idea of if the car broke down that we wouldn’t be in the way of traffic on the main road. There were a number of traffic lights, stop signs, and rail crossings if we took the main roads home and we were afraid that the number of stop/start intersections and risks of a train only increased the likelihood of the car breaking down or overheating. The back road, that we had only ever taken once before but knew it existed, would get us home to my house in about 15 minutes from the track with almost no stops in between. 

We turned to take that road but given our unfamiliarity with it, when we came to an intersection that force us to turn left or right we turned right instead of left. Then, after driving a few miles, we realized that we’d gone the wrong way but knew there was a dirt road in the area that would lead us back to where we needed to go. We found a dirt road that looked like the one we knew of but weren't sure.

We took the turn hoping that it was the right one.

We bounced along the rough dirt road waiting for the battery to give out or for the car to overheat but neither happened. We followed along the road for several minutes before realizing that we were not on the road we thought we had turned on. As it turned out, we turned on to a road that would have taken us home had we turned to the left at the first road we saw on that dirt road but instead our course led us much father away from home. 

Eventually, the dirt road dead-ended into a paved road. Again, we were faced with a left or right decision. Unlike before, this time we chose left. The road weaved around before taking into a small town. Luckily, I recognized where we were. I had an uncle that had moved into that area a few years before which allowed me to identify where our detour had led us. 

From that small town, I led Josh back to the highway that took us directly back home. What should have been a 15-20 minute drive from the track to my house ended being an hour-long journey along the back roads to the next town over and then back up to my house. Amazingly, Josh’s car suffered no issues throughout the entire trip. We drove down rough and dirty dirt roads with a leaky radiator in a 70’s era car with a V8 engine with no mechanical issues. We drove down the highway at speeds that exceeded the speed limit, because if the car died we wanted to coast as far as possible, and the damaged cooling system kept up with the stresses of Josh’s driving. 

Josh and I had many adventures in our cars during high school but that was by far the most memorable for me. How that car managed that drive with no issues after the damage it suffered in the earlier jump is beyond me. How we managed to take so many wrong turns but still end up at home is a miracle. And as it turns out, the dirt road we took ended up being one that I later lived nearby so I get a constant reminder of that day every time I drive down that road headed into town.

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