“He’ll be alright folks.” Feedback squeals over the stadium’s PA system. Then: “I’ve known José for twenty, twenty-five odd years now. And he’s one of our best goddamn drivers on the figure-eight. I remember when he just crossed the border—didn’t speak a lick of English—and he came to me, wanting to drive. I only got what he meant when he wrestled an invisible steering wheel and made the noise of a revving engine. Initially, I thought José was like every other beaner who wanted to make some quick dinero to get hisself a factory job. By staying on, José proved me wrong. He is a hero showing everyone here tonight that you can do anything in America. Folks, let’s give him a round of applause!”
It’s not that we didn’t think it could happen. Every week we spotted the rainbow swirls of oil slicks on the track that looked like mirage water evaporating. We couldn’t spit out the taste of nickels—from the Sunoco racing fuel—from the tips of our tongues. In the pit, with socket wrenches and screwdrivers in hand, we saw the future like a cartoon’s lit wick leading to a barrel of gunpowder. We thought it would be awesome and the crowd would go wild. But that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is that we were waiting for this to happen.
You watch the Latino man’s eyes roll around loosely in his sockets. The morphine has kicked in and his thin mustache of soot curls into a slight smile. He wheezes as you pump the bag-valve-mask, saying, “Bueno, bueno,” because you don’t know how to say, “In/Out” in Spanish for him to follow. You want to say, “We’re going to get you to the ER as fast as possible,” but there’s no way you can say that in Spanish. So you say “Bueno” again and glance at his chest, rising and falling. You pinch the necklace wrapping around his burnt throat and lift its links all the way to a crucifix. You peel away an X-marks-the-spot brand on his sternum. You cross yourself like a compass and he moves his swollen, crisp lips—praying.
Y’all put your hands—the ones with the red Solo cup sloshing Bud onto your wrists—over your heart and pulled off your Stars ‘n’ Bars baseball caps as the soon-to-be-beauty-pageant-queen darlin’ lisped through her rendition of the National Anthem. On your way over in some four-wheel-drive something or other, y’all couldn’t help but think, what if one of them junkers flips in front of the stands filled with your women wearing tube tops sliding down freckly cleavage, men with wifebeaters stretched over beer bellies, children in no-socked feet crammed into K-Mart sneakers, and babies with T-shirts draped over their diapers. Now, y’all behind the chickenwire got your wish. The chuggin’ bulldozer scoops away the charred skeleton of the Mexican’s car. Streaks of fire extinguisher foam smear across the asphalt.
Smothering fumes leaked onto the track. José’s car—bashing bumper-to-bumper—snapped the duct tape securing its rear panel, which fell and knocked the muffler loose. The loud metal dragged along the track, sending up a swirl of sparks. The vapors spewing around José’s car ignited and engulfed José in a blaze of orange heat and white light. He couldn’t stop, drop, and roll; José was seatbelted in a flaming ball of rust. Jos did the only thing that he could do: He jerked the wheel, sending the furnace (he sat in) swerving and sliding, before its tires’ traction let go of gravity and lifted off the track. The stadium breathed in a calm, cool, and quiet breath as José’s car barrelrolled like a bi-plane shot down in a dogfight.
They were guilty of being seduced by the roar. All of them: the announcer, the pit crew, the paramedic, the crowd, and even José hisself. They—the witnesses—believe in the spectacle of a man on fire. It’s a chunk of hell on earth. And if that man survives it, then all the better for them because then they, too, might be able to make it.