There's a nasty rumor going around that Orlando's cultural options are somewhat limited. It's not true, but it's a misconception that's easy to fall into if you're unwilling to make some hard choices about how you're going to spend your leisure time.
So it was that I elected to skip last Friday's opening-night festivities of the Orlando International Fringe Festival, to instead take in the lap-happy antics burning up the track at Orlando Speedworld. While others settled for the illusion of daring, I inhaled deeply the exhaust fumes of true anarchy, as practiced by a company of drivers and spectators whose devotion to a Southern culture on the skids was frightening in its intensity.
I got your Fringe Festival, pal. I got your Fringe Festival right here.
Out of the loop
If you've never made it out to Speedworld, it's probably because you have no idea it's there. The motorman's paradise lays in the middle of a field some 17 miles out on East State Road 50. (When I get that close to Bithlo, I can't even utter the name "Colonial Drive" -- it sounds so Yankee). Becoming hopelessly lost is a distinct possibility, unless you remember one helpful tip: If you pass Joe's Truck Parts, you haven't gone far enough.
The regulars seemed to have no problem, their pickups and muscle cars lined up in the parking lot long before the announced 8 p.m. race time. The crew of thrill-seekers I arrived with (many of them first-timers like myself) tried to look natural as we piled out of our vehicle, silently cursing it for being a minivan with fake-wood paneling and not a Camaro with hood scoops.
The warning signs quite literally went up as we approached the ticket booth. "No food or beverage," a placard boldly announced. In Bithlonian, that must translate to "Chug the sucker down before you lock your car," because a few of the more rabid attendees could be seen shotgunning brews in the lot. I guess it's hard to smuggle a couple of cold ones into an establishment when you aren't even wearing a shirt.
Days of thunder
As we made it to our seats, we were assaulted by the sound of cars zooming around the track, their engines joined in an ear-splitting symphony that resembled the buzzing of a 10-ton hornet.
Who would want to sit near that? Taking places high in the stands, we not only saved our precious tympanic membranes, but stayed far clear of the flying shrapnel we had been told was a very real hazard. I looked at the back of my ticket stub; its every millimeter was filled with a detailed disclaimer that indemnified Speedworld against any potential injury I might incur while on the premises. "Due to the fact that these cars can travel in excess of 100 mph," it read, "you assume all liability and risk." I didn't see anything about low birth weight, but it was a really small stub.
Fumes rose from the asphalt oval as stock jobs zipped past each other, their drivers tailgating like madmen on their way to the finish line. A few times, the fans in the stands rose en masse to "ooh" and "aah" at particularly close scrapes, though the murmurs of disappointment that greeted each jaws-of-death escape made it clear that it wasn't expert driving these people craved, but flaming wreckage.
No one was carried out on a stretcher, but emergency vehicles were parked on the field just in case. A few times, an overheating or otherwise malfunctioning car would be sidelined on the grass, providing the cue for an olive-skinned pit bunny in a short black dress to run over and check on the driver's well-being. I've been in four serious accidents in my life and never have I been met with such a reception. The most I ever got was an overworked EMS employee squeezing my fingers and asking me to recite my Social Security number.
For all the nitro-burning frenzy, the preliminary races became monotonous after a while. The friend on my left opined that the swiftly moving but redundant scenery smacked of "four cars in a driveway going really fast." If all you want to see is 10 drivers risking life and limb as they fight for a single space, you can always try to park on Orange Avenue.
Bus a move
The main event was the one we had come to witness, and it didn't disappoint. It was a high-speed contest not between automobiles, but buses -- that's right, school buses, the kind you rode every day between kindergarten and 10th grade.
"I like 'em big and yellow!" a rapturous fan yelled as the 15 board-of-education refugees drove out onto the field. Most were indeed of the standard taxi-colored variety, but a handful were more menacingly decorated, including a flame-bedecked multiwheeler that had been entered in the race by the good folks at Swann Truck Sales. There was even one of the proverbial "short buses" that make up the punch line to every special-ed joke you've ever loved.
A dilapidated white number was the crowd's favorite, its run-down exterior free of all adornments save for the sensitive legend "Jennifer." It received a hero's welcome, despite looking exactly like the mode of transport that might one day take about half the crowd to its new home in Starke.
The track for this nail-biter of a competition was laid out in a figure-8 configuration, ensuring plenty of harrowing moments as the vehicles repeatedly crossed each others' paths at top acceleration. After only a few minutes, there had been more collisions and torpedoed transmissions than we had seen in the past two hours of traditional racing action.
Despite taking an early hit to the grille that left its hood sticking up at a 45-degree angle, the "Jennifer" hung in there. As the bus careened across the intersection, its facial makeover put a cartoonish spin on its threatening forward progress. If you had nailed an olive to its bonnet, you would have had a convincing double for the talking sandwich who's always trapped in a refrigerator on those orange-juice commercials.
The Sandwich of Death continued to mow down the competition, the excitement turning even the least easily impressed members of our group into slavering speed junkies. When our boy finally won, we all howled like hyenas. We didn't even let ourselves wonder if the entire thing had been a fix. Why spoil our innocent fun with cynicism? More to the point: Why kick up dirt, when none of us had put money on the outcome?
"Come on, Bruiser," a baseball-capped dad called to his towheaded boy, giving us all the cue to file out. Still seated and bursting with civic pride, the guy behind us spoke glowingly of the next special feature he'd be attending at Speedworld. It was a trailer race, in which all the participants would be towing actual boats. The winner, he said, would be determined by the yardstick of "who's got the most boat left" when the dust clears.
Culture, shmulture. Count me in. And happy motoring.