Of all the screaming, revving multitudes at the Malibu Grand Prix Race Track, only thirteen have made it into the Elite 49, a club that celebrates the 49 seconds (or less) it takes them to drive one lap of the half-mile Malibu track. Members of the Elite 49 get their pictures posted on the wall next to the snack bar and across the carpet from a half-acre of clanging video games and pinball machines. Vince Stevens's photo is there, but you will not catch him standing next to it. Of the thirteen drivers qualifying for the Elite 49, only one is faster than Stevens--and all are at least thirty years younger. Stevens is 73.
"Well, I started driving on March 22, 1991," he says, "and right away, I set my goal. Join the 49 club. On July Fourth this year, which is my birthday, I ran 36 laps, my kids were buying me laps like crazy, and I finally did it. Now it's all over. I have nothing left to prove."
But this does not prevent Stevens from hanging out at Malibu. He arrives early, before the heat can cause the tires of his race car to slide all over the track and before the place fills up with pre-teenaged boys. Everyone at the track knows him--gives him the senior rate of $1.85 per lap without even asking. Sometimes Stevens will buy a hundred laps at a time and hand them out to his friends.
Stevens practices harder than any other member of the Senior Metro League, a group of racing teams sponsored by Malibu and the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation. Naturally, he's the fastest, too. "He's a better driver than me, we know that," says 64-year-old Marilyn Miciek, the fastest woman in the league. She and Stevens drive for different rec-center teams--he for Westminster, she for Aurora--but they are very aware of each other's performance.
"For instance, today," Miciek says. "He has the hottest car. A much hotter car than I got. That's not really fair. That's why he's making such good time. I've had a high 53 a couple times, you know."
But you need a high 52 to drive the car Stevens is running right now--the dark-blue one with the souped-up engine and the words "Pepsi Ultimate Challenge #11" written on it in wavy script. Around here, it's known as the "club car."
"I've never had a high 52," Miciek says, frowning. "But I practice. I come down here and try to run eight laps at a time whenever I can." She's already done that today; according to her training schedule, it is now time to have a seat inside, drink some water and cool out. But you can tell it galls her to have such a perfect view of Vince Stevens, still out there driving in the hundred-degree heat, consistently breaking 52 seconds. "Is he obsessed or what?"
Finally, Stevens allows the hot car to be stabled and comes inside to join Miciek. "My back won't take it anymore," he complains. "Besides, the car don't run good in this weather. We have to cool down the carbs with rags, and like that. I don't know, I just couldn't get a good time out of her. How'd you do?" he asks Miciek.
"Two seconds better," she answers.
"Ah, 51 was all I could get out of the club car."
"I slid a lot," Miciek says.
"I tell you, you have to let off on the gas pedal and then go full out. You gotta start doing that."
"Yes, but how many times do you feather the accelerator? Two? Three?"
"Three," Stevens confirms. "Go out and get brave and lay it on. That's what I say."
"I've already spun out, so I'm not afraid. I'm not afraid of going too fast or anything like that," Miciek responds. "The thing is, it's safe. You basically can't hurt yourself."
"Wanna bet?" Stevens counters. "I don't even want to talk about what happened between me and that bent pole out there. See it?"
"I spun out once," Miciek repeats.
"My marks are all over that track out there."
"So are mine," Miciek decides.
"I'll be seeing the doctor Wednesday," Stevens says, upping the ante. "My foot was underneath the gas pedal and--I don't even want to talk about what happened."
There is a pause, during which Stevens and Miciek allow a certain amount of mutual respect to fill the gap between them. They do have some things in common, not the least of which is race-car driving. And then there is the contempt they share for those other seniors, the ones who come out, drive a few times, get all enthusiastic but have no discipline and just fade away.
"It's a hard thing to keep seniors interested," Miciek says.
"True! We had 'em coming up from Colorado Springs at one point. But they're lazy! They lose interest! They should just get out there and run! I don't understand it," Stevens says.
"I don't understand it, either," Miciek agrees.
"I been sports-minded all my life."
"Me, too. Me, too," Miciek says. "In fact, I'm going hiking Thursday."
Stevens gives Miciek a withering look. Thursday, he reminds her, is orientation day here at Malibu for seniors who've never tried racing--and many of the city's fastest drivers will come to kibbitz.
"I know," Miciek says, "but I'm going hiking."
"Hiking. And you could be racing. Think about it," Stevens says, trying his best to be persuasive. "You'll be up in the mountains. You could be here."
On Senior Invitational Day, about thirty hopefuls from a handful of local rec centers show up at Malibu for their debriefing. Outside, Stevens and some of the other veterans--the four fastest male drivers in the region, in fact--lean against the fence that separates the track from the viewing area. Unlike the newcomers, they will not be given free laps, and they certainly don't intend to listen to the planned half hour of orientation speeches. But they wouldn't dream of not showing up, either.
Inside, Connie Larscheidt, senior coordinator for Denver Parks and Recreation, attempts to disseminate enthusiasm. "Hi, and welcome to this crazy, wild, fun sport," she says. "I started this program five years ago, when my assistant threw a Malibu press kit on my desk as a joke. But I went for it. Actually, I love racing, because it attracts the people who maybe wouldn't set foot into our recreation centers. Who have that `Oh, I don't wanna go to a senior center' attitude. Who don't want to be pegged. It draws them in."
Larscheidt's program began in 1991, but senior racing began six years before that, in Columbus, Ohio. "This was back in 1985," Larscheidt recalls. "This grandma, Judy Backstrom, took her son to Malibu for his birthday party, and all the kids told her she had to try racing. She absolutely loved it. The next week she invited one of her friends, who belonged to another senior center, to lunch, but lunch was at the race track! And that's how the rivalry began."
On August 5, 1985, Backstrom launched a fifty-member racing league in which senior centers from all over Columbus challenged each other for a yearly title. The national Malibu Grand Prix chain agreed to reduce lap fees and reserve early-morning practice times for the league. Within six years the program had expanded to seven other American cities, including Denver.
"At first I thought, what kind of activity for older adults is this?" Larscheidt says. "But it wasn't a terribly hard sell, when you come right down to it. We've always tried to have unique things for our clients to do. And the first year we were amazed. It really broke down the stereotype of what older adults like to do. People never lose the urge to compete."
By the end of the first season, Larscheidt had extended Denver's racing program to the entire metro region, with any recreation center along the Front Range invited to compete. Almost immediately, Commerce City, Westminster and the South Suburban centers emerged as the top contenders. And by 1992 they had something to contend for. In honor of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus coming to America, the city of Columbus had decided to support--what else?--a grand championship for senior racers. With some financial assistance from Malibu Grand Prix management, it invited eight cities to send their five fastest seniors to Columbus. Vince Stevens made the cut--and he quickly became friends with the four other Coloradans who joined him at the race.
"It was so wonderful," he recalls. "All our airfare and hotel rooms paid for, getting to meet racers from all over the country. All we had to pay for was meals." Stevens's scrapbook from the first national meet features the Denver team--dubbed the Rocky Mountain Rockets--in kelly-green uniforms, each with special racing nicknames. It was at this point that Stevens became known as the "Super Swede."
A biennial event, the national championships moved to Atlanta in 1994--and then, to everyone's vast disappointment, disappeared altogether. Malibu had been bought out by the Mountasia corporation, which to this day remains uncertain as to whether senior racing is the cause it wishes to sponsor. Meanwhile, competition continues at the local level, with Denver rec-center teams practicing viciously for the September finals.
"It's not what you expect to see," says Robert Lujan, manager of Denver's Malibu Grand Prix. "Our demographic is mainly 18- to 34-year-old males. But, as it turns out, it works for us and it works for them."
Lujan, who's been working for Malibu since 1978, when he was a high school senior, finds he gets a particular thrill out of coaching the most aggressive seniors in the league. "Picking the line, knowing the apexes, negotiating the turns," he says. "It makes me feel great when they break that extra second."
But today Lujan is in first gear, telling the new seniors about the free racing clinics and advising them of the downside to the sport. "There is the possibility of rolling the car," he says. "I'm not gonna lie to you."
"There has been a heart attack," Larscheidt adds. "A gentleman in Florida, I believe. What can I tell you? It's exciting. When you first get out there today, you're gonna go really slow and hit all the curbs, and you'll think you're going about 90 miles an hour when you're really going about 35. Driving the cars is hard. We recommend that you attempt to breathe while doing it."
A man in the audience raises his hand. "What about liability?" he asks nervously.
"Oh, we're covered," Larscheidt says vaguely. "The point is, there is a risk. We're just providing you with the opportunity to have that risk. And every one of our teams needs new drivers."
So, shall we drive?
Outside, young male attendants begin helping the seniors into helmets and then into the low-slung, scaled-down Formula One cars, each of which boasts a brightly colored fiberglass body. "They change the bodies on those cars every time they overhaul them, which is at least once a week," Stevens comments from his lounging post at the fence. "But I can tell which one is which just by the feel of her."
"Well, I can't," says Pat Houck, who made it to the nationals three years ago as the slowest of Denver's five-man team. "I guess I took this up because I had a teenage fantasy, and doing this soothed that fantasy a bit. In high school I always had all kinds of cars and a motorcycle. You know how kids are. And boy, when you're out there on the track, you get that feeling of speed. Thirty feels like a hundred."
Now Ruby Haynes staggers from the track, fresh from the first five laps of her life. She fluffs distractedly at the bouffant hairdo that's been squashed by her racing helmet and smiles wildly.
"I really liked that, yes, yes, yes," she says. "It felt so fast! Years and years ago, I used to drive a go-cart. It reminded me of that." Haynes goes inside to be photographed for her Malibu lifetime driver's license. "I was a King Soopers checker before I retired," she says, "but now I travel around in a motor home. I'm not the type to just sit. I tried it, I know. And now I'm going to race. My kids will think I've lost my mind."
Back outside, Eleanor Alberhasky remembers having a somewhat different reaction the first time she raced. "Actually," she recalls, "I was damn disappointed. I ran a 79 point something, and the kid in charge said, `Have you driven before? No? Lady, get a grip. That's good.'"
Alberhasky persevered. This will be her fourth year of racing for the Commerce City team, but the time she really hopes to beat is last year's personal best of 54.77. Her kids don't think she's lost her mind, she says, and if they did, they'd never mention it. "After all," she adds, "I just got back from a 3,000-mile road trip on my motorcycle. Hit a deer and survived, although the deer didn't. It got hot coming back through Nebraska, and I had a talk with the Lord and asked him to send some rain, and he did. It rained all the way home. Cooled me off. Wonderful trip."
With that, Alberhasky straps on her helmet. The crowd of newcomers is thinning, and she hopes to get in a practice lap or two.
Littleton's Tom Fenner, a veteran of the Denver championship team, is right behind her. "As a wild and reckless teenager, I did some drag racing," he admits. "Then I became an aerospace engineer at Martin Marietta. When I read about this program, I couldn't resist. A couple of the guys are faster than me, but I try to get out there at least once a week and practice, practice, practice. It beats you up a little. You slosh from side to side out in that car, and your buns get sore on the edges. It's you against the course."
Perhaps, but that competitive edge keeps creeping in. For example, Fenner notes that while he's consistently beaten by Stevens at the Denver track, he's had better luck out of town. "Yeah, I beat the old codger in the nationals," he says. "Here, I can't. Vince practically lives at the track. This is his one outside interest. I beat him in the nationals, though. You gotta be competitive. You gotta."
"A tenth of a second here, a tenth of a second there," agrees Roy Bailey, who has consistently run a close second to Vince Stevens, even beating him occasionally, though Bailey has yet to join the Elite 49.
"Roy Bailey is my competition, all right," Stevens admits.
"Not this year, Vince," Bailey says.
"Oh, come on! Roy is one of only three of us that qualify to drive the club car."
"Might as well forget it, Vince," Bailey repeats.
Indeed, Bailey hasn't been driving much this year, compared to other seasons when not even snow could stop him. "I had a little business back in Iowa, and a guy there was embezzling from me," he sighs. "I been back there a lot, just taking care of that. Also, I had a heart attack a while back."
Only two days after returning from the hospital, Bailey came down with "French polio, which can cripple you up," he says, and a scant three weeks later doctors discovered fluid building up around his heart. "Altogether, I spent nearly a month in the hospital," Bailey recalls. "And, of course, the first thing I asked my doctor was, `How long before I can start racing?' He kind of looked at me and said, `What kind of racing are we talking about? Do you get pretty uptight when you do it? Is it competitive?'"
Bailey told his doctor it was all in good fun and received permission to return to the track. In truth, though, he's as competitive as ever. "It gives me my quality of life," he says. "I'd lost a lot of weight in the hospital, but I just wad up one cushion on each side and cram them in next to my hips so I won't be sliding back and forth."
Until the track clears up a little today, though, he's content to hash over past races with the Super Swede. Like their cars, their conversations follow a set course.
"Two guys qualified that time," Stevens says.
"I remember that," Bailey says.
"We went out there and ran that race. That was some running," Stevens says.
"We ran it good."
There are other tried-and-true subjects, such as That track in that other city was in terrible condition--it's amazing we survived and How could they have ended the nationals right when Denver was going to host them and our team would have won for sure?
But Stevens refrains from telling the story he loves best, the one in which he decides to join the Elite 49 and subsequently does. No matter how many of his friends allude to his victory, he just smiles and changes the subject. Even later in the day, when the rest of the senior racers have long since gone home, Stevens plays it cool.
"Don't you owe us a party, man?" asks the teenaged snack bar attendant.
"Oh, I don't know," Stevens replies.
"Hey, you were all, `When I do a 49, I'm throwing you guys a party.' What happened?"
"I went home and went to bed, that's what happened," Stevens says. Not that there's any danger of that happening soon today. It's noon, and the track is empty. Perfect time to get in a little practice.
A dozen or so laps later, Stevens's back can't take it anymore. For the first time today, he sits down in a seat that is not attached to a race car.
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"You know," he says, "until I retired, I was a heavy-truck mechanic for Union Carbide. I seen them racing cars over at Speer and Zuni when I was fifteen. For years I helped another guy race at Lakeside. We'd run the car Sunday, overhaul it and have it ready for Wednesday. Did he ever let me drive? No way. You have a family, he said, and I'm not interfering with your ability to support them. Boy, I always did want to drive, though."
When it finally happened in 1991, Stevens was ready. Racing was every bit as wonderful as he had hoped. And it all led up to that day when--
"Go ahead," says the snack bar attendant. "Tell it, Vince."
"Well, I came down to the track on July 4th, which is my birthday," Stevens begins. "My wife alerted my kids that I was planning to qualify for the 49 club. I had set that goal. And I was out there running and running--about to kill myself. But I met my goal. And now I don't care anymore if I drive or not."
The snack bar attendant just looks at him.
"It gets in your blood, though," Stevens decides. "I always come back.