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Writing is safer than racing

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Let me confess up front that I'm not a big fan of participatory journalism. That whole "Paper Lion" thing George Plimpton touched off when he scrimmaged with the Detroit Lions in the '60s seemed contrived to me.

What does playing with the pros prove, except that there's a reason writers write and players play?

Not that I haven't had chances. I turned down an invitation to go skydiving years ago, after my future wife found out. Something about a wedding coming up. A few years later I passed on the chance to go hang gliding. Every time I considered it, I thought of the John Denver song that says, "I want to live, I want to grow, I want to see, I want to know. . . . "

I wanted to do all those things, but I kept getting stuck on the word "live."

Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller appeared in Salt Lake when he was in his 60s and invited media members to bat against him. But I could see no good reason to get struck out by someone old enough to be my dad. Beyond that, I was afraid he'd hit me with a pitch.

When a chance to ride the bobsled at Bear Hollow came, I ignored it. Motion sickness is one of my weaknesses, so I wasn't about to snake my way down the mountain at 90 mph.

Picabo Street once asked if I wanted to ski with her. My answer was that in the interest of everyone — including bystanders — I should probably stay in the lodge.

A friend who has hiked around the world and run in the Mt. Everest Marathon asked if I wanted to accompany him on his next backpacking trek through Nepal. I was too embarrassed to tell him as a matter of policy I like being within driving distance of a McDonald's at all times.

One invitation to compete wasn't terribly friendly. A boxing manager didn't like a story I wrote and suggested I get in the ring with his heavyweight. As you may suspect, I declined that, too.

I did try participatory journalism once, through no choice of my own. I was at former Jazz forward Thurl Bailey's basketball camp, waiting for an interview, when he called me out of the audience to demonstrate free-throw shooting. I'm pleased to say I rolled in two of three and won a soda mug for my trouble.

But that doesn't mean I impressed anyone.

Despite my history of nonparticipation, I broke tradition Wednesday by agreeing to ride in a '32 Ford three-window coupe at Rocky Mountain Raceway. The promise was that in an eighth of a mile I would be traveling at 122 mph; by the end of the quarter mile I would top out at 152 mph.

My hope was that the experience would not only provide me with a column but eliminate any fear of takeoffs and landings.

In this case, though, nothing happened. Rain rendered the track unsuitable for racing.

I was once again left to write about, rather than participate in, an event.

The impetus for the gathering was the start of Rocky Mountain Raceways' 2004 season. Media and sponsors were invited to attend the event, in which they would get a chance to ride with Flip Payne in his custom-built, flame-orange dragster.

As it turned out, the most exhilarating thing I experienced was the Alfredo chicken they served for lunch.

Still, I learned some things. For instance, RMW, which opens this Friday, draws a respectable 250,000 spectators a season and is rated among the top 10 tracks in the United States. I also learned that on Friday nights from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. the track is available to all who wish to test their vehicles (usually it's high schoolers).

I can only wonder if one of my cars has been out there.

I also discovered high-level drag racing is a far step from revving the engine at a stoplight. Payne built his car from scratch and has the sport down to a science. Literally. He talks of altitude, humidity, combustion, traction and explains what turbo-charging actually means without missing a beat.

"I've taken this sport to the extreme," says Payne, "and I know it."

Even so, he says, drag racing is a bit like piloting a Wave Runner or ATV. You improve quickly but tend to get overconfident. That's what happened last October as he was racing in Boise. He was having a great day, right up to when the front wheels lifted in the air. But instead of letting up on the fuel, he unwisely kept the pedal floored as the wheels came down. The car began rocking side-to-side. Next thing he knew, it was upside down.

That, however, shouldn't discourage anyone who wants to try drag racing. Bring your own car out on a Friday night, pay the fee and pass the vehicle inspection.

Consider it a "participatory" experience.

You won't even have to write a word. I promise.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com