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By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
Ed Vaughn is a race-car driver who only turns left.
And yet Vaughn insists that each counterclockwise trip around the circular dirt race track, no matter that it seems identical to the one before, actually is quite different.
"It's never the same twice," Vaughn said. "In principle it is, but there are always new things to learn, different things to try."
Vaughn will resume his racing education Sunday, when Thunder Mountain Motorsports opens the 2002 season at its track near Baker City.
To get there, drive east on Interstate 84 and take Exit 313, about nine miles from town.
Gates open at 9 a.m., with time trials at 11 a.m. and racing at noon.
Admission is $7 for adults and $2 for kids ages 6 to 12. Kids younger than 6 are admitted free, but they must be supervised.
Like most racers Vaughn will talk cars as long as you want.
Unlike some drivers, though, he can converse on any topic, from camshafts to carburetors, with expertise he's worked as an automotive machinist since 1984.
But ask Vaughn why he's raced for more than 15 years and he will answer with an anecdote about people, not car parts.
"The people I've met in racing make it for me," Vaughn said. "We run with a good bunch of guys, and we're all pretty much friends out there."
Vaughn also emphasizes the family-friendly atmosphere at Thunder Mountain's 3/8th of a mile track.
He said his daughter, Reyna, who's 12, has been a race fan since she was 4.
Reyna already has talked about racing.
"When she turns 16 I'll probably build her a car," Vaughn said.
Right now, though, he's building one for himself.
It's a 1978 Chevrolet Malibu, and when the car is finished by June, Vaughn vows it will replace the 1972 Chevy Monte Carlo he has raced since 1995.
Vaughn competes in the super stock class, which means he runs against machines with enough horsepower and torque to turn new tires into clouds of expensive blue smoke.
Vaughn's Monte Carlo is powered by the ubiquitous Chevrolet 350-cubic-inch V-8, but in racing trim his engine retains only the basic architecture it had when it was originally assembled in a GM factory.
Thanks to Vaughn's tinkering, the engine, which will move into the Malibu when that car is ready, produces about 500 horsepower more than double its stock output.
Horsepower, though, is only one part of the oval track racing equation and not even the most important part, Vaughn said.
"Handling is more important than power, especially on dirt," he said. "If you can't get the tires to hook up, all that power just goes to waste."
So racers have to "set up" their cars for circling in the dirt, Vaughn said.
For super stock racers that task demands imagination almost as much as mechanical skill.
The cars must retain the factory body and frame, but beyond that racers can modify their cars in just about any way they think will get them around the oval a few seconds faster, Vaughn said.
The concept is simple, he said: "Basically you're setting up a car to turn left."
Racers always drive counterclockwise, and on a track less than half a mile long, there isn't much of a straight.
Vaughn said drivers employ several methods to encourage their cars to always lean left, the easiest and most common being adding weight to that side of the car.
Balance is crucial, too, he said.
Racers strive for a perfect balance, with half the vehicle's weight over the front axle, half over the rear.
Vaughn, who builds his cars as well as drives them, said he enjoys both aspects of racing.
He admits, though, that wielding a steering wheel always is more exciting than spinning a socket wrench.
"It's fun to work on the car, but the ultimate is to get in and drive it and see what it'll do," Vaughn said.
Thunder Mountain's track, which opened last year, is an excellent venue for doing just that, he said.
"I love the size of this track," said Vaughn, who also has raced at La Grande, Elgin and Enterprise.
(La Grande's track closed last year.)
The surface of Thunder Mountain's track was a bit loose and dusty at times last summer, Vaughn said, the downside of the ashy alkali that underlays parts of the property.
But the soil there also contains plenty of the clay that circle-track racers covet, he said.
"The track got better each time last year," said Vaughn, who competed in each of the five races in 2001.
After a winter of working on cars rather than racing them, he's eager to get to the track and start steering.
Left, of course.
"It's nice to be able to go out and hot rod in a controlled environment," Vaughn said.
And then he grinned.
"It's addictive. Really addictive."