As the sport becomes more competitive, microseconds make the difference. "In 1985 the difference between first and second was actually .001 of a second," says College of San Mateo track coach and official handcar timer Bob Rush, who also works as a timer for San Francisco's famed Bay to Breakers road race.
Last year 105 teams, including representatives from Utah, Nevada and British Columbia, competed in the nationals, held over three days in September. About one third of the entries were first-timers. Among the more serious newcomers were the Wood Brothers, a team of seven siblings who gathered from seven far-flung states, and the Wacky Rollers, whose 40-year-old captain and pusher, Bob Freeman from San Jose, prepared for the competition by shoving a Cadillac around his body shop. The majority of the casual entries were eliminated in the time trials on the first two days. On the first evening, a Friday, a stiff breeze blowing from the south gave the contestants a tail-wind, and times were fast. Just Us Five, a team of California Justice Department employees, set a men's masters record of 33.392 seconds.
On Day 2, with the temperature in the high 90's, the air was dead and times were slower, but there were still a few surprises. One of the biggest was the Davis ( Calif.) Time for Travel outfit, a rookie entry in the mixed-novice category. When the Davis pumpers stepped onto the car for their mandatory practice run, they were facing in the wrong direction, and race officials had to turn them around. Nevertheless, after one practice run they recorded the third-best time in their category.
The hot weather helped the pushers, who, in a separate event, shove a handcar for distance. Helped by the blistering heat, which favorably affected the rails and the car's greased bearings, seven men in the superheavyweight, heavyweight, middleweight and masters categories eclipsed the record of 224'10". The mightiest push (238'11�") was turned in by Team Trauma's Randy Harries, a 5'10", 308-pound powerlifter from Sacramento, who was ranked second in the nation in the superheavyweight bench press by the American Drug-Free Powerlifting Association, an organization that rigorously tests its competitors for steroids. The Wood Brothers did not survive the cut in the open novice category, but David Wood made the men's middleweight pushers finals with 211'1?".
Sunday, the day of the finals, promised to be another scorcher, and by 10 a.m., the race site looked like a scene from Muscle Beach. The 500-seat grandstand was filled with competitors, their families and friends. The competition began with the pushers' contest at 11 a.m., but the anticipated battle of titans never materialized: The steel rails and greased bearings were still cold, and the handcars did not roll well. Pushes were much shorter—as much as 80 feet shorter—than those of the previous day. Wood's 129'3" was only good enough for fourth in his division.
Floyd Layher, a 6'8", 320-pound pusher from Citrus Heights, Calif., won the superheavyweight crown. His push of 212'10" was 20 feet shy of his qualifying distance, but 15 feet farther than that of runner-up Harries. Layher's technique? "Get behind the handcar, keep your butt down and give it all you got," he said. "Not that much to it, really."
In the open division, the team to beat was the Railmasters of Roseville, Calif., long the dominant competitors in handcar racing. The Railmasters enjoyed the ultimate advantage: Their original sponsor had built the team its very own handcar and had laid track in his backyard; the team practiced once a week. The Railmasters have been together since 1985, and going into the '91 nationals they had won the open title three of the previous four years. Their qualifying time (32.378 seconds) was nearly a full second faster than their closest challenger's time.
As expected, the Rail-masters took the open class with a 33.085 clocking, well behind the record of 31.782 set in 1984 by the Holy Rollers from Sacramento, who finished a distant sixth this year. For the fourth time in six years the women's division was won by Pumping Iron Too, a Roseville team whose members all compete seriously in other sports. Pusher Cathy Sulinski finished 10th in the javelin at the L.A. Olympics. The team captain was Sierra College track coach Michelle DeVol. "I keep my eye open for recruits among my students," said DeVol. "I see people on the streets, I stop them—'You, come over here. You know what a railroad handcar is?'"
Proving their trial run was no fluke, Davis Time for Travel finished second behind the L.A. Mixers in the mixed-novice and fifth in the overall mixed standings. Freeman's Wacky Rollers didn't make the finals; nor was his push of 198'10?" good enough to qualify in the men's superheavyweight finals. Nevertheless he was not disappointed.
"Hey, we're pumped," he said with all the fervor of a convert. "We're into it." Beats pushing a Caddy around.