Even though I was a little early, I found the kids for my next session waiting for me. There was no point in waiting around, so we headed over to the driverís education car and got going. Since the I-67 construction made it difficult to get west of town, usually Iíd been staying to the Hawthorne side of things this summer, but for once I was just a little curious. I had the kid driving the car head out Main and Taney west out of town to where they were building the overpass, and as luck had it we got through the construction area pretty easily.
The track lay back off Taney Road just past the construction area. It looked like the Interstate had just missed the track, and I got the idea that it would eventually be possible to look right down into it from the overpass. You couldnít see much of it from the road; Iíd driven past it at least twice a day, sometimes several times a day, for nearly a year and I hadnít really paid any attention to it. I had the kid driving pull into the parking lot and up to the ticket window behind the stands.
To be honest, the place didnít look in very good shape. The last time Iíd been there, back in the fall of í54, it had looked to me like there were some places that needed some paint and some cleaning. From what I could see from the seat of the driver education car there hadnít been any paint used since then. Everything looked weather beaten and rusty; what I could see of the board fence around the track looked rather beat up, and there were some boards missing. "You ever come out here and watch the races?" I asked the kids in the car with me.
One of the boys, Phil Sharp, said his family used to come out once or twice a year to catch the action, but they hadnít done it in a few years. Bonnie Littlefield, the girl I had in the car said that sheíd been in there on a date earlier that year, and that it was fun but awful dirty. She didnít care to go back unless there was a good reason, like a date with the right guy.
I asked if they knew of any kids from the school who came out and raced. It turned out they knew three or four; two of them I knew from my driverís education or auto shop classes, but they mentioned a kid whose name I hadnít heard: Bert Mansfield. "Whoís he?" I asked.
"Oh, heís just going to be a freshman this fall," Sharp said. "Thinks heís hot stuff. Heís already a pain-in-the-butt jock, and heís not even in high school yet. His folks have a big dairy farm out south of town."
"Well, that would account for my not knowing him," I told the kids. "Guess you donít have to be sixteen to run out here."
"No, the story around school is that you have to be fourteen and have one parent present," Sharp responded. "I thought once that I might like to give it a try, but my folks werenít too crazy about the idea."
"Iíll bet that could get wild," I smiled. One of the facts of life about driverís education, especially in a country place like Bradford, was the fact that some kids came to the class with an awful lot of driving behind them. Some of the farm kids Ė both boys and girls Ė had been driving farm equipment for years, and not just in the fields. That included things like trucks and cars, but usually only on the back roads where the sheriffís patrol cars never went unless there was a reason to. The experience was good in a way, but sometimes they had some awfully bad habits they had to get over, too.
"I guess they pile up some cars," Sharp smiled. "Bunch of old junkers, mostly."
I told Bonnie, who was driving, to take us back out to the highway, then to turn right on Fremont Road. I knew this would take us around to the back of the track, and thought Iíd see if the gate was open.
Sure enough, it was Ė and from the way dirt had piled up and weeds grown around it, it looked like it had been open for a while. Years, maybe. If the track hadnít looked good from the front side, the back side looked even worse. There was a tumbledown old garage there and a row of outhouses that didnít look much better; there wasnít a lot of grass growing in back, and what there was hadnít been mowed recently. "If I didnít know better Iíd think this place was abandoned," I remarked.
"I guess people donít come out here like they used to," Sharp said.
Like a lot of small tracks, this open area served as the pits Ė there really wasnít enough room in the infield to make for the parking needed, especially with a lot of cars running. I pointed Bonnie at the entrance to the oval proper. "Take us around the track," I told her. "Just take it easy, we donít have to do a hot lap or anything."
"You sure this is all right?" she said.
"Itís OK," I said, figuring that if Smoky wanted me very bad heíd better not gripe about me going around the track a couple times.
The track looked a little better from the inside, but just a little. There had been some paint used along the back fence Ė but it was only on some billboard ads on the fence. I could see where the fence had been patched a few times, probably from cars going through it. As I remembered, the track had a little banking to it, not much, but had a little bit of flat runoff area in the corners. The infield was dirt, of course, but looked like no one had done anything to even smooth it out in a while. There were scrubby weeds growing here and there, and junk was scattered around. There were a couple big puddles left from the last rain, and it looked about as unappealing as the mud field it was. The grandstand wasnít so grand, either Ė it was just a low bleacher arrangement, and the board seats also hadnít seen paint in a while, if ever. Iíd remembered the place as being something of a dump, and it was even worse than Iíd remembered.
I wonít say that it was worse than anything Iíd ever seen in the MMSA, because weíd raced in some awful dumps over the years, but this was definitely toward the bottom of the list. I could see why the spectator count was down Ė you had to either be a real fan or be related to someone in the race to want to spend any time in a junky place like that. Now, if there was anything Iíd ever learned in all my years in the MMSA, it was that dirt tracks were dirty. Itís the nature of the beast; you canít have cars throwing dirt in the air without it landing someplace. But even though they were dirty by nature, it didnít mean that the places had to be junky, and this one certainly was.
I had Bonnie drive a couple laps around the place, then asked the boys if theyíd like to do it for the sake of saying that theyíd done it. Of course they did, so we switched drivers around for another few laps, not at any great speed, while I mostly took in the sight. I had spent an awful lot of time in bullrings like this back in my MMSA days, and as crappy as the place was it took me back. Iíd had a lot of good times on little tracks like this, and a few bad times. After a while, I got Bonnie back in the driverís seat, and we headed out of the track and back onto the road, thinking that it was just as well that those days were behind me. It probably was a good idea to keep them there.
I thought about the whole idea quite a bit while I drove around with the kids that day, and for the most part I didnít think much of it.
There was a part of me that missed the racing. I missed the noise, the smell, the flying dirt, the excitement. Most of all, I missed the fun of racing with friends and the traveling around to new places. That had been a part of my youth Ė my late youth, I guess you might say, but compared to ten years before I knew I had grown up now.
There was no doubt in my mind that working with Smoky Kern down at the track to bring some organization to his Junior Stock class sounded interesting, but it also sounded like a pain in the backside. Thinking about it, I reasoned that I wouldnít have a lot of trouble keeping the kids under control, but the parents could be a different story.
Hearing that a Mansfield kid was involved was just about enough to put me off the idea right there. I didnít know the kid from Adam, but I knew his parents by reputation. While I wasnít involved with the football team at all, other than to have to schedule my driverís education kids around their football practices, I knew something of the politics around the football team from eating lunch in the teacherís lounge.
Football was a big deal in Bradford Ė too big of a deal in my opinion. School sports were and are supposed to be a way for kids to work off a little excess energy and have some fun, while building a sense of school unity. But too many parents wanted to relive their youth from pushing their kids at the game, and sometimes they could get to be more than a little pushy about it. Bradford wasnít a big enough school for getting on the football team to be an issue, but how much a kid played and in what position could be a very big deal.
Like any high school teacher at Bradford, I was well aware of the stink that got made when Ed Snyder, the football coach, decided to make Mike Granbury the starting quarterback a couple years before, passing over John Mansfield, who I figured must have been Bertís older brother. It didnít matter that Granbury was a fast little critter with a great arm and Mansfield was a big, dumb jock who mostly only knew how to run straight ahead and had a reputation for fumbles Ė Granbury was a sophomore and Mansfield was a senior. Therefore Mansfield was supposed to be the quarterback. Period, end of discussion, as far as his father Glenn Mansfield was concerned.
Except that Ed Snyder wasnít about to get pushed around by a loud, arrogant parent Ė I think mostly because there were a number of other loud, arrogant parents who wanted to see a little more winning done that fall than had been done in the previous few years. I think most of them realized that the Granbury kid, although young, was a better football player. I know that Glenn Mansfield crawled all over Snyder about it. And he crawled all over Alex Groves, the principal about it, and Mike Corrigan about it. Then he pitched a bitch at the school board, and it finally got into letters to the editor in the Bradford Courier.
It didnít make anything better when Ed plunked the Mansfield kidís butt right square on the bench and left it there all season. I donít think he ran a play, although he could have been fairly useful if his skills had been properly utilized. The football team went 9-0 for the season, the first shutout season in a good many years, and the Mansfield kid hadnít had anything to do with it except for being a pain in the butt.
After that, Glenn Mansfield was out to get Ed Snyder. In a sense, I donít blame him; while Glenn had been way out of line, Ed had probably been a little out of line himself in benching the kid. I donít think it would have hurt to put the Mansfield kid on the field for a play or two when the team had a forty-point lead in the fourth quarter, but Ed was bound that he was going to make a point. The hassle died down a little bit over the winter, but it was no secret that Glenn meant to have Edís ass.
The only problem for Glenn was that Ed took his ball and went home. Well, actually, to Lima, Ohio; that 9-0 record had caught some attention. The next fall Ed was teaching math in Lima, and coaching a pretty good team. As far as Bradford High went, the Mansfield kid had graduated and as far as anyone knew was milking cows on his dadís farm. I guess Iíd heard that heíd gotten drafted, and hadnít heard anything about him after that.
So, if Bert Mansfield was Glennís son and was involved in racing, I didnít have to go to the track or open the hood to know that there was a cheater engine under there. If there was one at the track, there was probably more than one. I didnít need to be able to see the future to understand that there were bound to be some politics along the way.
That pretty well settled it in my mind. It might be some fun, and probably would be rewarding to help kids get off on the right foot and have some reasonably fair racing. On top of that, I owed Smoky a favor, in return for him giving me a good job by tipping Mike Corrigan off about me. But there were an awful lot of down sides, and I didnít think I wanted to spend a lot of time around that dump, anyway.
I didnít even mention it to Arlene when I got home. I think I probably would have if weíd just been talking about how the day went, but Elaine was crying and the boys were raising Cain, and it just wasnít a good time to talk. All I would have been able to report was that Iíd made up my mind, and about all I had left to do was to tell Smoky thanks, but no thanks.
* * *
Thatís where it sat for a couple days. Later in the week, I headed into Kayís again for my morning coffee after my early drivers, and found Mike Corrigan sitting there having a cup of coffee. Even though they were close to twenty years older, Arlene and I had gotten to be pretty good friends with Mike and Catherine when weíd lived a couple doors up the street from them. Now that we were living out in the country we didnít see them quite as much, although over the course of the summer Iíd run into Mike at Kayís about once a week. Once again he teased me about how nerve wracking riding with all of those student drivers had to be, and I told him once again that it couldnít be half as bad as having to go to meetings with the school board and listen to people bitch about things.
Then he surprised me. "I was over at the auto parts store getting a spark plug for my lawnmower yesterday," he said. "I got to talking with Smoky, and he said that heíd asked you to keep an eye on the Junior Stock class out at the track."
"Well, he asked me," I admitted. "I donít think Iím going to do it, though. Iím busy enough with the driverís education as it is, and I donít think I want to take on the dirt and the aggravation."
"I donít know," he shook his head dubiously. "It struck me as a good idea."
"Whyís that?" I asked. "It just seems like it would be a pain in the butt."
"Yeah, well, maybe," he shrugged. "You know, Smoky came to me when he first came up with this Junior Stock thing, and I thought it was a good idea. You know as well as I do, maybe even better than I do, about the problem we have with these hot rod kids burning rubber all over town. It struck me as a good idea for some of those kids to take their cars out to the track and burn off some excess energy, rather than having them drag racing down Main Street at all hours of the night."
"Itís a problem," I agreed. "But thereís only so much I can do about it. Kids are kids, and some of them are going to hop in their cars and use their right feet to show off how big a head they have. But I donít think the Junior Stock class out at the track has done a lot to solve it."
"I donít think so, either," he shook his head. "I go out there once or twice a year, just to see whatís going on. There are three or four kids out there with cheater engines, and they seem to get a thrill out of wrecking people they donít like. I mean, you donít have to be an insider to see it; itís clear to everyone. I think there are some kids around who might be interested in it if it was run halfway fair. Smoky knows itís a problem, but like he said, heís got too much else to do to be able to police that, too. He told me that if he canít find someone whoís halfway neutral to ride herd on that class, heís going to have to dump it. Thatís just going to mean we wind up with more arrogant young punks drag racing out on the street in the wee small hours.
"I hear what youíre saying," I told him. "I honestly think that I could probably clean things up if I wanted to, and if I got some backing when it was needed. But I donít need to have Glenn Mansfield going to bitch to Smoky about me sitting his kid down for a cheater engine, and I especially donít need Smoky over-ruling me. On top of that, I really especially donít need to have Glenn going to you about it, just to have someone over my head to bitch at."
"Youíre not going to have a problem with me," he said flatly. "Now with Smoky, youíre just going to have to make it clear that what you say sticks or you walk out, itís as simple as that. But if you look past that, itís got some potential. A lot of kids know you and respect you, what from being the driverís ed instructor, the auto shop teacher, and having done a lot of racing in the past. Iím enough of a race fan to know that some of those kids racing out there donít have any idea of what theyíre doing, and you might be a good one to teach them."
"Well, all right," I said. "Iíll give it a little more thought and ask Arlene about it. I wouldnít want to do it without her agreeing with it. Iíve tried to stay away from racing since I came here, and you know why."
"I know you have," he nodded. "I know it used to be a big part of your life and leaving it left a big hole. I donít think you want to go back to that kind of life, but itís not exactly racing midgets all over the country, either. Itíd help you scratch that itch, and might even do some good for the community."