Arlene and I had already had dinner, but on the way over to the grandstand we happened to pass by the concession stand, where I caught a whiff of hot dogs. Iíd eaten a lot of track hot dogs over the years and thought Iíd had my fill of them, but Iíll tell you, those smelled damn good. It didnít take long for temptation to get the better of me.
The concession stand proved to be about as much a dump as anything else. God alone knows how Smoky managed to run the thing without the county health department throwing a fit, but itís hard to louse up making a hot dog. As I recall, they were on the expensive side Ė maybe fifty cents each, although I donít remember for sure now, but one of the places he didnít skimp on quality was on those wieners Ė darn, they were good, loaded up with good chili and fresh onions. Thereís nothing much like a track chili dog and French fries to get you in the mood for some racing.
With our hands full of track food, Arlene and I found our way into what passed for the grandstand. These were nothing more than the same kind of bleachers you used to see at football and baseball fields, relatively low, with bench seats and foot boards, built so that they could be taken down and moved. I found out later than they had done duty at some high school football field up until about the time of the Korean War, and Smoky had bought them cheap. They hadnít had much maintenance since then; here and there you could find a few replacement boards, but most of them seemed original and more than a little creaky and filled with splinters. The crowd was pretty thin, and I noticed that a lot of people were sitting on folded blankets or boat cushions or something. Arlene and I found a place up towards the top that didnít look too bad and got our butts on the planks.
It was getting close to race time, and like I said, there wasnít much of a crowd. "I wonder if itís like this every time," I commented to Arlene.
"It wouldnít surprise me," she replied. "This doesnít strike me as a place that youíd want to go unless you had to, although I think weíve both seen worse."
"Yeah, but we were down in the pits, not up in the stands," I agreed. "Not that the pits here are anything to write home about, unless you wanted to write home about the bad stuff. I mean, letís face it, people expect dirt tracks to be dirty, but this is ridiculous. You have to take care of the customer at least a little."
While we sat there a few more people drifted in, but not many. Without saying it in so many words, Smoky had said that he was struggling to keep going, and from the looks of things I didnít doubt it. Now, although it had been a few years, I had seen an awful lot of local race tracks both good and bad, and I had more than a little hint of what separated one from another. This place had been worse than average when Iíd wrecked there back in í54, and it hadnít improved any since. Of course, I couldnít say if Smoky had any money to throw at fixing things up, but if he had it would have been well spent. While I was enjoying being back around racing a little, at least for an evening, I still couldnít work up much enthusiasm about being back around it on a regular basis.
After the national anthem was played on a scratchy record player, the racing program got under way. Just going from memory, there were about twenty Junior Stocks entered, a few more Sportsmen, and a handful of modifieds. In order to drag things out, there was a series of heats in each of the classes. The Junior Stocks came first, and obviously I paid a lot of attention to them.
There were three heats of six or seven cars each. Most of them were frankly jalopies like the one Don Boies was driving, but there were a few cars that were a cut above the jalopy level, like the one the Mansfield kid was driving. One thing Iíd learned a long time before was that if a jalopy looked like junk it probably was. The cars that looked better were the better cars Ė if the driver had money enough to put into something like paint, he had enough money to do what needed to be done under the hood, too.
I found out later that Smoky set the heats by qualifying rounds that had taken place before Arlene and I arrived Ė fastest qualifier on the pole in the first heat, second fastest on the pole in the second, fourth fastest on the outside pole of the first heat, and so on. It was a pretty standard way to do it, and I couldnít find fault with it. That meant that was pretty much a couple good looking cars at the front of each field, and the end of each field was filled with junk that would hardly run. Not to my surprise, the Mansfield kid was on the pole of the first heat. The field went around the track a few times to warm up, then got the white flag for the one lap to go signal, and the next time they field came around the green came out.
The heat was only supposed to be ten laps, but that Mansfield kid came off the pole like he was shot from a gun. After watching him run away from the field for a lap or two I realized that his driving technique wasnít all that good, so he must have had a mill under that hood that could have powered a fighter plane. In six or seven laps he was coming up on the back markers that were just trying to keep running, a couple of beat up old jalopies that were at least trying to race each other to keep out of last place. One of the kids had gotten a nose under the other kid and they were running side by side through the corner, but apparently not fast enough for the Mansfield kid; he got a nose under the kid trying to pass the other beater and gave him a nudge, which caused the kid to spin and hit the other car.
The damage wasnít all that bad; one of the kids spun into the infield, gathered it up and kept going, but the other one was in the middle of the track at a dead stop. I glanced up at what passed for a flagmanís tower; the yellow was flying, and by all rights there should have been a black flag flying for Mansfield, but there wasnít. Iíd spent an awful lot of time around race tracks, and the Mansfield kidís trick was just about the dirtiest bit of driving Iíd ever seen. It would have been nice if those two kids who got spun could get hold of Mansfield out behind the bleachers or something and teach him some manners, but I knew it wasnít going to happen. Without actually having been there to see it, it was pretty clear to me that this wasnít the first time the Mansfield kid had pulled a stunt like that.
"Did you see that?" Arlene asked.
"Yeah, I did," I told her. "It looks to me like heís going to get away with it, too."
"My God, Spud would have kicked that young punkís ass up between his shoulders for pulling a stunt like that," she snorted. "I canít believe heís going to get away with it."
"Looks like heís going to," I shrugged. "Thereís the big reason I donít want to do this thing."
For myself, I was just about ready to get up and walk out. If that was the kind of shit that I was going to be up against, it was no wonder that the numbers of kids in the class had been declining. It wasnít going to be something easy to stop. But, I decided to stay around just to see how much worse the rest of it was going to be.
The yellow flag didnít stay out long; a push truck shoved the stalled car into the infield, and the field lined up in single file behind the Mansfield kid. By this time there were only like three laps to go; needless to say, after the green flag dropped the Mansfield kid blasted off again, but three laps werenít enough to get him back up to the back markers so he could wreck someone else.
Thereís no reason to give a blow by blow description of the other two Junior Stock heats. Although Iíd talked to several of the drivers and their families in the pits before the race, I didnít really know most of them so I could just sit back and watch. In the second heat there were two cars that blasted off from the rest of the field like Mansfield had done, so I could just about pick out who had the cheater engines, and cheater Lord only knew what else. The two of them actually ran a pretty good race; neither of them could really get past the other one and make it stick, and if the same kid led two laps running it was only by accident. But, seven or eight laps into the thing the two of them came up on another barely running back marker. The kid tried to stay out of their way, but that didnít matter Ė they just flat crowded him up into the fence, probably laughing their guts out as they did it. It was just about as dirty a move as the Mansfield kid had made, except that it took the two of them to do it. Again, it was as blatant a rough driving foul as Iíd ever seen, but there wasnít a hint of a black flag from the tower.
"Jesus," Arlene shook her head. "Is that how they play the game here?"
"Looks like it," I told her. "You see why I donít want to mess with this?"
"Yeah," she said. "But you realize that a handful of young punks are going to run those other kids right out of racing forever. Who would want to keep it up when thereís that kind of shit going on?"
"Looks to me like Smoky doesnít much care," I told her. "Damn shame, but there it is."
The third heat was a little different. There was a kid in a good-looking car that had arrived late and had to start at the back of the field. I figured he wasnít going to be there long and he wasnít Ė he tried to pass the whole damn field on the inside even before the green flag fell. He almost made it, too. Almost, but not quite. The field headed three and four wide into the first turn with him down low, but he drifted up into the second place car and spun him. The end result was nothing short of a hell of a mess; when the heat restarted there were only four cars running and at least one of the cars that had been towed off was never going to race again. Now, I wouldnít want to call it intentional rough driving but it was damn stupid of the kid. No black flag, of course; by now, I figured that Smoky didnít even own one.
I was damn happy to see the last of the Junior Stock heats over with. That wasnít racing, that was motorized schoolyard bullying, and I couldnít see why there were so many kids out there that were willing to put up with that stuff.
The racing continued. Next up were the Sportsman heats, again three of them. Like the Junior Stocks, the cars ranged from appearing pretty good to appearing like junk. The racing appeared a little cleaner; at least I didnít see any out and out intentional wrecking or schoolyard bullying, and there was some good racing. This was more like it, I thought.
The Sportsmen were followed by the Modifieds. There were only a handful of them, maybe seven Ė after all these years I donít remember clearly, but there werenít enough to break it down into two heats so they did it in one. These were big cars and powerful; the drivers knew how to drive. When they bailed off into the first corner with dirt flying all over the place they were going like hell and the sound was so strong you not only heard it, you felt it. As few as there were, they put on a good race, and Iíd have to say that I would have enjoyed it if I hadnít been left with a sour feeling in my stomach by the Junior Stock races.
There was a short intermission before the features came on, a chance for some big lines at the concession stands. Arlene offered to go get some popcorn and pop for us and I took her up on it. I just sat there on that splintery plank and thought.
In the Sportsman and Modified heats Iíd seen some good, clean racing. Not everyone was a perfect driver or had a world beater car by any means, but all in all it was a decent show and reminded me of why I loved racing and couldnít tear myself away from it after so many years. So why was the Junior Stock class such a mess? There wasnít necessarily a lot of experience in the drivers, but there were a few that were pretty good. Still, racing has its rules and a degree of courtesy was one of them; no one appreciates a guy that will wreck someone else just for the hell of it. Yet there were a handful of kids that were obviously getting away with it, and all they were doing was making life miserable for everyone else. It was clear that Smoky was right Ė he had some problems with the Junior Stock class, no doubt about it. It seemed to me that he knew someone was going to have to kick ass and take names to get the class straightened out, and for whatever reason he must not have felt like he could do it.
Maybe he was just stretched too damn thin. After all, the Bradford Speedway was a shoestring operation from the word go. At least in the Sportsman and Modified classes the drivers had some experience and could handle themselves, but face it Ė the Junior Stock class consisted of a bunch of kids, and they acted like a bunch of kids. Theyíd take a lot more supervision than the Sportsman and Modified classes, and maybe Smoky just didnít have time to do it all. That really wasnít a very damn good excuse in my book; frankly, if Smoky were stretched that thin he ought to just dump the damn class altogether.
Arlene made it back with the popcorn just about the time the features got under way. The Junior Stock feature was first, a twenty-lapper, with all the cars still running after the heats. Amazingly enough, there were something like sixteen cars that took the track for the feature, every Junior Stock that could still manage to run, and some of them were on the battered side. I will tell you what, sixteen cars is a heck of a lot for a quarter mile track, especially if the only way you could possibly measure the track as a quarter mile would be up against the fence, and that might have been stretching it a bit. And if those cars were Junior Stocks, with the cowboys and beginners that Iíd seen earlier, it seemed pretty likely to me that there wouldnít be sixteen cars finishing that race. This was back in the days before demolition derbies became popular, but it seemed to me that was what was about to happen.
About the one good thing that could be said about it was that the cheater cars were all up in the front, so maybe thereíd be a little racing before they started lapping cars and trying to wreck them in the process, but with twenty laps there was going to be plenty of time for that to happen.
After the green flag fell, some of the cars at the back of the pack were not running as well as theyíd run in the heats, so it didnít take long for the half dozen or so front runners to catch up with them. Now, to get a clean pass on a lapped car thatís running slowly is one of the easier and simpler moves to do in racing, although itís a bit more difficult if youíre having a race with someone else at the same time, but Iíll tell you it sure didnít seem like it this evening. There may have been a half dozen times when a lapped car got passed without someone laying a fender on him just for the hell of it. To make a long story short, it was the heat races repeated on a grander scale, and I think there were only eight or nine cars running at the end of it. At least two of the drivers of lapped cars pulled off and parked their cars so they wouldnít be wrecked by the bullies Ė Don Boies was one of them, which I thought showed more than a lick of common sense on his part.
"That stinks," Arlene said as the checkered flag flew. "That is without a doubt the crappiest race I ever saw, and Iíve seen some stinkers."
"Iíve never been in a race that stunk quite that bad," I agreed. "Arlene, I could clean that mess up, but Iíd have to have a free hand. A lot more free a hand than Iíd bet Smoky would ever give me."
"Thatís a damn shame," she agreed.
The Sportsman race soon was on the track for their warmups. There were even more cars on the track than there had been for the Junior Stocks and they pretty well filled the track. I recall that the race was pretty good; there were a couple fender benders, but nothing really serious Ė again, the drivers pretty well knew what they were doing and had a lot more maturity than the Junior Stock drivers. The Modified race, as small as the field was, turned out to be pretty good Ė after all the horse manure that had gone on with the Junior Stocks, this was a race worth watching. It proved that it could be done at the Bradford Speedway, in spite of everything.
After the race was over with, Arlene and I worked our way back over to the pits Ė it was where our car was parked, after all. It was busy back there, with people packing up stuff, loading cars onto trailers, hooking them onto tow bars, or whatever. When we got to our car, we found Don and his buddies hooking a chain up to the race car Ė they had such a low budget operation that they didnít even have a tow bar, but I knew it was only a couple of miles to drag the car home. They were not a happy group of kids. "Don," I asked, "Is it always like that?"
"Pretty much," he sighed. "If anything, it wasnít quite as bad as usual."
"That stunk," I agreed. "If itís any consolation, I think you did the right thing by pulling off. That wasnít a race, that was a fast demolition derby. At least you still have a car for next week."
"It doesnít much matter," he replied angrily. "Iím tired of this horseshit. If we had a tow bar we could maybe go someplace else, but Iím not going to be a target for Mansfieldís idea of fun anymore."
"He sure acted like an asshole out there," I agreed. "But he wasnít the only one."
"Yeah, thereís four or five of them who take the fun out of it for everybody else. I sure would like to kick Mansfieldís ass, but with his dad and his buddies around thereís no way we can do it. Well, the hell with it. I donít need to do this anymore."
"I hate to see you give it up," I said sympathetically, trying to cool him off a little. "But with that kind of horseshit going on, I donít blame you in the slightest, either."
"Yeah," a kid I didnít know from the next car over said. I glanced at the bent metal on the car and realized he hadnít been as lucky or as smart as Don. "I think this is going to be my last week here, too. Itís a pain in the ass to haul all the way over to Manchester to race, but at least they donít have that kind of stuff going on."
"Iíd go with you," Don agreed. "But itís too far to go just dragging the car on a chain. If I could afford a tow bar I might think about it, but right now I think Iíll just say the hell with it. If you know of someone looking for a car, Iíve got one for sale."
"Don, itís a damn shame," I told him. "But under the circumstances, I donít blame you a bit. Tell you what. If you decide you want to go racing somewhere else, drag your car out to my barn some time and Iíll help you go through it. We canít juice it up enough to keep up with those cheaters, but we can at least make it a little more race worthy."
"Thanks, Mr. Austin," Don sighed. "But right now, I donít know if I give a shit or what."
Arlene and I just looked at each other and shook our heads. "Well, I suppose we might as well be going," I said to her. "Don, take it easy. Iíll see you around."
Arlene and I got into our car. There hadnít been any sign of Smoky around the pits. I was feeling like I wanted to get out of there and right at that moment I didnít particularly feel like talking to him anyway. It was no damn wonder his car count was falling off, and it looked to me like it was going to fall off some more. "Well, thatís one way to solve the problem," I told Arlene as soon as we were heading for the pit gate. "Run off the kids that arenít willing to play games with Mansfield and his buddies, and pretty soon theyíll have few enough cars that itíll look like the Modifieds and maybe be a halfway decent race."
"That is a hell of a lousy way to solve the problem," Arlene said. "But it looks like thatís whatís going to happen. Itís a damn shame, too. Mel, thatís not the kind of racing we used to have. Even back when I was running a jalopy up at Milwaukee, sure, weíd have some idiots out there but no one that was trying to wreck you for the fun of it. Even being a girl, I was at least treated with some respect by the other drivers. Thereís none of that there, at least among those young punks."
"Yeah, when you get right down to it, someone needs to kick ass and take names," I agreed.
"I really feel sorry for that Boies kid," she shook her head. "I mean hell, thereís a guy with the perfect motivation to be a good local racer. In that car I canít tell if he could be anything more, but he could and should be the kind of kid a track depends on. But mark my word, those young punks are going to drive him right out of the sport if they havenít already. Heís not going to bother to even go to the races to watch. I think Smoky is cutting his own throat to let stuff like that go on."
"I couldnít agree with you more," I told her.
"You know, itís not the same thing, not by a long shot, but I canít help but think what Frank or especially Spud would have done if heíd been in charge. Thereíd have been some young punks there that would have skid marks on their butts."
"Yeah," I smiled. "A couple times there I could just about close my eyes and hear Spud going off like an atomic bomb. If one of his drivers back in the old days had pulled something like that Mansfield kid did, heíd have been walking funny because his ass would have been up between his eardrums."
"You could do it," she said. "You never were the hard-ass that Spud was, but I know you like those kids and feel for them. Iím not mechanic enough to do it, but Iíd be half tempted anyway."
I shook my head. "Youíre trying to talk me into it, arenít you?"
"Yeah," she said slowly. "I guess I am."