It didnít take a house to fall on me to see what was going to happen next; the Sharp kid and his Hornet werenít all that far ahead of Bert and his Chevy. We had an old Army field phone arrangement with a line going from the pit gate to the scoring booth and the flag tower, and I got right on it. "Keep the black flag handy," I told Arlene. "I think youíre going to need it. I think Mansfield in the 18 car doesnít want to race, he just wants a piece of Sharp in the 88."
"Got you, Mel," she replied. "I could see that coming all through the B-Main."
"Anybody would have to be blind not to see it," I snorted. "Iím going to go have a word with those two, not that itíll do any good."
I hung up the phone and headed down through the lineup, which was just getting set to head out onto the track. "You know what Bert has in mind," I told Sharp. "Keep it clean and donít start anything."
"I wonít start anything," Phil told me. "Iíll be ready for him."
That didnít exactly reassure me. I could tell from the tone of Philís voice that he was half hoping that Bert would start something, and he was indeed going to be ready for it. I headed on over to Bertís car. He was still the arrogant little punk he always was, and the way he came through the B-Main didnít help it any. "Donít be starting anything out there," I told him. "Or your ass is out of here."
He just looked at me with a look on his face that said, "Who does this joker think he is?" It would have been nice if heíd thought about it a little bit, because driverís ed started in three weeks. Even though heíd been driving a race car for a couple years, he still needed to go through it if he planned on getting a license before he turned eighteen, but he wasnít the kind of kid who thought ahead. He wanted instant gratification, and he wanted it now. I probably should have set his ass down right on the spot, but I didnít. There wasnít much I could do but walk up to the head of the line and wave the cars out onto the track, hoping that too many of them wouldnít get bent up.
Bert may have had the fastest car in the field the year before, but he didnít this time, not by a long shot. He tried jumping the start big time from the last place in the field Ė he had his foot in it well before anyone else, but Arlene waved off the start because of it, made everybody line up two by two again, and started the race over. He pulled pretty much the same stunt on the restart, but timed it a little better. Since Bert was the last car in the field, he hung way back and put the hammer down before anyone else. He was still in last place as the flag dropped, but he had probably thirty miles an hour on the rest of the field, and that got him pretty close to Sharp. There were a couple other cars around that kept it from being one on one for a while, but eventually he got his shot at Phil, whoíd seen what was coming.
Iíll give Phil credit Ė he gave Bert enough room to hang himself. Rather than getting into a shoving match for the inside line, Phil moved up the track as if to let Bert pass, but Bert moved right up the track with him with the obvious intent of trying to spin him. But Phil saw it coming, tapped his brake, and all of a sudden Bert was three quarters of the way past him, still trying to shove him into the fence. Bert cut over on him, but wound up getting a quarter panel full of Hudson, and that knocked him sideways into a T-bone.
Normally, while a T-bone looks bad, itís often not as bad as it looks since both cars are going pretty much the same speed. I have said before that they donít build cars like they used to, and they really donít build them the way they used to build Hudsons. That car was built to take a hit, and Sharp knew it. You would have expected him to step on the brake instead of the gas, but the gas is what he stomped and he kept his foot on it until Mansfieldís car went right through the fence, a little the worse for wear after having removed a couple fence posts. Sharpís Hudson, however, only had some mild fender damage thanks to using Mansfieldís Chevy as a bulldozer blade.
There wasnít any great need to Arlene to black flag Mansfield because that car wasnít going to be running again that night anyway. She probably should have black flagged Sharp, but it was a little hard to tell what was happening. In any case, Mansfield had to be towed back to the pits, while Sharp got his position back. Sharp didnít finish the race anywhere near the top Ė maybe seventh or eighth, but it was a good showing for a first night out for a driver with only a couple of starts the previous year in a new race car. Don Boies wound up winning it, I do remember that; he had another Hudson Hornet, and this was its first night out on the track, too.
If that was the way the season was going to start, it looked to be an interesting one.
It took a while for the dust to settle that night. Everything ran lots later than planned, mostly because of the huge car count and all the extra races, but Smoky was tickled pink, and I donít blame him one bit. "Was that a race night or what?" he exulted as soon as we got together after the last car had left the track. "We ainít had one like that here in years."
"Yeah, that was pretty good," I agreed. "I just wish the Mansfield kid had come to race, rather than to settle some schoolyard score."
"Shit, thatís a Mansfield, what do you expect?" Smoky snorted. "You want to make a bet whether thereíll be a fist fight over at the school come Monday?"
"Wouldnít surprise me any," I told him. "But if it does itíll be over at the main building, not the Auto Shop. So, ignoring that, what did you think?"
Smoky shook his head. "Shit, Iím too dazzled to think, but you know, itís the same old thing in a way. Youíve got a few fast cars at the front of the field and a bunch of people that just canít keep up."
"You know, I was thinking the same thing. When you get right down to it, the kids with the Hudsons are mostly legal cheaters. That really is the hot set-up."
"Yeah, thatís true," he agreed. "Are you thinking it might be time to pull your little trick, whatever it is?"
"Soon," I said. "The reason we got a big field tonight was that we had a lot of kids who didnít know who had what. There are going to be a bunch of kids who ran in the B-Main and now going to be looking for a little extra oomph. We might let it go another week, maybe two, but the time is coming."
As it was we let it go another week, mostly because Smoky had trouble finding a Kaiser-Frazer carb gasket for me to use as a model for the restrictor plate, and he didnít have it in time. And, as predicted, Mansfield and Sharp had a fist fight over at the main building on Monday. It really wasnít much of a fight, because while Sharp might not have been the most popular kid in school, the racers pretty well knew what was coming and stayed close. It was mostly a few wild swings that didnít land anywhere fragile before Alex Groves, the principal, showed up to break things up. Both of them got to spend three days at home, and I suspect they were working on their cars.
Even though I ultimately spent thirty years teaching, I never managed to understand why people thought it was a punishment to kick a kid out of school for a few days. Hell, for most kids who got into trouble like that, itís not a punishment but a treat. Hell, itís fifty years later, and they still get kicked out, and I still donít know why. Administrators are in the schools. Donít they learn anything?
In any case, two weeks after the season opener I sprung the restrictor plates on the Junior Stock class. The only person who had known it was coming was Arlene. It sure shook things up, just like Iíd expected it to. The kids with the big Nashes and Hornets all of a sudden were down to having the same kind of power as the rest of the crew, so driving skills became more important. Of course, I heard a lot of complaining about it, and Smoky got a lot of it, too.
Needless to say, Glenn Mansfield was one of the loudest complainers. I mean, since it obviously was my idea he had to complain first and think later, if at all. "What is this shit? We ainít never had to do nothing like this before!"
"Glenn," I said, trying to reason with him a little. "Youíve been complaining for the last two weeks about how those Hudsons and Nashes are cheaters because theyíve got bigger engines. This brings them back to you. Yeah, you might lose a little power, but theyíre going to lose a lot."
"I still think the damn things should be outlawed," he snorted. "Shit, you wonít let us build up an engine that will handle them. Thatís a crock of shit if there ever was one."
"It would have been nice," I conceded. "But weíre just following the rules, thatís all. Theyíve got the same rule sheet you do. Since weíve started the season with the Nashes and Hornets that weíve ruled legal, we canít just outlaw them in the middle. What we can do is control them a little, but those controls have to apply to everybody."
"Well, God damn," he snorted. "Weíll just have to see about this shit! This is the most half assed thing Iíve ever seen." He stomped off, presumably to see Smoky.
Tech that night was easy and fun. Engine tech consisted of counting the number of spark plugs and keeping track of the restrictor plate I assigned each kid to use. It gave me a little more time to concentrate on safety equipment and some other things that had been given a lick and a promise in weeks past.
By this time in the season the pecking order had pretty well been sorted out, who was hot, who was not, who was going to be a front runner and who was going to be a back marker. The addition of the restrictor plates sure sorted that stuff out in a hurry! Remember that kid in a Kaiser-Frazer? It was an early attempt at an economy car and it was lighter than most. It wasnít a big success in the postwar market it had been built for, so there werenít many of them built, but given the shakeup in equalization that the restrictor plates bought, I could just about predict a run on the local junkyards. It turned out that the kid ran at the front of the pack all night long after having been a back marker the week before, and ran something third or fourth in the A-Main. In case youíre wondering, Bert Mansfieldís expensive engine was one of those that suffered from the restrictor plates, and as I recall he ran about mid-pack in the B-Main.
All in all, it was good, close racing that let me see a lot more clearly than ever before who had talent and who had bucks. Looking back on it now, I wish I had instituted it right from the first of the season, but I was experimenting, and I wanted to see the before and the after. I figured that there would be a hassle or two before everything got sorted out and people began to learn how to run with the things. In the meantime, it sure gave the kid who showed up with an old clunker the chance to go out and race someone, not just ride around at the back of the field. In any case, I figured that things were on their way.
I was really looking forward to the following week, when I figured that some of the smarter kids would have gained some ground on figuring some way to get around the rule change Ė it would be interesting to see what some of them had come up with. But I was in for a surprise.
I was partway through teching when Glenn came up to me. "What the hell is this restrictor plate shit again?" he yelled. "I goddamn told Smoky that there wasnít going to be any more of this shit."
"He hasnít told me anything about it," I said. "Besides, the deal I had with him is that I ran things my way."
"Well, there ainít going to be no more of this fucking restrictor plate shit," he fumed. He stormed off, with the words, "We will by God see about this crock of shit." floating over his shoulder as he left.
It took Glenn a while to find Smoky, who as it turned out had made himself scarce for good reason. He was not looking very happy when Glenn dragged him up to where I was still doing tech on cars half an hour later. "Mel," Smoky said. "We canít do this restrictor plate business again."
"And why not?" I asked, figuring that I could see the handwriting on the wall. Glenn had obviously gotten to him somehow or other.
"I donít own all the track anymore," he sighed. "The bank was on my ass too much. Glenn bought into the place, with the understanding that we were going to go back to the way things were run last season."
"You mean, no restrictor plates, no tech, ignoring the rules, right?"
"Yeah, I guess, pretty much."
I wasnít pissed off. Disappointed, yes. Weíd actually started to turn things around by doing them the right way, but Smoky had clearly gotten cold feet with the whole deal. "Smoky," I said, more in sorrow than in anger as they say, "We had an agreement, right? No second guessing me, no doing stuff behind my back, or I walk. You remember that?"
"Yeah," he said. "You done a lot of good here, but good donít pay the bills."
"It was well on the way," I told him. "All you had to do was to show some backbone. Iíll see you around sometime, Smoky." I turned my back to him and started gathering up my stuff to put in my car.
About that time Don Boies came over to me. "Mr. Austin, please donít quit. Youíve been good for this place."
"Sometimes you have to do what you have to do," I told Don. "The only reason I did this in the first place was to return a favor to a man who helped me out when I was in trouble, but I guess that Iíve paid that bill in full. I canít do any good here without support, and thatís that."
"So does that mean weíre going back to the old way?" he said. "What are we supposed to do?"
"About all I can tell you is if you load up and drive hard you ought to be able to make it over to Manchester and still get to race," I told him. "Thatís probably the best move, since the deck is going to be stacked against you here."
"God damn it, Mr. Austin, Iím sorry," he said.
"I am too, Don. I am too."
Don helped me load the rest of my stuff in my car, and Arlene and I were out of there in a couple minutes. I didnít set foot on the grounds of Bradford Speedway again for years, and when I did things were quite a bit different. What little I know about what came afterward came through the grapevine from kids like Don and Phil. Not those two directly, though; they took my advice and loaded up, along with a bunch of others, and never got on the track that night. Some of them headed on over to Manchester, and some of them just headed home.
There were fifty-two cars signed up to run in Junior Stocks that night, but only something like thirty of them were around when it came time to race, and a good number of people left the stands even before the races started. One of the kids who stayed was Bert Mansfield, of course Ė and heíd returned with that bored-out Stovebolt engine that weíd outlawed the year before. While it was the same size as the Hornets, they were flatheads, and he had an overhead valve engine, so he was putting out more power and ran right out in front all evening. Of course, Bert took the opportunity to spin a couple people who had passed him in weeks past, so there werenít as many cars in the two Mains Ė four or five kids left before the Main started, seeing pretty clearly what was happening. The next week only about eighteen cars started the Junior Stock heats, and by the time another month had passed the number was down in the single digits. Even the Sportsman and Modified entries started to fall off, too.
Needless to say, Bert Mansfield won the season championship that year, and the next two years, which got him up through high school. The last year it really got sad. There were only two or three Junior Stock cars out there, and I always figured theyíd gotten some money from Glenn under the table to show up at all. By that time, the typical race night consisted of less than twenty cars of all classes, and there wasnít enough of a crowd to keep the concession stands open Ė they were replaced with a couple of old pop machines.
I never knew for sure, but I always figured that Glenn Mansfield must have spent somewhere on the far side of ten thousand dollars on Bertís various cheater cars, and pumping money into the track to keep it open. That was in early 1960s dollars, when you could buy a new family car for under three thousand bucks, so it would be on the far side of a hundred thousand to do the same thing today.
I honestly donít know what Glenn Mansfield thought he was accomplishing with all of that. Sure, Bert got some trophies out of it, but Glenn could have just gone over to the trophy shop in Hawthorne and bought the damn things for all they meant. The trophies that Bert won didnít represent any accomplishment on his part; they just proved that his old man could buy them for him the hard way.
Right after Bert got out of high school the Army called. The war in Vietnam was heating up in those days, and to give Bert credit where it is deserved, he went to the induction station in Detroit, instead of across the Ambassador Bridge into Canada like a lot of spoiled brats like him did in those days. With that, there was no more reason for Glenn to pour any money or attention into the track, and it didnít make it through the í65 season. It just sat there, with only the wind blowing the dust around, with weeds growing up all over the place, what little paint there was peeling off the rotting boards. It wasnít the only little dirt track to face that kind of an end in those days, since a lot of the little bullrings around the country were doing the same thing. The only thing was that the Bradford Speedwayís end was sadder than most since it could have been prevented if Smoky had shown any backbone at all. Glenn got his way, for all the good it did anyone.
So, once again Arlene and I had turned our backs on an involvement with racing and walked away.
At least this time we didnít walk all the way away. Every so often, maybe six or eight nights a year, thereíd be a warm Friday or Saturday night when weíd get a sitter and load up in the car to head to one of several little tracks that the Bradford kids had scattered to. A lot of those tracks arenít around anymore, like Jackson and Montpelier and Manchester. Weíd almost always get a pit pass and go wandering through the pits, talking with the Bradford kids I knew as they stayed with the addiction theyíd caught at the Bradford Speedway. It was always fun to talk to them, and if anyone needed some help figuring out a problem on a car, or a few laps with a veteran to pick up some skills, I was always ready. That wasnít really involvement, it was just passing on knowledge.
Of course, time passed and kids moved on. Some of them moved to bigger race cars, and others just took the new on-ramp to the freeway outside of town and left for whatever their lives had in store for them. Iím sorry to say that the future for Don Boies lay under a stone in the National Cemetery in Battle Creek; unlike Bert, he didnít make it back from Vietnam. Don was probably the driver with the most potential I saw to come out of those days, and if the breaks had fallen right for him I would think he would have made a wave or two in bigger cars, maybe even the real big ones.
But, weíll never know, now. All I can say is that "Second Season Championship" trophy I awarded to Don back there in the infield of the Bradford Speedway in í62 was a much bigger deal than all the junk Glenn Mansfield could buy for his son to stack on his mantle. Don won that trophy on pure skill and guts, not on what his daddy could buy for him.