By early 1967 I felt pretty comfortable with the way things were going in my life. We had all the kids in school by now, had time to spend on things to enjoy ourselves, and realistically Arlene and I didnít have much to complain about. It wasnít a bad deal for a town weíd wound up in by pure accident over a dozen years before. Life had become pretty placid and settled for Arlene and me. I was content. It looked to me like it had every reason to stay that way, and I didnít see anything new on the horizon.
I guess I had forgotten that itís the unexpected that keeps life interesting.
Itís really kind of amazing how so many of the changes in my life in Bradford started over a cup of coffee at the Chicago Inn, or at Kayís Restaurant, which closed several years ago when Kay got well beyond retirement age. At the time it started I didnít even recognize it, but it was to bring big changes to the balance of my life.
It was a Saturday morning in February, Iím sure of that, but Iím not sure which Saturday, not that it matters. I was sitting at the big coffee table in the Chicago Inn with half a dozen other guys, when one of the other guys at the table, Kenny Peterson, spoke up and said, "Hey, Mel. You heard anything about the Bradford Speedway getting sold?"
"Not a word," I told him. "Mostly because Iím not interested, so I havenít been listening."
"It wasnít sold," Rod Hodges said from down the table. Rod was the president of the Bradford State Savings Bank, and because of that kept an even closer ear to what went on around town than even Lloyd Weber, who ran the Bradford Courier. "There was a nibble on it a while back and a ninety-day option got taken out, but it expired, and as far as I know no one has heard from them since."
"Who was that?" Kenny asked. "The story going around was that someone was going to buy it and reopen it."
"Donít know," Hodges shrugged. "From what I heard the option was taken out by some holding company I never heard of before. Nothing local, anyway. But whatever it was, itís a dead issue now. It was pretty close to a dead issue then, since the track is in foreclosure."
"You mean the bank is taking it back?" Kenny asked as I took a sip of my coffee, just letting the gossip flow by me.
"Not that we want to," Hodges said. "What the hell use do we have with that patch of clay? But, that looks like whatís going to happen. Itís almost three years since a payment has been made on it, we have to do something."
"Thatís a damn shame," Kenny said. "Back a few years ago I liked to go out there and watch the races now and then, but that looks like something else weíre not going to have in Bradford anymore." Kenny glanced over at me and continued, "Why donít you buy it, Mel?" he asked. "An old racer like you with your race cars, it seems like you ought to be able to make a go of it."
It was obvious Kenny didnít have an inkling of what he was talking about. "Well, Iíll tell you," I said. "If it had been available back about five or six years ago and Iíd been in the mood to buy it, I probably could make a go of it. But Smoky Kern let Glenn Mansfield bleed it dry, and all the local enthusiasm for it got bled dry, too. If anyone were to buy it, me or whoever, theyíd be starting right from scratch with a place thatís seen a lot better days and more than used up its stock of good will."
"I remember those days," Kenny said. "For a while there a few years ago things were going pretty good, like they used to in the old days. It seems to me that it could be built back up again."
"Oh, it probably could," I shrugged. "The big things it would take to do it would be time, and money. You donít build a car count up overnight, it could take years. Like I said, whatever good will the track ever had was pissed away by Glenn Mansfield. Iím not a short track racer, but I hang around with that crowd a bit now and then, and you would not believe what a dirty word ĎBradford Speedwayí is to some of those guys. It would take years to live those days down and rebuild the good will. All that time, youíd be getting along on tiny car counts and not enough of a crowd to fill a large station wagon, so that essentially means no income while youíre got operational expenses out the wazoo. And unless someone had a big, thick wallet thereíd be payments that would have to be made while youíre trying to accomplish everything else. Iím not saying it canít be done, but I donít have a wallet thick enough to do it."
"Yeah," Hodges said, looking thoughtful. "To try to open it again would take someone that knew what they were doing, thatís for sure. The heck of it is that once upon a time it was a fun place to go on a Saturday night. Mel, if thereís anyone in this town that could make a go of that place, youíd be the one to do it. My kid was one of those running out there back when you ran the Junior Stock class. He said it was a heck of a ball because you cared about the kids and wanted to see them make a success out of it. When you got shoved out, a lot of the fun went out of it for him. He ran that Henry J down at Angola for the rest of the summer, then sold it. Said it wasnít fun anymore."
"Henry J?" I frowned. "Oh, I remember, the kid with the Kaiser-Frazer that was pure sleeper."
"When everybody else was running legal he could run with them," Hodges said. "He didnít do bad with it considering it was a seventy-five-dollar repo we took in."
There were a couple other racing stories told and then the topic drifted off somewhere else, I donít remember what but it doesnít matter now. I didnít realize it at the time, but the conversation lit up a little coal that had been burning in the back of my head ever since Glenn Mansfield spent so damn much money to push me out of the place. If Iíd had the money he spent buying trophies for his kid, with what Iíd had to work with in those days, I thought it would have been running pretty good today.
How would you build up a local short track starting from almost nothing, which is about what the Bradford Speedway represented? It wouldnít be an easy proposition. Probably a few cars could be talked into showing up on a Saturday night, especially if a little money was thrown around. There might still be some local racing interest; I knew of a handful of kids who had gone through the Auto Shop II classes and were still into it. Iíd even helped them work on their cars and the like Ė helping kids with their race cars was still something that I enjoyed.
Maybe do something different? Iíd spent some time hanging around the kart racing scene in the past couple years, and I knew some of us were getting pretty tired of having to go to a different factory parking lot and lay out a course with flour every weekend. Even though karts didnít race on dirt much, it wouldnít take a great deal of asphalt to make for a pretty decent little kart track right in the infield. Something to think about . . .
Iíd just have to hold every expense to a minimum. Even though the place was a dump, that still didnít mean it couldnít be fixed up some. Maybe not even try to hold night races, but race on Sunday afternoons Ė not many places did, that might bring in a few racers who had raced the night before. That would mean you wouldnít even have much of an electric bill. Try to get by with a minimum of paid personnel. Donít worry about the crowd; this is for the racers. Maybe not even charge admission until the show had been built up to something that was worth seeing . . . in the beginning, you might not get enough out of the front gate to pay someone to take the tickets.
The big stumbling block wasnít time and money. It was just money, because you could buy time with it. Time to build up the show and get some regular racers involved. I had a few bucks stuck back, not very many when you considered doing something like that. Not enough to make a go of it, thatís for sure.
I grabbed a napkin out of the holder, pulled out a pen and scribbled a few numbers. A big reach, too big a reach, even for the guesstimates that I scribbled there. I looked at them, frowned, scratched out a couple and wrote in a revision. Somewhere in there Cynthia must have come and refilled my coffee cup, because when I went to pick it up it was full again. If it werenít for the damn front money it would take to keep the thing going for a couple years, it might be possible . . .
"Thinking about it, huh?" I heard Hodges say from across the table. I looked up from the napkin, and realized that everyone else around the table had evaporated and left just the two of us there; heíd moved down to sit across from me.
"Yeah, a little," I admitted. "If I had the capital reserve I might be tempted to take a swing at it. The way things ended there always has kind of burned my ass, and Iíd be a liar if I didnít think that I could have done it right if Iíd been allowed to.
"Yeah, I know that didnít set well with you," Hodges said. "That damn Mansfield did some asshole things, but running you off was the stupidest thing he could have done, not that Smoky had his head screwed on very straight, either. If nothing else, you could prove to yourself that you were right and they were wrong."
"There is the temptation to rub their noses in it," I said. "How much is still owed on the place?"
"Not that much," he replied. "Fifty-two hundred and some change, Iíd have to look it up."
"How much land is there, anyway?"
"Around twenty acres," he said.
I did some mental math quickly, not my best subject but this was simple enough, since Iíd just had a go-round with the tax assessor on the value of my farm. If my farm-boy guess was right the land down there wasnít quite as good, mostly clay with weeds and scrub pine, even if it was a little lower than my place. As farmland, it might be worth as much as four hundred an acre in that day and age. So, that meant that the tax assessor would have figured the place would have been worth maybe eight thousand bucks as farmland on the open market. Since it was close to the intersection of Taney and I-67, it conceivably could have been worth more for industrial development if someone were to buy it and hang onto it.
"Rod," I said slowly. "Iím sure you realize that that youíd be money ahead if you took a big yellow bulldozer, piled all that beat-up wood into a pile in the center of the infield, threw some gas on it and set it on fire, and then hired somebody to go out and plant soybeans."
"Iím sure of it," he said. "And if someone doesnít do something pretty quick, say in the next couple months, thatís whatís going to happen. But I happen to think thereís still some intangible value to the community if someone were to reopen it and run it competently. Kenny kind of stole my thunder, but I wanted to talk to you about the same thing when I saw you in here this morning. If anyone in this town can do it, youíre the man."
"It all comes down to money," I told him. "I agree, five thousand and change isnít all that much money to a banker, but itís almost the cost of a couple new cars, so itís a lot of money to a schoolteacher like me. I know in theory I could go to you for a loan on it with that kind of equity. The problem is that youíre still going to want a piece of it back the first of every month, and unless I planted it to beans or something, the money wouldnít be there. I was just throwing some figures around on this napkin," Ė I pointed at it Ė "And my educated guess is that itíd be two or three years before I could break even, and thatís with pinching every penny till Lincoln farts."
"Somehow, I figured youíd say something like that," he shrugged. "I donít know that much about racing, but thatís about my analysis of it, too. I guess I was hoping that you might know something I didnít know."
"Iíll tell you this much," I told him. "Iím not going to give you a flat no, not right here at the coffee table. I need to think some things through, talk to some people, and that includes Arlene. There might be an angle or two that Iím not considering at first glance."
"Itíll be there in a few days," Rod shrugged. "I said a couple months, so I donít think thereís that big a rush. That option on the property expired months ago, and to the best of my knowledge there hasnít been any interest shown since. But give it serious consideration, Mel. For a while I thought you were on the verge of something valuable, and it was a damn shame you wouldnít have been the one to take advantage of it if it happened."
I called Cynthia over, got a big cup of coffee to go, then went out and got in the pickup. It was January after all, the roads were a touch slippery and there were wet spots and salty ones Ė no conditions to be taking something like the Mustang out in. It was part of the reason I had that old beater of a pickup in the first place.
I will admit that the notion of buying the place had occasionally crossed my mind every now and then since the "For Sale" sign went up on the track a couple years before. Usually, when the idea came up it was when I was driving by the place, but it usually faded by the time I got past the I-67 overpass, at least if I was heading toward town. It just hadnít seemed as if it were anything that I would want to do, even ignoring the financial reach.
I drove under the overpass, but rather than just heading back on out to the farm, I turned off on Fremont and drove around to the back gate of the track. The gate was still open, just like it had been when I had gone there with Arlene in the summer of í62 when I opened myself up to that whole hassle of the Junior Stock class. There was a little snow on the ground here and there, not much, and things were frozen solid.
The pit parking area that had looked so unappealing back then looked even worse in the cold, harsh light of a January day. Everything was winter dead and bare of course; there were weeds growing in profusion around the parking area. The door to the back office stood wide open in the wind, and from the window of the pickup I could see that there wasnít anything much in there. I took a sip of coffee, and drove the pickup through the pit gate onto the track.
The track hadnít been graded in years, and there were ruts and the beginnings of gullies all over the place. The infield was overgrown with weeds, and there were even bunches of them here and there on the racing surface. Several sections of fence were missing, probably the result of the storm weíd had the summer before when a big thunderhead had come through, spawning tornadoes. Fortunately none touched down, but thereíd been a lot of wind damage anyway. The boards on the bleachers looked pretty bleak and warped; a couple windows were missing out of the scoring tower at the top. It seemed likely that kids with rocks were the primary cause of that. To be honest, it didnít look like it was worth saving to me.
Well, there were dumber ideas than what Iíd told Rod Ė burn everything and plant it to soybeans. You know, I thought, thereís your backup position. If you were to buy it and you couldnít make a go of it, you could always plant beans. It seemed a little surprising that Glenn and Smoky hadnít done that Ė Glenn was a farmer after all, it would have been easy for him. Maybe it was just that it seemed a little more valuable, more iconic as a speedway, even a run-down, beat-up, abandoned one.
It was worth thinking about when looked at from that viewpoint, but it was time that I quit talking to myself and started talking to Arlene.