We got an awful lot done that weekend. In some areas, we were beyond where Iíd hoped to be when we actually got things going, but there were other areas that hadnít progressed along as far as Iíd hoped. We didnít have crowds like that every weekend, but typically there would twenty or thirty people out on Saturday for the next few weeks. By the time we got done, it didnít look like the same old place. Two or three weeks later I stopped off by the track on the way home from school one afternoon, to discover that someone had dropped off fifty gallons of white paint! I had no idea where it came from, there was no receipt or bill of lading or anything, but once again I wasnít going to look a gift horse in the mouth. That weekend we had three compressors running spray guns, and the place looked a lot better when we got done.
One of the things that needed to be done was to build a catch fence along the front straight to protect the spectators in the bleachers. This struck me as a good idea although Iíd rarely seen it done up until that time, but the insurance company said they would give me a cut on the rates if it was there, and I was not one to argue. There was some other fencing to be done Ė we needed to build a woven wire fence to keep people off the track. I did some figuring on the fencing involved for the two projects, and it came to a considerable total that would cut deep into our cash reserves.
Fortunately, Art Angunar solved that problem. This was in the days when a lot of little farms were consolidating into larger ones, and with bigger machinery it was getting a little inconvenient to work the small fields that had been the standard up till then. As a result, there was a lot of farm fence being ripped out and just left in rolls, worthless. Art had quite a bit laying around, and found more; one Saturday morning we showed up and there were three farm wagons full of the stuff, along with piles of posts. Some of it wasnít worth the powder to blow it away, but a lot could be salvaged, enough for what we needed, and it didnít cost us a dime.
There were a lot of little things like that over the course of the next few weeks, too many to mention, and that helped keep things way under the budget we had projected. People came out of the woodwork to help, and it was for a lot more than just getting rid of that eyesore west of town. The mess that Smoky and Glenn made had put a lot of noses out of joint, and I think there were a lot of people who wanted to see things put right.
I havenít mentioned the boys and Elaine, but they pitched right in, too. There wasnít a lot they could do Ė but they did what they could, picking up trash, pulling weeds, scraping paint and things like that. This was a family thing and we were all in it.
Still, there was a lot to do, and it was touch and go whether we were going to be ready for our opening weekend. In spite of our brand spiffy new concession stand the Health Department dragged their butts on getting it approved, and I wasnít sure it was going to be available for our opener. That could have been a disaster, since we didnít have front gate receipts to help with our income Ė it was going to just have to come out of back gate entry fees and concessions. Fortunately, it finally did get signed off on Friday, just two days before opening day, and whatever happened, we were ready to go.
I will be the first to admit to having quite a case of nerves on the Saturday night beforehand, which was the opening night for several tracks within a hundred miles or so. Iíd done my best to spread the word among the racers that we were going to have a casual Sunday afternoon show, and several people had said they were going to be there, but I had visions of only half a dozen cars showing up and it being a flop.
I guess I was being a pessimist unnecessarily. Arlene and I got up early, drove over to the Chicago Inn for breakfast to find Zack and Diane doing the same thing. "So, did you wind up running over at Maple Shade last night?" I asked Zack.
"Yeah, didnít do too bad, either," he said. "I wound up fourth, but I was leading till the last couple laps when I sort of got punted. Oh, well, Iíll get him next time."
"I take it that means youíre planning on being out there today," I said. "That means that weíll have one car."
"Oh, I think weíll have more than one," he said. "There were a lot of people that seemed interested."
"I sure hope youíre right," I said gloomily. "I sure would hate to see all that work go for nothing."
"Itís not going to go for nothing," he smiled. "You just wait and see. This is going to turn out fine."
I told him I wished I could believe him. There was a lot riding on this being a success, and even a halfway good day would get us off on the right foot. I was still pretty nervous when we drove back under the overpass and into the parking area for the track. Hours before we were due to start there were a dozen cars or more on haulers or tow bars, waiting for us to open the gates for practice!
One of the cars surprised me. I mean, it really surprised me Ė it was the old í52 Hudson that Phil Sharp had run when Iíd been in charge of the Junior Stock class there in the early sixties. You didnít often see those old Hudsons anymore; they were getting pretty old for those days. What really surprised me was that Phil Sharp was the one there with it! It turned out that heíd just come from graduating from college to work in the insurance agency with his father, had heard that I was reviving the track, and got that old Hudson running after it had been sitting behind the garage under a tarp for five years. By God, I thought, this might really work.
As if that wasnít enough of a surprise, along in the morning Pepper and Dewey showed up, with a Mini-Cooper 1500 sitting on a trailer! "Thatís not exactly a stock car," I commented, seeing the little bug that would be at home on a road course.
"Hey," Dewey grinned, "You said, ĎRun what you brung.í This is what we brung. You think this is far out, you ainít seen nothing, yet."
I soon found out what he was talking about. It turned out that there wasnít a sports car race anywhere within reasonable towing distance that weekend, so Pepper and Dewey had passed the word among some of their teabagger friends that if they wanted to find out what it was like to run a dirt oval, they wouldnít find a better chance. I swear, they brought in half a dozen cars that probably had never set tires on dirt in their lives, bringing drivers with them who probably had never even seen a dirt oval. The absolute untoppable capper came a couple hours later, when a guy with a pickup pulled in, towing a trailer loaded with an honest to God 427 Shelby Cobra! They hadnít built Cobras in the last couple years, but they were still about the hottest things you could find on a road course, but a little dirt track in the middle of nowhere was about as far out of its normal stomping grounds as you could imagine.
"You guys," I shook my head. "What else are we expecting? A Ferrari, maybe?"
"Donít think so," Pepper said. "There was a guy that was interested, but we told him that it probably would be better to have a little higher centered car for a dirt track. Kind of a shame, too. We could stand a good road course in this neck of the woods."
It got busy for a while there. Arlene was handling registrations and entry fees, while I was trying to make some sense out of the people that kept showing up, trying to build some sort of a race plan. It kept continually changing, since more and more cars kept showing up, ranging from that Cobra down to old Fords that might not have been run in years, and stuff like Phil Sharpís Hudson. Cars of every description Ė it was just hard to believe.
Right in the middle of the whole damn show, when it was beginning to strike me that this was going to be a whole lot bigger deal that Iíd ever dreamed it could be, Frank showed up. "Looks pretty good for an opener," he said. "You know, if itís going to go this well, you really ought to have the 2 and the 66 down here so you and Arlene can run a ceremonial opening lap."
"Great idea," I said. "I should have thought of it. Now I havenít got the time to run up and get them. If you want to do it, theyíre sitting in the chicken coop behind my house. Thereís batteries for them sitting on the charger."
"OK, great," he said. "Iíll grab Dewey and Pepper and go get them."
I was so damn busy right then that I didnít have time to think about it, but when I happened to look up a few minutes later, I saw Frank and Dewey driving the 2 and the 66 cars into the parking lot. Iíd thought they were going to trailer them, but they didnít mess around with that Ė they just drove them down the highway, cops or no cops.
By now, practice was under way, and let me tell you, with the varying speeds of cars we had out there, that got interesting. I turned people out to practice four cars at a time for ten laps Ė well, actually Zack did, he volunteered to handle the flags for a while. I didnít get to see much of the practice, but I noticed that Dewey and his little Mini-Cooper were really flying around the track. Even though it was pretty far away from the MMSA midget that heíd spent so much time on dirt with, he hadnít forgotten how to drive on dirt. He wasnít the fastest thing out there by a long shot, but that little bug was a heck of a lot faster than it looked at first appearance.
One of the surprising things was that the 427 Cobra really wasnít doing that well. It was one hell of a pavement car but getting all that power to the dirt was interesting, and the driver Ė damned if I can remember his name, Tom something or other Ė had never driven on dirt in his life. After a while Ė and a few helpful hints from Dewey Ė he began to get the hang of it, and was making pretty good time, but that big side-oiler mill in that thing was really too much for that car on that track. Still, it was a hell of a sight to see.
What may have been the best sight of all to see was a half a dozen or so older six-cylinder cars that we now called "Economy Stocks," all of them veterans of the days when Iíd been running the Junior Stocks at the track, most of them with the same drivers from back then, like Phil. Some of those cars and drivers, like Phil, hadnít raced since the night that Iíd walked out of the place after getting the knife in the back from Smoky Kern. While it was nice to see the high-end and the odd stuff, I knew they werenít going to be a regular part of the show Ė it was going to be the little guys who liked to race for the hell of it that were going to be the bread and butter of the place.
When everything was said and done, we had eighty-three cars registered! I donít know for sure, but Iíll bet that beat the best car count that Smoky had ever had when he owned the place. It was, realistically, four or five times as many cars as I could have reasonably anticipated, and I was being run ragged in the process. There were things that needed to be done, and I had to grab people who didnít have something heavy in both hands to do them for me. One of them was Frank. "I hadnít figured on doing too much with the PA system, other than to help set races and like that," I said. "Youíre now the track announcer for today."
"I can do that," he said. "Iíve called a few races. I havenít done it in years, but I donít think Iíve forgotten how."
"More like a few hundred races," I joked at him. "I think youíll knock off the rust pretty quick."
Finally, about half an hour before the scheduled race time, I got on the PA myself and called all the drivers down to the bleachers for the driverís meeting. When they showed up, along with some people who had come with them, I began to wish that weíre repaired and painted more bleachers because the place was standing room only with more people showing up all the while. "All right, everybody," I said. "For those of you who donít know me, Iím Mel Austin, the new owner of this place along with my wife Arlene. Welcome to the Bradford Speedway. Drivers, spectators, everybody else, weíre all here to have a good time so letís keep it that way. Reopening this speedway wouldnít have been possible without the help of a lot of people, and I see many of those people sitting here in the stands today. Iíd mention names, but Iím afraid Iíd miss somebody so I wonít mention anyone except Arlene, and our concessions manager Diane Gorsline, whoís responsible for those great hot dogs everybodyís been munching on."
I went on to talk about the fact that it was good to have such spectators as there were sitting in on the driverís meeting, since that would help them get a better idea of what was involved. I explained that we were going to be running heats with the cars grouped rather arbitrarily, and the starting positions chosen by drawing. The heats would sort out where weíd start people in the A-B-C Mains, except that it looked like today it was going to go all the way to an E-main. Thereíd be special features for the economy stocks, and for some sprint cars and midgets that had shown up. I asked the sports car drivers if they wanted to run by themselves, or just mixed in with the regular group, and they decided that there was enough speed differential that they couldnít have a very good race by themselves. "That ought to be interesting," I said. "You guys race a little differently than weíre used to, but I think weíll make it work."
It took a little longer to get through everything. "All right," I finally said, "Itís right about a quarter to one. Weíll have some opening ceremonies at one, and then get started with the racing. Thatís what weíre here for, isnít it? While youíre waiting, you might want to wander over to our new concession stand and get a couple of those great track hot dogs Diane is selling."
I hadnít really planned much of an opening ceremony beyond "Letís get this show on the road." Frank knew better, and felt that it deserved more than that, even if we hadnít planned it. Right at one oíclock, he started in. "Folks, Iím Frank Blixter, your track announcer for the day," he said, and I could tell from the sound of his voice that he was enjoying himself. "Itís been a while since Iíve called a race and Iím afraid I donít know all the drivers and cars, but Iíll do the best I can. Weíre here today to celebrate the reopening of the Bradford Speedway and to start off a new and better period of its history under the new owners, Mel and Arlene Austin. Theyíre both old time racers that have run on a lot of dirt tracks around the country, and they know how to do things right and how not do things that are wrong. I think that under their stewardship this place is going to have a great future.
"Now, Iíve known Mel and Arlene for years, back when they were both running MMSA midgets with me. Theyíre going to dedicate this place by making some ceremonial laps in the only two surviving MMSA midgets left over from those days. Both of them were restored by Mel and his students at Bradford High School, so these two cars are something special."
Arlene and I had known this was coming, and weíd snuck off to the end of the bleachers were the two cars were parked, and had them running when Frank called for us. Both of them started easily with their nearly new Simca engines, and we pulled out onto the track, while Frank talked a little more about the history of the cars, the MMSA, and Arleneís and my part in it.
It had been a long time since Iíd been on a track in a midget with Arlene. For a while there it almost seemed like the old days. An awful lot of my life had been shaped from what had happened to me sitting in the cockpit of the 66 car Ė I managed to put in the back of my mind that the car I was sitting in wasnít the real 66 car, although it looked like it Ė and somehow there I was a younger man for a moment, wanting to come out of the fourth corner and stick my foot in it. I glanced over at Arlene in the 2 car, and could just about see that she was thinking the same thing. We shook our heads at each other as if to say those days were gone, but not forgotten. I was actually a little surprised that we got back to the pits without having a little race.
We were just getting out of the cars to run back to whatever it was we were supposed to be doing when we heard someone singing The Star Spangled Banner. It wasnít a recording and the voice wasnít familiar, until I realized it was Vivian. I hadnít known she could sing like that, but she sure did a good job of it. As soon as it was over with, Arlene hustled up to the flag stand while I stayed around the new pit gate, making sure that the first heat was lined up to go.
The first heat was Economy Stocks, which seemed like a darn good place to start considering all the work that Iíd put in with Junior Stocks back in the day. Amazingly enough, we had enough of them show up to start two smallish heats, but that was one area that I hoped would grow in the future. We had thirteen cars Ė it would have been fourteen if Iíd knuckled under to Deweyís teasing statement that he really ought to run in Economy Stocks. I told him no way, the class rules called for six cylinders, and he only had four. "Hey, Mel, anything for sandbagging, you know that."
To get things off on the right foot, Iíd decided weíd run restrictor plates on them right from the beginning, which most people agreed to. Then, it was time for another surprise! Back when Iíd walked off the track in í62, Iíd never bothered to gather up the restrictor plates that had already been issued. Four of the thirteen cars in the two heats still had the restrictor plates on them that Iíd put there in 1962 Ė they had just been parked after Iíd been run off, and no one had ever bothered to take them off since the cars hadnít been run in the six years since. Phil Sharpís was one of them, and as luck had it he drew the pole position in the first heat.
As it turned out, that first heat was a pretty good one. Even though he was way out of practice, Phil got a jump on the pack at the starting line and led the way into the first corner. Considering the small number of cars the race was close and tight, but Phil and his old Hudson managed to hold onto the lead all the way to win the first heat race at the reborn Bradford Speedway. Lloyd Weber had sort of been volunteered to be the track photographer that day, at least partly because he wanted to get some photos of this landmark day, and he took a picture of Phil holding the checkered flag and the cheap little trophy we gave him, the first of many such photos that would be taken that day.
Even running fairly large heats, what with everything I never thought we were going to run out of heat races. There were a lot of them. As it turned out, Dewey fooled me a little, since Iíd put him in what I figured was going to be a fairly slow heat, but that little Mini of his ran like stink and in ten laps he almost lapped the field. That got him right straight into the A Main, which I thought was going to be interesting to see his little puddle jumper out there with various Mods, Late Models, and the Cobra.
All the racing came off pretty good. Oh, there were a few spins and a couple minor fender benders, nothing that couldnít be fixed or at least cobbled up to be able to continue. When youíre running cars at that level, getting dinged now and then is part of the price youíre going to pay, like it or not.
We took a break to organize the Mains; I needed the break as much as anyone and needed the time to figure out where to put everyone. My plan was that anyone who showed up was going to get the chance to run in a main if they were running at all when it came around, so it took a little figuring. As it turned out we had to run five Mains, just like Iíd figured; the top two cars in each main transferred to the next higher one.
The sun was getting low in the sky before the A-Main started, the last race of the day. We were hours behind where Iíd hoped to be, between the huge car count and all the little details that needed to be attended to. In theory I had the option of turning on the track lighting if things went late, but since I hadnít planned on running after dark I hadnít even bothered to switch it on to see if the lights worked or what. Once the A-Main got started, I wasnít too surprised to see Dewey falling back in the field, but after ten laps it was clear that the race was going to come down to Howie Eastlundís Late Model, Delmer Purdyís Modified, and the Tom guy in the 427 Cobra, who had finally figured out how to get that monster around a dirt track. In the end, Howie managed to salvage bragging rights for us oval track guys by nipping from third to first in the last half lap, winning by a nose. It was one hell of a race and one hell of a finish.
Even then, my day wasnít over with. I tried to get around to as many racers as I could, just to thank them for coming and hoping that theyíd come out next week. In truth, I didnít expect a good many of them to be there another week. The sports car guys were going to be running up in Kent County; this had been just a chance for them to come out and fool around a little. There were others that I knew showed up only to show good will and werenít going to be regulars. But to my surprise there were a lot of people that said theyíd had fun, that Iíd done wonders with the track, and that theyíd be back the following weekend.
The sun really was going down before the place pretty well cleared out. A handful of us gathered at one of the picnic tables behind the bleachers that weíd set up there days before and Diane broke out a cooler of beer that sheíd saved all day just for this. "Well," she said. "I donít think it was too bad for a starter. I only had to send someone to the supermarket for more food twice."
"Iíll tell you what," I said. "Iím just about as beat as I can be. I canít believe weíre going to have a turnout like this every week, but Iíll tell you this much: even if we only have half the cars, weíre going to need more help. I always thought Smoky was ducking me when he said he had other things to do, but Iíll be damned if he wasnít right. We made that work somehow, but we canít drag it out like this every week."
"Absolutely," Frank said. "You canít let the crowd get bored. You had a pretty good turnout of just citizens that came to watch the free show. I got some empty cans from Diane and had them passed around, so you had some donations to help sweeten the pot a little."
"Any idea how much?" Arlene asked.
"No idea," Frank said. "Itís still sitting in the cans. I will tell you that while thereís quarters and dimes in there, thereís also tens and twenties."
"Frank, as it turned out you were a huge help today," I said. "There werenít a lot of people running around today who knew what they were doing, but at least you did. I sure wish I could have you for a track announcer every week."
"Well, I canít make it every weekend," he said. "Iíve got a few times when Iíll have other things that I have to do. But if we have a car count half that good, I can make it down here most weekends."
"Frank, thatís really appreciated," I told him. "But you know, itís an awful long way down here from Livonia."
"Yeah, it is," he said. "But on the other hand, today was about the most fun Iíve had since I sold the MMSA. Count me in."