I want you to know that my fanny was dragging when I had to get up and go teach school the next morning. Sunday had been a long day, if a successful one, and I thought that the track was off to a good start. It turned out that several teachers had showed up besides Craig, and they’d been fairly impressed by what they’d seen.
They weren’t the only ones impressed. I had several kids in my auto shop classes who said they were looking for cars to take out there if they could manage to get a little help in getting started, and of course I said I’d do what I could to help. I knew of two or three old Junior Stock cars that might be available, and it wasn’t a big deal to convert a more modern car to an Economy Stock. Back in the Junior Stock days of the early sixties I’d helped several kids get started that way, so again I offered some shop space and advice, as well as a few driving lessons.
The following Saturday morning was the opener for the kart racing. Now, I got into this because my kids liked running the things, but this was not just a kid thing. There were a lot of adults involved in the racing, mostly people who for one reason or another liked the racing but didn’t feel like they could commit to a full-sized race car. In years past, we’d typically had forty or fifty drivers of all ages show up for one of our Saturday parking lot bashes. I figured there would be those who didn’t want to drive on dirt, so that would cut back the attendance somewhat.
I really wasn’t terribly concerned about it. This was different; I wasn’t promoting the races or organizing them myself – the karting association was doing it. The only money the track made off of it was concessions, and a payment based on head count. Vern and Ray were part of that head count. I hadn’t gotten involved in the organizing of the club, so all I really had to do was to make sure everything on the track side was running smoothly, and ride herd on the boys.
I think I was about as surprised as anyone else to see seventy-seven karts out there on Saturday, which was about twice what anyone in the organization had expected. I’m still not sure why we got such a good turnout, but I wasn’t complaining. Dealing with that many kart racers was a hassle, but I’d been there the previous weekend and now had some idea on how to handle it.
While we’d graded out a short course for the karts, it wasn’t as well packed as the main racing surface. The boys and I had made some test runs out there with their karts earlier in the week, and after several laps I was pretty well convinced that it would be just as well to use the main track. That was a big surface for the karts to run on, so there wasn’t going to be much issue of someone getting in the most favored line and parking in it.
We had some terrific racing there that day. I got to talk to a lot of people with my track owner hat on, and it turned out that while most people would rather race on pavement, having a place to race at all was just fine, and a place with corners that wide made it a lot of fun. I promised everyone that there would be some kind of paved track along eventually, but right now just getting the place on its own two feet was my main priority.
As I expected, the car count fell off the next day to about half what we’d had for the opening weekend. That was just fine; even with some changes that came out of our little critique session over beer after the race, that was plenty – and about twice what I would have considered a good turnout before the opening weekend. Let’s just say that I didn’t think I had much room to complain.
The reduced car count, a couple more hands in keeping things organized, and a little practice made things go a lot more smoothly. When you got right down to it, this was more what I’d envisioned – a small enough group that I could get to know everybody, everything casual enough that there was no reason for people to get too upset, time enough to work with people who needed help, friendly racing among friends.
For instance, in one of the heats that weekend there was a guy who had a tire pop off its bead from leaning on it too hard in a corner. Nobody was hurt, but we had to throw the yellow so he could get off the track. He limped into the pits with it. Of course, several people had seen what had happened, and when he pulled up in his pit stall people came running – not a pit crew or anything, just other racers and friends. They had that car jacked up so quick that he didn’t even have time to get out of the kart, a spare tire and rim from someone else’s car got put on in only seconds using only a speed wrench, and in less than a slow pace lap he was on his way again, scarcely able to believe it. Since we never counted laps under yellow, he was able to pick up his place in the field. He didn’t go on to win – there weren’t enough laps left – but he finished the race. That counted for a lot, in my book – seeing people pitch in when one of their competitors had trouble. There were a lot of places in those days where you wouldn’t have seen that, but here it came off without comment. I think everyone realized that it could be them in trouble next time.
What really blew me away was the next weekend. That Sunday happened to be Indianapolis 500 day. While Bradford wasn’t Indiana, the state line is not far away, and I figured we’d be lucky to get ten cars out – but no, we had nearly sixty! To get that kind of crowd up against the 500 was just about unheard of, and it made me glad I hadn’t given in to the temptation to just cancel things for that weekend. Frank had a little radio up in the announcer’s booth, and between races he set the microphone for the PA system down in front of the radio, and only broke in during commercials and when we had a race on our own track. It turned out to be a pretty good afternoon. In the A-Main, Delmer Purdy managed to get his revenge for the opening week, getting his Modified around Howie Eastlund’s Late Model in the final turn to win. When you got right down to it, that was more interesting than what was going on down at the Brickyard.
The car count for the Economy Stock class was up from the previous weekend, too. Three of my auto shop kids were making their first start, two of them in cars than had been Junior Stocks in the old days. The third, much to everyone’s surprise, was an old, clapped out flathead Rambler American that the kid picked up for the grand sum of fifteen dollars. The car wasn’t much and he didn’t have much to put into it, but he managed to beat out the two other first timers in the class for some severe bragging rights. The kid’s name was Baxter Fenway, and if you go back into the record books you’ll find that he made several Winston Cup starts in later years, and even won a couple races. He wasn’t the only kid who had first come up at Bradford Speedway to go on to greater things, but he was the first.
After that weekend things settled down a little – at least we all were getting to know what to expect and we were getting used to it. My summer was just about as busy as ever, what with all the driver education kids, and then with spending time with beginning racers out at the shop or down at the track. We did take one rainout, the third weekend in June, but it was nice to have the break. It seemed like Bradford Speedway was on its way back to being a success.
Then, the week after the Fourth of July the last thing I ever would have expected, happened.
We were just getting ready to sit down to dinner on one of the rare summer evenings that I didn’t have to ride with Driver Education kids, and as far as I knew there weren’t going to be any kids coming by to work on cars. As hectic as everything had been all spring and summer that was a rare treat. Arlene and I didn’t have anything in particular planned, except to do as little as possible and enjoy it. I was in the living room, leafing through the National Speed Sport News when there was a knock on the front door.
"Now, who could that be?" I wondered aloud. The way the house was set up, and being in the country, the back door was the one we mainly used. Only a stranger, and one from the city at that, would be knocking on the front door. I went to the door, to see two guys in suits standing there. "Hi," I said. "Can I help you?"
"You’re Melvin Austin, right?" one of the men said. I said I was, and he said, "You’re a little hard to catch up with. I’m Mike Goodell of General Hardware Retailers Development Division, and this is my associate, Randall Cockburn. May we come in?"
"Sure," I said, wondering what this was all about. "We’re just getting set to have dinner."
"Well, this probably won’t take long," he said as he came in, followed by Cockburn. "I understand you own the Bradford Speedway."
"Yes," I told him. "My wife Arlene and I do."
"If she’s not too busy, maybe she’d like to sit in on this," Goodell suggested.
I called Arlene, who turned down the heat on whatever she was cooking and came to join us. There were introductions around, and finally I said, "Now, what’s this all about?"
"Like I said," Goodell explained. "We’re from General Hardware Retailers Development Division, and we’d like to buy your speedway."
"It’ll tell you the truth," I told them. "Right off the top of my head, I’m not all that anxious to sell. Over the last few months we’ve put a lot of money and sweat into that place, and had the good will and the help of a lot of people who haven’t asked for much in return but a place to go racing. I’d feel awful crappy to sell the place out from under them."
"We could see that someone has put in an awful of work down there," Goodell said. "You’ve done a really fine job of it. It looks much better than it did when we were here a year ago. We understand that you’ve put a lot into it. But, let me tell you where we’re coming from. We’ve been looking at Bradford as the ideal location for a regional distribution center. This is really going to just be a big warehouse, where full truck loads and even train cars of merchandise can be broken down and distributed by truck to our various stores. We’ve been looking at several locations, and have taken out purchase options on land in two locations, here and one other place. We’d originally decided to go to the other place, but we ran into some difficulties we hadn’t anticipated. So, now we’re looking at building the distribution center here instead. We’re probably talking three hundred to five hundred jobs in two years, with the likelihood of expansion."
"That’s a big operation," I said, impressed. "And you need the Speedway to do it?"
"Yes, we do," Goodell said. "I won’t go into all the reasons why, but your location right off of the Interstate has the most to do with it. We had the land under option, but somehow we neglected to renew the option when it expired last winter. Now, we’re in a bind."
"We realize you’ve put a lot of work in down there," Cockburn said, speaking up for the first time. "And we respect that. Letting the option go was our mistake, and we’d be willing to compensate you for the investment you’ve made down there. Would fifty thousand dollars cover it?"
You could have knocked me over with a feather. Fifty thousand was almost ten times what we’d paid for the land a few months previously. Of course, there had been a lot of effort put into the place and some money, but fifty thousand would more than cover it, with plenty left over. "It bears some thinking about," I told them. "How soon do you have to know?"
"The sooner, the better," Goodell said. "Once we have your property nailed down we can go ahead and exercise our options on the other land we’ll need. Some of it is already purchased. We’d like to get moving on this as soon as we can, in hopes of getting a good start on the concrete work while the weather is halfway decent. The track area and parking lot would be a good place to marshal some of the heavy equipment we’re going to need. At least, that’s what I’m told. Construction isn’t my strong point."
"The thing is," Cockburn added, "We’ve already got contractors lined up to work on the other site. Moving them here isn’t going to be a big deal, but canceling it now and having to pick it up again at a later date would be very expensive. So, we need to get moving as soon as possible."
"Gentlemen," I said. "I think Arlene and I had better step out back and talk this over."
"Sure, we have no problem with that," Goodell said. "I’m sure this comes out of midair for you, and has to be something of a shock. We’re prepared to give you a check for ten percent earnest money tonight, and the balance on signing the closing papers."
"We’ll be back in a few minutes," I said, holding the door for Arlene.
We went out on the back porch, and then down the steps into the driveway. "Mel," she said. "I sure would like to tell them to go to hell, but I don’t see how we can."
"That’s just exactly how I feel," I told her. "Don’t get me wrong, the money is one thing, but two or three hundred jobs, with the promise of more to come? You know how I feel about kids having to leave town because there’s no prospects for them here. I can’t stand in the way of that."
"I couldn’t agree more," she said. "The hell of it is all the people who have put all that time into bringing the speedway back from the dead. I don’t want to have to tell them that we’re just going to slap them in the face over money. I couldn’t walk down the street here again if I was a part of that."
"Yeah, me either," I said. "On the other hand, that doesn’t have to be the end of the speedway. We have a hundred and twenty acres here. I don’t see why we can’t use ten of them for something besides alfalfa, and fifty thousand dollars would go a long way toward a lot better track than the one we’ve got now."
"That would make things different," she said. "A lot different. But let’s make it a paved track. I think I’ve eaten enough track dirt to hold me for a while."
"Yeah, me too," I agreed. "It’s a little different than what we’re used to, but I think I’ve eaten enough dirt, too. Let’s do it."
"Fine with me," she smiled.
I still couldn’t get over the feeling that I was stabbing some people in the back when I headed into the living room, but I hoped that most of them would see it as an opportunity, not a problem.
"All right," I told our two visitors. "Speaking in general, if you don’t mind me using that term, I think we’ve got a deal. However, you have to realize that we’re in the middle of a racing season down there, and lots of the people racing are the ones who have put more than their share of effort into the place. I don’t want to sell the track out from under them with virtually no notice. Is there any chance we can finish out the season?"
"We sure would like to be able to take possession before then," Cockburn said. "Really, it’s a case of the sooner, the better. If we could use part of your parking lot to store some heavy equipment, I suppose we could drag it out to the end of the month, but we’re going to have to put up a portable concrete plant that’s going to be needed not long after that. Would it help you if we were to throw in an extra ten thousand to help with the anticipated loss of revenue?"
"Sure, that would help," I said, trying to conceal my surprise. "As far as I’m concerned, the back parking area is yours as soon as we get everything signed, if that would help out any. I take it you have no objection to our salvaging what we can?"
"No, it’s all waste material to us," Cockburn agreed. "Anything you get out of there is something we won’t have to move. If you can give us the back lot by the first of the week and the rest of the place by the end of the month, I don’t think it’s going to hurt the schedule too badly."
"Then, I guess we have a deal," Goodell said. "We should be ready to finalize it by the first of the week, if that’s all right with you."
Fifteen minutes later they were on their way. I was holding a check for six thousand dollars in my hot little hand while Arlene turned the heat on under our belated dinner. "I still don’t like it," I told her as I sat sideways on one of the kitchen chairs. "But under the circumstances I don’t see anything else we can do."
"Me either," she said. "But I think it’ll be good in the long run. It’s going to be a few minutes until I have dinner ready again. How about if you go call Zack and Diane? I think we need to tell them face to face, and to work out what comes next."
"Yeah," I said. "That’s going to be just the first step in a lot of things we’re going to have to deal with."
We were just finishing up dinner when Zack and Diane showed up. I had tried not to let them know that things were changing, but there must have been something in the sound of my voice that worried them. "Mel," Diane said. "Is anything the matter?"
"Yes, and no," I told her. "I think Arlene and I just set us all up for a lot more work, but I’m thinking it’s going to be worth it."
We sat down on the back porch, and I went through the whole deal with them. As expected, they were not happy to hear that I was planning to sell the track, but the prospect of both a big new employer and a new track put a different spin on things. "Shit," Zack said. "There ain’t no way you could have said no to that many jobs. I wouldn’t have blamed you if you’d just given them the place, but to get a new track out of it sounds like a deal."
"I think so, too," I told them. "If it had been someone who wanted to put in a truck stop or something it would have been a lot different. But that many jobs, there wasn’t much we could do to say no. Now, what I’m thinking is that there’s no way we’ll ever be able to get a new paved track going in less than a month. It could take a year to do it right. What I’m thinking is that we go find a likely spot out east of the house here, mark out a track, and move what we can up here to race on for the rest of the season. The track won’t be as good as we have now, but it’ll bridge the gap till a new one is built. God knows, Arlene and I raced on enough makeshift tracks all over the Midwest, so this ought to be at least a little bit better."
"It’s got to be better than racing in a dust storm in a rodeo ring," Arlene smiled. "I guess I can put up with the dust of a track near the house for a while. At least the house will be upwind of the track most of the time."
"Let’s go take a look at what we’ve got to work with," Zack suggested. "I’m guessing we get a week, two at the most, to race at the old place, so we’re going to have to figure the new one out on the fly."
The four of us got up and headed out into the field east of the house. Now, I should probably point out that while Arlene and I had lived on the farm going on a decade, since I didn’t farm it I didn’t get out there an awful lot. I mean, I could see some of the land from the area around the house and buildings, but to actually get out on it was rare. Farther back, where I couldn’t see from the house, some of it was pretty vague in my mind. The field east of the house usually had corn or soybeans on it, but the last couple years Art had planted it to alfalfa. In two years it had developed a pretty good root structure, and since he’d recently cut it over and baled it, the walking was easy. We got out to a spot over near the property line that was pretty flat. "I’m thinking this might be a good spot for a track," I said. "Especially something we’d want to throw up in a hurry."
"It’d be pretty flat," Zack commented. "It’d be nicer if it had some banking but we can’t really have that on a quick job."
"Might work," I said. "But let’s take a walk back and see what there is to see. We might want to use this for the permanent track, and then we could have some banking."
"Yeah, no point in making too quick a decision," Zack said. "There might be a better spot."
We walked on back away from the road, up over a little rise. A small valley only a few feet deep lay in front of us. It came up to a level on one end, and opened out to the east on the other. I’d seen it before, of course, but now looked at it with a new eye. "Zack," I said. "Do you see what I see?"
"Yeah," he said. "If you just graded the weeds off, you’d have about three quarters of a track right there. If you had your grandstands right about here, you wouldn’t have to move a lot of dirt to have about a fifteen-degree banking for turns one and two. You’d have to move some dirt for turns three and four, though. Just eyeballing it, it looks like it’s a little big for a quarter mile track."
"Doesn’t have to be a quarter mile," I shrugged as I pictured it in my mind’s eye. "This is for a paved track, after all. I’d say by eyeball, it might be possible to make a three-eighths mile track out of it, depending on how you cut turns three and four."
"Boy," Zack said. "Wouldn’t this make a hell of a track?"