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Bullring Days 3 book cover

Bullring Days 3:
Banners Flying
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2014

Chapter 9

Back at the Austin house, Lonnie and Bob helped Ray and Ginger unload Ginger’s stuff from the ambulance and carry it up to what had once been Vern’s room, but which was now empty of his things. While the guys carried stuff up the stairs Ginger set to work on unloading the trash bags, setting some, like the books, aside for further work later.

Finally, the guys came trooping upstairs with a final load. “That’s it,” Ray said, “and you know what? It’s well after lunchtime. What do you say if I take everybody back down to the Chicago?”

“I really should stay here and work on this stuff,” Ginger sighed, “but I don’t want to right now. Let’s go.”

The four of them headed back down to the ambulance, which was backed right up to the back porch door. “Aw, hell,” Ray said. “Let’s just take this rather than pissing around with the cars, and hope that nobody has a heart attack or something and expects us to take them to the hospital.”

“That would be a little embarrassing,” Ginger said.

“Yeah, it would,” Ray said. “Fortunately it’s never happened to me, and if we’re lucky it won’t this time. That’s why I never take this thing out on the road unless I absolutely have to.”

Lunch at the Chicago Inn went quickly – it was the middle of the afternoon and things were slow. When they went outside after they were done the rain had almost stopped, and it was definitely lighter off in the west. “Good,” Ray said. “Maybe it’s gotten it out of its system for a while.”

“We could probably get out and mow some after school tomorrow,” Lonnie said.

“The grass might be dry enough but the ground will still be pretty soft,” Ray said. “If we get a couple nice, warm, breezy days it should dry out pretty good and then we can see where things are. If you want to come out after school tomorrow you could probably get started on the painting, though.”

In a few minutes the ambulance was put away in the barn. Bob and Lonnie were gone, and the rain had definitely quit. That was going a long way toward clearing up Ginger’s foul mood. “So what are you going to do the rest of the afternoon?” she asked Ray. “Work on that engine?”

“Yeah, I guess,” he shook his head. “I sure haven’t made the progress on it that I had originally planned, and if the weather’s going to turn nice on us it could slow me down even more. How about you?”

“I really should go back up and unpack some more of my stuff,” she said, “but I’d be a liar if I said that interested me. It’s going to be just too much of a downer if I try to do it by myself. Would you mind if I hung around in the shop with you so we could just talk? I’ll try not to interfere with your working.”

“Fine by me,” he smiled. “I’d rather have you with me than be alone anyway.”

So they headed over to the shop, Ginger settling down in the swivel chair while Ray got back to work on the engine. Mostly they just swapped stories, and like the day before, just being together and talking went a long way toward clearing up Ginger’s black mood.

It didn’t seem like a long time, but must have been a couple hours when they heard a car drive in. A few minutes later Mel walked into the shop, still dressed in school clothes. “I kind of figured when I found one of you I’d have found the both of you,” he smiled. “You guys having a good day?”

“Not bad,” Ray said. “Did Mom get a chance to talk to you about Ginger?”

“That she’s going to be staying with us for a while? Yeah, she left me a message at school and I called her back. Welcome to the Austin family, Ginger. You may find us a little strange but we usually don’t bite.”

“You are absolutely the nicest people I’ve ever met,” Ginger told him honestly. “I don’t know how I can ever thank you for what you’ve done for me already, and this really takes the prize.”

“We try to help where we can,” Mel smiled.

“Believe me, in my experience that’s pretty unusual,” Ginger said. “You guys keep surprising me. When I told Ray that we needed something other than a pickup truck to move me out of my folks’ house, the last thing I ever expected was that he’d get an ambulance out of the barn.”

“If you’ve got it, use it,” Mel laughed. “It needed to have the cobwebs blown out of it anyway. I’ll bet that thing doesn’t go two hundred miles a year, but it’s one of those things we really have to have.”

“Ray told me about that,” Ginger said, “but somehow, I don’t think that that’s the most unusual thing to be found around here.”

“Oh, there’s quite a collection,” Mel laughed. Has Ray shown you around this place yet?”

“Not yet, Dad,” Ray said. “I’ve been pushing on this engine.”

“Oh, take a break,” Mel teased. “It’ll still be there when you come back, and Mike isn’t in that big a hurry, he just wants to know the thing will get done. Show her around. Ginger, there are some moderately interesting things around here even if you’re not a car nut. Ray, I’m going to head in, get out of teaching clothes, then I think I’ll piddle with something, just to get my mind off some of the pure bullshit they were dishing out in that meeting. Thank God the end is in sight.”

“You up for it, Ginger?” Ray asked.

“Yeah, sure,” she replied. “I agree, I’m not much of a car nut, but I can see you have some interesting stuff here.”

“You think you’re still going to get to work on the Mod some?” Mel asked. “I could do something on it if you like.”

“Fine with me,” Ray told him. “I probably won’t run it much but would like to get some racing in with it, and maybe I can sell it for more than I’ve got in it.”

It had become a nice afternoon when Ray led her outside and to a low building across the driveway from the shop. “This used to be a chicken coop once upon a time,” he told her, “but that was a long time ago.” He unlocked the door and led her inside. It was cool in there, but there was plenty of light coming through the big windows. “One of the things Dad has on his ‘to do someday’ list is to build a museum up by the track,” he explained. “I think I told you that Dad likes to restore cars, especially race cars. Until then, this old chicken coop is it and we sometimes run tours through here.”

Ray walked over to a small tarp-covered lump and carefully folded back the tarp. Under it was an old fashioned looking tiny race car, all chromed and polished, red with a white number “2” on the side. “This is a real oddball,” he told her. “There are only two cars like it in the world, and that,” – he nodded his head toward the next canvas-covered lump – “is the other one. These are the only two Midwest Midget Sportsman Association Midgets still in existence. This one was Mom’s, it got wrecked after Dad got hurt down at the old track and they had to leave the show. Dad managed to get it back when I was just a kid and restored it. The other car, the 66, is really kind of a replica. It’s got a lot of original parts but no one knows if any of them are from Dad’s old 66.”

“Do they still run?”

“Oh, yeah,” he smiled. “They aren’t raced any more, they’re too valuable, really too unsafe, and they’re oddballs specially designed to not fit anybody’s class but the MMSA’s. There’s a long story on that, you’ll have to get Dad to tell it to you sometime. These cars go to parades every now and then, and always take parade laps at the season opener on the big track.”

“I’d kind of like to see that,” she smiled. The little car was kind of cute, in its way.

“We can probably arrange that,” he said. “There’s lots of cars around here, all in real good condition. Dad restored some of them, either by himself, or when he was teaching auto shop he’d have the kids in his class work on them. There’s a World War II Jeep, which has no special history but is an amazing vehicle for what it is. Dad ran his first race in one, that’s another one of his stories. There’s a ’53 Studebaker Starlight Coupe, which Dad thinks is the most beautiful car ever built, and on every other Tuesday if the wind is out of the northeast I’m tempted to agree with him. There’s a ’37 Ford Coupe that Dad drove all over the Midwest. There’s a ’64 Mustang convertible, which is my favorite. Dad bought it new, and I remember him taking Vern and Laney and me on a ride when he brought it home. It’s never been restored, Dad just kept it in top-notch condition. There’s an old Ford Modified that Howie Eastlund drove to win the first feature at the old Bradford Speedway after Dad and Mom bought that track. There’s a ’53 Hudson Hornet that Phil Sharp, the insurance agent here in town, used to win the Don Boies Memorial Trophy the first year it was awarded, at the little track here.”

“That’s the trophy that you won, right?”

“Right, and Vern, too, the year before me. I just barely remember Don; he was killed in Vietnam. That’s another story that Dad will have to tell you. There’s another car that Dad is particularly proud of, even though it isn’t complete.” She helped him roll the tarp back over the little red and white racer, then he led her the length of the building past a number of tarp covered cars, and began to unroll the tarp over the last one in line.

“Now that is what I think of when I think of a race car,” she replied at her first glance of the burly-looking machine, neat as all the others, white with red numbers and a sponsor name that didn’t mean anything to her.

“Dern tootin’,” he smiled. “This is a 1948 Kurtis Kraft Indy car, one of the old-fashioned front-engine roadsters, and it may be the most historically significant car on the property. We call it ‘The Old Soldier,’ because we think, and I underline think, that it may have qualified or attempted to qualify at Indy more than any other car ever. The records aren’t quite clear. It was there for fourteen years, ’48 through ’62, and that is a hell of a long time for an Indy car. It was badly wrecked in ’55, and a friend of the family by the name of Spud McElroy bought it, then rebuilt it from the ground up. That’s why it’s a little fuzzy about how many times it qualified or tried to, since Spud came close to starting over when he rebuilt it. He raced it himself in ’56, and had a guy by the name of Squirt Chenowith run it in ’57 and ’58. He’s another old family friend. Spud had another guy run it the next two years, then leased it out for a couple more qualifying attempts after that; the last one was in ’62.”

“Is that the same as the McElroy chassis on your Modified?”

“Hey!” he said, a little surprised. “You really were paying attention, weren’t you? I’m not boring you to tears with all this stuff?”

“No, I’m finding it interesting, even though I don’t know anything about it. Tell me more.”

“Yeah,” he said, getting a little more impressed with her. “It’s the same McElroy, he’s run a race car building shop down in Speedway for lots of years. The MMSA cars have McElroy chassis, too. Dad found this car sitting out behind the shop down there one day when he was in shooting the breeze with Spud. It wasn’t anything like this, just a bare frame, a couple body panels and a few odds and ends. When Dad told Spud he’d like to take a swing at restoring it, Spud gave it to him free. Dad decided to restore it to the 1956 condition, the year Spud drove it, partly because Spud is just about Dad’s oldest friend, and partly because we have more color photos of it from that year than any other. It never was any great shakes as a race car, I think the best finish was something like ninth, but it was one of those old soldiers that never die but just fade away.”

“What’s it like to drive?”

“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “Spud says it’s a hell of a handful, he was just about beat to shit when he finished in ’56. It’s hotter than an oven in the cockpit when you get a few laps on, it shakes and vibrates to beat the band. It’d be fun to hot lap it out back sometime, but we can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s a roller. No engine. It uses the old fashioned unblown Offenhauser, and they just aren’t around any more. Even the turbo Offies like was in Phil’s car are pretty scarce. We didn’t have a spare last year and if something had blown we would have been screwed. Any spare time I had down at Indy last year I was asking around the old timers to see if anyone knew where I could find one of the old unblown 255 engines, even if it was in a bushel basket. I got some leads, but nothing panned out. Well, maybe someday.”

He started to roll the tarp back over the Kurtis Kraft as he went on. “Dad has some other project cars around, but these are the ones that are in the best shape. It’s just something to piddle with, but Dad likes to have a feeling of where we’ve come from. Anyway, you want to see more cars or take a look around this place?”

“Take a look around,” she said. “I’ve heard you talk about the track, but I have to admit I’ve never even seen it, except for the top of the grandstands poking over the hill.”

“Then yeah, you need a look around,” he said, “but let’s go get my truck, it’s a little far to walk if we don’t have to.”

In a couple minutes they were back in Ray’s pickup, which had been left parked outside the barn. “To get the tour under way,” he said before he started the engine, “I suppose that I ought to explain that there are three Bradford Speedways that we talk about. The old track is the one that used to be down under what’s now a corner of the truck parking lot at General. I have no idea when it opened but it goes back a ways. Dad was hurt in a bad accident there in the summer of 1954 when he and Mom were touring with the MMSA. The show had to go on, but Mom decided to stay with him to take care of him. They were married not long after that. The folks didn’t have much to do with racing when we kids were little, and while that was happening the old track went through some bad times, mostly bad management, and closed in 1965. Two years after that Dad and Mom bought up the place out of bank foreclosure, so didn’t really pay much for it. Dad decided to give the track one shot at getting going again, and if it didn’t he was going to burn everything and have the place planted to soybeans to get his money out of it.”

“But he made a go out of it?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” he replied. “It was an all-hands effort, even Vern and Laney and I were down there helping out where we could, and I was all of nine years old and Laney was like six. Now, unlike a lot of people, Dad is perfectly willing to learn from the mistakes of others. He and Mom didn’t run the track very long, but it was getting back on its feet when a couple guys came knocking on our door, telling him they wanted to buy the whole place for the General plant.” He started the pickup, put it in gear, then drove around the shop. “I won’t go into the ins and outs of it,” he continued, “but when the dust settled the folks from General had offered about ten times what Dad and Mom paid for the place five months before. Dad didn’t want to let it go even then, but he said he couldn’t turn his back on that many new jobs for the town. So that’s how Bradford got the General plant out on the corner.”

In front of her, Ginger could see a small dirt race track, with low bleachers, a fence around it, and a scoring tower and press box. “The General people wanted the track right away. Dad and Mom were right in the middle of a racing season. Now what you need to know, and the thing I’ve always tried to remember, is that when people have put their faith in you, you shouldn’t slap them in the face. They had a lot of volunteer help getting the old track going again and fixing it up, people working out of the goodness of their hearts, for the love of racing, and Dad just didn’t have it in him to take the money and run. So what Dad did was take some of the money and threw this track together in about two weeks. I was a part of that, too.”

He pulled up and stopped just outside Turn One. “I’d take you around the track, but it’s a dirt track and we have to be careful with the surface as wet as the ground is after all that rain we’ve had,” he explained. “This is supposed to be a quarter mile, even though it’s really closer to three sixteenths. This is what we call the little track. We don’t hold regular races here anymore, but every now and then we’ll have what we call a Dirt Track Sunday. That’s mostly a bunch of friends who come over and screw around, just having a good time. No entry fee, no purses, no trophies, no points racing or anything like that. All very low-key, all very laid back. We mostly rent it out to various groups that want to have motorcycle races, ATV races, and like that, even snowmobile races in the winter, and there’s a motorcycle scrambles track in the infield. We provide the concessions along with getting the rental fees, and we don’t lose money on it. There’s any number of times we’ll have events going on at the little track and the big track at the same time, and there’s hardly ever a weekend that something isn’t going on down here.”

“You’ve got it, so you might as well use it,” she observed.

“Yeah, that’s it exactly,” he agreed. “Well, anyway, like I said the little track went together in a big hurry, but Dad and Mom had run on a lot of makeshift race tracks when they were in the MMSA, so they had a pretty good idea of what they could get by with. We keep this place up, improve it every now and then, but other than the Dirt Track Sundays we don’t do much with it ourselves. It was supposed to only be a temporary make-do, but it’s proved useful enough that there’s no point in turning it back into an alfalfa field.”

“You sound like you’ve given this tour before,” she smiled.

“A few times, clear back to grade school,” he smiled, “but not very often to a pretty girl, though.”

“Are you flattering me?” she giggled.

“Trying to,” he grinned, and took his foot off the brake. “Dad didn’t spend a tenth of what he got from General on this, partly because we already owned the land and partly because he could salvage some stuff from the old track,” he continued, and started to drive toward some grandstands sitting high in the sky over a nearby hill. “Since we already owned the land and had the rest of the money from General, he and Mom decided they wanted to build a first class racing facility they could be proud of.” He followed the paved road up the hill, went through a gate, and made a right turn near a cluster of buildings behind the grandstands. He only slowed down a little, and explained that these buildings were for a lot of things, concessions, souvenirs, the track office, rest rooms, and the like. “The museum I was talking about will go up here when we build it,” he said as he followed the road around a low wall until he came to another gate, this one closed and locked.

“Back in a minute,” he said, shutting off the truck and taking the key ring with him. He got out, went over to the gate, opened a padlock and swung the gate back before getting back in the truck. “We have to keep the place locked up when it’s not in use to keep high school kids from coming out here, screwing around, and maybe hurting themselves,” he explained.

“Yeah, that sounds pretty logical to me,” she agreed as he started the truck up again. “This is quite a place.”

“Yeah, it is,” he said. “It didn’t come overnight. Dad and Mom try to put something new in every year, along with keeping the place up.” He followed the road around behind the concrete wall, and came to a stop when the road angled through an opening. “We try to take care of what we have,” he said. “That’s still the original asphalt surface and it ought to be good for quite a few more years. Part of the reason it’s stayed good is that we don’t let any heavy trucks on it at any time of the year unless there’s damn good reason, and nothing at all during the spring thaw season. That’s how paved roads get screwed up anyway, letting heavy traffic go over a road when it’s soft underneath. Anyway, you can see the place pretty well from here.”

She looked out the windshield. The grandstands were out on the far side of the track now, looking empty in the chill spring breeze. The turns were steeply banked, and even the straightaways were banked a little, too. The infield was mostly paved, with a couple buildings in the middle and with a wall protecting the infield from the track. “Wow,” she said. “I mean, I knew the track was here, but I never dreamed it was as big and elaborate as this.”

“Looks kind of barren and empty now,” he said. “You have to see it on a warm summer evening, when the stands are full, when there’s a nice breeze making the flags and banners flutter, when the pits are full of colorful cars and haulers, the green flag is flying and there’s a bunch of cars heading off into the first turn. That’s when this place looks the best.”

“I can believe it,” she said, more than a little awed. “And your family built all this?”

“Yeah, and not all at once. The first few years it was open there was just a grass infield, with no infield walls, for example. And it wasn’t all just the folks, they had a lot of help from another old family friend, a guy by the name of Frank Blixter. Now you look at this and most people think that the folks would have to be about made of money, but really they haven’t made a whole lot on this place. Most of what they take in goes to cover expenses, or goes toward improvements to the track. The folks are happiest when someone tells them that this is what a short track should be like. They’ve done it through good management, a few breaks when they got started, and some good friends.”

“Wow,” she said, comparing this facility and what the Austin family had accomplished to her own family, which hardly measured up. It would have been easy to get off on another rant like she’d made earlier, but it was pointless. There was a huge, if unspoken lesson in just sitting here.

Ray felt the silence from her and had a pretty good idea of what she was thinking. To keep her from heading off into that negative direction, he started talking about the track again. “This is what we call the big track, or sometimes the new track, although it’s not much newer than the little track. It’s a three-eighths-mile oval, twenty-four-degrees banking in the corners, twelve on the straights. It’s really only twice as big as the little track but it looks a heck of a lot bigger. There’s more here than meets the eye, too. It’s set up for kart racing in the infield, and this road, along with some pit and service roads in the back pit area behind us add up to a 1.1 mile road race course. There are times that we have kart racing on Saturday mornings, the regular show Saturday nights, and then road racing on Sunday. I remember getting out of school on Friday nights, running the mower until after midnight with the headlights and track lights on, continuing to mow on Saturday mornings, picking up trash after the kart races and again after the Saturday show. Then I’d have to get up early on Sunday morning to make sure the place was all spiffy for the road racers on Sunday.”

“I’ll bet it felt damn good to get back to school on Monday.”

“Darn right, I needed some quality sleep time after a weekend like that. Anyway, it’s really a big operation, even if the people who work here are part timers and only here for a few hours a week. The Saturday night shows and the Short Track Sundays are the only things we actually promote. The karting and the bikes and ATVs are all put on by various clubs; all we do is provide the facility for a fee and run the concessions. Pretty much the same thing with the road racing, although we provide a few more people as part of the rental fee since they don’t have much volunteer help. It’s big and it’s complicated, and even though I pretty much grew up with it till I joined the Army I still can’t quite believe we can make it all come together every weekend all summer. I’d been away from it for a while until I got back from Indy last summer, and I was still surprised to see how much things had changed.”

He put the truck into reverse and backed away from the track. “We do other stuff here, too,” he explained as he drove back toward the gate. “We’ve had Boy Scout Camporees, we’ve had rock concerts, we’ve had revival meetings, I can’t tell you what all, just about anything anyone can come up with so long as it doesn’t impact the Saturday night show. Anyway, that’s about it unless you want to get into some details.”

“Ray, this is quite the operation,” she said. “I mean, like I said, I knew the track was here but I had no idea it was anything like this. I’m glad you showed it to me.”

“You can’t appreciate it until you’ve seen it on a Saturday night in the summer,” he shrugged. “Like I said, that’s when it’s at the best. I guess I’ll have to bring you out here sometime, although I’ll warn you right now, I’ll be working out here a whole lot more seriously than I did last summer, so I probably won’t be very good company.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” she grinned. “I’m looking forward to seeing it.”

Once again he stopped the truck at the gate, and got out to close it and lock it. “Well, that’s that,” he said as he climbed inside. “I suppose we’d better get back down to the shop. Maybe I can get back to that engine I was working on.”

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