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

Chapter 13

“Boy, it’s been years since I’ve been here,” Ray said as he turned his pickup off the highway into the driveway of the Potterville Speedway following a guy in a green Pontiac Catalina that was several years old. “I’m surprised I even remembered how to find it.”

“Doesn’t look to be as nice a place as Bradford,” Ginger commented. From what she could see from the cab of the pickup, it looked battered and run down. The parking lot was scrubby grass with lots of bare spots, and about a third full of cars and pickups.

“No, it’s not,” Ray agreed, braking to a stop behind a line of vehicles waiting to get through the ticket booth. “To tell you the truth, it reminds me more of my memories of the old track, the one down under the parking lot at General. It’d been around, hell, since the thirties, I guess. I’m pretty sure Dad and Mom ran here when they were in the MMSA, and it sort of puts me in mind what the kind of places they ran must have been like. Those were all dirt tracks like this one, and well, dirt tracks are dirty unless you really keep after them like we do at the little track.”

The line moved ahead quickly – there were only three or four cars ahead of them – and within a minute or so Ray stopped at the window.

“Two? That’ll be five bucks,” a bedraggled looking woman working the window said.

“Sounds like a deal,” Ray said, handing her a ten. “Good show today?”

“Pretty good, we’ve got some people getting warmed up for the season who wouldn’t normally be here.”

“Good deal,” Ray said, taking a couple tickets and a five dollar bill as change. “Have a good day.”

“You too, honey,” the woman smiled, revealing some missing teeth. Ray let up on the clutch and pulled the pickup ahead. Over behind the grandstands, he could see a guy motioning him to a place to park.

“Is that a good price?” Ginger asked.

“Real good for us, maybe not so good for them,” Ray said. “It strikes me that they could raise it some and put some money into fixing the place up. We get five bucks a head for the normal shows and seven to ten for the special ones, like when we had ARCA at Bradford a couple years. But then, different folks, different strokes. This is kind of an outlaw place and maybe they like to keep it a little gritty. We like to keep things neat, clean, and upscale.”

“A little gritty is an understatement,” Ginger shook her head as Ray pulled into a parking space. “This place is a dump.”

“Well, yeah, but the point is that there are people who like it like that. Who knows, maybe the people who run this place are as right as we are. Bring your heavy coat, I think you’re going to want it before the afternoon is out.”

“It seems fairly nice for April,” she said. “Do I really want to haul that?”

“Probably,” he said. “It’s breezy, and up in the grandstands the wind could get to you after a while.” He glanced over at a flag on a flagpole not far away. “Fortunately, it’s not blowing from the track toward the stands, so we probably won’t get dusted too bad. Let’s find us a place to sit and watch qualifications for a while.”

They got out of the truck with Ginger carrying her coat and wearing a ball cap that Ray had told her to bring. He was carrying a jacket of his own, plus a cheap nylon backpack that he got out of the back of the pickup. Together they walked up toward the grandstand, with Ginger looking around, trying to take it all in. “Boy, I don’t know that I’d want to come here if I wasn’t here with you,” she said in a low voice.

“Oh, you’d be all right, but I can’t say that I blame you,” he said as he led her through a gap between a pair of bleachers. “That’s part of the reason we try to keep our place neat and clean.”

As they walked out in front of the bleachers, Ginger looked around. There was a dirt track in front of them, a little bigger than the little track in Bradford but not much. It was the dark brown of rich clay, looking rather damp; three or four pickups were driving around the track, along with a battered old truck spraying water on the surface. A tractor was towing a machine that seemed to be a lot of wheels, obviously to smooth out the track. There was nothing much in the infield but bare dirt and some weeds growing here and there. Several old and battered pickups were sitting in the center of the circle, along with a couple beat-up wreckers and an ambulance, which was the only new and clean-looking thing out there. There was a tire wall clear around the track, much like at the little track in Bradford, and a woven-wire fence outside of that. There was a high wire fence in front of the bleachers, again like the little track.

The bleachers, however, were a lot different. They seemed sturdy enough, but they were unpainted, weathered, and splintered – and a lot higher than the ones at the little track, although not as high as the ones at the big track. “Probably best to get up toward the top,” Ray commented. “We’ll get a better view that way, even though it will be up in the wind more.” He looked around the bleachers a bit and commented, “Boy, I don’t see how you could see much of anything in the lower third of the bleachers or so. I’ll bet that tire wall is newer than these bleachers are.”

“Are you sure we want to be way up there?” Ginger said, studying the open aspect of the bleachers and how high they looked.

“They should be all right,” Ray smiled. “Probably would be best to sit down a row or two from the top, just on general principles.”

“All right, I guess,” Ginger replied dubiously. “I don’t think I’d want to be up on that top row with no railing.”

“Me either, now that you mention it,” Ray shook his head. “Somebody could lean back a little too far and get hurt that way.”

They started up the bleachers, just stepping up the seats. To Ginger, it seemed like the stands were only about a quarter full. “Not much of a crowd,” she commented.

“Still early,” Ray replied. “I wasn’t sure how long it was going to take to get down here so we left in plenty of time.” He glanced across the track at the pits on the far side. “Looks like they got a pretty good car count, though. I’ll bet they have a hell of a back gate, no matter what kind of crowd they get.”

“Back gate? What’s that?”

“Entry fee and pit passes,” Ray explained. “That’s got to be a lot more than what we paid for admission. Most tracks make more out of the back gate than they do out of the front gate. We’ve been lucky enough and good enough to build up a pretty good crowd of regular fans, so we don’t have to depend on the back gate as much and can keep the costs down for the racers. Racing is goddamn expensive no matter how you go about it, and Dad has always figured that he needs to cut the racers some slack if he can do it.”

They came to a stop a row shy of the top one. “This looks good,” Ray commented.

“Jeez, look at those planks,” Ginger protested. “I’m not sure I want to set my butt down on them.”

“Kinda splintery,” Ray agreed. “But that’s why I brought this.” He set the backpack down, opened it, and produced a dark olive green army blanket. “Even at Bradford, the seats get a little hard after a while. There’s another blanket in there in case we need it.”

Together they unfolded the blanket and spread it on the bleachers. “Tell you what,” Ray said. “I didn’t see much of a crowd at the concession stand. Maybe I should run down and get us some coffee and hot dogs, and then you can take the next turn.”

“Fine with me,” she replied. “I think I’ll put my coat on after all. You were right; it is a little breezy up here.”

“Back in a few,” Ray said, and began to clamber down the stands. Ginger pulled on her coat, and even pulled the hood up to keep the wind off the back of her head. There wasn’t much for her to do while she waited for him to return but watch the vehicles drive around the track.

After a few minutes, a loudspeaker she hadn’t notice before blared out, “We’re going to get under way with the next round of qualifying. First up, Joe Chaskey’s number 14 Late Model.”

She heard the roar of an engine from across the race track, and could see a blue and white car with a red number 14 on the side pull out onto the track, rolling along at a pretty good speed. The car took about half a lap at a reduced speed, and then she could see it picking up speed on the back stretch and fly into the corner. As the driver came onto the straight, she could hear an almost earsplitting bellow from the car, which now was moving along very quickly. As the driver went into the first corner the car slid sideways, rear tires throwing dirt high into the air. She almost expected to see the car spin around since it was so far sideways, but the driver didn’t seem to mind at all. He came out of the corner still throwing dirt, straightened out, and in almost an instant was going around the turn at the other end of the track in much the same way. The car was still flying as it went back into the corner to her right, but she could hear the driver back off on the throttle and slow down quite a bit.

“All right, that’s a 13.52 for Joe Chaskey’s number 14 Late Model,” she heard the announcer say. “That’s the third fastest for the Late Models so far, but there’s several more to come. Next up, Tony Gust’s number 67B Modified.”

As the blue and white car pulled off the track, a yellow and green car with black numbers came out onto the track, used most of the lap to get up to speed, and then bailed off into the corner much like the first car. It didn’t seem like he was going nearly as fast, and the announcer agreed. “Not a real good run for Tony Gust’s 67B Modified as he takes it back to the pits with a 16.37.”

Another car was pulling out onto the track, but Ginger’s attention was diverted by Ray climbing back up the stands and sitting down next to her, then handing her a foam coffee cup. “Enjoying the qualifying?” he asked.

“Do they all go sideways in the corners like that?” she asked.

“Pretty much,” Ray told her. “There’s an art to it, but it really is the quickest way around a dirt track. You don’t drive like that on pavement, though. I guess you can see why dirt tracks get dirty.”

“Yeah, no fooling,” she replied. “What would happen if the wind was blowing toward us?”

“Then we’d need a shower even worse than ever when we got home,” he smiled. “Back when the folks ran in the MMSA, it was almost always on dirt like this, and from the stories they tell they used to get incredibly dirty.”

“Did you ever race on dirt?”

“Oh, yeah, some,” he replied. “Not a lot. Back when Vern and I were racing Economy Stocks Dad helped us put together an old beater so we could learn how to do it. We never ran it a whole lot, but got out with it every now and then. Usually, it was at the little track but we traveled a little. Never down here to race, though.”

“OK, answer me this,” she said. “You’ve got a Modified, and that’s all I know about it. What’s the difference between a Modified and a Late Model?”

“That’s not a real easy question to answer,” he told her. “The super simple answer is that a Late Model has a special-built chassis with the wheels under fenders. A Modified may have a special-built chassis like mine, or the chassis can be based on a real car frame. Either way, it has open wheels. I don’t know what other classes they run here, but a Sportsman at Bradford has to be based on a stock car, but can be cut down and modified, although the wheels have to be under fenders. What we call a Street Stock has to be a regular car at least ten years old that isn’t cut down; they probably have some here but they could go under a different name. Pure Stock and Bomber are the terms that are often used. Our Economy Stocks are Street Stocks, but with six-cylinder engines. Everything has to be real car parts, not racing special stuff.”

“It sounds confusing.”

“Oh, you don’t know the half of it,” he told her. “Just about everything is different wherever you go, and to top it off there’s a lot of difference between dirt cars and pavement cars. Like, my Modified wouldn’t be legal a lot of places because it has a special-built chassis. Just about everybody has a different engine rule, different weight rules, all sorts of odd little rules about this and that. To top it off, that’s not all the classes that get run. Hell, there must be dozens that get run here and there. Now, you take sprint cars, open-wheelers like a big MMSA car, there’s at least four different engine sizes I know of, 427, 400, 360 and 305. That doesn’t count a class I’ve heard of that uses the old Buick V-6s, which might be a fun class without having so much power you don’t know what to do with it. Several flavors of Midgets. All sorts of stuff, it doesn’t have to make sense and it doesn’t.”

“Why are there so many?”

“Well, the big reason that nobody talks about too much is that track operators like to tie people to their tracks. If most people were running, oh, 360 sprints just to pick out an example, and they get pissed off at the track owner all they have to do is to trailer to someplace else. If nobody else within two hundred miles is running 360 sprints, you’re pretty well stuck where you are if you want to race. My guess is that on a season opener like this, nobody is being too picky about rules, just so more cars can show up. Dad tries to keep the rules pretty open at Bradford, just to keep the door open to people showing up. I heard him say once that if someone says their car is a Sportsman and it looks like a Sportsman, it’s a Sportsman until it gets two laps on the field, which is when it becomes a Late Model.”

“It all sounds crazy.”

“It is all crazy,” he said. “All of that isn’t universal. Our Economy Stocks, for example, we share the rule with five other tracks and there are others that will fit into the rules. That’s kind of a special case, because it’s a beginner’s class and everybody is trying to keep it simple. You’ve heard us talk about special shows. That includes like NASCAR. In theory, NASCAR is supposed to be what we call Street Stocks. In practice, they’re somewhere between Sportsmen and Late Models, with their own special rule. There are other associations around that share a rule, and we bring them in once in a while. There’s this little association of Late Models that runs at Bradford and two other tracks, so we only get them every third week. That’s fine, we run other shows the weeks they’re not there. Tracks and track owners are all pretty independent; everything gets done differently even though a lot of it is the same.”

Ginger shook her head. “I never knew any of that. How do you keep it all straight?”

“Sometimes it ain’t easy,” Ray told her. “It’s just the way things have evolved, and like I said it doesn’t have to make sense.”

While they had been talking several other cars had made qualifying runs, many of them older stock-looking cars, which turned out to be called Bombers at this track. “Some of them look pretty beat up,” Ginger commented.

“Well, they are,” Ray said. “I don’t know anyone running here, but my rule of thumb is that good-looking cars usually run better than bad-looking ones. I figure if the guy has the money to put into the appearance, he’s had money enough to put it into the engine. That means he’s probably been around a while and knows what he’s doing. On the other hand, the beat-up cars probably mean not only that the driver doesn’t have the money, he may not know all that much about what he’s doing, so it’ll run slower. Some of these cars get passed from hand to hand a lot for beginners to learn on.”

“It doesn’t seem like they’d last that long.”

“That’s the funny part. Some of these dirt cars last for years and years. Well, pavement cars, too. Yeah, a car gets bent up every now and then, but amazingly enough they can get fixed pretty easy, too. It may not look quite as good but it’ll run just as well. Hell, my Mod is fifteen, sixteen years old, but once I get done with it, it’ll look like new.”

“You sure haven’t been able to work on it much.”

“Not recently,” he shrugged. “It was only intended to be a project for when I had nothing better to do, and the last few weeks other things have come up. Dad’s been making sounds about piddling with it, and if he wants to, fine with me. He’s gonna have other things to do, too, before the racing season gets started.”

They sat there and talked for some time about what the different race cars were, and how they were different, while one car after another made qualifying runs. Ginger felt like she was learning a lot, even though she only understood about half of what Ray was telling her. At least now, she felt like she had some images to go with some of the words that had been used around her the last few days.

After a while, the qualifying wound down. The stands were filling up, although they were still less than half full, which wasn’t all that surprising on the chilly April afternoon. “We’ll be getting racing under way in a little while,” the announcer said. “This would be a good time for you to visit the concession stands, to get some of our famous hot dogs, hamburgers, or maybe a cup of coffee to drive the chill out. There’s not much of a line, so you might want to get down there while the getting is good.”

“Sounds like a reasonable idea,” Ginger said. “I guess it’s my turn to go. You want anything?”

“A couple chili dogs, fries if they have them, chips if they don’t,” Ray told her, reaching in his pocket to pull out a five dollar bill. “Another cup of coffee too, I guess.”

“Yeah, I’m starting to get a little hungry, too,” she replied. “Back in a few minutes.”

When Ginger climbed down from the bleachers and got to the concession stand, she found that by now the lines were a lot longer, so apparently others had picked up the same message. She got a place in line and waited it out, looking around at some of the other race fans.

For the most part they looked like normal people you’d see anywhere – maybe a little rougher than average, but no worse than what she remembered from, say, football games back in Hawthorne when she’d been a kid. Several were obviously friends or family members of one driver or another, or at least she surmised that from what she overheard. As she got closer to the counter, she wasn’t exactly favorably impressed with the concessions. The inside of the concession building was dirty, and with a dirt floor. There was paint peeling here and there, and the overall impression was grubby. She was hungry, but one look at the place made her wonder just how hungry she was. Still, she got Ray’s order and a hot dog and a cup of coffee of her own. With luck she thought she might survive.

“Good God,” she said after she climbed back to the top of the bleachers and sat down next to Ray. “I thought the concession building at the little track looked a little worse for wear, but it’s a five star restaurant next to that dump. How do they get away with it?”

“Hard to say,” he replied. “The Hawthorne County health department would shit a brick if they were to see something like that up at our place, I can tell you that much. About all I can say is different state, different county, different rules. It seems to work, but you have to wonder how many people take one look at the place and say, ‘No way, I’ll go hungry first.’”

“No fooling, I just about was one of them,” she shook her head. “I wonder how they think they can get away with it here.”

“Good question,” he replied. “I think that one of the reasons this place can get by with being a dump is that it has an old-time-outlaw atmosphere, like something you’d have expected to see back when Dad and Mom were racing, or even before that. I mean, hell, I look out there and see Late Models and Bombers, and I keep thinking I should be seeing rail frame Midgets with V8-60s, Modifieds based on ’37 Ford coupes, and like that. Something just a little bit sinful that people can enjoy.”

“Yeah, you could be right,” she nodded, unwrapping her hot dog. She took a careful look at it, and sniffed it. It looked all right and smelled all right, so she took a tentative bite. “Actually, not too bad,” she said. “I’ve heard your dad say that hot dogs always taste better at a track, and he may be right.”

“Oh, I think he’s right,” Ray grinned. “Actually, I’m a little surprised they aren’t down here with us, because every now and then they like to have a taste of the good old days, and grubby old tracks like this are the good old days to them. But grubby old tracks like this are also where they learned that they wanted a neat, clean, modern facility. Maybe we don’t get the type of crowd that enjoys the grubby atmosphere, but we more than make up for it on people who like sanitary concession stands, halfway comfortable seats, and clean restrooms. Did you check out the cans here?”

“No, I can’t say as I did.”

“Porta-johns,” he said. “Like we were talking about getting rid of out in the back pits the other night. Actually, that’s an upgrade. The last time I was here they were old fashioned outhouses, pit toilets and all. I’ll bet they didn’t get rid of them until someone forced them to.”

“You’re probably right,” she shook her head. “I’m beginning to see why your folks wanted me to come down here. It wasn’t just a date, after all, was it? They wanted me to see how not to do things.”

“I suspect you’re right,” he smiled. “But knowing Mom, I’m sure a date was part of the idea too. But all in all, I guess I don’t mind. We haven’t even gotten to the racing yet, and I’ll bet it’ll be pretty good.”

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To be continued . . .

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