A Need for Speed

NASCAR grabs all the headlines, but the real roots of stock car racing can be found at small dirt tracks like Wythe Raceway, where drivers spend more than they win to indulge a passion.

It is an April Saturday night in rural Wythe County, and Patricia “Pie” Short sits in her 1996 Pontiac Sunfire waiting to drive the black-and-pink-colored subcompact race car around the oval track at Wythe Raceway, tucked in the woods of Southwest Virginia. Short, 43, is a registered nurse by occupation and a race car driver by hobby, and as she mentions later, she pays no attention to the weather or the crowd—more than 2,000 in the grandstands above the high-banked, half-mile racetrack on this night.

Short is about to tangle with about 20 other drivers in the 20-lap “U-CAR” division race—a low-budget, four-cylinder racing class that stands for “You (U) Can Also Race.” When the green flag is dropped, Short stomps on the gas pedal and pushes her little car’s 120-horsepower engine to its limits, roaring around the hard-clay track at speeds of more than 80 mph. Almost immediately, the cars are banging into each other—trading paint, in racing parlance—while dust flies and dirt collects on driver helmets through open windows. And, as usual, within moments there is a wreck—in this case, one that delays the action for almost an hour while the carnage is cleared. When the race (one of six of the night) finally resumes, Short can manage no better than a sixth-place finish. It’s disappointing, but she doesn’t drive for money. Nobody does at Wythe Raceway, where the U-CAR winner earns $50. “I just love racing,” says Short. “It’s an adrenaline rush. It’s definitely not for the money. It’s a need for excitement. And, by Sunday, I’m already counting the days until next week.”

Well-financed NASCAR teams and flashy races in Richmond, Bristol, Charlotte and elsewhere grab the headlines, but, at its heart, stock car racing is a grassroots sport. Nearly all of NASCAR’s star drivers got their racing start at little dirt tracks like Wythe Raceway. Drivers with money, connections and big-time talent quickly move on to bigger teams and bigger tracks. Those who don’t, keep racing as amateurs on the clay and dirt tracks like this one—not for money but because they have a passion for cars and racing, and a fiercely competitive spirit. “It’s seeing what you can do,” says Duke Bare, 37, a mechanic and prize-winning driver at Wythe Raceway who dates Short and routinely fixes her cars. “It’s a test…whether you’re better than everyone else.” Bare explains that while some competitors invest thousands in their vehicles, ambitious to win, many other drivers are simply happy to get out on the track. “Not everybody plans on winning when they go to the racetrack,” he says. “People are content with just having a race car and going racing. They just want to do it. The winning part hasn’t even dawned on ‘em yet.”

The owner of Wythe Raceway, 70-year-old Fred Brown, owns a Honda dealership in nearby Wytheville. He is just as racing-crazy as the drivers. Brown built the track in 1970, and to keep it going he typically handles three different jobs on a Saturday night at the speedway—manning the public-address system, reading rules and managing the business. Last year, on the opening night of the 2010 summer racing season, he dashed into the stands to break up a fight between two fans. Sitting behind the microphone during a race, Brown morphs into a country showman, cracking jokes or musing about local happenings. Still, he says, “I’d love to have a good announcer, but it’s hard to find [someone] who understands enough about racing.”

A Roanoke native, Brown grew up on a nearby dairy farm—a place called Black Lick. He started building the track­—on 260 acres—in 1969. Within weeks, he says, the locals were curious about what was going on on the opposite side of I-81 from downtown Rural Retreat. “A lot of people thought it was impossible,” says Brown, an easygoing yet energetic businessman who wears a baseball cap beneath a thin crop of dark hair. “After about three months [of construction], they began to say, ‘Well, maybe they will get it done.’”

Brown and his partner, B.C. Umberger, opened the track for racing in August 1970. On the first night, 50 drivers showed up, and there were about 3,000 fans. “I was absolutely amazed at how smooth everything went since we had no experience,” Brown says. “It was a lot of work preparing the track and really working hard to please all of the drivers and fans.” And, after 42 years, not much has changed. “It’s amazing how many people know about Wythe Raceway,” Brown says. “And I’m sort of synonymous with it because I built it and I’m still there.” Today, the track sits in a topographical bowl, surrounded by scraggly pines on thick mountain ridges, offering panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.

Each summer (from April to September) Brown stages about 25 race nights, most with a half-dozen races. The events draw roughly 2,000 people on average, but the crowd for the biggest night of the year, the Lucas Dirt Late Model Race, can reach 5,000. The cars warm up at 7:30, and the first race starts at 8:00 p.m., at which point the pack of cars creates a deafening noise like that of whirring jet engines. About 100 cars and drivers compete each week and regularly reach speeds up of up to 110 mph on a surface that is more clay than dirt. “It packs down so hard it’s like asphalt almost,” says Brown. In dry weather, the cars cough up clouds of dust, which slowly drift and settle on the crowd—a mixed lot of families and race fans huddled on large bleachers or camped along grassy embankments overlooking the track. This track attracts an animated audience—folks rooting for fathers or brothers or neighbors behind the wheel. Ali Bare, Duke’s 16-year-old daughter, attends every race night. Many of the drivers are regulars and have been driving this track for about 20 years. “It’s a fun place to be for a lot of people,” says Fred’s wife, Susan Brown.

Keeping the gates open at Wythe Raceway is not easy. The track is not always profitable, which may be why the race winners are paid a pittance. Brown employs only two people—a technician and a flagman. Another 20 people handle concessions through a lease arrangement with a food vendor. Brown’s son handles maintenance and promotions. Some 50 volunteers, meanwhile, help out on race nights—ranging from the “track packers” who steamroll the surface in large, four-door sedans that Brown calls “granny cars” to individuals like Dawn Fogelsong, an affable operating room nurse who takes tickets and greets the crowd at the gate. “Yes, we make money,” Brown says, “but we put a tremendous amount of money back in the track.” Adds Susan Brown: “This is just for fun. It breaks even most years. Fred gets enough to keep it going—he’s so passionate about this.”

When he can, Brown keeps in contact with the handful of other dirt tracks in the state—Eastside Speedway in Waynesboro, Natural Bridge Speedway in Natural Bridge, Rolling Thunder Raceway at Ararat, the Virginia Motor Speedway in Jamaica and Winchester Speedway in Winchester. Some regular drivers at Wythe Raceway occasionally run on those tracks, too. Driver Mike Keith competes at Wythe, but also cruises the concrete course of the Lonesome Pine Raceway at Coeburn in Wise County as well as the Tennessee tracks of Bulls Gap and Kingsport. Bare also competes in Tennessee, but says there’s no place he would rather race than Wythe. “Everybody’s trying to be the hometown hero,” he says. “It’s just that you know everybody. You know what you’re capable of—or they think they do.”

At Wythe and other stock car racing venues, different types of cars compete in different races—and each car type requires a different level of investment to be competitive. Bigger cars require more money to get in racing trim and run in longer races that offer a slightly higher payoff for the winner. Short and Bare dump hundreds of dollars, if not thousands, into their racing hobby—and Short races most often in the U-CAR classification, which is one of the least expensive on the circuit. Bare often drives other people’s vehicles and splits the prize money, but still keeps his own cars in tow: a 1974 Camaro that he races at Antioch Speedway in Morganton, North Carolina, and a 1976 Camaro that he uses for the super street division at Wythe Raceway. Some weeks, Bare says, it’s all anyone can do to bang out the dents in the car body or tune an engine to get back to the track. He says that a driver “can have a winning U-CAR for about $2,000.”

From there, the cost goes up. A top, so-called “super street” car is an upgraded version of a pure stock car—with a bigger motor, better tires and better shocks—requiring an investment of about $8,000, Bare says. He estimates that a top “modified” car which features a sealed motor, can require about $12,000 of parts and labor to be race ready. The most expensive category of dirt track racecar is called the “late model stock car,” a full-bodied, hand-built, aluminum car on wide tires, weighing about 2,400 pounds and with upwards of 400 horsepower. Short says some drivers might pour as much as $75,000 into such vehicles.

The drivers have their own peculiarities. “You’ve got some, they can read and interpret every rule—they are pit lawyers,” says Brown. “And then you’ve got some that don’t read—a lot that really don’t read. And some, they might have gone hungry to be here today. It’s hard to understand how serious they are unless you’re really involved in it.”

Most drivers cover their racing costs out of their pockets unless they are fortunate enough to snag a sponsor. Finding a sponsor to buy tires alone can save several hundred dollars a year, says driver Mike Keith, who manages a trout farm at nearby Cedar Springs. Keith, 50, says he’s sunk upwards of $200,000 into this sport over the past 20 years. “It’s just for the thrill,” says Keith, “an expensive hobby.”

The drivers are a close-knit bunch. Bare knows nearly all of them, partly because he fixes race cars for about 15 regular clients at Duke Bare Racing, his shop in Meadowview, southwest of Rural Retreat. He also works as a car chief for an asphalt late-model racing team based in Blountville, Tennessee. Family tradition led Bare to racing, as it does for most in the sport. At age three, he started tagging along to this track with his father, a driver named Wade “Pappy” Bare who started racing at Wythe in 1978.

Now, some 30 years later, the younger Bare competes in two or three races every Saturday race night, and has racked more than 100 wins at the Wythe track in 19 years. Bare once contemplated going pro but never quite found the right opportunity. “I also didn’t want the headache or the responsibility,” he says. “After a race, I can come home and shut the door and don’t have to answer to 10 million people.”

He encouraged Short to get behind the wheel. She grew up in Garden, among the coal mines of nearby Buchanan County. As a kid, she rode go-karts across strip mine sites. Short started racing in the “hornet” class with young boys and other women in 2003. She has since totaled three cars at Wythe Raceway, a 1990 Ford Festiva, a 1999 Chevy Cavalier and a 1985 Dodge Charger—each a roughly $1,500 loss.

While the drivers have a need for speed, they also acknowledge that racing is dangerous. “I almost got killed here two years ago,” says Will Ferguson, 65, a Wythe Raceway driver for a decade and a businessman who raises horses near Speedwell. “I got turned going the back straightaway and I destroyed a car.” In 1999, Bare got tangled up in a safety barrier on the front straightaway and mangled his 1986 Buick Regal, which caught on fire. He suffered a concussion and broken ribs but was soon back on the track. Of the risks, Bare says: “It’s crazy!”

That word applies to just about any night at Wythe. On the opening night of 2010, there were three different wrecks in the super street race before a single lap was completed. That race then had a controversial finish. Two drivers—Mike Keith and Keith Griffetts—roared across the finish line at seemingly the same time. Brown stood clueless in the press box, wondering which driver had won. He conferred with other track officials, then returned to his microphone and announced, “It is a dead heat, no one won.” The crowd booed, but Brown did not back down. He rambled for a minute, trying to explain the track’s first tie in 30 years. The next week, all cars were fixed with an electronic scoring device called a transponder, which should eliminate any finish-line disputes.

Last year was a good year for both Bare and Short. Bare was the year-end champion of the super street competition at Wythe, and Short became the dirt track’s first-ever female champ, winning the U-CAR class. She also pocketed $1,000 after winning a special 100-mile, 200-lap U-CAR race. “That was the most money that I’ve ever won,” she says. “I got a new set of wheels and a new set of tires, which I needed.” More important than the money, Short and Bare, as class champions, got their names on a wall at the track. In the end, Bare says, he’s just happy to have a warm cheeseburger in the garage during the winter and a good car to race when the weather turns hot. And offering a little dirt-track wisdom, he notes that people do a lot of things in life that don’t bring them tangible rewards. “Like fishing,” he says. “I don’t hunt. I don’t fish. Racing is my fishing hole. That’s all I do.”

WytheRaceway.com

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