Thursday, August 17, 2017  

Racing with the Locals


Wherever there are vehicles, engines and open spaces, there are competitions of speed, engineering and driving skill. Whether the competitors are in cars, trucks or tractors, machines are being put to the test on the dirt and asphalt, and in the sand and mud of the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck. When locals feel the need for speed and the roar of engines, there are contests in oval track dirt racing, drag racing, mud bogs, and truck and tractor pulls to satisfy the cravings.
    Racing legend says that moonshiners were the forefathers of stock car racing, but in truth few bootleggers are known to have become oval track drivers. The real connection between the trade in untaxed alcohol and racing was made in the mechanic’s garage. Drivers who hauled illegal liquor wanted their vehicles to look normal to avoid attention, but they also needed powerful engines that could outrun police and revenue officers. In building “liquor cars,” mechanics altered suspensions so that the automobile would ride level even under a heavy load. The talents of the “liquor car” builder were much the same as those needed to build an oval track racer, and not surprisingly, some of the most successful racing garages had customers in the bootlegging business. While there’s no direct evidence to link racing in the area to the illegal liquor trade, the storied moonshine heyday of the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula may have provided some mechanical expertise and experience in the form of a modified “liquor car” or two.
    Oval dirt-track racing has been a weekly event since 1970 at Virginia Motor Speedway (VMS) in Saluda, in the tiny hamlet of Jamaica in Middlesex County. The 1/2-mile clay track has gone through a few evolutions since its beginnings. At various times known as Virginia Raceway, Mid-Bay Raceway, or just Saluda, the track was initially flat with wooden guardrails around the front and roadside. The areas around the back stretch and adjacent woods had dirt mounds serving as the outside perimeter wall. In the summer of 1970, a go-cart track was added and go-cart racing was featured until 1974. Ownership changed hands many times and modifications continued until the racetrack was sold to current owner Bill Sawyer in 2000.
    “We bought a ragged little facility that most people hoped would go away,” Sawyer said. “What was once an eyesore is now one of the top five dirt-track facilities in the country.”
    The track now features 8,000 permanent aluminum grandstand seats and private skyboxes, 17 television-quality light poles, as well as four-tier outside guardrail and three-tier inside guardrail retaining structures. It has 14-degree banking in both corners and four-degree banking on the front and back stretch.
    VMS’s Bill Sawyer had worked for years with his father, Paul Sawyer, a maverick who was part of stock car racing's development from a regional sport to an international phenomenon. The elder Sawyer was the visionary owner of Richmond International Raceway until he sold the track in 1999.
    “I wasn’t ready to quit being in the business,” Bill Sawyer said. “So I made up my mind to stay and we went racing.” Using his father and his brother, Wayne, as expert consultants, Sawyer set about rebuilding the Saluda racetrack. “It was better than spending all my time fishing,” he added. Sawyer has been in the racing business for about 40 years. “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he said. “I can’t imagine going back to ‘work’ again.”
    In April, VMS kicked off its 47th season, the 17th season under Sawyer’s leadership. Weekly races run on select Saturday nights through the first week of October. Regular events at VMS feature racing in four regular divisions — Victory Lap Pro Late Models, Budweiser Modifieds, Truckin’ Thunder Sportsman and Collision One Limited Stock. Pro Late Models are modified stock cars designed strictly for dirt racing, using General Motors “crate” engines, with about 400 horsepower each. Budweiser Modifieds are race cars purposely built for dirt with body styles modified for speed — big engines, big tires and open-wheel designs. Truckin’ Thunder Sportsman cars feature full-bodied, man-made chassis, most of which have been designed for asphalt racing. They use small-block Chevrolet or Ford engines. Collision One Limited Stock division could be considered an “entry level” division. Often called “street stocks,” these race cars have factory-type chassis and sheet metal. They are usually older models from the 70s and 80s. Twice a year, VMS features the Ultimate Super Late Model Series, perhaps the top dirt division in the country. Although these race cars look like the other pro late models, they are vastly different — weighing in at about 2,300 pounds each and powered by all-aluminum racing engines that put out 900-plus horsepower.
    Race teams travel to Saluda from about 19 states and Canada, according to Brian Tidball, sales and marketing professional with VMS. The state of the economy for the past few years has been hard on regional and local racing, Tidball said. Most regional and local race teams are owned and operated by small businesses. “When they’re struggling to stay in business it becomes nearly impossible to run a racing team,” he said. In spite of economic challenges, “It’s still more affordable for a family to go to the races every week than it is to go to the movies.”
    By anybody’s measure, racing at VMS is full of action, with cars regularly reaching speeds of 85 to 95 miles-per-hour. The contests in each division are short, maybe 25 to 30 laps, compared to a 300 to 500-lap race in NASCAR. “In the dirt, they race side-by-side,” Tidball said, “not nose to tail. It’s exciting — not a follow-the-leader parade. They’re all thinking, ‘I gotta go; I gotta go now!’” Tidball has been a racing enthusiast for more than 50 years. “No matter what, I can still sit down on a Saturday and enjoy a race,” he said.
    Drivers from all parts of the United States have raced at the track since it opened in 1970. Some notable Virginia drivers over the years have been: Wendell Scott of Danville, the first African-American driver in NASCAR and the first African-American driver to win a race in the Grand National Series, NASCAR’s highest level; Rick Mast of Rockville Baths, former NASCAR driver who drove in 364 races during his 15-year career and drove as a stunt double in the 1990 movie Days of Thunder; Bill Champion of Norfolk, uncle of Ricky Rudd, retired NASCAR driver, who competed in 289 races over his 18-year career; Tommy Ellis of Richmond, NASCAR short track driver nicknamed “Terrible” Tommy,” who won the last National Late Model Sportsman Series in 1981; James Hylton of Roanoke, a two time winner in NASCAR Winston Cup Series competition, who drove in 602 races over his 27-year career.
    VMS also hosts two events each year at The Pit, the speedway’s state-of-the-art, 200-foot mud bog facility. Fans of the dirt-slinging sport will see scores of trucks and mud dragsters splashing through the slime to cover the distance in under three seconds.
    For head to head competition, Colonial Beach Dragway in Westmoreland County features a 1/8-mile asphalt track where drag racers of all shapes, sizes and classes can come test their vehicles against the clock and each other. The facility hosts races on Fridays and Saturdays from March though October. Street cars, trucks, motorcycles and dragsters race in multiple events including test and tune, grudge matches, “Run What You Brung” and other sanctioned match-ups.
    Newtown Dragway in King and Queen County, a 300-foot sand track, hosts drag races from April through October. The track’s “Beanfield Races” include test and tune, grudge runs, run for fun, and the “Top 10 Street Truck Outlaw” series. “Race your friend. Challenge your enemy. Find out who’s the fastest,” say Newtown organizers.
    For a vehicle sport of a different sort, look to truck and tractor pulling, often called the world’s most powerful motorsport. Modified trucks and tractors pull a weighted sled along a 35-foot wide, 330-foot long track — the winner is the vehicle that pulls the sled the farthest. Dragon Motorsports, in Miller’s Tavern (Dunnsville), promotes four annual events at its track, including Lucas Oil Pro Pulling League and Interstate Tractor Pullers sanctioned events. Dragon Motorsports has transformed a “dirt track in the middle of a beanfield to one of the finest single track pulling facilities around,” according to organizers. The track features state-of-the-art sound, lighting and safety equipment in place to provide “the most family fun you can find.”
    In addition to events on-site at its local track, the company can organize an event for any group anywhere in the state and beyond. Dragon Motorsports offers everything from basic sled rental, to a completely organized event — with two sleds, two sets of scales, laser measuring and scrapers for track maintenance.
    Temple Brizendine, owner of Dragon Motorsports, has been promoting truck and tractor pulling events for at least 14 years. A farmer by profession, Brizendine was a competitor in the sport from the age of 18. He began promoting events because, “Local interest in truck and tractor pulls had all but died out, and I wanted to keep up interest in the sport.” You can follow Dragon Motorsports and Will Whitt Productions all over Virginia on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.
    For an authentic stock car racing experience in miniature, venture a few miles down the road to Richmond for Arena Racing USA, which features half-scale stock cars racing around a $500,000 high-banked race track inside the Richmond Coliseum. The cars circle the hockey rink sized track at speeds nearing 50 miles-per-hour — in less than eight seconds. The racers run two and three abreast around the indoor track with all the bumping, rubbing, crashing and even flipping normally associated with stock car races. In between the racing action, there is music, as well as spectator contests, tee-shirt cannons and prizes. Arena racing season runs from November to April. The league was founded by Richmond’s own former stock car chassis builder Ricky Dennis, son of Bill Dennis, Tappahannock resident and former 1970 NASCAR Rookie of the Year. Also a partner in Arena racing is Joe Gibbs, owner of Joe Gibbs Racing and former head coach of the Washington Redskins.
    Racing in the league this season was Robbie Allison, son of Davey Allison and grandson of Bobby Allison, both of NASCAR fame. Robbie Allison drove Keith Cooke’s #28 car, sponsored by local companies: Essex Concrete, Bareford Buick and Helmick Well and Pump Service.
    So you don’t have to race too far from home ground when looking for the entertainment of motorsports — competitions of speed, power, sound and skill.