Whether they race Pinto junkers or custom-designed late models, local racers all have their eyes on the NASCAR prize.
By Mike Gibson
OCTOBER 4, 1999: Slowly, ominously, the Late Models file one by one into the fenced-in oval at the heart of the Atomic Speedway track, like wary circus animals padding furtively across the center ring. Sleek Day-Glo speed machines, all numbers and logos and personal insignias cast over sharp angles and gleaming surfaces, the cars rumble in unison as they line up for the qualifying laps that will decide placement for the evening's feature race.
By turns, each racer takes his place on the track, an impossibly high-banked red clay oval, a warped mud doughnut they will circle exactly twice, each lap taking somewhere between 13 and 14 seconds to complete. Attended by a sudden crescendo of resonant engine thunder, drivers take the green starter's flag and begin hurling their cars around the track at speeds approaching 90 mph. Approaching the first turn, the cars pitch into a pell-mell near-sideways slide, careening through the steep curve with flaring numbered side panels leading the way. Steering feverishly, racer and car scarcely seem able to keep their equilibrium as wheels churn mud at an angle opposite the slide, until finally the vehicle adjusts and finds the sanity of the straightaway, only to prepare once again for another mad surf around the curve at the other end of the track.
"One of the best times of the evening at 13.24 seconds," an announcer's voice intones over the loudspeakers positioned at various points around the track. The car just completing its qualifying run is a shiny black Late Model with an enormous spoiler and a flame-ridden number nine emblazoned on each of its side panels, riding atop another insignia, bold yellow lettering that announces the driver's nom de racing"The Kid." "That was Central High School Junior Dusty Carver; not bad for a 16-year-old kid, boys and girls."
Scooped out next to Interstate 40 on the way to Kingston, Atomic Speedway is one of a handful of small-town racewaysboth dirt and asphaltthat host weekend events for drivers who don't have the means to exhibit their skills and down-home daring-do at larger, more illustrious tracks. In an era when NASCAR and televised motorsports have seized a king's share of sports-oriented media, they constitute a de facto minor league system for one of the country's most popular pastimes.
"Compare it to a Little League football program," says Carson Branum, a balding, 40-ish steel-jawed contractor who has owned Atomic Speedway for the last four years. He notes the ascendance of Busch racer Jeff Purvis and Winston Cup warrior Ken Shrader, both of whom spent a portion of their formative years riding the high banks at Atomic.
"If interest falls at this level, the pro leagues will suffer in another 10 or 15 years. This is where it startswith local short tracks and the fans who support them."
Southern legend has it that racing, as a sport, evolved from backwoods moonshining, as burly Tennessee, Georgia and Carolina country boys loaded up jugs of white whiskey in souped-up cars and toted their contraband to bigger cities, often at break-neck speeds. When many of the old runners retired from the business, spurred by fickle economics or perhaps one too many trips to the penitentiary, small-town round tracksespecially dirt tracksarose to sate lingering appetites for the thrill of the run.
"Facilities like ours were the first ones out there in the country towns," says Branum. "The roots are all in dirt; if you ask 90 percent of the NASCAR drivers, they all began somewhere at a local dirt track."
But with the explosion of NASCAR's popularity over the last decade or so has come a corresponding increase in fan interest at local tracks. At Atomic, where some 1,500 to 2,000 fans now trek out to watch "points races" every week, attendance is expected to grow by as much as 50 percent next year. Perhaps in recognition of the phenomenon (not to mention its profitability), Charlotte Motor Speedway owner Bruton Smith commenced plans to build dirt tracks at all of his larger facilities, new venues for regional dirt track events like the HAV-A-TAMPA series or Penzoil World of Outlaws. "I would attribute a least a 30 percent increase (in Atomic attendance) so far to the NASCAR boom," says Branum.
With new fandom has come a new aura of respectability at local tracks, and new responsibilities for owners like Branum, in the form of greater trackside amenities, modern marketing and promotional outreach, the revamping of aged, beat-down facilities...
Once little more than a collection of knock-kneed bleachers huddled around a knobby red-mud abyss, Atomic Speedway today is noticeably buff with revisions, most of them having come under Branum's nascent ownership; fresh coats of paint garnishing buildings and walkways, newer and betterequipped concession barns, a "beer garden" section on the opposite side of the track to separate rowdier partakers from more sedate, teetotalling fans.
"The joke at Atomic used to be 'Let's go to the fights and maybe a race will break out,' one driver notes confidentially. "Now it's a much better atmosphere, cleaner and better all around."
Over in the pits, a stew of mud, gravel, and crabgrass adjacent to the track, racers from all of the evening's seven classes (from the highly specialized Late Models all the way down to the Unmodified MinisPintos and other stock street compacts thrown into competition with no alterations) congregate around clusters of cars and trailers, awaiting their turn in the night's three distinct eventsthe warm-up "Hot Laps," qualifying laps, and the 40-lap feature races. Teenage Late Model driver Dusty Carver, a fragile wisp of bone and blonde hair, is approached by a trio of chubby peach-faced kids probably no more than five or six years his junior. Tentatively, they ask the second-year veteran to scrawl his autograph on otherwise pristine new Atomic Speedway T-shirts. With an implacable matter-of-factness and rugged country manner that belie his youth and apparent frailty, Carver signs the shirts and gently sends the boys on their way.
Branum notes that such fandom is encouraged as part of the track's larger marketing strategy, through the Atomic Kids Club and weekly special events that solicit the attention of diminutive racing enthusiasts. "We promote these guys," says Branum. "We want to make heroes out of our weekly drivers."
"There y' go," Carver drawls, watching his pint-sized idolaters skip toward another Late Model entrant. An adept competitor despite his relative inexperience (he will later finish sixth out of 30 in the night's feature race), Carver reportedly learned to drive before age 10. His father, Kenny, a former dirt racer himself, was seriously injured in an on-the-job mishap, and the gangling youngster became dad's chauffeur, climbing on cola boxes and sitting atop pillows and milk crates in order to gain proper access to car seat and steering wheel.
But despite his aspirations ("One day, maybe I'll get a good sponsor and a good ride...") and his precociousness behind the wheel, the trappings of mini-stardom aren't an easy fit. "It's still a little hard to get used to, signing autographs and alla that," he confides.
Pasted against the misty blue backdrop of the Great Smoky Mountains, 411 Motor Speedway is a study in visual contrast, the cold brutality of the asphalt loop and the adjacent drag strip (which, on this evening, is hosting a clutch of speedy motorcycles) on the airy softness of the pastoral horizon. There are palpable differences between dirt racing and its concrete cousin; the racing classifications are more or less the same (Late Models, Minis, etc.), but the ride is another thing entirely. The asphalt racers can't navigate the turns with the same hell-bent ferocity as the dirt runners, the harder surface mandating a tighter, more controlled passage through the curves. As one dirt-track racer notes, "[dirt] allows you to do a little more hangin' out; you don't lose it if you throw 'er sideways on the curve."
But there's a visceral aspect to asphalt racing that dirt-track seems to lack, a certain sense of realismthe seething violence of cold steel on stone. At each curve, a hail of sparks fly in the wake of drivers whose car bodies hang low enough to scrape unforgiving banks.
"Most people have a preference, dirt or asphalt, and they pretty much stick to it," says Janice Humble, a Bristol, Tenn. resident entering the night's Legends class. A NASCAR fan hailing from one of the seats of stock car royalty, Humble and her husband Ron discovered Legends carsminiature four-foot racers built to resemble '30s-era American street carsin 1993. A few laps around a local track were all it took to sway her thinking.
"For a while, I had the lead on a few other drivers out there at the same time," Humble cackles. "Then I hit a hay bail and knocked it to pieces. But once you got me in one, you couldn't get me out."
Humble says the Legends racers are better-suited to hobbyists who have no larger racing ambitions, although some drivers have been known to move up to local Late Model competition, and sometimes even regional events. Manufactured by R.U. Racing in Bristol, the Legends are cheaper than most of their larger brethren, retailing at somewhere around $12,000. "We've got people with no experience whatsoever, and people who ran Busch Grand National series 20 years ago," says Humble. "Legends are good cars for people who aren't as serious, or they can be a good way to train and move up the ladder."
And for most racers, no matter how much lip service they may give to having humble aspirations, "moving up the ladder" remains a part of their racing dreamsperhaps lingering only as a fond but distant wish, but lingering nonetheless. Says racer Scott King, a Limited Sportsmen (a class concocted specifically for dirt racers who wish to convert their vehicles to hard-track racing) driver, many competitors seek asphalt chiefly for its similarity and perceived connection to big-time racing.
"I could foresee (moving up in class), but it's all about stepping stones," King says. Owner of a South Knoxville landscaping business, King and his family weren't steeped in local track tradition like so many area competitors; his racing call-to-arms was predicated on sheer adrenal surge, an ineffable need for speed.
"I never raced go-carts or anything; just the thrill of running was enough to sell me," King laughs. "I like getting out there with a bunch of guys who all have the same thing in mind. It's about the hottest rush you can imagine."
Given his relatively late entrance into the sport, King tempers any long-term racing aspirations with a keen sense of the fiscal reality. That doesn't mean, however, that he doesn't dream; with the spark of possibility gleaming in his eye, he explains that regional asphalt drivers may eventually essay the leap to regional circuits like ARCA, while dirt-trackers seek out mid-level series like HAV-A-TAMPA or Southern All-Stars when they attain the funding and proficiency to move beyond local Late Model competition.
"I'd like to run ARCA one day, but you need a lot of money, a lot of sponsors and a lot of time behind the wheel," says King, friendly and fur-faced in his mid-30s. "That's what it's all aboutseat time."
A concrete bunker nestled roadside on the way to Dixie Lee Junction just outside Lenoir City, Harry Housley's garage is home to two of the three dirt track racers the local entrepreneur (his company constructs engines, including the high-powered, four-cylinder models that power his cars) owns and shepherds on weekend sojourns to Atomic Speedway. "Couple more cars and we'll be just like Roush Racing," says 27-year-old Derik Duggan, already a 10-year veteran of Atomic and chief driver of one of Housley's cars. The reference, of course, is to one of NASCAR's best-known racing teams.
Team Housley is pretty formidable in its own right; greasy to their elbows, three menDuggan, Lee Garrett and crew chief Danny "Doc" Hickmanturn bolts and pull wires in the tangle of parts and tubes nesting around the engine of a black checkerboard Mustang with a brightly-colored number 24 on its side. According to Duggan, the men spend "a good 30-40 hours" weekly servicing Duggan's battle-worn Mustang and Housley's cleaner, better-preserved red one. "It's like a second job."
Housley's story is typical in that his racing career began as the result of family tradition, atypical in that it involves crossover from the speedier but far less chaotic world of drag-racing. Cherubically handsome, with a shock of pre-maturely white hair in his mid-forties, Housley's 25-year drag-strip career was an heirloom, passed down from his father and brothers.
"My father was a car nuthe used to race on the street," Housley laughs. "And all three of his boys turned out to be racers. It's definitely in the family."
Housley's elder brother, a three-time International Hot Rod Association champion, baptized his sibling in the brotherhood of racing. But it wasn't until years later, when Duggan came to Housley and asked that his company construct an engine suitable for racing, that the Benton, Tenn. native discovered his greatest passion, dirt-track driving.
"We built him one, and it ran real goodfor about five laps," Housley remembers with a sheepish grin. "Then it blew up. I couldn't stop there; I had to get it right."
Housley and his crew built a second, more successful engine, then modified a car for dirt-track travel, and then a second one. Eventually, he decided to try his luck behind the wheel. Last year, his first as a round-track racer, Housley won three races in the street-stock classification, an auspicious start for a rookie driver. This year, he took second place (behind Duggan) in the final points standings, compiled after a 20-some-odd race season that began in April.
Duggan's and Housley's cars bear witness to the two men's widely divergent racing styles. While both Mustangs are marked by the smudgy streaks of foreign color that are the unavoidable byproduct of a tightly-packed track ("swapping paint," race jargon for the jostling and bumping of cars), Duggan's Mustang is fraught with dents and mottled patches that are all but absent from Housley's bright red steed.
"I'm a little more aggressive driver; he's smoother," Duggan explains. "I'll stick 'er in there five feet wide and hope for the best. Whatever comes out of it, comes out of it."
His free-wheeling style may have contributed to the wreck that knocked Duggan, who has won races in every class at Atomic, out of the expensive Late Model class, a wreck he was told stood as the "worst in Atomic history."
"I was passing an old boy on the last lap, coming off turn four for the checkered flag, when he kindly blocked the waya real Rusty Wallace move, I guess," Duggan smirks, making reference to the hard-charging NASCAR driver renowned for his penchant for roughhouse racing. "The tires hit in front and broke my whole right front suspension. It lifted me airborne over his car and I barrel rolledsome say it was nine times, some say 12. I couldn't count. It was just like one of those rides at the fair that go 'loopety'all I saw were lights whirling around."
Duggan emerged unhurtserious injuries are fairly scarce on dirt tracks. But the collision destroyed his Late Model, forcing him to resume his career in a cheaper class. The incident points to one of the biggest obstacles local racers face; finding new sponsors in an era when there are already more than enough racing teams to go around.
Housley points out that cars in the street stock class typically cost between $20,000 and $25,000 to purchase and renovate; the most expensive Late Models (which are specially assembled, sheet metal bodies crafted to fit a skeleton of roll cage, frame and engine) run in excess of $35,000, with nearly as much allocated for the massive and well-equipped trailers needed to haul the racers from garage to track.
Assuming that the previous week's race was bereft of any serious misadventure, weekly maintenance runs close to $100 per week, plus $4 per gallon for a tank's worth of Sunoco racing fuel, plus the corpulent $100 racing tires that require changing every six weeks or so, plus the cost of spare engines... Even for frequent winners, the weekly prize money of a few hundred dollars per race is hardly enough to offset expenses. All of which underlines the fact that even at the local level, racing is a practice best suited to the well-heeled or well-connected.
"Getting sponsors is tough," says Derik, a likely candidate for such given his five seasonal championships and career aggregate of 82 wins. "If you race Late Models, you have to have big sponsors, at least $10,000 worth just to start out."
As he speaks, Duggan watches the last vestiges of a mid-September sun fade on the horizon and then turns his gaze, fondly, to the black checkerboard Mustang now parked just outside the Housley garage. Despite the dents and streaks of stray color that mar most visible sections of the vehicle's surface, a bold number 24 stands out on the side panel in vivid reliefthe same number sported by NASCAR wunderkind Jeff Gordon, a fabulously successful young racer the same age as Duggan.
"Yeah, I'm a NASCAR fan and a Gordon fan," Duggan admits, with much aw-shucks foot-scraping of the oil-stained asphalt at his feet. Even Duggan, fearless Atomic warrior and winner of more races than drivers at most any level of competition, defers when the subjects of his own racing dreams arise. "Been that way all my life. I guess everyone has to have their heroes."
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