Do the Local Motion
On Auto Racing's Big Weekend, Plenty of Action Close to D.C.

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 2009

Nearly 500,000 race fans will descend on Indianapolis and Charlotte this Memorial Day weekend, the most hallowed time of the year in American motorsports, to cheer Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the back-to-back runnings of the Indy Racing League's Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600.

If you've ever wondered what the high-octane fuss is about, you need not travel far to find out. There's plenty of racing all summer long at local tracks across Virginia and Maryland -- much of it within an hour's drive of Washington.

Whether it's drag strips, ovals, dirt tracks or asphalt, what they have in common are cheap tickets, concession stands worthy of any seaside boardwalk, colorful cars and drivers who love racing so much they'd do it for free.

Most do. They're men and women working full-time jobs to pay the bills and bankroll their high-speed hobby. On the best nights, they might walk away with a $400 winner's check and the right to call themselves a local hero.

But even on the worst nights, nothing thrills them like signing an autograph or giving fans an up-close look at their car when the pits are flung open to spectators after the trophies have been handed out.

75-80: 'Backcountry Fun'

For 45 years, Frederick County's 75-80 Dragway served as a shrine for local hot rodders, who towed their Camaros and Chevelles to the asphalt strip to flex their automotive muscle.

In October 2005, thousands gathered near the intersection of Routes 75 and 80 in Monrovia for its final race. The complex was going to be plowed under to make way for 1,600 new homes.

But after the project stalled, the dragway reopened for weekend races this spring. The news dismayed those who view the sport as a noxious annoyance, but it delighted others.

"It's down-home, good ol' backcountry fun," says Geneva "Gee Wiz" Williams, 45, who has raced her family's dragster -- which carries No. 7580 in honor of the track -- since she was 34. "It's great for the whole family. You could be 8 to 80 and still have a great time, meeting racers of all stages and ages."

Anyone can grasp the basics of drag racing. It's two cars, lined up side-by-side, exploding from a standing start and screaming full-tilt to the finish -- typically a marker a quarter-mile away. The winner advances to the next round; the loser goes home.

"The point is: My car is faster than yours," says Bob Martin, 58, of Leesburg, who's been coming to the 75-80 Dragway since he was 17 and now serves as its technical director. "It's like chasing a pretty girl. Who can talk to her first? It's cheap entertainment."

But it's made more exciting by the smoke-spewing burnouts at the start, the earsplitting roar, the hop of the cars as they explode in a fury and the electronic scoreboard that flashes the elapsed time and top speed roughly 12 seconds later.

These furious duels go on all night at 75-80 -- Mustangs vs. Camaros, F-150s vs. Tundras, even Suburbans vs. Explorers ("The battle of the grocery-getters!" the track announcer brays as the SUVs pair off) -- as cows doze in a nearby pasture.

Rockville native Mike Beach, 38, a sales representative, is among the regulars, currently chasing Pennsylvania's Mike Fortney for the track championship in the Nine-Inch Nightmare class (named for the width of the cars' rear tires).

Beach learned about cars as a boy, charged with handing tools to his dad, whose nose was buried under the hood most weekends.

Today, he's the owner, driver and one-man crew of a 1966 Chevy Nova painted a dazzling turquoise green. Beach, a man with exacting standards, calls it "a 10-footer."

"It looks better from 10 feet away," he says, smiling. "When your car looks good, its runs good; a lot of people come up and compliment you. There's nothing better than getting a compliment on your car."

Like most dragsters, Beach's car runs on Cam2, a 110-octane leaded fuel that costs $6.10 a gallon and has a peculiar smell.

"Most racers love that smell," Beach says. "Their eyes perk up when they smell that smell!"

At the push of a button, an extra fuel line pumps in nitrous oxide, stored in a tank in the car's trunk, which blends with the racing fuel to boost the engine's horsepower from about 175 to 750.

Beach makes two qualifying runs down the track to figure out what his car needs to go faster -- maybe a spark-plug adjustment, maybe a tweak in the tire pressure. Then he lines up for the first round of eliminations, backing his rear tires over the puddle of water that's key to a spectacular burnout. He locks the front wheels and spins the rear, shifting through the gears to kick up a furious cloud of smoke. There's a point to this: A proper burnout scrubs gravel from the tires, which improves traction. But it's also a show of bravado, like a gorilla pounding his chest.

Saturday nights draw a more sophisticated class of dragsters. And once her broken transmission is fixed, Williams will be among them. Her brothers serve as co-crew chiefs on the car, which has hit a top speed of 187 mph.

Williams is convinced that 200 mph is within reach.

"I can't believe I go that fast!" she says, crediting her brothers' mechanical wizardry. "But when I'm in the car, that's the happiest I am. It's what I was put here to do."

Williams believes the dragway has helped reduce the amount of illegal street racing over the years in southern Frederick County -- similar to an incident that left eight spectators dead in Prince George's County in February 2008 -- by giving car enthusiasts a safe place to race.

Jan H. Gardner, president of the Frederick County Board of Commissioners, said in an e-mail she hasn't seen the proof, adding that officials have cited the 75-80 Dragway with building code violations since its reopening.

It's an age-old debate in drag racing. One man's blight is another man's cherished pastime.

So it's no wonder that when the track's timing system malfunctioned on a recent Friday night, the track announcer suggested: "Now would be an excellent time to get one of our world-famous chili dogs! And if you're having a good time here, be sure to let the board of commissioners know!"

The Voice of Old Dominion

If drag racing is a celebration of raw speed, stock-car racing is a study in patience, tactics and guile.

It has made billions for NASCAR's founding family, the Frances of Daytona Beach, Fla., and turned drivers such as Jeff Gordon into superstars. But in Manassas, across from the Prince William County Fairgrounds, it has made Bill Etheridge, 68, a contented man.

Etheridge has been a fixture in the grandstands of Old Dominion Speedway for decades, showing up for the Saturday night stock-car races with a full complement of gear: a modified beach chair whose legs neatly cradle the aluminum bleachers, a golf umbrella to shield himself from the sun, a floppy hat and a backpack crammed with a poncho, binoculars and snacks.

"You've got your racing snobs who think you have to go to Daytona," Etheridge says. "But you can see just as good a racing here as there."

And Etheridge has seen some greats at the three-eighths-of-a-mile asphalt oval -- including the sport's "King," Richard Petty, who raced there decades ago.

Today, Old Dominion hosts a lower division of NASCAR racing. But the action is every bit as exciting, with cars slicing side by side as they round the turns.

Track announcer Edwin Pardue, 41, whose uncle raced in NASCAR's top ranks, calls the action -- providing just enough information for the purists and the right amount of whimsy for the kids, who spend the evening racing around the bleachers and waving checkered flags.

Suddenly, a car smacks the wall! It's a hard hit. Pardue explains that the accelerator must have stuck; the driver didn't have a chance to react. The track falls silent.

"But he is okay!" Pardue exults, and the crowd applauds. "Mike Arnold is okay after a whale of a shot!"

During the cleanup that follows, Pardue scampers onto the track to interview the drivers, who wait out the delay strapped in their seats.

"It's a little early to be playing bumper tag," one driver grouses.

Then it's into the stands to interview the fans.

"What's your name, sir?" Pardue asks. "Are you having fun?"

"What flavor sno-cone do you have?" he asks a little girl.

Suddenly the engines fire, and the cars thunder into the first turn.

There's a pass for the lead and a furious battle at the finish.

"It doesn't get any better than that, folks," Pardue says.

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