Do the Local Motion

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

Matt Bowie, a T8 paraplegic who lost mobility in his legs due to a spinal cord injury in 1981, races his 1970 Camaro SS using adaptive hand controls at the 75-80 Dragway in Monrovia, Md., every weekend.
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.

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