Forget your NASCAR 180-mile-an-hour glamour.
This is American auto racing at its primordial thumping aorta: The summer weekend race at a little-bitty quarter-mile red dirt track way back in the hollers, this one the Tyler County Speedway, the engines too loud to hear a thing, the smell of gas and burned rubber and fried fish off the grill and bug spray, and dust everywhere, everywhere, settling into the folds of flesh at the neck, in the ears, between the toes, all over the goggles little kids wear to keep the dust out of their eyes.
When the night is over, if you ain't dirty, you ain't been. NASCAR gives you noise all right, but here, on the sort of forgotten, no-media track where NASCAR was born, you still get dirt too, clouds and fogs of of the earth itself: Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.
The green flag drops for a qualifying heat, and D.J. Cline stands on the gas, the 400-cubic-inch engine hits a deafening whine, and he's sliding through the first turn, his yellow and green No. 4 homemade windowless car moving sideways and forward and twisting hard to the left all at the same time, the tail end whipping up higher on the track. Great plumes of orange dust billow into the air, smothering the wooden planks of the stands and the few hundred people in them. Their mouths are open, little O's in the darkening air; arms wave in big pinwheeling circles, c'mon, c'mon.
Only six cars on the track, and Cline has to place in the top four to make the final. In that one, he's dreaming of a win, a first. Checkered flag, $1,000, a trophy and a guaranteed spot in the Hillbilly 100 dirt late-model competition on Labor Day weekend. That's a $25,000 top prize.
A win. A first.
Cline hasn't had one all year.
He's 41 and there are only so many summers left.
You think about that, how little time there is left this season before the chill of winter sets in, your fingers locked through the fence links, Cline roaring by dead last in the ninth lap of his 10-lap qualifier.
He's not going to make it. He's coming into the final turn. He's got maybe six seconds to do something.
He cuts the wheel hard to the inside of the track, catches some traction on the black strip of melted tire rubber. The car lunges forward. A car above him slips into the dust, sliding, sliding, and Cline gets third at the checkered flag.
He's survived to the next round.
Back in the pits, here he is, already out of the car, its wheels pulled off, and he's sanding the tires down to burn off the melted glaze. Short-track dirt racing is all about traction.
"You want your car to scotch up, get that traction on that strip of rubber laid down on the track," he says. "But the surface also depends on the heat, how much water's been put down. Tracks like these, they can get slicker all night, or they can rubber down and get really, really fast."
He's standing there in his yellow and black fire coveralls, maybe 5 feet 7, solidly built, bright green eyes, brown hair cut short, a laugh at the ready, but you can see he's tense. Works as a mechanic back home in St. Clairsville, Ohio, population 5,000. No kids, got divorced last year.
He races twice a week, Friday and Saturday nights, all season long, in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, maybe 40 races a year. You win three or four times, you're doing great.
You mow the yard during the week and pay the bills when you can.
"I've been racing 22 years," he says. "My dad was into it. My cousin over there, Corey, he races, too. You see your family all weekend. It just gets in your blood."
His dad, Jay, is right here, a short, stocky friendly man with a brush cut. The talk is about what tires to use for the finals -- the hard or the soft? What will the track be like in an hour, after the other classes of cars, the AMRA modifieds, the street stocks, the pure stocks, the little four-cylinder junkyard warriors, finish their runs?
You guess, you go up and look at the track, talk to other drivers, spit and go figure.
Like a lot of guys out here, Jay built the frame for the car, built the whole thing from the ground up. He never had an engineering class, he just learned how. Jay does a little bit of everything. Repairs vacuum cleaners, owns a video shop, does tailoring alterations, builds frames for sports cars.
Cline the elder:
"When I started, you went to the junkyard, bought a motor for $350, put it in something, and if you won that race that night, you were done. Broke even. Today, you just can't win enough to pay for the engine."
Cars like this will run you maybe $23,000, built from scratch in your shop during the winter. D.J. won $30,000 one season a couple years back, but that was exceptional. Mostly you hope to pay for the gas and the expenses.
"You never make it all back," says Jay. "Breaking even, that's what you're looking for."
It goes on like this at more than 750 dirt tracks in all 50 states, drawing more than 30 million admissions. This year's season is approaching the final races with the advent of school and Friday night high school football, that attainable glory for teenage boys in small towns like Middlebourne, like Tyler, like a hundred towns up and down the state border.
But boys grow up, and what of small-town competition then? How to get a win, a first, when most of life has you running an auto parts store out by the bypass? What of that lust for victory on Friday night?
There are more than 120 racing cars out here tonight. You couldn't ask for a prettier evening if you could just see it. Guys sit in their trailers, sisters or wives or girlfriends pouring sweet tea or sitting in folding chairs outside. You get a lot of guys with heavily developed forearms from twisting so many screwdrivers. They have bulky chests, crew cuts, reflecting sunglasses, maybe a goatee.
Country tough. The track has a fighting policy: "If driver or someone with driver starts a fight or goes to another pit, [he] forfeits money and is subject to arrest and will be barred for two weeks. If it happens again, you will be barred for the year. Remember the driver is responsible for his crew and family."
"You're gonna have your confrontations," Cline says. "There ain't no getting around that."
Here comes a grandma sitting astride a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle, the grandbaby in short pants on the seat in front of her, bumping around the mud puddles. The water is a reddish brown.
This kind of racing began in the underbelly of the Deep South, backwoods moonshiners during Prohibition outrunning G-men with a crate of hootch in back, local heroes delivering quality product and coming home in dirt-road dust, laughing off another epic in the darkness of the back porch, the kids put to bed but still up, listening.
Later on, they started racing on Saturday nights out there in Georgia and Alabama and Kentucky on these red dirt tracks and you didn't need to be on the cover of fancy magazines. Men in town gave you a nod of respect. The kind of women who smoked cigarettes, they raised their eyebrows a bit when you walked in.
"The dirt itself contributed a great deal to the oomph factor of the racing," says Neal Thompson, an author finishing up on "White Lightning," a history of how dirt track racing led to the birth of NASCAR in 1948. "They'd be slipping and sliding, cars covered with dirt, this plume of dirt and dust above track. There are descriptions of how fans would be tinted red after the race. Those things made it more visceral, more connected to the land."
The dirt pretty much disappeared after NASCAR moved to more formal "super speedway" racing in cars that had brands on them -- Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge. Nowadays, NASCAR is big money. General admission can be $50. Family of four, $200. The kids haven't had a hot dog yet. Out here, it's $8 for general admission. You want to go back in the pits, it's $22.
In the stands in Tyler County, the lights of anywhere else a long way off, there's a thought that NASCAR is maybe getting too uptown.
"I don't even think they want people like us no more," says Kevin Greene, a worker for the Ohio Department of Transportation. He's dressed in overalls, T-shirt and a baseball cap, come to watch a friend from work. "They've outpriced themselves to the average fan. "
And there's an acute shortage of dirt at NASCAR. People like dirt.
The Tyler County Fair Queen ("You get it on looks and personality -- there's not a lot to it") is Lauren Patterson, a 16-year-old junior at Tyler County Consolidated. She's presenting the trophies tonight. She wears a denim skirt, spaghetti-strap black top, modest tiara and matching earrings. She keeps her title-bearing sash in the truck until trophy time. She says: "Asphalt is boring."
Up in the stands, here's Jody DeBlasis, 45 and sitting with her toddler granddaughter, Madison. She's driven 90 minutes to watch her brother drive in his first race.
"I ran a powder puff race what, 29 years ago," she says. "I ran fifth."
Well, that's pretty good.
"My mother won," she says. "It was humiliating."
Cline waits for his final race, the top division, the super late-models, the race with the $1,000 top prize. It's 18 cars doing 25 laps, for a total of 61/4 miles. It'll go by in six or seven minutes. He has guessed the softer tires will do best for the final.
The green flag drops again, the engine roar makes you wince. More dust. He's diving down into the turns low, then high, looking for a way to move up. It's almost impossible to pass, so many cars clog the turns.
After 19 laps, he's moved up to ninth, but can get no higher. It's his worst finish in at least six weeks. His payout is just $210.
"The track has rubbered up. I needed harder tires," he's saying, back at the trailer. "I had them on and then I took them off again. I just out-thought myself."
Somebody else wins, gets the $1,000, gets the shiny trophy, gets his picture taken with the Tyler County Fair Queen, gets to pull up in front of the stands and be interviewed, talking into the microphone, voice echoing through the dust.
By then, Cline and his dad are having a barbecue sandwich. D.J. is drinking a cold one. They're loading up the truck. They're winching the car onto the trailer. They've got to drive nearly two hours back home, and be at work at 8 a.m.
There are only so many summers. He drives in Crooksville, Ohio, next Saturday night.