At 120 mph, Jay Crawford saw Elvis -- which is his way of saying he thought he was going to die.
All he wanted to do was show off a little for the fans at the 75-80 Dragway, an asphalt strip laid down on a Frederick County farm years ago so amateur hot rodders would not have to race on public highways.
So Crawford removed the wheelie bars that keep the front of his candy apple red Chevy Nova from jumping too high off the track. Up it went, veering across the lane and ripping into a guardrail that sent it spinning toward the finish like a beer can.
"I actually remember right before I hit the guardrail saying to myself, 'I do not want to die in this car tonight,' " Crawford said.
Now that the surgical pins have come out of his fingers on one hand and a steel plate has been sewn into his other arm, Crawford said he wanted just one more go at the 75-80 Dragway. But the chance -- for him and all the Sunday drivers and the professionals who have run at the strip for 45 years -- may never come again.
Today, the green starting lights at the drag strip will flicker for the last time. Acre after acre of rooftops in the new mini-city just down the road in Urbana hint at what will come next for a venue as famous for its homemade chili as it is for speed.
The drag strip, tucked among pastures and cornfields near the intersection of Routes 75 and 80 in Monrovia, has been sold to a developer under a $3 million contract that could bring as many as 1,600 houses, said track manager Bill Wilcom. To many in the community, the closure is another sign that the suburbs are crowding out their rural way of life.
"This track hurts me to close. It holds all my memories inside," said Crawford, 34, of Damascus.
Houses had been planned for the spot once before, but only a few, and at a time when just about everyone in the county who did not live in the city of Frederick lived on a dairy farm. NASCAR was still an adolescent relegated to dirt tracks in the deep South, and the only drag strips nearby were lonely country roads. Wilcom, who manages the track and shares ownership with his brothers, said they persuaded their father to allow them to open the drag strip.
When it opened in September 1960 as the 75-80 Drag-A-Way, there was not even a light tower -- known as a Christmas tree -- to signal a race's start.
"It was done just the way it was out on an abandoned highway," Wilcom said. "They said it wouldn't last a year."
Last week, as a nearby church's parking lot was filling with the vehicles of worshipers, a line of cars was waiting to enter the pits. Entry cost $20 to race, $10 to watch.
Car buffs were strolling through the pits, giving a once-over to a hopped-up Chevy station wagon, ogling a dragster as long, low and aerodynamically smooth as the Nike swoosh. There were the "Shrek" car, with a picture of the cartoon ogre, "Numbskull Racing," "More Money Racing" and "Jungle Jim."
Their superheated engines left squiggles in the cool autumn air as they idled huppity huppita huppita. Pungent clouds of burned rubber drifted from the staging area where drivers spin their tires to heat them and make them stickier for better traction.
The beauty of the ripened fields and clear skies could not much elevate the appearance of the track. Telephone poles tilt every which way in a tangle of wires. Faded signs whisper their hand-lettered messages, and the pit's asphalt surface is as cracked and pocked as a desert floor.
"Nothing's really changed. Maybe the cars have gotten a little faster," Randy Herald said. Herald, 30, a roofer who lives in Monrovia, said he wanted his 14-month-old daughter to see the track before it was gone. His wife, Tracy, 34, wanted to taste one last chili-cheese hot dog from the refreshment stand.
"To me, it's a shame to see it go. It's like a historic landmark," Tracy Herald said.
In the center of the pits, Bill Miller was pouring high-priced ($4.50 a gallon), high-octane fuel into a 1965 Cobra convertible. His son-in-law, Bill Debley, 28, sucked on a cigar about two feet away.
"Look how wide those slicks are! Fourteen-inch!" said Miller, 60, admiring the wheels of a passing dragster.
On weekends, Miller, an Army veteran, and his son-in-law, an Elvis impersonator with a wind-blasted pompadour and long tapered sideburns, take turns driving the Cobra.
"They'll race anything up here," Debley said. "Last year we had a Gremlin up here."
"Ski-Doos," Miller said, meaning snowmobiles.
"And you'll have the junior dragsters," Debley said, vehicles that resemble a stiletto on wheels, built on lawn mower engines, that children 8 to 17 can handle.
"Have you seen the motorcycles run?" Miller said. "Some of them just stay on one wheel the whole way down, just young and crazy."
Robbie Hudlow said he began his career at the 75-80 Dragway when he was 15 years old and so short that his grandfather, a retired NASCAR driver, tucked a pillow behind him so he could see over the dashboard. Now Hudlow is a 37-year-old pro who runs circuits from Michigan to Florida. Last Sunday, he came for nostalgia, eager to share a ride.
As Hudlow cruised to the starting line in his super-stock funny car, everything inside the car seemed to vibrate, as if the sound of the engine chanting gibberish came from deep underground.
The wheels smoked as Hudlow did a burnout to heat the tires, and the passenger compartment filled with noise and layers of acrid smoke as he waited for the Christmas tree's sequence of lights: yellow, yellow, yellow, GREEN . . .
And here, it is as if you have boarded a jet skimming the ground at full throttle while Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington puts his fist in the middle of your chest and shoves. The car pops a three-foot wheelie. People -- actually, the whole grandstand, parking lot, earth -- become a blur, and nothing seems as important as the narrow black strip of asphalt ahead of you.
And then it's over about as fast as it began.
"You get a rush from the speed. You really get a rush from beating somebody in the finals," said Guy Wolford, who entered his orange-and-black 1969 Plymouth Road Runner in another race.
The track has remained a family enterprise. On Christmases, the Wilcom clan, all five brothers and their 17 children, used to pile into cattle trucks for friendly races. Wilcom's wife, Betty, still makes the chili.
But after 45 years and a struggle with colon cancer last year, Wilcom was ready to call it quits.
Wilcom, who often lets his well-etched face sag into an ironically pitiful, Rodney Dangerfield-like pose, is reluctant to let anyone in on his secret: The last time he drove a dragster, he thinks, was 1964.
But Wilcom liked being the promoter, even if that meant placing ads, scheduling races, handling the payroll or climbing the telephone poles to replace the lights.
"When there's a problem they come to you," Wilcom said. "Right now, we got an outhouse broke down. You got to go unplug it."
He used to give out trophies and purses to winners in every class. Then he realized: Why bother?
"What I didn't understand is, all they wanted was to run their buddy up and down the track."