Profile: A Night at the Races

Fans sit and watch from tailgates as the the open-wheel modified division races by. (Reporter Photo/Drew Granthum)

Fans sit and watch from tailgates as the the open-wheel modified division races by. (Reporter Photo/Drew Granthum)

By DREW GRANTHUM/Sports Writer

Stock-car racing.

It’s a phrase that conjures up brightly painted billboards ripping around a track at 200 miles an hour, piloted mostly — with the exception of a few women who seek racing glory — by young, clean shaven men that whose physical appearance land somewhere between GQ cover model and Wall Street go-getter.

At its highest level, it is about money, power and winning, with a little politics sprinkled in for good measure. Have the talent, but not the look? Better luck next time. Have the money, but not the talent? There’s a seat waiting somewhere.

It’s come a long way from its rough-and-tumble start when moonshiners organized impromptu races to see whose car built to outrun the revenuers was the fastest.  That’s not to say it’s all bad; the races are fan-friendly, and one can take their kids to a big event and not worry about a fight breaking out — usually. But many old timers who have seen the sport rise from its roots to the multi-million dollar business long for the days when passion drove the sport.

Luckily for those in Shelby County who pine for the days of Richard Petty, Bobby Allison and Dale Earnhardt, there is a place they can go to see drivers battle it out for pure pride and prize money — Shelby County Speedway, a 1/3-mile dirt track in Wilsonville.

Tucked away off Highway 25, the right turn off the main road and subsequent pass over the train tracks is like crossing the threshold to another time. There are no neon-capitalized sponsor billboards screaming advertisements, no Colosseum-like grandstands jutting up to the heavens nor cleverly placed sponsor blimps buzzing over head here; just a dirt road with flags lining the way to a fork that will take one to either the ticket stand or the hot pit. While it is a far cry from Daytona, Indianapolis or Monaco, one evening spent soaking in the roar of the engines, the smell of the gasoline and the breeze off the cars as they tear into the turns reveals that there is no feeling in the world like the assault on the senses that is a night at the races.

A MAN, SOME LAND AND A DREAM

Shelby County Speedway is the brainchild of James Ingram, Wilsonville native with a passion for motorsports. The owner of a construction company, Ingram built the track from the ground up on the land he lives on — with a little help from some friends.

“Well, they had a little track over in Westover,” he said. “They shut it down, and I let them boys talk me into building one over here. It started out not much bigger than a go cart track, and over the years, it stretched out into this.”

Of course, Ingram couldn’t exactly build a track without permission from his wife, Etheline. He was able to cut a deal with her that gave her a job, and him the track.

“It was built (for) a fun thing, not a business,” she said.  “But James soon found out he had to have a business license, tax numbers, all that stuff. For him to be able to have the track, he talked me into it. He said, ‘Well, you can have the concession stand.’”

For Etheline, that was all she needed to hear.

“I used to piddle with decorating cakes (to) make my extra spending money, so I fell for it,” she said. “So I had the concession stand. Still got it. That came about, then we found out about all the legal things you’ve got to do, and that’s how it became what it is.”

Ingram said having help in the form of owning his own construction equipment allowed the track to be built how he wanted.

“I own my own equipment, and we didn’t work on it all the time,” he said. “If we had a job somewhere, we’d go to work, and then if we got caught up a day or two, we’d come in here and work on the racetrack. It took us a year before we got it ready.”
The track has come a long way from a small dirt oval on the Ingram property into what it is today.
From March 16, 1992 until the present, the Ingrams have done every race set up themselves, which is no small feat.

“We run it ourselves,” James said “A lot of people don’t run their own (track). We have to do most everything ourselves. I even pick up the garbage out here.”

By the time the first car takes a lap on a Saturday night, both Etheline and James have been working several hours.

“Prepping that track’s a job,” James said with a chuckle. “First off, you motor grate it, then it takes all day on Saturday to water it and pack it down and get it ready for them race cars.”

Handling the concession stand isn’t any easier, according to Etheline. Part of making sure the fans have a good time is ensuring they eat well, she said.

“(My day)’s ready to kickoff with my cooking,” she said. “I just have to come in and start heating up cheese and chili and the stuff you have hot. You don’t start cooking burgers until people are about ready for them. No one wants one made at noon and then eat it for supper. Then the rest of it is James working down there. “

It’s a labor of love, but still hard work. James said eventually, he’d like a small break to rest.

“Hopefully, just to lease it out to somebody that likes racing,” he said. “If I had a couple of years away form it, I could regroup and start again. I’ve been out here 22 years every weekend except the ones we’re off, and I’ve done all the work out here.”

GEARING UP

A right turn at the aforementioned fork in the road leads to the pit area. The pits are a sacred area, reserved only for those who strap themselves in the racecars and those who turn the wrenches. It’s essentially the country club of the dirt track; if you don’t have a pass, you aren’t getting in. No exceptions.

Within the confines of the pit/garage area — which is essentially just a cleared out space outside the first turn with no covering and a dirt floor — there are hundreds of people scurrying about, trying to put the final touches on the cars before the heat races.

A look around the pit area and it appears there are several different budgets in attendance. On one end, there are crate late model racers, full-fledged racers that travel in enclosed trailers. The engine alone on a crate late model costs several thousand dollars, not to mention fuel, tires and spare parts should something break.  On another is the Buzz class, small cars such as Honda Civics that have been transformed into race cars by adding roll cages and removing the glass. These cars are relatively inexpensive and come in on flatbed trailers towed by pickup trucks.

There truly is a sense of community in the pits, and at times — as in the case of Sandy Dawson and Chad Glass — it can be a family affair.

LEARNING FROM THE BEST

Sandy Dawson ventures to guess he’s been racing for 25 years — give or take — and while he won’t openly admit it, has been winning that long, too.

Dawson, a logger by trade and a man of few words, said he got into racing after watching one from the stands at Wilsonville.

At his home outside of Montevallo, he and 25-year-old stepson Chad Glass work on their cars in a shop on their property. Both drive Chevrolets, with Sandy’s a white No. 88 and Chad’s a blue No. 24.

While Sandy is an old vet of the Speedway, Chad is just now trying to learn the ropes of the track.

“I started around it when I was 13,” Chad said. “He started letting me ride around in his car when he was packing the track in, then when I was 15 he let me drive one, and it got totaled out. From then on I kind of focused on football and baseball when I was in high school. I just recently got back into it.”

One of the reasons Glass got back into the sport was watching Dawson succeed on the track.

“He won about every night,” he said. “Somebody that never drove, he let them drive his car, and they’d win in it.”

Dawson said that was partially true.

“I had a buddy of mine that had a race car and couldn’t ever win a race,” Dawson said.  “I let him drive mine, and he’d get out there and win the race with mine. The setup on the car is the main thing.”

By being able to make the car handle the way he wants it to, Dawson said he felt that gave him an edge. For example, the car he races right now was built around 2000. By dirt track standards, it’s the equivalent of driving a Model T, but Dawson still takes it to victory lane regularly.

“That car right there is probably 12-15 years old,” he said, nodding at his Malibu. “I won the championship with it in 1999, its first year on the track. It’s probably the only car left of the ones I started with that’s still running.”

Dawson said he focused more on driver safety, such as ensuring his roll cage was well built.

‘The main thing is being safe and putting a cage in them,” he said. “I go extra putting a cage in them. I see a lot of guys that go out there and build them fast, real fast and they don’t last 2-3 races.”
Glass said Dawson’s setups were noticed by most around the track.

“Pretty much anybody that comes to the Wilsonville track comes there with the intention to beat him,” Glass said. “You can ask around.”

Dawson said he had a few fans in particular he remembered, and said he made sure he does all he can to thank them.
“I’ve got kids that come to the racetrack and come up to me and (say) ‘Let me have your trophy tonight!’ before the race has even started,” he said with chuckle. “I say ‘Man, you gotta wait till I get a trophy!’ Every kid over there, I give a trophy to.”

In order to get those trophies, Dawson works hard to maintain his car.

Essentially a car that has pulled off the street and modified for racing, Dawson said that with the right work, anyone could do it.

“You just hull it out and put a cage in it,” he said. “You can build one, work on it all winter, get it ready for summer to race the next year.”
Dawson refuses to charge directly to the front, instead he lets the race come to him.

“I say driving skill and being patient wins races,” he said. “You can get tore up on the first lap and then your race is over.”
Glass said he’s still learning and trying gain experience on the track.

“The way I do it, I just ride around in the back,” he said. “By the end of the race, I’d be up third or fourth out of 10 cars because the rest have taken themselves out. I’m just riding around.”

While the two have different styles and levels of experience, both agree that Shelby County Speedway is a great place for experts and beginners.

“It’s where I’ve always raced,” Dawson said. “I know the track.”

Glass echoed the sentiment.

“It’s a pretty good place to get experience,” he said.

THE MAIN EVENT

As the evening rolls on, and the sun begins to drop along the western sky, the night’s festivities begin as they have each Saturday night: with a prayer from the PA announcer, the national anthem playing over the sound system while an old Chevy pickup rides the American flag around the track.

Once the pageantry is over, it’s time for business. Each class of race car comes out and has a heat race that sets the field for the main event.

There are two sections of grandstands at the speedway, but the preferred viewing area is on the outside of the first turn where several fans back their pickup trucks up to the fence. Once the trucks are in park and situated, fans hang off the tailgates, sit in lawn chairs or on the roof of their trucks and watch the action. Spirited debates come up over who should win what race, why Jeff Gordon will never amount to David Pearson and of course, the occasional check for a football or Braves score while going to the cooler to get another beverage

As each class comes up, from the crate late model race cars that scream as they head into the turns to the buzz class that really does sound like a mob of angry hornets, the entertainment value never waivers. The fans give the same respect to the half-broken down Toyota Celica as they do a $50,000 racer.

Heat race after heat race rolls by as the air begins to fill with red clay, Winston smoke and gasoline fumes to create an alluring scent.

In the Hogg class, drivers go door-to-door in essentially refurbished old street cars, knocking each other around while trying to gain a position.

It’s a far cry from the major leagues of auto racing. Odds are, most of these guys are content to never take a green flag at Talladega Superspeedway. Instead, they enjoy their weekday jobs a little more knowing, they are one day closer to racing again. If for no other reason than competing for a trophy, a little prize money and fun.

After all, according to the man that built the track, that’s what it’s all about: Fun.

“If it wasn’t fun, we wouldn’t be here,” James Ingram said. “As far as money, there was a lot of years where we didn’t make nothin’.”