HAGERSTOWN, Md. — It’s 6:55 on a Saturday night, and the only sounds at Hagerstown Speedway are of children yelling as they chase one another or adults in quiet conversation, mostly about the temperature.
The roar of motors suddenly breaks the calm as race cars are cranked up and a procession of Late Model stocks snakes toward the exit onto a half-mile clay track that has been appeased for a week with thousands of gallons of water.
At precisely 7 o’clock, hot laps begin: A few dozen racers careen crazily around the oval in their warmups, getting a feel for the track and listening carefully for tell-tale noises from their machines that something bad could happen.
There are a few near-misses, and some paint is exchanged, but that is the reality of the dirt track. It’s time to start racing.
“We like to do things precisely on time,” says Steve Crumbacker, competition director for the 58-year-old track, one of the oldest in the nation. “That’s what people want — to get in here, watch some racing, have a lot of fun and get home at a decent time. We want ‘em in and out in 3, 31/2 hours. It’ll be a little longer tonight because we also have a rained-out feature to run, but we’ll be done by 11, hopefully.”
This is stock car racing at its genesis. It is a cousin, albeit a distant one, to the upper-level NASCAR races on television Saturday night or Sunday afternoon — “scripted racing,” as those events are referred to in the pits at Hagerstown.
Hagerstown officials do not seem much concerned with the Nextel Cup circuit, the all-powerful master of motorsports in the United States.
“That one Saturday night race in August [Aug. 27 at Bristol, Tenn.], now that has always given us sort of a bad time,” says Stan Dillon, Hagerstown’s public relations man for more than 20 years. “But the others, we urge the fans to tape ‘em, come out to see us and watch the other stuff when they get home. Seems to work.”
In sweltering heat and humidity and with dust starting to kick up off the once-saturated track, the stands, which can hold more than 8,500, are more than half full on this recent Saturday night. Admission is $9, a $1 increase from four years ago. Children under 12 are admitted free.
“That’s where we have always tried to build our future,” Dillon says. The 54-acre property includes a well-used quarter-midget track for children, and several events are designed to keep them involved, for now and the future.
The recent explosion of interest in Nextel Cup and Busch Series racing on TV doesn’t seem to be the main worry of people who run the smaller tracks like Hagerstown.
That would be development, the encroachment of suburbia that is gobbling up hundreds of acres at a clip, especially around interstate highways. (The speedway is four miles off I-70 and less than 10 miles from the junction of interstates 70 and 81).
“Some developments are pushing right up to tracks’ fences. It looks like they’re going to push Selinsgrove out,” Crumbacker says, referring to the small Pennsylvania dirt track.
Says Dale Smith, 69, a retired mechanic who drives nearly an hour every Saturday night from his Monrovia, Md., home to watch racing at Hagerstown: “When I was 12, 13, my father would take us to the races every weekend. Some of those tracks like Dorsey are long gone. The state built a motor vehicle administration building where that track was.”
Smith is more familiar with the Hagerstown facility than perhaps anybody else. He competed on the track when he was 16 — “I was too young, so my brother had to sign in for me,” he says — and still was driving there five years later when he was drafted.
“They sent me over to Germany for two years,” Smith says. “When I came back, everything had changed. Used to be you made everything for your car, but when I got back they’d buy parts, bolt ‘em on and go back racing. I didn’t have the money to do that. When I drove, the driver was the mechanic, too. You drove it, you wrecked it, you fixed it. You had to know what you were doing.”
And sometimes you got paid, and sometimes you didn’t.
“We won eight, nine races up there,” Smith says. “They’d pay you $50, $75 to win; one time they gave me a bag of coins, turned out to be $25 in quarters. Basically, they paid you whatever they wanted to.”
Smith makes the trip to Hagerstown, he said, because that’s where drivers still race the way they did years ago.
“If anything, racing’s gotten better [at Hagerstown] lately,” he says. “There’s no politics here like there is at those bigger tracks. You come in, you run, everybody has a good time, everybody gets along. Here you got 25 laps to get it done, and that’s it.”
And that’s much better to Smith than the big-time, big-money racing that’s on television each week.
“I don’t watch that stuff on TV, not a lot anyway,” he said. “Whine, that’s all they do. And change the rules every week. Whoever they want to win, if he can’t, it looks like they change the rules to help the guy. It’s not that way here — one set of rules and everybody lives by them.
“On TV, they keep throwing the yellow [caution flag] for debris on the track, but you never see any debris. Seems to a lot of us they throw the yellow when Jeff Gordon or one of them needs help catching up or TV needs a timeout or something like that. But you never see a yellow with two laps to go when Gordon had a four-second lead. It’s boring and predictable, and I’m sick of the whining.”
Others, however, see TV cutting into the audience at other tracks — and that’s worrisome.
“Years ago there wasn’t any racing on TV — there wasn’t anything for race fans to see without going to the track,” says Gary Stuhler, 50, a former Hagerstown Late Model champion who has won a track-record 115 feature events. “I think racing on TV the way it is now with Nextel, Busch, the trucks and all, I think that’s hurt the local racing — and not just here.
“If somebody wants to watch racing now, they can just sit home with the air conditioning on. Before, you had to go to the track. It’s hurt, sure.”
Purses have grown since Smith’s day; at Hagerstown they now pay $1,350 for features and as much as $15,000 for special events like the World of Outlaws races, which draw 10,000-plus fans.
But expenses are up, too. Stuhler said an engine can cost from $25,000 to $30,000 and the rest of the racer an additional $18,000, a pretty expensive way to spend Saturday nights.
General manager Lisa Bragunier runs the Hagerstown facility with two other full-time employees and a part-time staff of 60. It is not affiliated with any organization, but there are similar facilities in Cumberland, Md.; Winchester, Va.; and Bedford, Pa.
“The local tracks are becoming more inventive, putting on better shows,” Bragunier says. “They’ve had to for their own survival. We can’t use NASCAR or anything else as an excuse. We can’t worry about how many races are on TV on Saturday nights. There’s a lot of competition today for the entertainment dollar, and what we’re trying to do is keep this affordable for families. We provide live entertainment, local heroes and don’t charge for parking.
“Now the weather, I worry about the weather.”