Fast and Dirty
Friday nights at the Carolina Speedway showcase speed with a uniquely dirt track flair
By Mike Savicki
It is a Friday night at the Carolina Speedway in Gastonia and things are about to get loud. They are also about to get dirty. As the track announcer calls the first class of cars onto the track, engines roar and the audience rises to its feet. Fifteen Super Stock cars await the green flag. For these drivers and their crews, a green flag means just one thing: Friday night is their night for speed.
Different classes share a common goal
From March through October, six classes of race cars compete on the red clay, four tenths of a mile track that first opened in 1962. Late Models, Crate Late Models, Renegades, Street Stocks, Stock 4’s and Pure Stock 4’s take their turn racing for points, prize money and pride at speeds upwards of 110 miles per hour. On any given Friday night, approximately 100 cars total will race from all the classes.
“You’ll see a little bit of everything out here,” says Clint Elkins, a former Late Model driver and the Carolina Clash Series Director. “Our drivers range in age from fifteen and sixteen up into their sixties, and many of these guys have been at it for years.”
Each class is unique and cars must conform to a set of specific engine and body regulations. Clint Elkins explained that the Renegades are a beginner class that is more commonly known as the “rock ‘em, sock ‘em’s.” The Street Stocks use racing tires on a body comparable to a Monte Carlo or Camaro. And the Pure Stocks are the rookie class for Street Stocks. “It is from the Stock classes that we get our next generation of Late Model drivers,” Elkins believes.
The Crate Late Models, or GM Performance, and Late Models are recognizable because of their “wedge” body shape. The Crate Late Models are powered by sealed Crate engines that run as much as five thousand dollars apiece. And the Late Model class, that Elkins describes as “the top-of-the-line bad boys of the track,” can reach one hundred ten miles an hour with seven hundred horsepower motors providing the power.
“The biggest obstacle to dirt track racing is cost,” explains Clint Elkins. “For the drivers, there is the initial investment in building a car plus the ongoing maintenance and repair costs that make it expensive.” He adds, “But for the spectators, it’s fast, fun and affordable entertainment that you won’t find almost anywhere else.”
Drivers describe their need for speed
Jerry Oliver, 41, from Kings Mountain, is a Super Stock series champion who began competing over fifteen years ago. Like many of the other drivers, Oliver was introduced to the sport as a kid and grew into a driver. “I’ve been around the track since I was fourteen and just love the feeling of going fast,” he explains. “I feed on the racing, and it is really the feeling of being out there and pushing the pedal that keeps me coming back.” An auto mechanic by day, Oliver is known around the track as an unstoppable competitor.
Billy Thompson, 34, who lives in Gastonia, less than three miles from the Speedway, is beginning his twentieth racing season as a driver. “My Dad was a racer long before I was born and he is the one who got me into it,” Thompson says. “When I was fourteen, he moved over to let me drive and supported me with everything. I remember that when I was a kid we would come out to the track when it was quiet on Sundays and he would teach me lessons with just the two of us out there. I’ve raced in just about every class thanks to him.” In 2008, Thompson will again compete for top honors in the Late Model class.
Thompson is humble and outgoing and credits his crew for keeping him near the front, season after season. “These guys are my Friday night family and a lot of them have been with me for more than ten years. We all have our jobs and know what to do. We know each other more by our nicknames than anything else. It’s great to have a crew like Lightning, Beavis, Can’t Get Right, Bubba, Paw Paw and Smurf making you go fast.”
Like Jerry Oliver, Billy Thompson loves the speed of dirt track racing. “You can’t match the kind of feeling you get at over one hundred miles an hour racing so close to the other cars and walking the line so close to the edge. As a local boy, it’s pretty cool to look up in the stands and see family and friends all cheering for you when you roll onto the track.”
It’s a family affair
Family involvement is a key component of dirt track racing. “The dirt track community is known for its family involvement,” offers Shannen Marcum, public relations coordinator for Carolina Speedway. “It’s not an uncommon sight to see a husband and wife working on a car together while kids and other family are performing other duties in the pits.”
The camaraderie extends beyond the track, as well. Marcum says Carolina Speedway was built by the Harrison family in the 1960’s, and several promoters and managers have set at the helm of the super fast dirt oval. In the late 60’s the track was forced to shut its gate due to financial difficulty. It was the Gaston Shrine club who re-opened the gate as a way to raise money to help children and, after nearly fifty years, drivers are always quick to help when another is in need.
On a typical Friday night, the stands are packed with spectators who travel from across the Southeast to follow their favorite drivers or to get their weekly fill of speed. For the 2008 season, the facility has seen numerous improvements to the racing surface and the spectator viewing areas. In addition, the overall purse for each class has been increased for the drivers and the event payout purse restructured to enable drivers with little or no sponsorship to be able to race for prize money each week.
As the Carolina Speedway begins another season of racing, it is clear that there is a serious need for speed when the green flag waves.
This article was originally published in Lake Wylie Living in 2008.