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Speed gets 'em going

Drivers and fans find their thrills at the racetrack

Drivers and fans find their thrills at the racetrack

June 06, 2004|By ANDREA ROWLAND

High costs, loud noise, smoke, dust and danger don't keep car racers and their fans from fulfilling their need for speed at tracks throughout the Tri-State area.

"I love it - the noise, the excitement," said Sarah Poole, 16, of Brunswick, Md., as she waited for brother Carl Poole Jr. to race his 1971 Dodge Dart down the quarter-mile strip of asphalt at the Mason-Dixon Dragway east of Hagerstown.

Neither the noise nor the dizzying motion on the half-mile dirt track at the Hagerstown Speedway fazed Karen Stottelmyer as she watched the action while sipping on a soda in the speedway's grandstand.

"You get used to it," said Stottelmyer, 28, of Chambersburg, Pa. "I always had boyfriends who liked coming to the track. I started liking it, too. You never know what's going to happen."

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Unexpected wins. Spinouts. Wrecks. They're all part of the excitement at the dragway and speedway, and at Summit Point Raceway in West Virginia, Shippensburg (Pa.) Speedway and South Mountain Dragway in Pennsylvania.

Waiting in line for dragway tech inspector Butch Long to check his 1996 Pontiac Firebird for proper seatbelts, tire lugs and other safety features at Mason-Dixon Dragway, Jay Michael said he hoped his second stint on the strip would be better than his first.

"I blew an oil line and had to trail (the car) home," said Michael, 16, of Berkeley Springs, W.Va. "It's not how anybody wants to take their car home." Michael said he added a high-performance air intake and new exhaust system to his Firebird before racing it again.

Racing veterans said that, in general, the more money you put into a racing vehicle, the better it will perform. Nick Toro has sunk about $100,000 in the 1970 GTX that can now reach speeds of more than 160 mph in less than 8.5 seconds, he said.

The purple car's top speed was about 118 mph in 11 seconds before Toro gave "Barney" a drastic modification - including upgrading to a 585-cubic-inch engine and two "monster" 1,180 cfm (cubic feet of air per minute) carburetors and replacing the interior with a lightweight tube chassis to reduce the car's weight from 3,980 to 2,300 pounds. Toro's car now requires a full roll cage and a parachute to slow it down, he said.

"It's awesome. It's not fast enough," said Toro, 50, a Waynesboro, Pa., native who now lives in Edgewater, Md. "If you had a speaker in there you'd hear me hollerin'. I love it. This is how I have fun."

Dirt track racing veteran Glenn Nininger, who owns the late model stock car driven by 2003 Hagerstown Speedway champion Gary Stuhler, agreed that the rush of speed and the camaraderie among racing enthusiasts keeps the sport alive despite rising costs.

"We have a blast," he said, "but the cost of doing this is unreal."

The 110-octane fuel needed to power Team Nininger's super late model stock car's 800-horsepower engine costs about $4.50 per gallon. The car is valued at about $60,000 - with the engine worth $33,000 alone, Nininger said. And his team keeps two identical cars. Not to mention the fancy truck and trailer used to pull them, racks of spare tires and other necessities. The cars are plastered with so many business and product advertisements that Nininger said he might have to remove his own business ad to make way for a prospective new sponsor. Contrary to popular belief, however, sponsors usually don't provide their products to racing teams free of charge.

"We get discounts, but it still costs us a lot of money," said Nininger, who grew up around the dirt tracks on which father Red Nininger raced from the 1940s through 1974.

"When my dad raced, we built the cars out of the junkyard," he said. "Now everybody buys the technology."

Money doesn't have to be an obstacle to drag racing, said longtime drag racer Ron LeDonne, 47, of Altoona, Pa.

"You don't have to be rich to drag race. You can be a poor boy drinking beer every weekend and still drag race," he said. "I seen people race pickup trucks, minivans, you name it. You just have to have a good attitude and have fun. ... Drag racing can be miserable or fun - like life. It'll keep you out of trouble, but it's expensive. It'll drive ya nuts. And women don't like it. Your car owns you, and you're a slave to your car."

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