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At home in dirt at the speedway

June 06, 2004|By ANDREA ROWLAND

Hagerstown Speedway's 2003 track champion, Gary Stuhler, is known in racing circles as "The Beast from the East."

"When he gets behind that wheel, he drives hard. But he's quiet. He's not cocky," said Glenn Nininger, who owns Stuhler's car. "When he puts that helmet on, he's on fire. He knows what he wants in a car, and he doesn't break stuff up."

Stuhler, 49, of Greencastle, Pa., recently garnered his 300th win on a dirt track - making him the winningest driver on the East Coast.

Stuhler sits in second place on the Hagerstown Speedway's all-time win list. He races for substantial purses up and down the East Coast. Nininger said a recent race in North Carolina, for example, offered a $10,000 payout. (The Hagerstown Speedway, a nationally known half-mile dirt track about six miles west of Hagerstown, generally pays between $1,200 and $1,500 for first place.) Stuhler races with the support of a nine-member pit crew. And he boasts a loyal fan base that fuels strong merchandise sales, including a die-cast model of his race car, Nininger said.

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"Our T-shirt sales are unbelievable," he added.

Yet Stuhler, who works for his car's owner at Nininger Auto & Tire Center in Brunswick, Md., seems unaffected by his success.

"It ain't no different," he said.

He credits nearly 30 years of experience for his success on the track, and simply plans to continue doing what he loves - racing hard - until he doesn't feel like doing it anymore.

"Now I got a 4-year-old that loves it," Stuhler said.

Racing fans of all ages turned out to the speedway on a Saturday night in late May to watch Stuhler and dozens of other stock car drivers compete in late model, late model sportsman and pure stock races.

"You'll see good racing tonight," said Ed Neff of Hagerstown, a longtime stock car racing enthusiast who has been driving the pace car at the Hagerstown Speedway for about six years. Neff led mud-caked stock cars dripping with advertisements for everything from high-performance tires to fast food restaurants around the track for the qualifying heats to determine which cars would compete in the night's main races - or not.

"I like the wrecks," said Justin Needy, 12, of Hagerstown. While he said he doesn't want to see anybody get hurt, it's sort of thrilling to watch a speeding car flip in the air or hit the fence. As if on cue, a late model sportsman blew an engine during a qualifying lap, spewing oil onto the track. A rusted out old Jeep Cherokee that served as a "push truck" came to the rescue, followed by a crew that dumped sand on the spill.

On the infield, racing crews, their families and race fans with pit passes watched the action on the track from atop trailers or from behind the white chalk line running the circumference of the pit. Neff counted down the qualifying laps from the comfort of his air-conditioned pace car. Attractive young women sold tip jar tickets. Pit crews made last-minute mechanical adjustments. And Joey Leggett worked to keep these infielders safe.

"The No. 1 rule is to never turn your back on a race car," Leggett said. "You have to be really alert because there's a lot of activity in here. ... Cars will come in this infield. They have come in this infield."

Every pit spectator must wear a numbered armband at all times, Leggett said. That number can help identify the fan in case of emergency.

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