By Catherine Pritchard
On a hot summer night, 18 drivers stomp on the accelerators of vehicles that look like pint-size versions of old-timey gangster cars.
A loud metallic whine of engines rises like the buzzing of hundreds of angry bees.
The cars zoom down the red-dirt straightaway, then skid sideways into the first turn.
A night of racing at Fayetteville Motor Speedway has begun.
Several hundred people of all ages are on hand at the racetrack south of Fayetteville for a slate of races whose vehicle classes range from these small-scale souped-up cars known as Legends up through full-size race cars that look much like those that whiz around in NASCAR Cup Series races on TV.
Many of those present are die-hard fans who come to the four-tenths-mile track any time there are races –two to three times most months during the season, which runs from March to November.
More fans come and from farther away for regional races and still more yet for the two national dirt-track race series hosted by the track each year, usually every May and July. This year, wet weather in early July forced the postponement of the second of those annual races. The Wayne Gray Sr. Memorial, part of the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series, is now set for Thursday, September 27, and track promoter Jim Long Jr. expects the nationally known racers to draw several thousand fans to watch professional drivers vie for a $10,000 purse.
Racing has always been a part of Long’s life. His father raced cars for 30 years, including on this very track, now in its 50th year. Long followed his dad into the business, racing cars, running his own string of cars, doing marketing for some NASCAR teams, running a series of races and managing a track.
“I see it from all sides,” he said.
Now in his fourth year of running the speedway, he said he’s working to improve the business and expand its offerings, including hosting, festivals and other events there at times when races aren’t scheduled. Racing is first, though, and he’s found success, including being named Promoter of the Year in 2016 by the track’s other national race series, the World of Outlaws Craftsmen Late Model Series.
He loves the track’s stalwart fans but wishes others in the Fayetteville knew of its existence and considered it an entertainment option.
“Our biggest thing is a lot of people think it’s just a lot of rednecks out there,” he said. “And there’s some of that but it’s a lot more than that… People are always kind of surprised at our demographics.”
Like 68-year-old retired nurse Nancy Eldridge from Clinton. Eldridge said her doctor used to fuss at her, saying she needed to take up a hobby for her health. She started going to the speedway this year with some young relatives who know some racers and she found she loved watching the races. She now comes for every race.
The doctor could tell at Eldridge’s next visit that she had a new spark and asked if she’d taken up knitting or the like. No, Eldridge told the doctor, giggling at the recollection. She’d become addicted to dirt-track racing.
“She about doubled over,” she said of her doctor.
Eldridge said she loves coming to the races. “It’s just different,” she said. “It’s an adrenaline rush. Who would think a 68-year-old lady like me would be out here saying, ‘Let’s go!’”
Like NASCAR races, dirt-track racing is about going fast and finishing first.
But the dirt track changes the style. Drivers can’t navigate turns by driving around them, they have do power slides – turning their cars so they’re sliding almost sideways through the dirt in order to be positioned to speed forward when they get again to the straightaway.
“We’re just partial to dirt,” Long said. “To me, it’s just 10 times more exciting than asphalt racing.”
It’s loud. In the summer, it can be hot. If you don’t bring a comfy portable canvas rocker or other chair, like Eldridge does, you’ll have to stand or sit on the concrete bleachers. But that’s no big deal. Many people spread blankets on which kids may fall asleep or play on their phones or even watch the racing.
You can also walk around, get a hot dog, listen to the announcer and watch the teenage flagman gracefully whip around the green, yellow, white and checkered flags. You can walk in the field behind the track where race teams are set up and check out their cars and what they’re doing. You can even walk across the racetrack – when track personnel say it’s OK – and watch the races standing next to the infield wall.
And you not only watch what’s going on, you feel it. “You hear those motors,” Long says. “And it’s not just the sound, it’s the smell of the spent racing fuel. And when you get a full field of cars and they come powering down the front straightaway, the ground shakes.”
Wrecks and equipment malfunctions are part of the game. Very occasionally, something goes wrong in a big way. On this night, in the crowded field of the first race, one of the tiny Legend cars that’s a five-eighths scale replica of a car from the ‘30s or ‘40s and that’s powered by a motorcycle engine clips the rear bumper of a slowing car on the first turn. The contact sends the car in back somersaulting high into the air and every racer comes to a halt on the track until the driver is established to be OK and his car is cleared away.
Then the buzzing noise of the Legends’ motorcycle engines whines into high gear again and the race is back on.
For information about the speedway and its events, check fayettevillemotorspeedway.com.