Stock-Car Friday Nights

And sprint cars, but the senior pilot raced stock cars, and so at least once a month during the season most of the rest of us went to the races to watch and cheer him on. Another pilot had been a regional and state tractor pull champ, and so I went to tractor pulls with his family.

I hadn’t thought about it in years, until reading Brigid’s magnificent essay about NASCAR races. She has a gift of words I’ll never match. I stayed up in the stands, because this was down and dirty, small town, dirt-track racing. I didn’t have safety gear, and all the “pit crews” knew each other, and would have noticed a spare. Plus I wasn’t all that interested in being in the dirt. The senior pilot placed in the money every few weeks, but wasn’t one of the big names, for local and regional versions of big names.

So, on Friday nights, I drove twenty or so miles north to the dirt track. Different community groups rotated selling burgers, fries, “taverns” (Sloppy Joes), bratwurst, nachos, cold drinks, and the usual sorts of food you’d expect. There was also beer, of course. I usually stuck with soda, in part because the prevailing wind blew the dust into the stands and gritty nachos are not my thing. And while the Midwest is a wonderful place, the local interpretation of Tex-Mex left a lot to be desired (about as hot as a bell pepper.) So I’d find a place in the stands, tuck in my ear-plugs, and get as comfortable as you could.

The race always started with an invocation for safety and clean races, then the National Anthem. The races were roughly in order of horsepower, with three qualifying races for each class. That usually meant six stock-car races, then the sprint cars got their turn, then the stock car and sprint car finals. I liked the stock-car heats better. One, they looked more like car-cars, two, they didn’t sound as obnoxious, and three, the driving was better (in my opinion). The drivers ranged in age from 18 to mid-50s, and age and treachery did on occasion have an advantage over youth and bravado. Everyone had a favorite, usually an employer or family member, and cheering and booing were loud and heart-felt. Interestingly, the language rarely got past PG-13, probably because of the large number of kids in the crowd.

It took a few weeks of watching before I sorted out what to watch for, and when to get ready to duck. Duck? Like the night a car broke an axle, and the tire assembly went out of the track and into the parking area, taking out the track ref’s windshield in the process. My boss was peeved because the other car’s crew and driver didn’t pay enough attention to stop the car early. The track ref was peeved for a very visible reason: the large black tire in his front seat. I don’t think that car came back that season. Usually it was bits of fender, the occasional thrown helmet when a fight broke out (twice. Young guys, or young pit crews.) There was a safety screen, of course, but when everyone around you ducks, you duck.

I enjoyed the tractor pulls more, because you can root for each machine, and there’s more variety. These were supposed to be unmodified farm tractors. Or should I say, “unmodified” farm tractors, because you know very well that where there’s a will, there’s a creative way to sneak something in or out. The pilot who pulled had his carburetors done by a guy in a different city, who made his customers swear never to break the seal on the carb to see what had been done. Jay didn’t, and Jay had an attic full of trophies. He also used a small John Deere that most people didn’t realize had been built for rice farming, with a lot of torque for the size of the machine.

Each tractor backs up to a weight sled. The safety people confirm everything, and the tractor starts forward. As they roll, the weight also moves on the sled, making the tractor work harder. The tractor in each weight/horsepower class that drags the most weight the farthest without breaking anything wins.

One night someone showed up with a pretty new John Deere. He did well in the early rounds, so they loaded the beast to the max and off he went, and off, and off, and off the course and into the cornfield! Yeah, he won his class. Everyone was laughing. Another night, someone broke down, and a larger farm tractor towed him off. “That, folks is a real tractor pull right there!” the announcer called, and got a lot of boos and cat-calls in reply. Kids ran around all over, people had red or green* tee-shirts, and it was a lot less formal than the stock-car races.

I was fortunate, and aside from one dramatic break-down, there were no accidents like the steam-powered beast that blew the boiler and hurt a number of people. The really highly modified or high-horsepower pulling tractors have chains and steel cages around the engines, so when they blow, they don’t endanger people.

Small town summer nights, machines, and men (and women). People are going to compete, and have fun, and laugh, and insult each other, and flirt, and brag or mope. The chief pilot quietly sold avgas to racers he knew, and the rest of us marked out calendars so we’d know when he and the tractor-puller would be off the duty roster. Hot nights, dirt in the air, loud engines, kids cheering, bad car and cow jokes over the PA . . . That’s what I remember.

*John Deere (green) or International Harvester (red). A few folks in orange for Allis-Chalmers, and then there was the guy who had a Minneapolis-Moline. Old school.


12 thoughts on “Stock-Car Friday Nights

    • It happens. The steam-powered equipment is the most dangerous, in terms of sending pieces and parts all over the place.

      • Boiler explosions are no joke. A friend liked to tell the story of how steamed her great-grandfather was getting at the tractor show as the water for the boiler was slowly running out and the organizers wouldn’t either run water over or let him out of position to get the tractor over to a water spigot himself. He was about to take her and run for it when they FINALLY came around to refill the water.

      • There was a bad explosion at a fair in Ohio in the ’90s. The forensic work indicated that it was a matter of when the tractor would have blown, though the (late) owner/driver was also doing stupid things like keeping the water level too low. He hit a slope, and water sloshed over the overly thin crown sheet (that was supposed to be covered in water). The resulting steam caused the explosion.

        IIRC, steam tractors were no longer welcome at that fair. A state park in Oregon (Collier) has a few working steam engines, and those are (were at least–haven’t participated in a decade) inspected by the state, with static and live steam testing. Even the little 10HP Westinghouse could have caused trouble, and the big tractor, loads. I used a weed burner to start the big tractor’s firebox wood….

        FWIW, the dirt track in Fremont, CA sold inexpensive goggles for spectators to the sprint races. The cars would throw dirt a long way over the safety panels. I doubt the track exists any more.

  1. That’s Minneapolis-Moline unless I missed something really old school.
    But then there’s the Rumely Oil Pull…

    And the noise/roar of auto racing is perhaps a major part of why I never cared for motorsports – hello HEADACHE!

    I also recall the story of a semi-tractor connecting up to the weight that the winning farm tractor pulled, if barely, and hauling it almost like it wasn’t even there.

    • Fixed, thanks. I was more concerned about spelling “Allis,” and I always call the other one M-M because of their original logo.

      Yep. Semis are for hauling heavy stuff a long way quickly. Farm tractors are meant for other things (so of course people will use them for purposes not found in the instruction book.)

    • A long-ago friend made a half-scale Rumley Oil Pull engine, and a quarter scale R.O.P. tractor. The joke was he was using manhole covers for the quarter-scale flywheels. IIRC, the original pistions were 10″ in diameter. He used to participate at the engine show in Eugene, OR, if memory has the venue right.

      John Deere for the win!

      • As an aside, the same guy (John Palmer) made the engine for the Wright Flyer (Vin Fiz) replica that’s in the Hiller museum in San Mateo, CA. He scrounged plans from a Danish outfit that had licensed the design and did all* the rest. Cylinders were made from cast iron barstock.

        (*) He did the patterns, though a commercial foundry made the aluminum castings.

  2. Not enough coffee to comment intelligently or humorously. 😉

  3. Oh yeah, fun Friday nights… especially when there are season ending points on the line and a season of grudges built up… Re tractor pulls, saw one where an old one lunger John Deere with steel wheels won… Slow as hell, but just kept going! AND dug the track up…LOL

  4. “The Buck” and its regionally famous tractor pulls are in Familiar general territory. Hi and a clan cousin sneaking off to compete? Could be a humorous short, especially with the sorcery charm breaking in mid pull.

Comments are closed.