Spring having sprung, Old Dominion Speedway opened up for practice last Saturday. An assortment of track veterans and young dreamers circled the primeval Manassas oval 10 laps at a time: The old hands came to work out kinks in their cars and joints before the real racing starts in a few weeks; the newbies showed up to find out just how much they wanted to be stock car drivers.

Ryan Ellis was among the former constituency, and the latter. He’s been racing for seven years. He’s 12 years old.

Up until this day, the youngster from Ashburn had raced no higher than the quarter-midget class, which is for vehicles designed with youngsters in mind. Now, he was about to move up a notch in racing’s pecking order. He was going to try out a Legends-series vehicle for the first time.

“You don’t want to wreck it,” his father, Jim Ellis, counseled while Ryan awaited his turn.

“Yeah, I know,” responded the kid.

Legends cars are nowhere near as massive as the vehicles that go ’round and ’round on the TVs of a larger and larger percentage of American households every Sunday; they’re only a fraction as big as the late-model stocks that will run in most of Old Dominion’s Saturday-night main events once the 20-week racing season kicks off on April 14. But the Legends cars, which will serve as opening act to the late-model racers for nine weeks during the 2001 season, are designed to hold drivers of any age or girth. Ryan is on the short and small end of that scale. After being strapped in for the first time, he realized he couldn’t even see over the dashboard. So his father stuck three seat cushions and a big blanket beneath Ryan’s butt before sending him flying out of pit row.

It’ll be about four years before Ryan can legally cruise the family truckster to the convenience store, at any speed, to pick up a gallon of milk. During this tryout, however, he could rocket around Old Dominion at over 80 miles an hour and not break anybody’s laws, as long as he paid the $75 fee. And so he did.

It took him a couple trips around the one-third-mile circuit to figure out the car’s clutch/shift scheme. But by his third lap, it was strictly pedal to the metal. He clearly knew his way around a track. He was cutting the same turns that real living or ex-living legends—guys like Junior “the Last American Hero” Johnson and Lee and Richard Petty and Buck and Buddy Baker and Darrell and Michael Waltrip—had cut in days gone by, when the big boys actually raced here. At around the same speeds, too: Legends cars are capable of hitting 130 mph.

The diminutiveness of the driver doesn’t concern the old pros. “They all look like kids to me now,” laughs Dick Gore, Old Dominion Speedway’s owner. Gore, 58, took the track over from his father 37 years ago. His grandson, who will compete in the go-kart division at the track this year, will be the fourth generation of Gores to drive here.

Ryan’s father isn’t worried, either. “This is safe. He’s safe,” Jim Ellis, decked out in a royal blue firesuit that matches his son’s, tells me. In the background, strangers shout congratulations to the father for Ryan’s showing.

Dad, who used to race sports cars before devoting all available time and money to his kid’s career, got so carried away watching Ryan that he actually hopped over the guardrail and onto the track while the car was still zooming around it. Track officials immediately went into emergency mode when they saw this pedestrian putting himself in harm’s way. Several people ran from the pits yelling for him to get back where he knows he belongs. On the safe side of the rail, the father explains that he only wanted a better angle for a photograph.

The air was thick with rebelliousness and risk. Combined with the exhaust fumes and the noise, it all sure seemed like racing.

And racing is, as the kids say, blowing up.

Particularly stock car racing. The sport was already inching into the mainstream before Dale Earnhardt hit the wall at Daytona. Along with crushing every organ and bone that came between Earnhardt’s steering column and his seat, that crash had news organizations everywhere giving racing the coverage it used to get only in hotbeds like Darlington or Talledega or Charlotte or Daytona. Though the death of a real human being with family and friends is what triggered the media blitz, nobody seemed scared away by the demise of the man known as the Terminator. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“Our business was very big the day after Daytona,” says Charlie Wilkinson, owner of Wilkinson Motorsports, a full-service racing store in Woodbridge. “There was more traffic in our store that Monday than we’d ever had.” Along with helmets and firesuits and every type of speed accouterment, Wilkinson sells race cars. You can drive away from the strip mall in a Legends-class auto for a mere $14,995.

Ratings for Fox, in the first year of a multi-billion-dollar TV contract to televise NASCAR, have been through the hood since Earnhardt’s last passing move. Old Dominion Speedway and other circuits in racing’s minor leagues expect to get some trickle-down benefits. But the old pros sense a growing disconnect between the folks at the short tracks that gave the sport life in the early post-moonshiner era and the corporations behind the superspeedways that get most of the air time these days. The last time the Grand National circuit, a forerunner to what is now the Winston Cup, made a stop in Manassas was 1967, back when drivers had a shot at working their way up to the big show.

The older Legends drivers know you’re about as likely to drive your way from Old Dominion Speedway to Daytona as you are to get to the moon by climbing the nearby Old Rag Mountain.

“It’s only about money by now,” says Dave Menefee, Old Dominion Speedway’s longtime publicist. “If you’ve got millions of dollars, maybe you’ve got a chance at getting a Winston Cup ride. If you don’t have millions, you can come here.”

But the dreamers can still dream. When Ryan completed his 10-lap tryout and stepped out of his car, Wilkinson walked up pit row both to congratulate the young driver and to make a sales pitch to the father.

“He’s good. Better than I ever was,” Wilkinson announces. “But you should see what the kids down in Charlotte are doing these days! They start ’em young down there.”

Jim Ellis called Wilkinson at his store on Monday morning. He wants to buy his boy a new race car. —Dave McKenna