City Paper is not for tourists
In a roar of combustion, a giant cloud of thick, gray smoke swallows a 50-foot maple tree and hangs in the Virginia sky.
Like the offspring of some apocalyptic barbecue, the smoke engulfs a crowd of men, women, and children, but they make no effort to flee. Even as black specks rain down, they munch hot dogs contentedly and yak amid the smog. They are likewise oblivious to the stench—an unholy belch that reeks of burnt rubber, microwaved roadkill, and a biker gang’s bombed-out meth lab. With the glazed-over gazes of true believers, they stare through the smoke at the source of the thunder and fury:
A black-as-sin Gremlin.
Though automotive kin to Wayne and Garth’s goofy Pacer, this ’73 AMC Gremlin is no mortal street-legal machine. It is a beast in kitsch body, powered by an eardrum-splitting, unmuffled Chevy 427 engine that sounds like it was built in hell.
On a strip of asphalt, the driver mercilessly revs the deafeningly loud, open-exhaust motor. Barely restrained by locked front brakes, the Gremlin’s extra-wide tires churn against the wet steaming tar and spew shards of rubber into a tarpaulin. A few feet away, a bloody-orange Nova kicks up its own vile storm.
In between these snarling dragsters-in-heat stands a gargantuan, soot-bearded man in a grimy baseball cap. He is a modern-day Vulcan, a god of machinery, who nonchalantly sweeps debris from the tires into the tarp amidst the din. From his mouth dangles a cigarette, making its own small contribution to the toxic swirl around him.
The wheel-grinding torture, known as “burnout,” makes the tires hot and sticky for maximum traction. No sanctioned drag race begins without it. Safety and performance considerations aside, the burnout is also one helluva crowd-pleaser.
The speed fiends are out to play hard and fast at Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas, 30 miles southwest of Washington. The oldest drag strip on the East Coast, the 1/8-mile track has attracted local motorheads for more than 40 years. Other strips smolder just beyond the Beltway—Budds Creek in southern Maryland; Capitol Raceway in Crofton; the 75-80 Dragway in Urbanna; Summerduck and East Side and Colonial Beach in Virginia—but Old Dominion was the first. It’s a family-run operation; the youngest member of the clan lives in a house right on the speedway property, tobacco-spitting distance from the drag strip’s starting line.
On Friday nights from April to October, Old Dominion remains the favored hangout of local dragsters: “More of the prima donna and elite racers are here because it’s so close to their home bases,” brags George Clemen, a former driver who has announced the drag races at Old Dominion for a quarter-century. In the next breath, he admits that Old Dominion’s reign is as much schedule as anything else: “This is the only track that runs on Friday nights, so everybody comes here.”
This evening, the speedway’s adjacent oval track lies empty. Tomorrow it will buzz with stock cars in NASCAR’s Winston Racing Series, a big-money sport backed by corporate sponsors. These lap races, or “roundy-rounds,” as they’re dismissed by dragsters, take a couple of hours to run, and they draw the big crowds in the grandstands. Drag racing, on the other hand, cuts to the quick: Straight ahead, a few frantic seconds, and the finish line. There’s no need for endurance or finesse or a 10-man pit crew in this horizontal rocket race.
Speed and power rule.
Unlike pro drivers featured in the nitro-fueled, 300-mph land rockets on TV, Old Dominion regulars race mostly for pocket money and bragging rights. Even their most epic battles don’t make the sports pages of local newspapers. Many drive street cars, and it’s strictly a weekend hobby. For the fans, it’s a bargain at $7, kiddies half-price. For an extra $5, spectators can wander the pit area, gawk at the engines, and suck in the atmosphere, along with several pounds of carbon monoxide.
Darkness has fallen, and the races are about to begin. The track lights are on, but the pit area remains a murky encampment on wheels, an outtake from The Road Warrior. The speed freaks gather around (as well as on, in, and under) their vehicles, which range from gutted-out funny cars with mailbox blowers to shiny, low-slung dragsters. Geezers putter around on mopeds; entire families haul gas cans or coolers in go-carts; and toddlers wander through the chaotic traffic and somehow remain unscathed, like holy innocents caught in a Peckinpah crossfire.
Everything and everybody is either guzzling fuel or beer or soda and exhaling tobacco smoke or exhaust fumes.
Above all beats a relentless racket, each car wailing like an atomic-powered weedeater. Grunts and crude hand gestures replace the spoken word, useless here where the Gods of Engine roar. Weaker souls stuff cigarette filters in their ears, and a few track workers wear ear pads, but most seem to revel in a sonic barrage that makes a Nine Inch Nails show sound like a kitten’s meow.
The scene reminds me of another nighttime spectacle I once saw in Manassas—an anti-Halloween rally held by a local church. The congregation met in front of their humble temple and torched a truckload of yard-sale items deemed satanic: mostly rock records and well-thumbed paperback romances. It was sad to watch youngsters burn baseball cards and skateboard ‘zines, but the most disturbing moment came when a church elder angrily held aloft a Smurf doll and tossed it into the bonfire, where it burst into an ultra-purple flame.
The psychedelic color, the holy roller cack led, confirmed its evil.
But tonight’s mob in Manassas has gathered not to denounce, but to worship. They’re here to pay homage to the modern age’s greatest invention, the combustion engine. Let the NASA-Trekkie-computer nerds crow all the rah-rah technobabble they want—nothing has changed life on the planet as much as has the greasy crankshaft. (Its impact on the quality of life remains debatable.)
Back in the spotlight, the Gremlin finally leaps from its coal hole to the starting line, its wheels now warm and soft as freshly baked doughnuts. The Nova blasts another industrial-strength cloud at the nearby maple, whose pale leaves have turned the dull gray of a Confederate uniform. The smoke momentarily clears. A child rubs her eyes. Vulcan, the blacksmith of dragway muck, leans on his broom and puffs on his 38th cigarette of the day.
The drivers gun their engines. It’s time to drag.
Drag racing makes sense to anyone who has pulled up to a stoplight and found themselves exchanging bad looks or words with an adjacent driver. But the sport seems especially right in a sprawling exurb such as Manassas, where the automobile seems as necessary to human life as food, shelter, or clothing. A trucker who crashed his rig into a Manassas church one recent summer was completely nude when police pulled him from the cab—a tidy embodiment of the locals’ naked love of combustion and their spiritual relationship to the wheel.
In Manassas, the car is king, from the postnatal ride from the hospital to the hearse trip to the graveyard. One local funeral parlor even boasts a drive-thru window. Walking is reserved for drifters, senior citizens in malls, and those who’ve lost their driver’s licenses to DUI. In fact, some locals consider walking not only shameful—like a mark of poverty—but unpatriotic. Public transportation is viewed as a socialist plot, a threat against individual automotive freedom.
If you ain’t got wheels in Manassas, you ain’t shit.
This land of garages and trailer parks is naturally a hotbed of rod runs, auto shows, tailgate parties, demolition derbies, tractor pulls, and monster-truck bouts, among other motorized leisure-time activities. Anytime you have that much gasoline and horsepower in the hands of the citizenry, they are going to play.
The culture leads inexorably to street racing, the unconquerable root (and illegal evil twin) of drag racing. When teen-age hot rodders aren’t jamming the Reb-Yank Shopping Center, home of the East Coast’s most popular cruising strip, they are most likely gunning their engines and testing the limits of Newton’s laws on some rural route. In fact, their itchy lead feet announce their presence at every intersection around, as they challenge all comers—even school buses—when the light turns green. When they can rustle up the $35 entry fee, the teens head for drag races at Old Dominion.
The speedway sits on a two-lane stretch of country road—just right for a late-night grudge race—a few miles south of the railroad tracks that run through Manassas. Across the road is the Prince William County fairgrounds, which every August hosts the mud bog, a wildly popular pastime that pits mankind’s toughest vehicles against the primeval ooze. The surrounding fields, which used to support some of the region’s largest dairy farms, are fast losing turf to new subdivisions and town-house complexes.
On a weekday before the races, I drive past a barbecue kiosk—on wheels, of course—and pull slowly into the entrance of Old Dominion. The ramshackle place seems as deserted as a roadside flea market that lost its vendors to the malls. A row of trucks rots in the vast parking lot, which is mostly a grassy field with a network of service roads. The drag strip, in the shadow of a timing tower, looms like some abandoned, backwoods aviation runway; only a few scrawny crows guard the ribbon of black asphalt that disappears into the woods at the edge of the property.
There are few quieter places than a raceway without race cars.
Once parked, though, I can hear a whining motor in the distance. It could be a dragster getting some practice; still, it doesn’t sound loud enough to be a race car. I explore the open area past the grandstand: The oval track is empty, and looks surprisingly small and tumbledown in the absence of the roaring action and crowds. It’s an ancient-looking relic, a Ben Hur stage set decaying in the Virginia countryside. Only the gaudy billboards ringing the track conjure the present tense. A Winston “Fresh Flavor” ad reminds me that I’m out of cigarettes, but the nearby snack bar is boarded shut.
I follow the buzzing hum around the bleachers: It’s an old man cutting wood with a Skilsaw.
Arthur Landon Gore, founder and former proprietor of Old Dominion Speedway, shuts off the saw and greets me, explaining that he is repairing seats for the grandstand. Gore usually works at the family’s other raceway in Waynesboro. He’s here today because the employee who typically handles these chores broke his wrist at a go-cart race last Sunday. Known as “Duckie,” Gore is busy with a helper slicing 14-foot planks of Georgia oak. The 76-year-old seems apologetic that he can’t hump the wood by himself anymore.
“I’ve got a spinal fusion and it busted loose,” he says by way of excuse and explanation. “The doctor told me, “Don’t even do nothin‘,’ but I’ll do as I damn please. They told me back in ’81 that if I did even a lick of work I’d die of heart trouble, but if people did a little more work, they’d live longer.”
Nevertheless, he agrees to take a break, wiping sweat from his flushed forehead and sawdust off his arms. Gore is a chatty, affable coot, unlike many of the taciturn folks in the racing business, where talk is cheap. We head to the cool sanctuary of the snack bar and Gore motors through a short history of Old Dominion.
In the early ’50s, Gore bought a small stock-car racetrack called Long View and renamed it Old Dominion Speedway. One of seven brothers raised in nearby Fauquier County, he had been around racing all his life; his brother Wally was a well-known local stock car driver. At first, Gore ran Old Dominion as a sort of weekend hobby; in his day job as a construction supervisor, he built shopping centers, office complexes, and houses (“anything made of wood or concrete”) around the Washington area.
The era saw the first boom in drag racing, which had exploded from southern California’s hot rod culture in the late ’40s. In the Manassas sticks, teens raced on every two-lane blacktop around. Local hot rod clubs turned to Gore for a remedy, suggesting that a strip next to the oval at Old Dominion might reduce some of the mayhem on the public roads. “They were killing two or three a week out here,” he says. “They were harping about how they needed a drag strip. Everybody was hollering for one. They said if there was a drag strip, kids wouldn’t race on the highway, and they just went on and on. So one day, I just came in here and plowed [the drag strip] out.”
It was the spring of 1954; that August, the dirt strip (actually made of hard Virginia clay) opened for racing, the first of its kind in the region. In its initial incarnation, Old Dominion didn’t host the hulking monsters that shook the earth. Flattop Fords and other clunky roadsters vied on a longer, 1/3-mile stretch. “In those days, the cars only had 65-horsepower motors,” says Gore. “There wasn’t any of this hot, fancy stuff you’ve got out here now—1,200-1,500 horsepower, all souped-up to high heaven.”
In a few years, the clay was paved over with asphalt and became the busiest drag strip around. Gore built a two-story timing tower; a telephone pole juts through its roof, an architectural touch he added just for the hell of it. His brothers helped out in the operation, as did his mother and his late wife, who worked the snack bar (her tasty chili dogs gained a tri-state reputation). Gore eventually turned full-time to his new calling, though he has never considered himself a gearhead: “I just love to hear a big motor run,” he says.
The speedway has long been a family affair. In 1970, Gore’s son Dickie, a former racer himself, took over the management. Both of Dickie’s sons are top local dragsters. Twenty-three-year-old Scotty lives in a house at Old Dominion; his back screen porch serves as a trackside snack bar during the Friday night races. Dickie’s brother Gary runs the family’s Waynesboro track, East Side. The whole family helps manage a third Gore operation, the New London Speedway down in Lynchburg, Va.
Old Dominion’s biggest years ironically arrived in the late ’70s, during the energy crisis, when locals forsook vacations to spend their weekends at the speedway. After a lull in the ’80s, attendance at both the drag strip and the oval track is way up, perhaps a testament to the lure of simple pleasures in complicated times.
Old Dominion’s days may be numbered. In recent years, newcomers in the encroaching suburbs have complained about the speedway’s racket. Even more ominously, Gore has long itched to build a new speedway on a 100-plus-acre property about 20 miles south, farther out in the country. Gore wants a bigger oval track and a longer drag strip. Old Dominion, he says, is too cramped.
But the old raconteur fondly remembers the strip’s glory days. Shifting gears, Gore recounts a golden age when ’50s superstar dragster “TV” Tommy Ivo raced here and Gore had to carry a .357 Magnum to keep order. “This was a rough game when I got into it,” he says. “I’ve seen a guy get hit with a lug wrench and bust his face wide open.”
His reverie is interrupted when Dickie stops into the snack bar to retrieve some tractor keys. There’s a lot of grass to mow—and a thousand little things to get done—before Friday’s drag race.
At the starting line, the Gremlin and the Nova growl and writhe in a less smoky—but no less noisy—version of the pre-race burnout. The motors scream, begging for the engagement of the transmission and drive shaft.
Some in the crowd, a few hundred strong, press against a chain fence a few feet from the fuel-injected fury; others are crammed into nearby wooden bleachers. Only a team of rescue workers seems bored, as if they’d rather be doing something else with their Friday night. Dickie Gore stands between the cars, barking orders into a headphone set tucked under his baseball cap. I try to glimpse the drivers, but they’re hidden behind tinted windows. Everyone’s waiting for the green light to flash on a shoulder-high contraption known as a Christmas tree, which replaced the man-with-a-starter’s-flag routine years ago.
Front wheels airborne, the Gremlin gets the jump on the Nova as they roar past the timing tower at 100 mph. The start is really the finish, because whoever gets off the mark most quickly is bound to win. The dragsters’ dueling accelerations reverberate dramatically in the charged night air. But just a moment later, the race is over, and the Gremlin earns the winner’s light for its impressive six-second run.
The crowd roars its approval. The Gremlin’s driver, a bricklayer named Ricky Tibbs, is a local favorite.
The Gremlin will race several more times tonight, along with nearly 150 other hopefuls, in a dizzyingly complicated, computerized elimination known as bracket racing. Because bracket racing handicaps and hence levels the competition in different classes, the fastest car doesn’t necessarily win. Any car has an equal chance to take the $1,000 prize, from a $30,000 dragster to the family station wagon.
For the next hour, I watch a blur of races that—except for a brief interruption due to a coolant spill—follow one after the other like clockwork.
Some of the vehicles in the parade make an impression. Boasting creative body work and surreal stylings, the dragsters flash the drivers’ personalities or professions (White Tail Carpentry, Lewis Bowman Excavating, etc.) instead of the sponsors’ decals that adorn the pro cars seen on TV. There’s a Super Sport called “The Mistress”; a Nova, “Foolish Pleasure”; a pickup truck dubbed “Boss Hog”; and a Chevy named “Bitch”; not to mention “The Tazmanian Devil,” “Spanky’s Toy,” and a heap proudly called “The Trowjan’s Hoss.”
But mostly it’s a procession of copycat Camaros and other juiced-up sportscars that can’t get their rocks off on the interstate.
Behind the wheel of his fully converted, fuchsia-colored ’74 Nova, Scotty Gore is having a bad night. I ask about his snazzy matching helmet; he says the paint job alone cost $200.
Vulcan, on his third pack of Winston 100s, continues to diligently sweep after each burnout and summon the next two contestants to the strip. Dickie Gore, arms waving and legs kicking, directs “the big dance,” as he calls it.
In the pit area, things are really shaking. Wives and girlfriends dispense sympathy, back rubs, and oil changes; stern-faced 10-year-olds hose down hot radiators; toddlers rush between slashing wheels to fetch chili dogs. “Sly” Mike Harich’s entire clan (including two sons for pit crew) crowds around his gleaming white Chevy Monza, which has a Rebel flag airbrushed on its hood. The owner of a Manassas transmission shop, Harich—like most of the drivers—drag races for the rush, saying of the starting-line jitters: “It feels like I’ve got bats in my stomach.”
Between races, the vehicles purr in peaceful repose. I check out the innards of these mean machines while they’re sleeping. Jumbo hot-rod motors sprout through the cars’ hoods, like shiny metallic flowers of evil. This is American grass-roots garage technology at its finest.
But when I poke my head in to check out the drivers’ quarters, I’m rudely awakened. Many of the dragsters have elaborate computer systems in place of dashboards. These MacGyver-mobiles could practically drive themselves. I am outraged by the sham, the idea that computer geeks disguise themselves as fearless hot rodders. The words of old man Gore drift back to me: “It’s all electronics now. They don’t shift their gears anymore. They don’t do nothin,’ just push buttons….”
I sulk back to the starting line, just in time to catch a few cycle races. Now, here’s the real thing: No gizmos. No shortcuts. No steel roll-bar cages in case of a crash—just leather, a helmet and a prayer to the saint that protects Gary Busey.
I watch as one twig of a cyclist—maybe 115 pounds—straddles his monster black Kawasaki at the starting line. His bike’s back fender sports a skull ‘n’ crossbones, but he’s as petite as a horse jockey. With red hair flowing from his helmet and a ballerina’s spindly legs, he’s Leif Garrett-goes-Hell’s Angel.
He is there and then suddenly he isn’t, blazing down the track like gangbusters. Turns out that he’s a 27-year-old mechanic who got tired of getting speeding tickets on his street bike.
The crowd starts to straggle out, but some rowdies huddled in the top corner of the bleachers are raising hell and whooping it up as if they were watching the first race of the night instead of the 200th. Their sustained interest becomes more understandable when I notice they’re passing around 10s and 20s, betting on every race that zooms down the strip.
The ringmaster of these dragstrip gamblers is one Slick Rick—a smoothie twentysomething in brushed suede shoes—who places odds during each burnout and seems to win his bets nearly every time. “I got the Pinto, y’all,” he announces as a blue Ford Pinto approaches the starting line—and, naturally, roars to victory. He tells me that he’s been coming to Old Dominion since he was a kid. His secret to success is simple: “I know all the drivers and all the cars, man.”
But the really big money, he confides, can be had at the early-morning street races on V Street in Northeast Washington. That’s where he’ll be come Saturday night.
By evening’s end, the blue Ford Pinto takes top honors. The damned thing runs the exact same time—to the hundredth of a boring second—nearly every race. “It’s the most consistent car that wins,” is a bracket-racer’s mantra. The Pinto’s emotionless driver—clipped mustache and clean shirt tucked in, for Chrissakes—resembles a state trooper slumming on a slow night. But what are cops except drag racers with permissions provided by a uniform and badge?
The post-race exodus begins in earnest, and Old Dominion Speedway empties. I spot a black ’68 Firebird, one of the last cars left in the pit area. Its driver, his gray ‘fro frizzing from his baseball cap, leans on the hood. He seems to be simply savoring the speedway, the night, the stars.
His driver’s-side window announces his name: Darrell Viers. He got tired of people misspelling the double R’s and L’s. At 52, Viers is one of the oldest drivers here. He has missed just one Friday night in two decades at Old Dominion, for a high school reunion back in West Virginia, where he was born and raised.
“I raced a ’52 Ford on the street before I ever had a driver’s license,” he says without a hint of braggadocio. “I owned my own pickup truck when I was 14 years old and drove it every day to work.”
As a young man he worked the coal mines. In those days, he and some friends had their own moonshine still—thus the name for his Firebird, “Moon Runner.” Now an engineer with the phone company, he’s had nearly a dozen racing cars, including two ’58 Pontiacs, a ’61 Oldsmobile, a ’64 Chevelle, a ’70 Malibu: “I’ve loved ’em all.”
One of the Southern Bracket Association’s top veterans, he’s been track champion and still manages to break even moneywise. But he doesn’t win as a much as he used to; that’s why his wife (her name, Bonnie, is emblazoned on the passenger-side window) doesn’t attend the races anymore. “She’s the Vince Lombardi type,” he explains. “She just hates to lose.”
His son used to help out at the races, but he graduated from college and lost interest in carburetors, so Darrell plies his obsession alone. Tonight was piss-poor: He false-started twice, and his Moon Runner never really hit full stride. But there’s always the next race.
“I wouldn’t pay 10 cents to watch drag racing,” he says. “But I love doing it. It’s just as much fun now as the first day I did it.”
He stares out across the darkened drag strip: “You know, I got a brand-new set of golf clubs and went out and hit a bucket of balls and said, “This shit’s not for me.’ ”
It’s eerily quiet now at Old Dominion, until a shout echoes across the deserted pit area:
“Hey, Darrell, you gonna be down at Sum merduck tomorrow night?”
“Yeah, I’ll be there,” he replies, climbing into Moon Runner for the ride home. “I’ll save you a spot.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.