Evergreen

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Part of the great-American summer tradition involves the road trip. With the Winston Cup schedule currently in the midst of a twenty straight week stretch of races I don’t have a lot of spare time to visit with friends, but Tuesday I managed to get a half day free and took to the highway.

I was supposed to go visit my brother-in-law Ken up in the Pocono’s over the weekend but a family emergency forced we to reschedule to yesterday. As road trips go it wasn’t a long one, scarcely two and a half hours, though Mother Nature added to the excitement a bit by providing weather so nasty it was like doing 55 MPH through a car wash.

While we were speaking Saturday night Ken stepped out of his camper for a smoke and told me he could hear race cars and they sounded nearby. So after we had dinner Tuesday we hopped in his old Dodge and went to go find the track. I’ve found in my life doing nothing is best accomplished while in a moving vehicle. Sure we could have used maps and stuff but that takes all the fun out of it. And you’re never going to stumble across a 70 Hemi Cuda fresh out of a barn sticking to most traveled roads. Mountain roads tend to be dark, take off on unexpected tangents, and are lightly traveled. We saw a little bit of everything with the exception of that barn fresh Hemi Cuda and a race track. We stopped at a couple gas stations and a few bars and asked if anyone knew where there might be a race track in the area. Most of the young people we spoke to admitted there was a race track somewhere in the area but had no idea where, while a couple older guys attempted to give us directions with varying degrees of accuracy. They used the usual rural spin with comments like “Go through the stop sign then a ways down the road. When you see a church, you went too far. Go back a block and take a right at the left you missed.” We were actually looking for a place to make a U-turn when we stumbled across the sign for Mountain Raceway. As it turns out it was all of about five minutes from the camper.

Naturally at nine o’clock on a rainy, misty Tuesday night there wasn’t much going on at the track. It was in fact completely deserted. But we’d set out to find us a race track and dad gum it we intended to see the track. The signs said, “no trespassing” but the height and construction of the fence didn’t seem to indicate they were too serious about that. (Bad idea kids. Don’t try this at home. I in fact only hopped the fence because Ken had already done so and he’d made it several yards without serving as a chew toy for a guard dog.) The grounds were pretty nicely kept and we managed to make our way to the platform that serves as the starter’s stand. From that vantage point we could make out a D-shaped, lightly banked, asphalt track that was longer than a quarter mile but shorter than a half mile. The prime clue was the front stretch which was the looped side of the D and extremely wide for such a short track. Working from memory I was able to deduce (and later confirm) “Mountain Raceway” is the old “Evergreen Raceway.”

We’d both heard of Evergreen and had even set out to head for the track a couple Saturday nights when we were up in the Pocono’s for Winston Cup race weekends. Locals told us about a short track “a half hour or thereabouts” (they must drive tractors. It was actually closer to twenty minutes) down route 80 that put on some great short track racing on Saturday nights. I remember the one time we went looking for the track, but got lost and then distracted by a bar. Another time we were on our way there but it started raining while we were en route so we turned around.

We didn’t hang out long at the track. We’d accomplished our goal of finding the race track and both Ken and I were made aware over the years of the financial consequences of a defiant trespass citation. (Who the heck digs a quarry then expects folks ain’t going to swim in it when it’s hot out?) Then there was the matter of a couple still warming empty beer cans in the bed of the truck an officer of the law might have taken askance at. We were heading back to the campground when we were distracted by a small bar, improbably located between two halves of a classic VW repair center, just down the road from the track. ( I don't know what it is about neon but it attracts Ken and I like skeeters to one of those bug zappers.) The place was practically deserted but the bartender and both patrons were watching “Wind Tunnel” when we arrived which I took as a good sign. In the truck we’d been discussing maybe building an enduro car this winter to race next season and I figured maybe the guys in the bar could tell us what classes the track ran on which days.

The bartender was able to confirm “Mountain Raceway” was indeed the old Evergreen track though the name had been changed during one of many management switches at the track. He said he believed that the track did run occasional Enduro races as well, which another patron at the bar confirmed nodding his head as he contemplatively puffed his cigar. He let on there was some question as to whether the track would be around in 2004. Attendance wasn’t what it used to be and last weekend’s modified program only drew nine entries. (Though the bartender said it was one of the best races at the track in quite some time. Quality, not quantity, of cars makes for good racing, a lesson the Busch series needs to take to heart rather than filling out the field with hopelessly slow entrants who park the cars with “handling” problems after a few laps.)

Apparently some of the “new people” aren’t too happy about the noise emanating from the race track on Saturday nights as well. The cigar smoker was able to rattle off a list of tracks in the general area that had fallen victim to noise complaints and housing development encroachment. As an aside to any suburbanites planning to move “out to the country” pigs smell bad, race cars are noisy and in the fall men armed with rifles go out into the woods to tag Bambi’s mother. If you can handle that, stay in the suburbs. The pigs, race cars and hunters (and guys with six rusty muscle cars in the back yard waiting for their turn to be restored) were all there before you.

Our new friend told us stories about the old Reading Fairgrounds track, which he said was blindingly fast and fairly dangerous. According to his recollection the Fairgrounds track once paid better than Indianapolis and he allowed he’d race there some, back in the era of ’39 Fords with flathead engines. He’d put some miles on the clock since that era but for a gent his age he still looked plenty tough enough to horse a race car without power steering around any sort of track and take on all comers. Again, according to his recollections a lot of drivers who went on to bigger and better things used to race at Evergreen. They included Geoff and Brett Bodine, Ricky Craven, and about eight different guys with the last name Spencer including Jimmy and three or four generations of guys named “Ed”.

The folks at the track are doing what they can to remain solvent. Currently the adult ticket price for a full evening of racing is just eight bucks. Kids under 12 are four bucks. Kids under five are admitted for free. You can’t take the family to a movie (which would probably be a dud anyway this summer) that inexpensively.

Nor is Mountain the only track facing some challenges to continued operation. All across this great land there’s asphalt and dirt short tracks that run Saturday night shows at reasonable prices. In addition they often feature far better racing than most Winston Cup events these days, with a lot less traffic to deal with and fierce competitors that drive because they love racing not to make the big bucks. These tracks are the training grounds for the next generation of drivers so you might get a peek at some superstar of the future in an atmosphere where he or she would be flattered to sign an autograph or pose for a picture. You’ll be able to pick out the ones that are going somewhere. You can see the fire in their eyes. Visit your local short one weekend (or every weekend) this summer and do your part to keep the grassroots of racing alive. There’s nothing that makes politicians bent on closing down a race track to satisfy a few busybodies than grandstands full of voters who might just give that fellow the boot if he talks bad about “their” track.

Or maybe you’ve always had an urge to race yourself. Most local short tracks run classes of race cars that are relatively inexpensive to build. (Or buy from someone moving up a class.) Kenny and I are on the hunt for a mid 70s Monte Carlo or Grand Prix to run in the Enduro class next year. If we can find someone who can weld and has a fuel cell laying around the garage we might even build a Street Stock down the line. There’s a lot more expensive ways to keep yourself out of trouble.

Meddlesome neighbors with low tolerances concerning other people having fun aren’t the only challenges the small track operators face. It might be because I’m getting older and crankier and take it as a personal affront but it seems the entire northeast has been stuck in a miserable wet weather pattern for months. Based on my entirely unscientific ride through Saint Johns, PA it seems the race track appeals more to graybeards than the local youth. Mountain Speedway and other short tracks might soon have to look at instituting a low buck front wheel drive class to remain relevant to the Blinger crowd. Give them a place to race on an oval in a clapped out Civic or Escort and maybe some of the Fast and Furious set will gravitate to circle track racing from drag racing and street racing. (And maybe they’ll eventually move to a correct wheel drive car after getting tired of replacing CV joints every weekend.)

Even more troubling NASCAR, which should be doing everything in its power to promote local short track racing, seems determined to do in the short tracks. Perhaps the low car count and crowds last Saturday night at Mountain had something to do with the Busch race being televised at the same time. Every time NASCAR moves a Winston Cup race to Saturday night, especially during the spring and summer, they’re driving another nail in the coffin of the short tracks.

The standard excuse for moving races in NASCAR’s three big touring divisions to weekend nights is that the TV networks want the change made to better their racing. Yet now that the Charlotte Busch race has been moved to Friday night at the behest of NBC and TNT they’re planning to show that race tape delayed on Saturday afternoon. Nothing kills ratings like tape delayed racing. If this is someone’s idea of a good thing, the logic is lost on me.

So if there’s one in your area, and there almost certainly is, make plans to attend your local short tracks Saturday night program soon. If you’re in or around the Poconos, Mountain Speedway is about 20 minutes from the Pocono exit of the Northeast Extension. Head west down 80 then south on 309. At the first light (there’s a Unimart and the Butler firehouse) take a right. That’s where it gets confusing, but about a mile and a half down Butler road after you take your right, you have to take another right on a road the track’s website says is called “Lion Road” but if I recall correctly is actually marked “Mountain Mill Road” you take a right. (It’s marked “Lion Road” on the opposite side of the highway.) Rather than getting lost like we did you can check out their website at www.mountainspeedway.com for directions and a schedule. You never know who you might run into there.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2003

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