Sit back, relax and allow me to take you on a thrilling adventure which was one of the most hair-raising, exciting thrill rides of my life. I have a brother who is 14 years my senior.
When I was a very young boy, he introduced me to stock car racing. On many a Saturday night, he would take me to the old Pines Speedway in Groveland, Mass. It was a quarter-mile paved oval located on the banks of the raging Merrimack River.
There was never a shortage of excitement. We would also follow the big boys of NASCAR way back when they were called Grand Nationals, and there were but a few select races televised. That organization has come quite a way from those early days.
My brother always wanted to field a Saturday night stock car of his own, and following a divorce in early 1979, he turned this dream into a stark reality. He went out and paid very short money for an old, battered 1967 Mercury Cougar stock car.
There wasn’t a body panel on the heap which did not have a dent on it. “Dents will never slow a stock car down!” he proclaimed. It was painted red, white and blue and sported a shadowed number 32. It didn’t take him long to paint it black, orange and white.
By this time, the old Pines Speedway had been sold and developed into a municipal complex. The places to race now were Star Speedway in Epping and the Hudson Speedway, both paved quarter-mile ovals located in southern New Hampshire.
Prior to registering the car with the tracks, he so desperately wanted to have the number 13. Unfortunately, that number was taken so he just transposed the digits and went with 31.
At the age of 15, there was nothing cooler than being seen in the back of, or in the passenger seat of the pick-up which was towing a stock car down a busy street.
My brother had long since taught me how to drive vehicles including ones equipped with standard transmissions. He was now beginning it teach me how to operate a vehicle with a trailer in tow.
We had so much fun that first summer, and for not having much experience and seriously inferior equipment to many competitors with much larger budgets, he did pretty well for himself.
By late July he could tell I was champing at the bit to get behind the wheel. When most other 15-year old boys were playing Babe Ruth baseball, he decided to let me have a go at driving the race car during an “open” warm-up session at Star Speedway.
This was almost more intimidating than actually driving in a race due to the fact that our car was in the Street Stock class and at that point in time, the only class lower were the spectator races.
I was going to be sharing track time the much more powerful Late Model Sportsmen, Small Block Modified, and the fuel injected, 600-plus horsepower big-block Super Modified classes…GULP! Hit one of these guys and I wouldn’t live to see my 16th birthday.
Fortunately, all my previous driving experience paid off and my brother felt I did so well, he then informed me he would allow me to drive in a qualifying heat race the next following Sunday at the Hudson Speedway.
He was dueling in a points race at Star Speedway, and season points were awarded for heat races, as well as feature races.
He only raced at Hudson when funds would allow. He also said that it would be best to not tell mom and dad about this, for he wasn’t sure they would sign the required parental waiver.
He knew they planned to attend the next Sunday and wanted to surprise them. He was always a pretty cool guy when it came to such things as this.
I did not sleep well the following Saturday night. When I woke the next morning, to say I felt butterflies in my stomach was an understatement. It felt more like bats.
We arrived to the track early, so I could get warm-ups in before the folks arrived. This session went well and surely helped with calming the nerves. I felt as ready as I could possibly be for being so young and green.
After our parents arrived, my bro’ and I went over to the pit shack to check the starting line-up board to see which of the two heat races in our class I would be in, and in which starting position.
“Man!” I said as we both looked at each other wide-eyed after realizing I would be starting, of all places, on the pole in the first heat race. So much for remaining calm.
Another tidbit I just happened to notice is the fact that two of the three “top guns” in the Street Stock class were going to be competing in this same heat race.
The “zero hour” had arrived. In order to succeed in pulling this off, we sent the folks to get some refreshments. While helping to strap me into the driver’s seat, my brother gave me some last minute advice.
“Just keep your cool, don’t try to be a damn hero and whatever you do, stay low and keep out of their way!!! Don’t even think about trying to stay with the big boys!!!”
Of course at this time the last of the two Late Model Sportsmen qualifying heat races is taking place, and then the call comes over the PA system, “Street Stocks in the first heat…let’s get ‘em over there and get lined up!!!”
I take in a deep breath and swallow hard. I flick the ignition kill switch to the “on” position and then I press the start button and the completely stock Ford Windsor 351 cubic inch engine comes roaring to life. I feel goose bumps cover my youthful body.
I put the heap in reverse and then my brother guides me out of our pit spot as it is impossible to turn my head completely around all strapped in like that. I didn’t want to run anyone over in the pits. Then it was off to the access road to get lined up.
The actual lining up in the pre-determined starting positions will take place once we are circling the track during the pace laps. I am the one on the pole, so one car will have to line up to my right and everyone else will have to line up behind us.
At this time our folks arrived back at the pit spot and notice something just wasn’t right. My dad asked my brother, Where the hell is your car?”
He replied, “It’s over there lined up waiting for the heat race.”
My father then asked, “Where the hell is your brother?’
“Surprise! He’s sitting in the driver’s seat. He’s helped a lot and I thought he deserved a chance to drive. Don’t worry, he’ll be OK.” was his reply.
“For your sake, he’d better be!” the old man said.
One by one all the cars come to the access road. I can’t really tell how bad I was shaking due to all of the idling race car engines, but I know I am.
Sitting there was the worst part of all. I try to swallow, but now that is impossible. At this point I just can’t muster up the saliva needed in order to pull it off.
I notice the prior race is over, and now the pit steward is waving us out onto the track. It has clearly come to the “point of no return.”
We roll out onto the track and cars begin to file into place to my rear as I muster up enough courage to peek in the rear-view mirror. This mirror is not what you are used to, for it is the large, rectangular type your dad had mounted to the front fenders of his car when towing the camper and it was mounted side-ways inside the car on the right side of the roll-cage.
This afforded me a panoramic view of the cars behind me swerving violently from side-to-side in an attempt to scruff any foreign material off the tires, as well as to heat them up for extra adhesion.
Drivers try to “psyche” each other out by depressing their clutch pedals in order to rev their powerful engines…and at least on me, it’s working!
We continue around at a snail's pace as I decide to take a peek to my right. I get a little freaked-out when I notice the driver of the car on the outside pole, a purple and gold No. 26 1965 Chevy Chevelle has something on his face which resembles a storm trooper’s mask like in all those scary movies I had watched in the past.
The flagman displays the white flag, which is a definite indication that the next time we pass this point, all bets will be off!
We enter turn three, and I peek far to my left and see the green flag is about to be waved. I grab hold of the steering wheel with the proverbial “kung-fu” grip while simultaneously stomping on the gas pedal. I can feel the car behind me applying pressure to my rear bumper.
We fly down the front straight and as I enter turn one, I am shocked to see the points leader, a shiny red 1966 mustang with a prism colored No. 8 is attempting to pass me.
This cat was special. I was in complete awe. I think to myself, “Where the %$#& did he come from?”, as he had started in eighth place four rows behind me!
At this point, I was so distracted by what was transpiring that I realized I was heading directly towards his driver’s door. “Oh #%&$!!!” I think to myself. It’s a really good thing I have always had good reflexes.
I was able to quickly jerk the steering wheel to the left in order to spin the car into the infield to miraculously avoid a major incident…phew!!!
The whole pack of the 10 other cars screams by as I steer the car onto the back straight. There was no contact, so no caution flag was thrown. By the time I get up to speed, there is quite a distance between me and the rest of the pack.
I peek in the mirror to see the horrifying sight of all of the leaders fast approaching the rear of my car. I catch a lucky break when on lap two, three cars come together to cause a caution. This would move me from last place up to eighth.
After all that had transpired, I was beginning to feel a little more comfortable in the seat. The real pressure was off.
As we circle under caution, I begin to jerk the steering wheel from side-to-side and I think “what the hell” as I depress the clutch pedal and rev the engine in a kind of rite-of-passage. It’s time to get racing again, as the green flag is waving.
Coming out of turn four I feel a tap on my rear bumper. Then another and then a third even harder one makes the rear of my car start to slide to the right.
At this point my brother’s past infinite wisdom came rushing back into my head, “Always steer into the skid gently, so not to over-correct and lose control…and whatever you do, DON’T step on the brake!!! Lightly step on the gas to power out of the skid!!!”
Well what do you know…it worked, as the car which had been behind me, a No. 55 primer black 1970 Chevy Nova screams by me to my left while making contact with my driver’s door. What a thrill!!!
I am determined to keep the other two behind me, but one of them has too much power. This was a dark green No. 66 1967 Chevy Chevelle, and he wasted no time passing me on the right.
I am determined but not optimistic of keeping the last place car behind me. This is a No. 09 white 1967 Chevy Chevelle. We get a few more laps in, and by periodically checking my mirror I was able to determine that hey, what’s this? I am actually pulling away from him! This is awesome!!!
My fragile young mind is much to distracted to realize this is in no way due to my superior driving skills. Nor could it be attributed to a finer machine, no sir.
It was only because something had happened to his machine in the earlier incident with the other two cars but hey, that’s racing. In this game, you take things any way you can get them.
This heat race was scheduled for 10 laps. I am actually gaining on the two cars directly ahead of me who are in a heated side-by-side duel. As we enter the first turn on lap seven, the two cars make contact and get a little out of shape.
Something, I think it was a small piece of sheet-metal, flies off of one of the cars and sails end-over-end directly at the center of my windshield and glances off.
Somehow I am not rattled by this as I recognize a golden opportunity and pounce on it. I dive low and make slight contact with one of their driver’s doors.
Then I stomp on the throttle exiting turn two and scream down the back straight ahead of both of them!!! I think to myself how proud my bro’ must be right now.
That incident did not cause a caution and I was able to hold serve for the rest of the race. I was so happy to just finish eighth out of an 11-car field. Not bad at all when you consider the fact that I went from first to last, and then to eighth in just 10 laps.
On a quarter-mile track that is just a total distance of two and a half miles. I was one happy camper. This had been the most thrilling day of my life, at least up until that point.
I went on to own my own car by age 18. I would own several different race cars over the next 10 years. I loved racing and was successful enough to actually win a few.
Eventually finances became an issue and forced me to give it up. I had spent a lot of money over the years, and owning a home became a priority.
I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything, and I learned valuable life lessons in the process. Many folks outside of racing place stereotypes on some of these folks.
Granted, there are some bad in any group of people. Many of these folks I encountered were dirty and scruffy in appearance. This experience was instrumental in teaching me to not judge a book by its cover.
Over the years, many of these fine folks would reach out and offer help such as advice to fellow competitors like me.
Some would even help work on my car and even lend parts, only for me to go out and finish ahead of them. These were truly some of the most thrilling times of my life!
Ken Knight is an aspiring writer and author of a book released in Aug. 2008 titled "New England Bandwagon Nation". Ken is also a contributing writer on sportslore.com.
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