Never Stop Driving #67: Are we the villains?

Cameron Neveu

“It’s none of your f****** business,” the man shouted to me as he jogged past, “Stay the f*** out of it. She’s still going.”

Equally embarrassed and confused by this public rebuke, I turned around and continued telling the race official that the man’s daughter’s car had a broken suspension piece and wasn’t safe. One of the two spindly links that connect the front axle to the chassis had broken and she, like my son, was well behind the leaders in a race that meant, well, nothing.

I remembered that guy when I learned of the closure of a Michigan oval track. In a recent Facebook post, the owners of Onaway Speedway, located in a small village about 250 miles north of Detroit, explained how they came to dread the weekly races they hosted for the past seven years.

“It’s difficult to keep an upbeat attitude with the constant bickering, physical fighting, blaming, and generalized complaining,” they wrote.

You could feel the disappointment in their words: “We host these events after we’ve already worked a full week. We try to be contributors to our community, to help the town we grew up in.”

Circus City Speedplex in Peru, Indiana, closed this past July, a few days after my encounter with the angry father. In a Facebook post, that facility’s owner also cited fights and incidents that had taken the fun out of running the track.

There’s a trend here, and it’s not good. While I’ve long plied curvy road courses like Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen, my son opened my eyes to local oval tracks several years ago. Then I started seeing them in nearly every remote town my driving adventures took me to. For a guy who shares Hagerty’s purpose to save driving and car culture for future generations, these tracks were little goldmines, places where people learn to appreciate the thrill of driving and connect with each other around cars.

I figured this was worth further investigation so I sent staff editor Cameron Neveu to Knoxville, Iowa, home of Knoxville Speedway, to spend a few days hanging out at the track, talking to the locals in diners, and taking a portfolio of awesome photos. Neveu’s report confirmed my hunch that these tracks often are de facto community centers and play an outsize role in the social fabric of the towns in which they are located. The connections to place seem much deeper than they are with the bigger, more well-known road courses. (By the way, Neveu learned the fine art of motion photography by shooting circle tracks and has visited more of them than he can count; check out his Instagram @alteredstock.)

I jumped into the small-town, oval-track scene myself last year with a pair of cheap, well-used micro sprint cars for my son and I to race at Jackson Speedway, a half-hour west of our home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We loved those Saturday nights so much that we doubled down for 2023 by buying slightly better used cars last winter, just in time for Jackson Speedway to close in April. Once again, my timing was terrible, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. On one steamy Saturday night back in July 2022, Jackson’s main official, a muscled and darkly tanned gray-haired man wearing a tank top, started the drivers meeting. “Listen you mother******,” he shouted with a gravelly voice. “I’m in no mood for your s*** tonight.”

I smiled, loving the color, but now I see that Big Jim, as he is known, was exasperated. Big Jim had given up his Saturday night and driven some 80 miles from Detroit to referee a chaotic race where he had little help and couldn’t see everything. I doubt he was paid for his work, since most small tracks rely on volunteers. These days, when a competitor doesn’t agree with a penalty or a ruling or a whatever, they’re more vocal—sometimes in person and more likely even nastier the following day on social media.

My son Sam runs in an indoor karting league. After getting smoked all last season, something clicked, and he was leading a race. He had it won until the second-place kid drilled the rear of Sam’s kart, sending him sideways. There’s hard racing and then there’s illegal contact, which I’m sure that was. They’re kids, though, it happens. I went to the folks who run the series but they didn’t see it, so no foul was called. Sam did not get his eagerly anticipated first win. That sucked.

Now what? I was grateful for the guy who founded the series, who does not get paid, so I did not make a big stink. I also remembered a previous race where screaming parents looked like complete buffoons. On the way home, I explained to Sam that if I had raised a fuss, they might have called a foul and awarded him first place. In this case, however, I thought that being a better citizen outweighed a plastic medal. Life isn’t always fair, kid, and so what? I did, however, feel all the conflicts: Did I let my son down by avoiding conflict? Was showing him the virtues of being nice an invitation for him to get run over? And on it goes.

John Kryta, founder of Inline Tube and that little karting series, quit running it this fall. “I’d spend the entire day after a racing night,” he said, “diffusing the fights and disagreements from the night before.” The league was supposed to be a fun and light diversion during the winter months. The people, he said, only cared about the results and not the camaraderie. When I asked how many participants thanked him for his free service, he replied, “About 10 percent. There’s just a lot of animosity at the track these days.”

According to the National Speedway Directory, there are roughly 1250 tracks in North America. About 1000 are oval tracks and the majority are unpaved. “There have always been disagreements and tempers at the track,” Tim Frost, the directory owner, told me. “Social media, however, has simply amped it up.” Track owners typically run the local track as a hobby and have another full-time job. “If you’re working your tail off and not making money,” Frost added, “Why put up with the drama?”

I’ve spent maybe 20% of my adult life at racetracks and I’ve met hundreds of people. None of them seem like a-holes. Something, however, happens to some amateur racers in the short journey from the pits to the racing surface or once they pick up their phones that encourages them to embrace less noble human traits like selfishness and narcissism. This trend is not unique to racing. A recent article in The Atlantic that offered some theories on what’s happening was simply titled “How America Got `Mean.” Where did our grace go? Maybe we’re still relearning how to be citizens after COVID lockdowns.

Knoxville Raceway dirt track racing lifestyle kid behind wheel
Cameron Neveu

Race tracks are places that encourage our passion and are ideal outlets where people and families can experience what the writer Nicholas Hayes called “Chosen” time. In his book Saving Sailing, Hayes described the difference between a prescribed activity—like a movie or an amusement ride, which he calls a chartered experience—and chosen time. The latter, he argued, is richer and more valuable because we’re active participants and the outcome is not preordained. I fear that the future envisioned by the movie Wall-E—humans become flesh blobs hopelessly addicted to screens—is not so far-fetched. We need local race tracks and the volunteers who run them. Hagerty’s book, Never Stop Driving, a Better Life Behind the Wheel, expands on this idea and is now available in audio form.

Let’s remember our better selves, behave accordingly, and encourage others to do the same. All of us could be a little more like Ted Lasso, the cheerful and selfless main character on Apple TV’s most watched show. We hope you recognize how Hagerty Media pays it forward with a constant stream of uplifting material like this article from our Original Owner series, about an MGB bought by a 16-year-old who started saving when he was 12. There’s also a heartfelt tribute to the mom who vacated her garage so her son, Rob Siegel, could scratch his wrenching itch. If you’d like to support us in our efforts, please sign up for the Hagerty Drivers Club.

This is a terrific weekend to go visit a local circle track 😉

P.S.: Your feedback is very welcome. Comment below!

Click below for more about
Read next Up next: The collector car market continues to soften


    You hit the nail on the head. My local track had to pick between hosting two different motorsports due to staffing and time constraints. The sport that lost was in part because the people participating in it were too violent, rude, and hateful. That’s not to say that the other sport’s community doesn’t have its flaws, but after pulling apart old men who are screaming and waving time slips at each other for the umpteenth time we were all sick of the toddler-tier behavior.


    Another good article. Being civil seems to be a dying practice. Social media doesn’t help. I guess on an individual basis, we can try to be the exception

    Many years ago I raced professionally as a fuel funny car crew chief, and I have only fond memories of that. But I was the wrench-turning, engine building guy who didn’t have to deal with the politics. More recently my son and I raced toy cars — radio control cars. First with 1/10th scale electric-motored cars on ovals in New Jersey, and later with nitro-burning 1/8th-scale cars that could do 0-60 in two seconds on road courses throughout the midwest and occasionally in Florida in the winter. I eventually took over management of the Detroit club and track to fill a void, and later ran the Midwest Series, a four-state multi-event race series. That was all well and good for a time, but having to deal with all the angst and anger of the racers eventually made it all less than worthwhile. But to quite being the turn-to guy, we had to quit racing. Most RC racers were mature and well mannered, but the few exceptions poisoned the mix. I miss it all now, but I don’t miss the angry looks and bad feelings.

    Excellent article. I congratulate you for your accurate insight. Unfortunately I have seen this sort of behavior at all types of sporting events. I witnessed this at a children’s soccer game where parents were arguing. To say the least, it is BAD EXAMPLE FOR THE KIDS.
    I guess “love thy neighbor” has gone out the window. People have no tolerance for one another and all seem to have attitude problems. What has happened to this country? What has happened to sportsmanship? Does everyone always have to win? How about congratulating the person that won if you didn’t win? Grace and good manners seem to have evaporated. God help us!

    100% spot on Larry. As others have noted, the attitudes seem to have spilled over into any type of endeavour.
    Just recently completed my introductory race driver training course – at the age of 65. So, being vintage myself, would only look to do vintage classes. My point is that at my local track, any contact between two vintage cars and both cars are black flagged and the race stewards want to have a chat with both drivers!
    So, there is some hope.

    Larry, How I feel for the kids trying to enjoy ANY sport! I coached and refereed soccer many years ago, then watched my grandkids play the game and the article on racing sounded just like the disrespect that I see in soccer! Just change the sport and the parents ruin things for the kids! Do our best to raise those involved, respectful kids! Tim

    This is about more than racing, but about the state of American society today. Vulgarity, coarseness and narcissism are everywhere. There have always been the worst-behaving people among us, but today they are so common. It is obvious where we are in our choices for political leadership. We are getting what we deserve, and I fear for my country.

    Larry, very well stated. Whatever this infection is and how it has reached the epidemic proportions it has, is probably a combination of factors. COVID being one, but it’s not the only one. I’ve heard the term “toxic individualism” used a lot, and it’s definition is just what you describe. At some point in our recent history, it became okay to behave like spoiled children instead of adults. Anyone have an antidote?

    You ask for an antidote? At the risk of being flamed, may I suggest a return to God in everyone’s lives? Even if you have to give up church attendance for recreation on some Sundays, a little bit of your family and personal time needs to be spent each week in reflective prayer (and going to church once in awhile should help you to learn how).

    Well said. Anyone wondering how the world got to this point need only read 2 Timothy 3:1-5. The best we can do is be the good example of behavior most of us were raised to be.

    I agree. Religion is not good for the soul. It also builds good character. Think about the other person FIRST before you open your big mouth.

    As said above, it is everywhere. I was HOA president of our small community for seven years. My last year was about seven years ago.

    Last year we had a HOA meeting about what should have been a routine item. Suddenly, there were people yelling about something they had read in the correspondence for the meeting. These people thought they were being singled out and were mightily upset. When it was pointed out that the item they were so upset about had been in place since 2008, and had not been changed, it did not diminish the spite they were spewing forth. A little thing like “the facts” was not going to slow down their anger. People who are active on social media seem to have little regard for truth and facts. Maybe that’s because there is so little of that on many sites.

    Social media
    who really cares to what people post?
    & why should I care.
    My experience is is the best gauge, to me
    _ I don’t care if others aren’t sharing in my train of thought

    It seems we are not a kind, loving, supportive nation. Perhaps we never have been. One thing’s for sure, we are becoming less tolerant, more abusive, rude, and downright mean. Some poor fan is punched to death at a pro football game recently. Fights break out almost consistently at high school and college games. Many municipalities are installing metal detectors at sports events.

    It’s a sport. Yes, a contest for bragging rights, or trophy cups, or ribbons, and therefore a “competitive” contest, but for fans and participants to engage in verbal and physical violence is beyond the pale.

    As to a safety official flagging a contestant for unsafe equipment, Whaaaaat? Racing is dangerous? A failed piece of equipment hurtling off at high speed would endanger racers and fans alike. This isn’t rush hour traffic where admonishing an errant pin-head might get you shot today, it’s sanctioned racing. There are regs and rules for a reason.

    Oh, wait! There’s regs and rules for operating a motor vehicle, to wit, upon a public road too…

    Where do we go from here?

    Life can be tough but that is no excuse for poor behavior. Like so many others have said that we are here to have fun and build friendships and teamwork at all these events and should always thank the volunteer workers.

    one year we were at Sandusky Speedway in the stands for a fan appreciation day during their Hy-Miler super modified weekend and some guys behind me got loud about the starting not getting started on time. The night was nice, admittance was $1 to get in with $1 beers, Pepsis, and hot dogs. After a while I finally told them they should go down and demand their ticket price back. It must have caught them off guard because they settled down to enjoy the races. I have been out to Sandusky Speedway, in Sandusky, Ohio many times have always enjoyed myself there, but there are people who can be meanspirited. I can only hope more people think about their actions, not only at the track but in their daily lives.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *