Never Stop Driving #67: Are we the villains?
“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.
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 😉
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