Small town racing

Where we live, it takes a serious effort to get anywhere … or nowhere. Within a 25-mile radius, we can enjoy the pleasures of dining at Watts Bar Resort, nestled in the shadow of the nuclear cooling towers, while watching skunks cavort in front of the windows. We can buy ice cream at Galyon’s market, where the sign out front reads “Pizza, Hot Wings, Cow Feed.” We can take in the weekly performance of Blaze, the balloon-blowing goat at the Midway Drive-In Theater. Or, we can bring out the earplugs and thrill to the spectacle of the Atomic Speedway.

The year before we “bought the farm,” we left Knoxville with a group of 15 friends for what turned out to be the penultimate Roane County experience: a trek out to Atomic Speedway one Friday night in high summer. Atomic–as in nearby Oak Ridge and the atomic bomb–is the place where local boys test their tuneup jobs and entertain NASCAR dreams on a dizzying red clay track. Forty-five minutes due west of Knoxville and 45 minutes northeast of our farm, Atomic occupies a bare patch of land alongside Interstate 40, off an exit without amenities, down a gravel road. The Atomic track is essentially a tight oval with no straightaway. The racers spin around like tops for a predetermined number of laps. It’s next to impossible to pass on the narrow and endless turns, and usually the car that starts first finishes first.

That Friday night, we turned onto a field packed with hundreds of other vehicles and streams of people heading to the grandstands. Once in the throngs, we had to decide whether to sit on the “family” side, with its nice bleachers, or on the opposite side in the optimistically (euphemistically?) named “beer garden.” Beer garden guests sit on planks resting on cinder blocks. We took up our positions on the crowded planks, thumbed our noses at the respectable citizens, and toasted our night out with large paper containers of draft.

We sat and we watched what we could see through the dust kicked up by the cars. We sat and we drank, and finally the intermission came.

The announcer’s voice instructed the crowd to withdraw their ticket stubs and inspect the numbers for the door prize. One of our group, Mark, jumped off of the bench, fists pumping as he waved his ticket. A poor university TA, Mark won a hundred dollars … then selflessly contributed all to our sadly depleted beer funds.

A fresh round in our hands (and many newly acquired friends), we listened as the announcer excitedly introduced the entertainment of the evening: Johnny J of Jacksonville, driving his modified ’68 Chevy. The crowd went silent as Johnny J and his car were hauled onto the track. In the true spirit of American ingenuity–a combination of Eli Whitney, the Wright brothers, and PT Barnum–Johnny J had added an F-15 fighter jet engine to the rear end of his car. The first intermission saw him drive, propelled by a short burst of flame, from one end of the track to the other in, well, seconds. The punchline was a little bit of a letdown after the buildup. Since the track was so tight, he couldn’t do much more than hop to the other end before braking to avoid leaving the track. The tractor would then pull him back around, point him at the other end, and he’d hop again in a short burst of flame. After a couple more lackluster exhibitions, he pulled onto the infield.

The races resumed with a compact truck race followed by a stock car race. Then another intermission. Once again the announcer shouted over the loudspeaker that we were all in for a special treat. And again the crowd hushed. This time Johnny J pulled his jet-powered car onto the infield on a low trailer and backed it up to a 1971 Pinto. Time was spent chaining the jet car to the flatbed, and all the while the crowd waited with wide eyes. The quiet continued over both sides of the field as the lights were doused. We sat with high anticipation in the humid dark.

At last, the jet engine roared. A brilliant flame cut a cone of fire at the Pinto. The car glowed, shimmered and ignited. Cameras clicked. Lusty had been the partisan cheers for favorite sons at the end of each race. But as the Pinto melted back into the red clay infield, we rose as one, all differences set aside, and gave voice, into the August summer night, of our joy, in inarticulate yelps and screams. Only one among us could articulate what everyone there must surely feel. Tom, our only Ivy League graduate, turned to me with tears in his eyes and slurred, “Surely we have seen God’s work done here tonight.”

Amen, brother.

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