Dirt Track Nation

At Tri-City Speedway they don't mess around with "race cars." They race cars.

Straightaway my ass.

I'm riding shotgun in a red Dodge stock car, doing "hot laps" -- think full-pad scrimmage for auto racers -- at Tri-City Speedway. Piloting the vehicle is track superintendent Bob Leinemann, he of the steely green eyes and Saigon war stories.

The track's surface is dirt, and thanks to Bert Jacoby, whose car we're trailing, said surface is all over my chest, neck and helmet. And we're only on the first straightaway.

Jennifer Silverberg
Lisa Smith's Pepto-pink Dodge Colt, number 34, is the 
most consistent car in Tri-City's factory-stock division. 
It always finishes last.
Jennifer Silverberg
Lisa Smith's Pepto-pink Dodge Colt, number 34, is the most consistent car in Tri-City's factory-stock division. It always finishes last.

Only it doesn't feel so straight. There's no such thing on a quarter-mile oval, where one rooster-tail turn bleeds into another, and another -- twenty laps' worth of turns.

Normally Leinemann is a mellow fellow. But get him out on his track and his facial expression red-lines toward psychotic. The steering wheel of the Dodge never stops spinning. From the passenger's seat it feels like a merry-go-round. Only faster, and with no bar to hold onto. After six laps of this mistreatment, I emerge from the Dodge's right window hole dizzy and caked with dirt.

And these boys are just getting warmed up.

At Tri-City the racing is reckless and angular, overcorrectional steering a constant, high-bank wipeouts frequent, bashed-up rear quarter panels de rigueur and "taco neck" a nightly side effect. How drivers like Jacoby inject actual strategy into this fight against physics is both impressive and perplexing.

Equipped with half- and quarter-mile dirt ovals, Tri-City is one of some 950 so-called short tracks in the United States, 750 of which feature racing surfaces of dirt or clay. Improbable as it may seem, 95 such tracks are located in Illinois and Missouri, mostly in towns smaller than Granite City, Tri-City's home.

"Go a hundred miles east or west of St. Louis and there's probably a short track in that town," says Tom Deery, former vice president of NASCAR's weekly racing series, whose family owns Rockford Speedway in far northern Illinois. "That becomes the area's activity."

Safe in the stands amid a clean-cut cadre of army recruiters clad in black "Army of One" short-sleeve T-shirts, the work-hard-play-hard crowd is taking in this particular area's activity, which is marked early on by the pit-stop pathos of James "Bubb" Mitchell and Tom Krankel's penchant for swapping paint.

Mitchell's car number 01 is the most popular among the Tri-City tyke set, owing to the marketing brilliance of the Square Pants-aping "Sponge Bubb" cartoon that graces its flank. Each and every lap Mitchell's blue-and-yellow rig takes around the quarter-mile oval elicits joyous cries of "Sponge Bubb! Sponge Bubb!" from kids in the stands, regardless of where he's positioned in the race.

After finishing a respectable fourth in his Sportsman Class heat, sandwiched between ace drivers Jacoby and Steve Maisel, Mitchell gets off to a bad start in the nineteen-car Sportsman feature, lasting only one lap before mangling his right front quarter panel and tire in a four-car pileup on the second turn. Miraculously Mitchell makes it out of the pits in time to take the last caution lap before the restart. One problem: He hit the "cold pits" -- retreating with his sparse pit crew to his off-track trailer instead of to the "hot pits" situated on the unutilized half-mile oval's backstretch. This infraction earns Mitchell the dreaded "black flag," disqualifying him for the night.

Maisel, whose black car number 41 is distinguished by the slogan "Pimpin' Ain't Easy" etched on the back, has maneuvered in the meantime from the rear of the pack to third. Midway through the twenty-lap race, vying with Jacoby for second, he elects to dive low on each turn, which allows him to steal past his rival for a split-second at a time, only to be overtaken on the "straightaway." Jacoby winds up second, Maisel third. Ron Heaton's "Wild 1" is the class of this field.

The trio's accomplishments and collective horsepower pale in comparison to Tom Krankel, one of two drivers who've been dominating Tri-City's most powerful and lucrative class, the Dodge Iron Man Late Models. After an early season rife with pole-to-pole victories, on this night Krankel faces an uncharacteristic spate of trouble on the first of 25 Late Model feature laps, nearly stripping his right rear quarter panel clean off in a first-turn collision. Under the caution flag, an infield attendant manages to kick the car's tubular steel shell back into place, and when the green reappears, Krankel promptly slides into the lead by deftly threading through slivers of daylight between rivals.

"Is that car gonna be naked by the end of this 25-lapper?" track announcer George Depper wonders aloud over Tri-City's public-address system.

The musing almost proves prescient. Midway through the race, while jousting for the lead with talented newcomer Michael Kloos, Krankel is faced with the predicament of whether to go high or low on Dave Shaw's number 7 car, which is about to be lapped by the front-running pair on the backside turn. As Krankel goes low, Shaw drifts downward in front of him, clearing the way for a high-banking Kloos to take the lead, which he never relinquishes.

Perhaps unintentionally, Krankel exacts a measure of retribution. On the second-to-last lap, as he prepares to lap Shaw for a second time, Krankel's car gets just a little too close, nudging number 7 off the track and out of the race.

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