Thursday, June 19, 2008

Part 2 - Passion for speed

With the short tracks in full swing, here’s a three-part story examining the triumphs and struggles of local weekend racers. The story originally ran Aug. 12, 2007 in the Washington (Pa.) Observer-Reporter. Thanks to O-R photographer Celeste Van Kirk for the pictures.

By Mike Jones

The scene is similar at Motordrome Speedway near Interstate 70 in Westmoreland County about 10 miles east of the Washington County line. With a paved surface, it's not as dirty while drivers race door-to-door at the half-mile track. The most prestigious cars race each Friday at Motordrome in the Whelen All-American Series, a weekly division that is a minor-league affiliate of NASCAR.

The Whelen Series cars are much sleeker and built closer to the ground than their dirt-track cousins. None of the race cars has a speedometer because, surprisingly, the speed is insignificant to the driver during the race. But several crews estimated that the cars run well over 100 mph on the straightaways. The cars cost about $40,000 each, which doesn't include the $20,000 it costs for a team to compete in the season's 20 races. Several sponsors and car dealerships are needed to support the teams because the prize money usually is not enough.

One of the top drivers in the series is Garry Wiltrout, who pilots the No. 95 Ford. When not at the track, Wiltrout, 42, of Bakersville, Somerset County, makes a living by selling ambulances in Westmoreland County. After work on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Wiltrout and the crew head to the garage in Scottdale to prepare the car for the upcoming race. Thursdays are reserved for a round of golf – unless a crash tears up the car. "It's not bad," Wiltrout said, "as long as you don't wreck it."

Bad finishes are unusual for Wiltrout, who is a former track champion and currently second in the point standings with three victories so far this year. However, on this particular July night, the car is not only having clutch problems but also must start last because Wiltrout won the previous race. Several crewmen lie underneath the car and feverishly work to fix the problem before the 35-lap feature race.

Racing against less-experienced drivers at the rear of the field can prove to be costly. One of the track's tow truck drivers, Mike Hampton, knows crashes and hot tempers sometimes lead to fistfights. "Once in a while somebody will get a little hot, but they chill out," Hampton said. "I take care of that."

Despite the challenges, Wiltrout overcomes the clutch problems and avoids the wrecks to finish second behind teammate Bobby Henry. "We've been having a good time right now," Wiltrout said.

- This series continues Friday -

No comments: