By Ben Shelton
Whether or not I always admit it, I know that over the past two years I’ve settled into a world of political correctness, standards and overall legitimacy when it comes to my business dealings in the racing world. While I enjoy an occasional good controversy as much as the next guy, I try to stick to the straight and narrow in an effort to not jeopardize any of the connections or relationships that I’ve built. The unfortunate reality is that it’s far easier to burn bridges in this business than it is to build them. But as a result of my efforts to maintain a true course, sometimes I lose focus on what this sport is all about, and how much fun it can be. I was reminded of just how cool our sport truly is on a random trip to a random track in early July.
You know those race tracks that you’ve heard stories about your whole life, and you really contemplate if it’s a place that you ever want to go. Some of these tales of debauchery, outlandishness and backwards doings at times seem to be unrealistically far-fetched, but by the same token it seems that if they are even almost half-accurate a reasonably-minded person wouldn’t be able to enjoy a racing program there. You are most likely lying to yourself if you aren’t admitting to a place in your mind just like this right now.
For me the name of this race track has always been Crowley’s Ridge Raceway, located in Paragould, AR. While this track is only about 100 miles from my front door, I’ve somehow managed to stay away from there for the first 32 years of my existence. Countless stories of fights, lack of rules enforcements and overall insanity had long ago resulted in my committing a cardinal sin and developing an opinion of the place without ever having actually seen it in person. I’m always critical of people who make up their mind about a track without witnessing it firsthand, yet I had always been guilty of unfairly passing judgment down to Crowley’s Ridge Raceway. I occasionally would tell people that I might go check the place out one day, but I don’t think I really ever meant it. However, that all changed when race schedules began to come out early in the 2012 season, and I quickly took note that the United Sprint Car Series (USCS) had booked an event at the facility. I decided on the spot that if there was ever a chance for me to go see this place, that would be it.
The show, which was scheduled for Tuesday, July 3rd was a perfect fit for me. Not only would it be headlined by Sprint Cars and Modifieds, but it also fell on a night when I was actually free of other commitments. A few weeks before the race arrived I posted on my Facebook page that I was looking forward to making my first-ever trip to Crowley’s Ridge Raceway. The post caught the eye of the track promoter, Trent Francis, and he contacted me to see if I would be interested in doing a little announcing that night. Anyone who knows me knows that I can’t turn down the chance to run my mouth on the microphone at any race track, so of course I accepted. At this point there was no turning back, and I was locked in hook, line and sinker for my first trip to the place.
As the event drew closer many of my friends from the racing community began to heighten my concerns about my trip to the facility. Comments like, “just wait until you see this place” and “you have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into” were plentiful. I decided that at this point, however, that I would put others’ opinions of the place out of mind and make my own conclusion on race night.
As I made the two-hour drive (very short by my normal standards) to the Arkansas oval, I began to get a little excited. Even though I hit over fifty tracks a year across this country, I always get excited about going to a new race track. It’s just the race fan in me that loves the experience of seeing a new place for the first time. Before I knew it my GPS had brought me to the track entrance, and as I turned into the parking lot the first thing that caught my eye was a well-groomed facility with mowed grass, no trash in site and a bigger than normal scoring/announcing tower. Smiling faces greeted me at the pit gate, and pretty quickly I began to change my perception of the place. I mean where was the knee high grass, toothless hillbillies and lawlessness that I had always heard about?
As I walked up to the track I immediately fell in love. While I spend most weekends at cookie-cutter tracks that are usually 3/8 mile or bigger in size, I just love a 1/4 mile! This place probably doesn’t even qualify as a 1/4 mile on its best day though, and it was tiny, reminding me a lot of Placerville Speedway (Placerville, California). It was a high-banked, tight clay oval. The grandstands consisted of tiered concrete for lawn chair seating, and there was well manicured grass on either end for blankets. Track promoter, Trent Francis, told me earlier in the week that the place would be busting at the seams with an overflow crowd that packed the place faithfully each week, but I really didn’t believe him as I surveyed just how massive the grandstand area was for the small oval. Later I would find myself proven wrong.
As I traversed the very tight pit area, which would soon see over 80 cars in four divisions covering every square inch of it, I began to feel a vibe. You could just tell this place had character. It felt like true grassroots racing. As I watched massive Sprint Car haulers painfully trying to negotiate the pit area, I was taken by surprise as a brown helicopter appeared from overhead. At first I thought the A-Team had just arrived, but I was soon fascinated to see the helicopter spend the next hour or so hovering over the infield to dry the technical inspection area from the three inches of rain that had unexpectedly fallen that morning. At this point, I decided that I may have seen it all.
The drivers’ meeting concluded and hot lap time arrived. As I made my way back into the grandstand area to head to the announcer’s tower, I was shocked at the total grid-lock that had been created by a massive crowd. It was only 6:30 yet the stands were almost full and the highway in front of the speedway was at an absolute standstill as eager spectators tried to enter the facility. Mr. Francis had been right. This was just an incredible crowd.
Once in the announcer’s tower I was impressed to find an above-average public address system, as well as a spacious tower. I’ve already experienced more than enough announcer’s towers in my career that were designed for four people, but had to hold 10. This was not one of those situations. Interesting notes in this tower included a light switch to notify the flagman when it was two to go in a race because he couldn’t hear the tower on his radio. Also, I found it fascinating that the flagman could control the red light, but not the yellow light, which was controlled by a switch in the tower. This amused me beyond all belief.
The very dimly lit track surface was hammer-down early in the program, which one would expect after three inches of rain earlier in the day. But as the evening progressed it became extremely slick with about a two-foot deep cushion. I watched as the tricky conditions threw curve balls at even the most seasoned veterans like Tim Crawley and Jeff Swindell. Despite one of the slickest surfaces I’ve ever seen at any track, it’s worth noting that 25 Open Wheel Modifieds started the feature on the tiny bullring, yet only three cautions slowed the 30-lap feature, and all of which were for minor incidents. It really impressed me how much respect that the local and out-of-town drivers showed for one another in maneuvering the tight oval. The racing action was nothing like the horror stories I had heard.
One of my favorite experiences of the night involved the Cruiser division. The Cruisers are always a crowd favorite because each car is piloted by two individuals. The person on the left side of the car has the steering wheel and a brake pedal, while the person on the passenger side has the gas pedal. The division was slated to run a single race during the course of the program, but as the Sprint Car feature – slated to be the last race of the night – circled the track, many of the patrons in the Cruiser division took it upon themselves to line up in staging again. Mr. Francis looked at me and said, “Hell, if they want to race again, let them.” Meanwhile the winners of the first Cruiser feature, who were below the announcer’s tower, saw their fellow competitors lining up in staging and shouted up to ask Mr. Francis if their division was running again. His response to them was, “Everybody else is racing again, but you killed them too bad in the first race, so I’ll pay you to not race in this one.” The two drivers nodded their head in approval, and I laughed for the next ten minutes about it.
Before I knew it the night was over, and the crowd was heading for their cars. As I packed my notes in the tower the track owner, Glen Francis, came up to me and thanked me for coming and told me that he hoped that I had enjoyed myself. I quickly let him know that I had just had a night to remember, and that it was truly a blast. I’ll never forget what he said next. He told me, “Son, I know we do a lot of things backwards here, and there’s a lot that needs fixing, but part of it is by design. We just do things different up here, and it works for us. It might not work in other places, but it works right here.” He paused for a second, and he said, “At the end of the day we are in the entertainment business, and that’s just what we aim to give everyone here is a good night of entertainment for their dollar.”
After a few last handshakes and a little shooting the bull in the parking lot, I was back in my trusty Ford Fusion Sport and headed back to Tennessee. I was genuinely satisfied with the show that I had just seen. There was probably more laughing in the stands and the pit area than I’ve seen in a long time. I know I laughed more than I’ve laughed in several years at a race track. This was just dirt track racing in its simplest form. Sure, this was not a state-of-the-art facility, and there were no $100,000 purses being paid out. But there were no $500,000 egos at this event either. Everybody came to race and have a good time. Families in the grandstand area brought blankets, and everyone sprawled on the grass and watched the races. It was just a laid-back, fun environment. While I agree whole-heartedly with Mr. Francis that this exact model wouldn’t work everywhere, and to be honest, probably wouldn’t work in most other places, it did work there. He was completely right about this being an entertainment business though, and after hearing his words and seeing what I saw it somewhat changed my perspective on some of my future promotions. As owners and promoters, we have to entertain the fans. We all want a professional and well-run show, but we don’t need to do it at the expense of the fans’ enjoyment.
Not only did I have one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life at Crowley’s Ridge Raceway that night, but I also learned that when it comes to the love of our sport, it’s truly all about the racing.
Images thanks to: www.CRRaceway.com and Crowley’s Ridge Raceway Facebook