Start Your Engines
Revving up for the racing season at the Accord Speedway
by Timothy Sohn film and photography Poppy de Villeneuve
It has been said that seeing the two-and-a-half-mile Daytona Speedway for the first time is like a first view of the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls: awe-inspiring; perspective-shifting. The Accord Speedway is not like that. It is a quarter-mile dirt oval in a little clearing hacked out of the side of a hill in the Catskills. It is fringed by fencing and concrete barrier walls, with grandstands lining its south side and a small tower at mid-track that holds the booths for the announcer and scorer.
On a Friday in early April, the evening of the first practice session for the 2012 race season, a succession of pickup trucks chugged up the hill, cabs crammed with family members, towing trailers loaded with racecars in a variety of shapes and sizes. And though it was hours before the 7pm start time, spectators were already arriving. On the track, an ancient yellow tanker truck was circling, grinding through gears and spraying the 40-foot wide dirt-and-clay track surface with water, readying it for the first “hot laps” of the season.
The truck’s driver was Gary Palmer, who has owned and operated the Accord Speedway with his wife, Donna, since 2001. “You’ve got to do it all,” Palmer told me later. “It’s a lot of work for one person, but it’s the only way to run a track like this.”
Grassroots racing is a low margins business, but short, dirt racetracks like Accord, which opened in 1962, are the bedrock of American car racing. They emerged as dirt track racing grew in popularity during the 1920s and 1930s, and there are over a thousand of them across the country, mostly in small, rural communities. The drivers who ply these tracks, for the most part, do not have NASCAR dreams. They are hobbyists and enthusiasts, and this is less a farm system than league night at the bowling alley. They are the local bar band that plays rocking covers with a few soulful originals mixed in. Most of these drivers will spend their entire racing careers on the short tracks, in the dirt, at places like Accord.
In the small announcer’s booth, Steve Pados, in his sixth year as the voice of the Speedway, was in the midst of a bit of spring cleaning. As he swept out the booth’s plywood floor, he gave me a racing primer.
After the noise, you notice the smell: exhaust mixed with dirt and dust, thickening in your nostrils and throat until you taste the grit.
“The ‘seam’ is something you might hear me talk about – drivers are always ‘looking for the seam,’” Pados said, “and ‘hitting their marks’ is another one. If a guy’s running the same line every time, you call that hitting his marks, which is what you want to do. And if a guy’s running a little wild, you might say he’s getting ‘sideways’ or ‘out of shape.’”
He went on to explain the six classes of cars raced at Accord – Modifieds, Sportsman, Spec Sportsman, Pro Stocks, Pure Stocks, and Lightning Sprints – and the rules governing the engine size, body type, and the degree of modification allowed in the different classes. Then he turned back to the track.
“That’s turn one, turn two, turn three, turn four,” he said, pointing through the Plexiglas window of the announcer’s booth, twenty feet above the center of the track. “And you’ve seen the pit area, I take it?”
The fenced-in area at the east end of the track buzzed with activity: cars being rolled off trailers, compressors being juiced up, tires being switched. The cars ranged from flashy, babied numbers with new paint jobs, arriving in fully outfitted, enclosed race trailers, down to battered old warhorses that looked liked they’d come out on the losing end of a demolition derby. Most cars bore the names of local sponsors, small, family-owned businesses like landscaping companies, auto parts stores, and pawn shops. The capable-looking men (and it was mostly men) attending the cars wore a uniform of jeans and hooded sweatshirts and hats with logos: NASCAR, Sunoco, Budweiser, Mossberg, Carhartt, Coors Light, Pennzoil.
“The drivers will be getting used to the changes in the track tonight. There used to be a dip coming out of Turn 2 that Gary smoothed out,” Pados said, walking towards the pit area. “And then there’s the banking: it used to be steeper through the turns, but drivers were complaining that they couldn’t pass as much, so they smoothed that out this year. And then there was the car that left the arena last year, landed upside down in the pit.”
An extra row of concrete barriers had been added to turn one to prevent future incidents, but they were hoping to avoid even the threat of a wreck during the practice session. The drivers would be sent out one at a time and instructed in the pit area not to drive side by side, but there were no guarantees. “Well, look: in the heat of battle, they get competitive,” said Pados. “But you don’t want to see anyone get in trouble, especially on a practice night. The economy’s so bad right now that if a guy has a problem on the track, you won’t see him back for a few weeks, maybe longer – it’s just hard to be able to afford to fix the car.”
And it’s not as if they can count on making up the cost with prize money: for normal races, the purses at Accord top out, in the Modified division, at about $2,000 for a win, and in the other divisions, where a win might bring $500, $300, or $200, several drivers who had come from far away told me that even if they win, the prize money doesn’t cover their gas.
“They don’t do it for the money,” Pados said. “They do it because they love it.”
Just before 7pm, the first cars hit the track, engines revving, dirt flying, exhaust fumes choking the air as the cars slid through their turns and accelerated through the straightaways. Trackside, the noise hits you first, like a swarm of angry bees amplified through a thumping, bass-heavy sound system. Each class has its own timbre, each car its own tone, but initially, to the untrained ear, it is just a cacophony of unmuffled noise vibrating through the floorboards of the grandstand, up your spine and into your teeth. After the noise, you notice the smell: exhaust mixed with dirt and dust, thickening in your nostrils and throat until you taste the grit.
The cars went out in groups of five or six from the same division, each group running through a dozen or so laps, the succession of laps thickening the cloud of exhaust and dust rising from the track’s surface. Then they steered back to the pit, made what adjustments they needed to, and waited to be called out again. Between groups, the water truck circled, music played over the loudspeakers, and the 200 or so fans talked or went to the concession stand.
In the announcer’s booth, Pados toggled effortlessly back and forth between the microphone and an off-mic running commentary. As each car came onto the track, he announced the drivers in a voice, honed during a dozen years as an announcer, that mixed a Howard Cosell cadence with a carnival-barker’s excitement. “And #85, coming down to turn four, that’s the Concrete Kid, Kyle Van Duzer, with new skin on that race car, still waiting to get the graphics.” Most of the drivers have nicknames: Mr. Excitement, the Ice Man, Buckshot, the Razor, Quack Attack, the Prime Time Kid, and Showstopper, among others.
“It’ll get faster as the night goes on,” he said, turning away from the mic. “First they have to break the track in, and then they’ll cut lose and see how the track holds up, how their cars perform.”
Later in the evening, track owner Gary Palmer joined us in the booth. It had been a rehearsal night for him, as well, figuring out how the track changes would work and what tweaks were still needed.
“Gary, it looks good,” Pados said. “The guys are being cautious, trying to figure it out.”
“Yeah, it’s coming around,” Palmer said, looking only slightly relieved. “We had a water pump break earlier.”
“Oh boy,” Pados said. “You see: this is the plight of owning a race track. But he has a great local drawing area, and they get 100 to 125 cars every week, which shows you they’re doing it right.” He turned back to the track and looked out at the circling cars.
“This is a beautiful playground here.”