Oval Dreams on the Dirt Track

The drivers who race on Texas’ oval dirt tracks don’t get the glory or the purses of  Le Mans but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about winning.

By Roy Hamric

(This article was  first published in the Houston Chronicle’s Texas Magazine in 2002.)

Henry Witt Jr. is holding court in the pit area for drivers and crew at Heart o’ Texas Speedway in Elm Mott, north of Waco. The evening Texas sun floats orange on the horizon. Witt’s yellow and red open-wheel race car, No. 701, basks in a mellow Technicolor glow. The pit area is a heady brew of dust motes, down-home jokes and barbs, maneuvered avoidances, carefully voiced respect and an occasional fistfight.

But the fights have to be done just right. If a race promoter sees a fight, a driver can be stripped of his points, barred from racing for 30 days and fined $1,000. “It’s usually the unprofessional suckers who fight,” Witt says. “Usually, I don’t like it.” Over his 22-year career, he has had four or five fistfights – one last year. “If they have time to think, most people cool down after a race,” he says. “I try to be cool.”

Witt won the title of IMCA modified national champion for 2000, and he’s in the hunt to repeat this year. The International Motor Contest Association, or IMCA, has about 150 sanctioned dirt tracks around the country that offer weekly “affordable racing,” with a race class for everyone who wants to compete, from kids with a few thousand dollars to high rollers. Organized in 1915, IMCA represents the lowest level of nationally sanctioned racing and has the most member drivers. Drivers race for points and purses of a few hundred dollars. At year’s end, local champions are determined by total points earned at the same sanctioned track in a season; regional and national champions are determined by the best 30 finishes at sanctioned tracks in their regions.

With an estimated 2,000 dirt-track drivers and 19 IMCA-sanctioned tracks, Texas has more tracks than any other state in the nation.

Witt sometimes races three or four times a week, averaging around 90 races a year. For a purse of just a few hundred bucks, he and 15 to 20 other drivers hurl their juiced-up, finely tuned cars around an oval dirt track for 20 laps, collectively roaring like a NASA engine test. Fans ask him why he does it. He wishes he had a good answer. He knows his stock response isn’t good enough. “I just like winning,” he says sheepishly.

If you win often enough, as Witt does, the small purses can add up. And there are endorsements and free contributions in the form of car parts from various companies. But Witt doesn’t race for money or merchandise, although they don’t hurt.

In dirt-track racing, he’s discovered what it’s like to be inside a manmade tornado, a sonic fury racing around and around in a tight, roaring circle. When he rides through the whirling chaos unscathed – it takes only a few minutes to race 20 laps – and shuts off the engine to sounds of “Way to go, Henry, thataway, Henry,” and starry-eyed kids rush to his side and an amplified voice says, “The No. 1 winner,” it’s a feeling beyond words, something he can’t find in hobbies like poker or golf.

Most dirt-track drivers look fairly average outside their cars. But looks deceive. You’re either very physical or you don’t race on dirt. It takes sensitive hands, sensitive eyes and a steady stomach. You have to synchronize mind and body in inches-apart racing at nearly 100 mph on a short, banked oval track. Given the right education and some computer skills, some of these guys might qualify to become jet fighter pilots.

At 42, Witt is still very physical. He lives in Waco, where he owns an auto glass business, works his 800-acre farm, raises four children with his wife, Kayren- and races every chance he gets. He exudes youthful charm. His trim, full-shouldered body moves with the catlike smoothness of a linebacker. His deep tan comes from outdoor work. He’s friendly, and he likes to encourage good young drivers. But better than that, he likes to beat them all – young and old.

In his mind, he’s already running his private movie of tonight’s race. The stars will be Chris and Chase Glick of Buffalo, Texas, two hot young drivers; veteran driver Keith Green, 47, of Waco; and Witt. Green, a near neighbor of Witt’s, is the Waco track’s No. 1 modified point leader this season. Green won the NASCAR-Winston Sunbelt Region title in ’97, and he’s raced with legends like A.J. Foyt.

During this year’s IMCA racing season, Witt and his crew drove to distant tracks in Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico to race as many nights as they could. Their goal is to win No. 1 in as many races as possible. Whoever has the most No. 1 wins in a season is national champion. Witt and his crew are like gunfighters, pulling into distant towns with the goal of leaving No. 1. Nothing else will do. If No. 1 looks beyond Witt’s grasp, he will pull out of a race and wait for the next one. By withdrawing and not finishing in the top four positions, he’s assured a higher starting position for the next race. It’s a tactic used by a few select drivers across the nation – all trying to be the national winner. Second-, third- and fourth-place finishes don’t mean anything to Witt. He wants The Big One.

With 30 IMCA modified wins this year, Witt is ranked second nationally. He has a shot at the national No. 1 modified title, but he needs a string of back-to-back wins in the next three weeks. It’s not uncommon for him to enter four races in four cities in four days.

“What you have here,” Witt says, “is some of the most competitive people in the world. Winning isn’t everything, but second place is nothing – nobody ever asks, `Who placed second?’

“But if you win too much on one track, they’re going to hate you, and they’ll `claim’ you.”

A claim refers to an IMCA rule that allows a driver who places second, third or fourth to “claim” a winner’s engine. If a winner is claimed, he must give up his engine block in return for a $525 payment. The rule helps keep drivers from putting too much money into modifying their engines, thus keeping races competitive.

It also keeps costs down for most racers. The economics of “affordable racing” attract drivers ranging from those who might spend $1,000 a season to those who spend more than $100,000, including the cost of free merchandise. Most tracks offer a broad range of racing in one night. At the Waco track, competition classes include sprint, modified, hot stock, street stock, pure stock (all IMCA-sanctioned), cruisers and mini-stock (drivers 12-16 years old).

Witt has been claimed four times this year. “When they claim us, we’re ready the next night,” he says. “We always have one engine in reserve ready to go.”

His longtime, devoted mechanic, Glenn Wilson, nods his head. “One time we changed an engine in 28 minutes,” he says.

IMCA modified race cars start out as simple frames. Racers add support bars to protect the driver, special suspension and shocks, minimal sheet-body covering and open racing wheels. Most of the engines cost around $2,500 – and up.

Witt’s No. 701 has a JR Motor Sports “400 Claimer” engine (a 406-cubic-inch Chevy block with a flat tappet cam). It has a Gaerte 750 cfm four-barrel carburetor, an Ernie slide transmission (low, high and reverse), General Motors brakes and 5-by-16-inch coiled racing springs.

“I ain’t never claimed, myself,” Witt says. “Kind of an honor deal. You got a guy making $400 a week, and to put a guy like that out of business – that’s bad.”

Witt and Wilson take a break to walk through the pit area and look at some of the competition. Witt chuckles at the crews frantically changing engine parts. “You win by working on your car during the week,” he says, “not by working on it at the race.”

When they return to their own car, a few fans are staring at the left rear wheel of No. 701, which looks flat, although it’s not – quite. “You know you got a flat tire?” one man asks.

“You got a bicycle pump?” Witt snaps back. “Naw,” he goes on, “we always let the air out of the left rear so it don’t grow, keeps it shrunk – makes it smaller, gives you more roll and bite on the turns.”

As other drivers walk past his crew area, Witt quietly offers a running commentary on the talent. “Guy right there will push you on the turns,” he says. “Guy right there, he’ll spin out by the fourth lap. Guy right there, he might slam you.”

Slamming is a common occurrence in modified racing. Some drivers use it as a tactic to bump past cars. It keeps IMCA racing on the wild side, and often it causes festering grudges, if not outright fistfights. “You slam a guy, most of ’em will slam you back,” Witt says. “It’s an unwritten rule – you spin a guy out, they spin you back. I don’t drive dirty myself. Maybe I should, but I don’t. Sometimes a young kid will spin you and not mean it. You go over and have a friendly talk. But an older driver . . . you get ’em back.”

IMCA racing, while wilder than high-speed NASCAR competition, has slower speeds and fewer serious crashes and injuries than you would expect. Speeds hit 85-100 mph on the quarter mile, and the action on the turns is fiercely competitive. Witt flips his car about once a year. “I flipped in Odessa,” he says. “Car hit me, and I spun like a top.”

The drivers begin moving to their starting positions. Wilson, whose day job is being Waco’s assistant fire chief, makes a last-minute measurement of the distance between Witt’s chassis and the dirt. He wants the car to be exactly 6 3/4 inches above the ground on the right side and 6 1/4 inches above on the left. He adjusts a large bolt, pulling the body weight off the right side of the chassis.

Witt slips his helmet on. “Now I’ve just got to watch the X’s and O’s,” he says, referring to slams and spins.

Witt starts in the seventh position. Green is 17th. By the ninth lap, Witt has passed inside to take the lead. The earlier leader, trying to adjust, has spun out. Green moves from 17th to second, right behind Witt. Green was “lovin’ on ’em,” Witt says after the race, meaning his car was rubbing and bumping its way through. A yellow caution flag comes up on the 16th lap, putting Witt and Green bumper to bumper, one and two, with a near-even start for the remaining four laps. When racing resumes, Green’s car dives to the bottom of the first turn and bumps the lap car. Witt pulls ahead three car lengths, and barring car failure, he won’t be passed.

Within minutes Witt is standing in the winner’s circle, clutching the No. 1 trophy and a microphone, surrounded by kids who run out of the stands to share the brief moment that Witt lives for – feeling what the word “winning” can’t really describe.

The purse is $450. A photographer snaps the official photograph, and a voice announces the next race. Both Witt and Green enter the crew area happy. Green, with a second-place finish, is still ahead in local track points. Witt has his track win, boosting his national point wins to 31, only two behind the national leader, Jonathan Thompson of Superior, Neb.

On the next Friday, big trucks pull into the Heart o’ Texas crew area as the sun pauses above the tree line on the flat western horizon. There are a few tractor-trailer rigs capable of carrying two race cars and a rolling mechanic’s garage, but most modified race cars arrive on flatbed trailers pulled by big pickups.

Country girls with Farah Fawcett hairdos and tight Wrangler jeans prance about. Some seem pumped up and wild-eyed, ready for their 10 minutes on the Jerry Springer show. Many of their teenage male counterparts sport mullet haircuts.

In the far corner of the pit area, Charles Robinson of Waco, a rookie driver, works at setting up car No. 7, his cruiser-class ’76 Chevy Monte Carlo. On the side of the car is his handpainted logo, cribbed from Elvis: “Taking Care of Business.” A small figure of the King is lodged next to the passenger’s window. About nine months ago, Robinson’s car had rested, and rusted away, in a farm field. Robinson gave the owner $100 and, surprisingly, drove the car out of the field. Three months later, after spending $300 on safety bars and $2,500 on engine repairs and tires, he was a race driver. Three months later he had his first track win. Tonight is his 96th race.

He remembers the first race. “It was awesome,” he says. “Terrifying. This is the most exciting hobby I’ve every had, and I’ve had ’em all. Now I can’t get racing out of my blood.”

He points to the rippled indentations that pockmark the roof of his car. “Those dents on the top I made myself, jumpin’ up and down on the top of the car after my first win.”

Unlike the modified class, the cruiser class is pure stock car racing, with cars right off the street, a popular way for drivers to break in. It’s “bumping and grinding” racing, but most of the knocks are unintentional.

Tonight will not go well for Robinson. After a good start, he will pull out of the race with a flat tire.

Over in his crew area, Witt mulls his odds for the remaining two weeks of the season. With his 31 national points, he is still two points behind the national leader. Witt plans to race five more times.

“I got a shot at it,” he says, but he doesn’t sound happy. “In Texas, there’s maybe seven drivers who could win on any night. But there’s always some guy who comes out of nowhere and can beat you. Maybe they’ve never won a race, but on that night they’re unbeatable. Anybody can have their night and nobody can beat them.”

Before the qualifying heat, which determines the starting order of the racers, Witt worries that the dirt is too wet and sticky. A thunderstorm had passed through the day before, and water stands in low spots on the track. He and Wilson had talked on the phone all week, finally deciding to switch to a heavier 25-pound spring on the right rear and to install new brakes. Wilson had told Witt, “I got all week to think about what to do. You got one turn.”

Freddy Bottoms, one of Witt’s volunteer crew of four to five members, has sprayed the car with “mud-off,” a liquid that prevents mud from sticking to the frame and body and adding weight and air drag.

Witt looks tired. His week has been routine. He worked at his glass business. He worked on his farm and looked after his cattle. “It’s always a hustle-bustle deal,” he says. But there’s one piece of time in his hurried life when time seems to slow: “When you’re leadin’ the race, it seems like time is going really, really slow,” he says.

A full yellow moon is rising, looking like somebody punched a hole in an ink-blue curtain. As starting time nears, Witt’s crew attaches 40 pounds of lead bars to the back of the chassis to push the frame down. Chris Glick’s car roars up and stops next to Witt.

“Wait up on me, kid!” Witt shouts.

“Come and get it,” Glick says.

Witt glides to the passenger window, leans in and smiles. “Now, don’t get your pretty car banged up,” he says.

“I know, I hate that,” Chris says, and they both beam.

At the last minute, Witt’s crew makes adjustments to the “bleeder” attached to each tire, a device that lets air out as a tire heats up, keeping the air pressure constant. The bleeders are set very low, at 6 pounds for the left rear and 10 pounds for the right rear, and 10 pounds for the left front and 12 pounds for the right front.

Witt slips into his fireproof, red racing suit and gloves. He wears Simpson “Power Shoe” fireproof boots with soft rubber soles, and a neck brace under his helmet. As he settles behind the steering wheel, he attaches two shoulder straps designed to keep the driver’s arms inside the car and to prevent his body from being tossed out during a wreck. It’s time to roll.

By the second lap of the race, Keith Green has pulled from 12th to sixth. Witt is fourth. Two cars crash on the fifth lap. When racing restarts, Witt is second and Green fourth. At the start of lap 18, Green and Witt restart at numbers one and two with two laps to go. Green shoots ahead. Witt moves up to within three car lengths of Green on the 19th lap, but Green holds and crosses the finish line three lengths ahead.

In the crew area, Witt is unhappy. He stands slope-shouldered. The new brakes grabbed, and he couldn’t drive smoothly on the turns, he says. “You can’t win ’em all, but you can want to, and it hurts to lose when I could’ve won. Ah, well, we’ll get ’em tomorrow.”

Green is happy. With one week left in the season, he knows he’s got the local track’s modified title in his pocket right now. “I just had to get through there,” he says. “It was a tricky track tonight – one of the hardest. When I got the lead, I told myself don’t make a mistake. The competition was there, but whoever got through Turn 4 best had the advantage.”

A friend walks up, shakes Green’s hand and says, “Good drivin’, old man.” “I survived it,” Green says, smiling.

Within minutes, Witt’s 350-horsepower, twin-wheeled pickup is hauling out his 30-foot trailer with car No. 701 inside, engine still hot. As he rolls past car No. 52, Green and his crew are still celebrating.

On the last Friday night of the racing season, Witt has the No. 2 national ranking in IMCA modified competition wrapped up. He also won his fifth South Central regional championship. But he was too far behind to catch the national leader for first place. “I ain’t real proud of that,” he says, “but it’s still pretty good.”

The No. 2 position ensures he’ll receive an $8,700 national purse and maybe $30,000 in endorsements or merchandise certificates. Although Witt is already thinking about next year, he’s not quite through with this one. He’ll race this month at non-IMCA races where bigger purses are offered, ranging from $5,000 to $25,000. Then he’ll take December off. In January he’ll start preparing No. 701 for the next IMCA season.

He and his crew have run in more than 90 races during the season and won 32, a 3-to-1 average. (During his 2000 national championship year, he won 47 races, or almost one win for every loss – a sweet ratio.) He’s also pulled in around $100,000 in material contributions from auto-related companies and pocketed about $35,000 in winnings.

In the crew area, mechanic Wilson works at setting up No. 701. The banter flows.

“Track don’t look as sloppy tonight,” Witt allows.

“Yeah, maybe it will hang,” says Wilson.

The past week Wilson had changed the shocks and the springs and adjusted the panhard bar, which controls how the rear weight of the car is placed. He also changed the engine, estimating it was about the 20th engine change of the season. “We spend maybe 60 to 80 hours a week working on it.”

His hands constantly work over the parts. He adjusts the chassis based on Witt’s running description of how the car feels. Wilson says his work really is about mathematics and physics. “All the angles of the bars in the chassis need to come together like they’re supposed to, to get optimum traction,” he says. It’s also about the condition of the dirt – information the driver supplies.

“Henry has to tell me what the car feels like,” he says. “I got to get it from Henry.”

Witt and Wilson both look tired. They’ve driven about 60,000 miles to tracks this season. The daily grind is both exciting and exhausting. “But we’re jealous of what we got, and we don’t want to give it up,” Wilson says. “We’ve spent many a dang hour getting where we are.”

Witt nods. “Winning’s a big part of it, but it’s also some of the other drivers. It’s the fellowship, the cuttin’ up. But other nights you go home and you got people mad at you if there was bumpin’ and rubbin’.”

Both worry about being “claimed” on their engine. “We’d give up the motor for a win, but not for a second, third or fourth place,” Witt says. When the checkered flag falls on the last modified race of the season at Heart o’ Texas Speedway, the race ends, in its way, a picture perfect for almost everyone. Keith Green wins the race flat out and becomes track-modified champion. Chase Glick finishes at No. 2, ending the season in eighth place in the competition for national rookie of the year.

Witt never worked his way up from his fifth starting position. On lap 7, his car started shooting sprays of white sparks from the inside right rear brake, not three feet from the 32-gallon tank of methanol racing fuel.

The race had eight yellow flags and numerous wrecks. Witt drove through the wrecks unscathed. But on lap 12 he drove No. 701 over the high bank into his crew area. He switched off the ignition. The piston roar faded into an eerie stillness. He felt a trickle of small consolations. He had lost, but he had avoided an engine claim. The sparking brake hadn’t caused a fire. Most important, “anybody” didn’t win. First and second place went to skilled dirt drivers.

Witt ends the season national No. 2 in the modified class, three wins behind the champion. He knows nobody ever asks, “Did you win No. 2?” But there is next season. Witt is eager for it. He plans to race around that earth-scented oval in hot pursuit of that feeling he can’t describe.

“You find out you’re good at something and you like it,” he says. “It makes it kinda hard to quit.”