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Sunday Feature: Gearhead Heaven

I grew up in an era when car engines were measured in cubic inches and gas guzzlers were sneak thieves who used garden hoses to siphon off your tank full of heavily-leaded petrol.

While never much of a Gearhead, I was hit with a splash of nostalgia while walking through the pits at Shadybowl Speedway this past week.

There you will hear talk of carburetors, head gaskets and weight-to-horsepower ratios. I had a flashback so intense that I half-expected to find Fonzie cranking a ratchet on a '34 Ford.

(Pictured left is Beavercreek's Ricky Young making a qualifying lap in his street stock racer.)

NASCAR may have the term 'stock car' in its name, but the only thing 'stock' about those rods are the numbers they paint on the doors. Everything else is custom machined, perfectly matched, and color coordinated. It's easy to be fast and fashionable when you have big name sponsors armed with platinum cards and TV spots to fill.

You'll whiff very little corporate stench at Shadybowl. These are true stock cars, bought and paid for by the drivers themselves (for the most part), and put together by a wrench of Gearheads in somebody's garage, 100 percent of which have a calendar with pics of bikini-clad babes posing with manifolds, differentials, and such. Many, not all, of the drivers have sponsors, but in two trips to the pits this week, not once did I see anyone whipping out a checkbook. Drivers greatly appreciate any help, but in the end, most of the money for that new rear end for the Monte Carlo comes out of their pocket.

Again, not being much of a Gearhead, I didn't know a lot about small-circuit stock car racing, but not knowing never stopped me before. I just find someone who does know, and in the case of Shadybowl Speedway, that someone is Earl Isaacs.

Issacs has been a fixture at the track since 1966. He's done everything from sweeping the track to selling popcorn to breaking up fistfights. His encyclopedic memory of all things Shadybowl and ability to explain things to a thick reporter in single-syllable words made my job much easier. What I knew about stock car racing would fit in a thimble, but after spending a hour with Earl on Wednesday, my son Max and I knew what to expect on Saturday, and had a much better time for it.

When asked if drivers at Shadybowl are in it for the money, Isaacs was characteristically succinct.

"Absolutely not," he said. "There is none."

The winner of any particular race can expect to pocket less than a thousand bucks, with the occasional feature race paying off $1,500. And that's just the winner. You run in the middle of the pack, all you get is repetitive motion injuries from popping the clutch and hanging louies. If you're lucky, you might get the phone number of that babe in the orange halter top.

Issacs said that if I were to wake up tomorrow and decide to buy or build a modified racer, I could expect to be hiding a $15,000 bill from the wife the day after next. Late models start at about $20K. And I haven't even taken a spin around the block yet on the $8 per gallon racing fuel. Tires go for $100 a throw, and you can go through several sets during a season. Add in oil changes, valve jobs, towing, and the time spent under the hood (which is a full-time job in itself) and my racer would have to double as my home. 

One can expect to see a wide-range of autos driving counterclockwise at Shadybowl, starting with dwarfs, which are racers that Earl described as "big motorcycle engines, little cars', all the way up to open wheel modifieds and late models, which are mostly sedans with engines the size of a refrigerator.

The World's Fastest 3/10th Mile Paved Oval was first laid in 1952 as a dirt track, and was paved two years later. Owned by the Shere family for the first 50 years, Shadybowl has changed hands several times since 1994. Linda Young bought the oval three years ago and has done her best to make it more fan friendly, having the track re-paved and installing a wheel fence and new PA system. Saturday night was Kids' Night and at intermission scores of youngsters converged on the track for Big Wheel races. Max was having none of that. Once Isaacs told us that a driver's license was not required to drive at Shadybowl, Max decided that he's getting a Model A Ford for his birthday.

The entire night was an absolute hoot, more fun than dating twins. Max is the one person on the planet that can ask more questions than his old man, and he retains it better, too. He corrected me any number of times ("That's a Modified, Dad, not a Street Stock!") and has three new heroes in Ricky Young, Connie Smith (seen above right, taking a lap in her dwarf during qualifying) and Greg Sparks, all of whom answered every one of Max's questions and let him crawl in and around their racers (Max can be seen at left ready to take a lap in Sparks' dwarf).

In the end, every driver we met, without exception, told us that the prospect of winning a few bucks had very little to do with driving around in circles on a Saturday night. They are intent on cranking out a few extra horses, cutting a few tenths of a second off a lap, and passing that creep in the Toyota who blocked you out on turn four last week. Many drivers, like Young, are second- or third-generation owner/drivers and they are passing the tradition on to the kids who were peeling out on their Big Wheels.

Right before Young hit the track for qualifying, where he came in second, I had to ask him one last question.

"What in the hell is going through your mind when you're bumper-to-bumper at 90 miles per hour?"

He didn't even blink.

"When they drop the green, go fast, or get run over."

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