Some racecar fanatics just cannot get enough speed, even when a July night feels like October. It’s “American Pride Night” at Devil’s Bowl Speedway, a smallish dirt oval about 25 miles west of Rutland, and despite the chilly temps, the place is all about no-frills, rough-and-rowdy automotive fun. Even though I hold a permanent grudge against Uncle Sam, I’m psyched to see some patriotic regalia at the racetrack, which is considered to be a poor cousin to Barre’s Thunder Road. More importantly, I’m hoping to talk with racecar fanatics about what puts the spark in their combustion chambers.
First off, I seek out the driver with the most tattoos. He’s standing proudly over a 350-horse-power, orange-white-and-blue “stock” car — big wheels, roll cage, rigid metal body. Tattoo Guy, who sports a fierce mustache and a black “Hercules Gym” T-shirt, introduces himself as Jim Groncki, the proprietor of an upstate New York tattoo business. No surprise there: He has more ink on his body than a Sunday New York Times. One tattoo depicts a wrench doing an interpretive dance with a piston. The one on his neck reads, “VIGILANCE.”
Still, Groncki’s anything but a vigilante. When gushing about cars, he sounds like a Boy Scout. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to be two things,” he explains. “A tattoo artist and a racecar driver.”
He pauses for dramatic effect.
“And you might guess that I’m a tattoo artist.”
According to Groncki, Devil’s Bowl holds its own with other tracks. He says that the same crew of drivers, more or less, turns out every week. “This exact scenario is going on all over the country,” insists the racer, motioning at all the neighboring “stock,” “limited” and “mini” cars — the three main class designations for tonight’s race. “This is not just a car,” he says, beaming. “It’s a way of life.”
It better be, at $7.50 a gallon for racing fuel. Most of the drivers here cover their own expenses, which doesn’t include time — this one estimates spending about 20 hours per week tinkering with his baby. Others report coming from over an hour away. “It’s almost like being a musician,” Groncki says. “It’s in your blood, you know?”
His question prompts another: If drivers are willing to invest so much time and money into their cars, then what’s fueling their passion? I sidle over to a crowd of mechanics, racers and kids. Among them stands Fred Little, a stocky dude whose T-shirt reads, “TEXAS: THE BIGGEST COUNTRY IN ONE STATE.”
Just like Groncki, Little is more cutesy-geeky than mean ’n’ macho. As we walk over to his ride, a pale blue stock car sitting on the edge of this field next to a patch of high grass, he explains it was built by students at the Hannaford Career Center — a technical education program — in Middlebury. “I’d say that teaching people new skills is a positive thing,” he reflects. “And the kid aspect means a lot to me.”
For many of the racers here, cars are only one small part of the experience. Devil’s Bowl events, after all, happen on Sundays; while the race is about the furthest thing from church you could imagine, it does appear to bring families together. A quick survey of the pits reveals that many of the cars come with contingents of admiring relatives.
Driver Lori Cary’s family has taken the ritual one step further: judging by the crew assembled around her car, a hot-pink stock model, it looks as though half her bloodline is lending not just moral support but elbow grease. The 22-year-old Londonderry resident, whose eyelashes are decorated with glitter, explains that she’s been racing since she was 15. Now, her dad maintains the car and her fiancé does set-up. “In high school,” she says, “I’d go from softball games to the racetracks.”
According to Cary, who has raced at other venues in the Northeast, Devil’s Bowl offers an, uh, unique energy. “There’s not a whole lot to do in Vermont,” she says. “This track is in the middle of nowhere. But this is what people do. This is what they do for fun.”
In fact, Cary is so wrapped up in prepping for the race and chatting with her folks that she hasn’t even noticed Megasaurus, tonight’s fire-breathing, kid-friendly amusement. I did. Turns out the contraption is actually a Sherman tank that’s been glitzed up with a gruesome silver paint job and some cheesy fake missiles. Inside lurks a mechanical monster capable of devouring used cars.
As I approach, in fact, the Megasaurus’ soft-spoken handler, Mike West, is filleting a jalopy to feed his charge. The victim, a late-’80s model Buick, is like the anemic stepchild of Back to the Future’s DeLorean. Its windshield has been smashed out entirely, and shards of glass cover the seats. A piece of foam insulation hangs limply over the rest of the cockpit like a surrender flag.
“I’m not sure the crash-test-dummy people would approve of what you’re doing there, Mike,” I suggest to West as he attacks the car with a gigantic power saw.
The monster maven, whose salt-and-pepper beard complements a calm demeanor, looks up from his task as if he’d been reading a magazine. “Actually, this helps the Megasaurus chew the car’s roof off, so it’s good,” he tells me.
“Oh, of course,” I say. “Carry on.”
West knows what he’s doing: The Ohio native takes Megasaurus to about 40 or 50 shows every year at racetracks all over the country. That makes sense, considering automobile racing is the most popular sport in the nation. And besides, who wouldn’t gawk at a decommissioned military vehicle that eats Buicks?
Cary, for one. Later on, I learn that, just like the rest of the Devil’s Bowl race community, she appears to be largely indifferent to the fire-breather. “I don’t know what it is,” she admits, peering over at West’s contraption. “What is it? It eats cars or something?”
About an hour before sunset, Cary zooms toward the track, and I approach the grandstand. As the roar increases, I begin to feel a little sad: If Megasaurus, that gimmicky display of American militarism, can’t earn respect at Devil’s Bowl, what hope will it have for a world tour? Surely there must be a child around, I think, who would love the absurdist mechanical circus freak without prejudice.
Scanning the crowd for an adorable, easygoing young’un, I find Matthew Grenier, a 2-year-old from Fair Haven with reddish-blond hair, puffy cheeks and a tight-fitting orange baseball cap. He’s sitting toward the top of the bleachers with his grandparents, aunt, sister and cousins. One of the children is wearing protective earphones that seem to cover half his small body.
“It’s Matthew’s first time here,” explains grandma.
“Me, too,” I say.
Matthew and I settle in for some action, and the wind picks up. The smell from the track is both sweet and savory — a cross between manure, gasoline and fried food. I rub my hands in anticipation . . .
But not so fast: Since it’s been raining on and off all afternoon, the cars have to take what seems like a million practice laps to dry out the track. That’s because Devil’s Bowl has a dirt, as opposed to an asphalt, track — an increasingly rare occurrence among contemporary loops, according to Matthew’s grandpa, who’s bouncing his grandson on a knee. Gramps, I learn, has been racing and spectating at Devil’s Bowl since 1968. “This is the roots,” he declares. “This is the way everyone’s grandfather raced. Dirt racing is the racing around here.”
“What about Megasaurus?” I ask, wondering if the creature has thrown tradition out of whack.
The monster didn’t emerge from an entertainment vacuum, he informs me. Devil’s Bowl, like many a regional dirt track, has a history of kid-friendly diversions. “Back in the day, there was dare-devillin’, snow mobiling . . .” he trails off. “I’ve seen Megasaurus before, and it’s good for the kids. That’s why we brought them here, so they’d remember.”
Sure enough, Matthew’s face lights up as soon as the action starts. First up is the limited series: Cars that could be cheap stunt doubles for the “Dukes of Hazard”’s General Lee. Then the minis — a smaller band of Dodge and Chevy compacts. Finally, the stock cars rip, and Lori Cary grabs fifth place in her pink cruiser. Each succession of vehicles carries its own pitch and intensity: One sounds like a group of angry cicadas, another like a squadron of RAF planes struggling to make it over the English Channel.
Actually, aside from the Megasaurus, I can’t find much rah-rah-America hoopla in the stands on this much-hyped American Pride Night. There’s nary a USA flag to be worshipped, for example. Only a handful of dudes are wearing camo, and they don’t even look that intimidating.
Red, white and blue aside, even impressionable Matthew isn’t as completely enthralled by the general spectacle as you might expect him to be — but in a positive way, like a savvy moviegoer who doesn’t fall for every punch line. Like racer Cary and most of the fans in attendance, he’s perfectly content to just be among family and friends, on a cool summer night, shooting the breeze and ogling cars. The fans here, I realize, don’t need gimmicks to enjoy themselves.
Maybe that explains why, when Mike West’s Megasaurus finally rises out of the Sherman tank to devour its prey in a flurry of fire, strobe lights and porno music, the boy adopts a cool objectivity.
“NOW MEGASAURUS WILL BARBEQUE THE CAR FOR THE FOURTH OF JULY . . .” the MC is saying over the P.A. as the Buick meets its end.
“Why is he doing that?” Matthew asks Grandpa over the noise. “Is that his dinner?”
“All he eats is cars,” Grandpa says. “Hey, we could cook French fries in that, eh?”
“No, we can’t,” Matthew concludes, putting the lie to the monster.
Cars: We love 'em.
U.S. drivers burn about 60 million gallons of gasoline per day. Almost everything about our lifestyle incorporates the automobile, from housing developments to drive-thru burger joints.
But Americans are starting to realize their vehicular days are numbered. Reports suggest we've already reached "peak oil." The last few weeks have brought another flurry of record-high gas prices. And transportation emissions continue to contribute to global warming.
Vermont is ahead of the peak-oil curve, but only sort of. In 2000, the state had more than 14,000 miles of roads, and about half a million registered cars and trucks. Legislators spend roughly twice as much on new highway construction as they do on public transportation. There are still about 600 gas stations statewide, and the average Vermonter works 20 miles from home. So what's with the car obsession? Must be a love-hate thing.
This is the last of our spotlights on car subcultures. We've been asking what's it like to live and drive during the last gasp of the gas-guzzler era. Because chances are, they'll be up in smoke before you can say, "Road trip!"
The original print version of this article was headlined "Lucifer's Loop"