Behind the steering wheel, green means go. And if that green is a green flag dropped over a racecourse, it means go like hell. But when more than 100 cars are stretched three wide across the racetrack in front of you, the going can be a little rough.
That's the challenge facing drivers in the 22nd annual M&M Beverage Enduro 200 at Thunder Road International Speedbowl in Barre. Dubbed "the people's race," the Enduro draws wannabe racers from throughout the region to compete in an event that combines the free-wheeling mayhem of a demolition derby with the excitement of whipping around the high-banked turns of Thunder Road's quarter-mile asphalt oval. The race may require more stamina than skill. It definitely requires the stomach for taking a few knocks -- about 200 laps worth.
A typical evening's program at the Road includes qualifying heats and feature races in four divisions: the Powershift Warriors, an entry-level class of cars just a few wrong turns away from the junkyard; Street Stocks, stripped-down four-cylinder rides; Flying Tigers, eight-cylinder cars; and the elite Late Models, with their modified eight-cylinder engines and aerodynamically track-clinging bodies.
But on Enduro night, the pit gates are flung open to anyone who'll pay the $40 registration fee to race a beater enhanced with a few required safety features, such as a roll cage, a chain-reinforced rear bumper and an extra strap holding the gas tank in place. The top cash prize is $2000.
"We've never heard of them," Thunder Road co-owner Ken Squier, a veteran television motorsports announcer of national prominence, says by way of introducing the Enduro drivers. "You've never heard of them. And you probably won't remember their names."
One of those names is John "John Boy" Still from Enosburg. Before the race, he and an entourage of crewmembers, friends and fellow drivers gather like nomadic tribespeople around a flatbed-turned-picnic-table holding the fixings for a respectable summer barbecue, along with a box of Huggies. Still's mood is hopeful, despite his drawing the 108th starting position. He's run Enduros before, such as one at the Bear Ridge dirt track in Bradford. What's it going to take to get his Nissan Sentra car 31 -- painted chalk-white with orange trim -- to Victory Lane? "Patience," he says, though he knows it won't be easy to maintain. "You try to go slow, and then you get pounded on, and you get wound up."
Still is most concerned about "going broadside," or spinning sideways in the fluids and chaos that will envelop the track before too long. "Half the cars won't finish the race," he says, as though reminding himself to keep calm. "If you want to be a psycho, you won't go far."
Allison Purkett has never raced before, and she's starting near the back, so she knows her odds. "My goal isn't to win the race, just to finish the race," she says. The mechanic at Larry's Wrecker Service in Hyde Park has tinkered her white Dodge Shadow car 39 into racing shape and adorned the roof with a gold horse plucked from an equestrian trophy. Larry Demar, her boss and boyfriend, is on hand to cheer her on, though Purkett suspects a hidden agenda in his support. "He wants me to race it so I could get it out of the driveway," she says.
Demar's isn't the only empty Vermont driveway tonight, judging by the turnout. Although the season's hotshot, headline-grabbing drivers won't be racing, spectators fill the grandstands and spread out on the grassy adjacent parcel known as "Bud Hill." Al's French Frys and Mama B's Fried Dough are moving product as fast as people can eat it. The ladies' room line is 20 women long. The weather is perfect, a chill tinging the evening air. The slight breeze will be welcome when the atmosphere is thick with exhaust and rubber smoke.
Somehow, track officials get the entire field of Enduro racers into position and ready to race five minutes ahead of the 8 p.m. post time, a feat requiring behind-the-battle-lines personnel management that would have made George Washington proud.
Even he might have found this crew a bit motley, though. In lieu of sponsorship logos, car bodies bear such phrases as "My other ride's the short bus," "Happy Anniversary Abbey" and "Hi Mom." Apparently, Enduro rules allow for roof ornamentation -- maybe to help fans pick out individual cars amidst what promises to look, at the start of the race, like a moving parking lot. Traffic cones and the American flag are popular roof accessories. A stuffed Tasmanian Devil snarls from one rooftop. A plastic lawnmower graces another.
There's little fanfare leading up to the race, no "Final Countdown" drifting from the loudspeakers as is customary on race night, no "Gentlemen, start your engines." Just a quick introduction of the racers as they line up, stretching nearly halfway around the track. A green flag -- and the race is on.
So many vehicles clutter the track that the lead cars lap the rear cars before the rear cars' tires have completed a single revolution. The race opens up quickly, though. After 10 minutes, 10 cars have conked out and sit, forlorn, where they ceased moving. That one-car-per-minute dropout rate will hold more or less steady throughout the race. And because the Enduro runs under "green flag" conditions, the drivers must remain in their vehicles until a red flag comes out, signaling every driver to come to a full stop.
The red flag is dropped twice, once at around lap 60, when a car is pinned against the front-stretch wall known as the "Widowmaker" and flipped onto its roof. The driver emerges unharmed. The second red flag comes out in lap 158 or so, when a car battered off the track flares up. While an ambulance and fire truck race to the scene, the drivers of broken-down cars are free to leave their vehicles and run into the pits to commiserate and watch the rest of the race.
With 25 laps to go, the field is much thinner -- somewhere between 25 and 35 cars, though it's hard to count as they slink off into the pits, trailing pieces of bumper or billowing smoke, only to return to the track a few minutes, and a few yards of duct tape, later. The Enduro drivers begin to show their true colors. Although there is more breathing room on the track, collisions seem more deliberate. Worn rubber tires strain to grip in corners slick with antifreeze and oil and littered with debris. The sound of squealing tires is as constant as mosquitoes buzzing over a swamp in high summer.
Car 31, John Still, is in first place. His strategy has been the essence of simplicity: Stay out of trouble. He appears to have followed the sage, almost Zen-like advice that Thunder Road Director of Racing Tom Curley is said to dispense during pre-race drivers' meetings: "Take what the race brings you."
For his patience, Still has been rewarded with the lead. There remains another Buddhist lesson in store before his race is run, however -- one about the temporary nature of all things. Going into lap 176, he's rammed in the rear bumper by a competitor, spun around broadside -- as Still himself had prophesied -- and smacked in the front end by someone else. The jolts are hard enough to disable his Sentra. He's forced to watch the last laps of the Enduro from the track apron off turn one.
Allison Purkett has fared better. She's run car 39 cautiously, staying out of contention but seemingly going to school, lap by lap. At around the time Still gets T-boned, she gets spun around 180 degrees in turn four. Facing the oncoming traffic -- cars fishtailing out of the corner -- she bravely sprints upstream, dodging collisions for 50 yards or so before pulling a quick U-turn and zipping back into the race, her golden roof horse catching a glint of floodlight.
When the checkered flag drops, it's for racer Tad Kingsbury of West Topsham, driving car 09, a ride fashioned after the "General Lee" -- Confederate flag emblems and all -- of the late-'70s/early-'80s "Dukes of Hazard" television show. Kingsbury stands triumphant in Victory Lane and bears his trophy aloft, surrounded by dozens of wrecked cars dotting a debris-strewn racecourse like diseased metal cattle. "What are you going to do with the two thousand dollars?" Squier asks the champion.
"Maybe pay rent," Kingsbury says. "I probably shouldn't blow it, but we know how that goes."
Two grand is good money for a 50-mile drive in the country. But as the spectators descend the grandstands and crews begin attending to the evening's detritus, it's clear the big money is in collecting empty beer cans or towing wrecks. The two enterprises never look so similar as they do on Enduro night.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Road to Ruin"