Alone, I continued to go to some auto races, but something crucial was lost for me, relegated to the grandstands instead of the announcing booth, listening to a voice that was not my father’s. By the time he was 59, my father couldn’t speak. In 1970, at age 60, he died. He had been a man of a million words. He left this world not having uttered a single one in more than a year.
Almost all the speedways my father worked have vanished, too, those snug worlds of whining racecars now displaced by interchangeable chain stores, housing developments or, in one case, a cookie factory. According to Allan E. Brown, author of “The History of America’s Speedways,” the number of tracks peaked in the U.S. in 1953 at some 1,275 ovals and road courses. Over the last 20 years, they’ve been disappearing steadily, to 900 or so in 2018, the bulk of them short ovals. Racing remains popular, though attendance has dwindled appreciably. Far fewer teenage boys prefer tinkering with engines when they have e-sports. Significantly fewer teenage Americans even bother to get driver’s licenses now. One longtime racing hand mentioned to me how he became troubled when he noticed fans negotiating the grandstands with walkers.
As the crowds have thinned, so have the purses, at least relative to what it costs to race. At Grandview, winning the modified-stock-car feature pays $2,750, and prize money is carved up between owner and driver. (Finishing 30th at the Daytona 500 pays around $350,000.) All the cars are backed by sponsors: Horning’s Archery & Fishing, Merkel’s Shoes, Conestoga Valley Custom Kitchens. Sponsor money, though, only partly defrays expenses. A new modified, meanwhile, costs around $40,000 to $80,000. It could last a few years, or no longer than one unplanned encounter with a guardrail. Almost all the drivers hold everyday jobs during the week. Plumber, welder, electrician, roofer, water-plant operator, fabricator, car salesman, landscaper, postal worker. One driver is a morning talk-radio host. Another manages a nuclear power plant.
When it came time for the Grandview feature, the 28 modifieds crawled around the track on their pace laps, aligned in formation two abreast, their engines rasping. As they did so, Ahlum dove into his familiar pitch. “Who do you think’s got the hot shoe tonight?” he asked the crowd, and that perked them up.
He rattled off name after name, the favorites eliciting whoops and howls of approval from the savvy fans. Craig Von Dohren, Jeff Strunk and Duane Howard, the track’s “Big Three,” were starting deep in the field — Howard in 20th, Strunk in 21st, Von Dohren in 22nd. Their devotees got loud when Ahlum asked if one of them might own the hot shoe. Drivers with slim followings drew mirth or boos that drilled through the night air. It was a mouthy, dressed-down crowd, and Ahlum had them at pulsating attention. By now, they had been here five or six hours and, yes, they were wound up all right.
As the jumble of cars rounded the fourth turn on their final pace lap, Ahlum exhorted the fans in a singsong pattern: “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s wave at them as they go by. Get out something white, something bright. Something red off your head. Something yellow that says hello. Something blue off of you. Something black off your back.”
And the crowd did just that, dutifully pulling out and waving handkerchiefs and hats and flags and sweaters and who knows what, while the fire trucks on crash duty flashed their lights and Ahlum himself flapped a handkerchief at the restless racers.