Dirt track racing revving up in the Mid-Ohio Valley
Every Friday from spring through summer, Brad and Karen Hibbard of Youngstown, Ohio, pack up their RV and bring their daughters Josalyn, 16, and Natalie, 11, to Tyler County. Even though the family is offered a cornucopia of natural beauty to absorb, they find their solace in screaming eight-cylinder engines and the intoxicating aroma of exhaust fumes created by dirt track auto racing.
With NASCAR viewership down 38 percent over the last four years, dirt track racing has flourished at local tracks across the country. The people who make up the community surrounding the sport are ensuring the survival of the traditions and competition that can be heard rumbling through the valleys of West Virginia on Friday and Saturday evenings.
“The crowd here is like a family,” said John Watson, promoter at Tyler County Speedway in Middlebourne. “Hell or high water, they’re going to be here. Very few of our fans are even from Tyler County.”
But the Hibbards make the three-hour drive to do more than just watch. They come to participate.
Natalie races in the mini-wedge class and was the only girl competing at the speedway. The class of cars are suped-up go-karts meant to get kids out on the track without too much risk to the their health or their parent’s wallets.
“The boys have treated her very respectfully,” Karen, Natalie’s mom, said.
Being soft-spoken, Natalie did all of her talking on the track. After taking the lead half way through her race from a car with more power that had spun out, she had to use tactics instead of speed to stay competitive. As the faster car caught up to her, Natalie forced him outside so he couldn’t pass. Her plan worked until the final lap when the rival car dove inside on the final turn to take the checkered flag.
Some families dedicate a lot more than just time and travel to be competitive at the track.
“That is probably around a $100,000 race car,” said Deanna Mayle looking at her husband Ronnie’s late model car at Ohio Valley Speedway.
Even though just a fraction of the cost of the car, the $2,000 winner’s purse drew the Mayles and 22 other late model racers to the track that evening. Ronnie said his family and crew of six volunteers has made the weekly trip from Chesterville, Ohio, for the last 19 years.
“We don’t really do vacations. It keeps me out of trouble,” Ronnie said.
Ryan Rush said he has been best friends with Ronnie for as long he can remember and has worked on cars with him for the entire duration of their friendship.
“We grew up together. I’ve known him since grade school,” he said. “I enjoy it, anything that has to do with horsepower, really.”
Even though Ronnie is the reigning track champion at Ohio Valley Speedway, a crowd favorite, the Carpenter family, has come a long way since the father known as “Fast Freddie” started racing over 20 years ago. Also racing in the late model class, Freddie and his sons Chris and Tyler haven’t always been the cream of the crop.
“Dad worked day and night to take care of us when we were kids,” said Chris.
Chris said his father worked tirelessly to provide for his family while still competing in the sport he loves. He said at least an additional 40 hours of work on top of their day job is what is required to compete and win in the highly competitive late model class. He also said it is very easy to catch the racing bug.
“The races are won in the garage. Then when you get your first win it will ruin you,” he said.
Chris said that winning drove his family to be more competitive to the point they didn’t trust car makers anymore. After multiple bad experiences with manufacturers, the Carpenters decided to start making their own car chassis in 2011, Chris said.
After they began getting attention for their wins, people started asking the Carpenters to sell them the equipment that put them in the winner’s circle. The Parkersburg company Kryptonite Racecars was born and has been providing chassis to dirt track racers ever since.
“We got cars all over the country,” said Chris. “It took us awhile to prove ourselves though.”
“I guess it hasn’t sunk in yet,” said Freddie. “I’ve always dreamed about making a living from building race cars. It’s still hard to believe.”
Not all racers have the luxury of huge budgets to make it as a front runner. Jeff Schnegg works in a machine shop in Byesville, Ohio, and built a hot mod class car for his 17-year-old son James to race at Tyler County Speedway.
“I work on it at least 3 hours a night. We’ve been battling getting enough power,” Jeff said.
Acting as sponsor, crew chief and crew, James spent every available moment in the 2 hours before the race turning wrenches in hopes of getting his son into his first feature race of the year. Weather and mechanical problems are what James said was keeping him from getting into the feature during his first year in the hot mod class.
“We had power steering go out before, and it has rained almost every other weekend,” he said.
Wayne McPeek, co-owner of Ohio Valley Speedway for the last 12 years with his mother and stepfather, Everett and Donna Vincent, said it had always been his dream to own a race track.
“My dad was a sprint car racer so I’ve been around a track my whole life,” he said. “I love the competition from week to week.”
He said because the racing community is a family, squabbles can occur between the siblings that call the racetrack home.
“They may fight and get mad when they’re on the track, but they’re family as soon as they get off it,” he said.
Pat Gheen, 47, of Vienna, was watching the races at Ohio Valley Speedway and said like McPeek, he has been affiliated with racing his entire life. He said he has been attending them since grade school and has worked on race cars from junior high until 2002.
“I’ve always loved coming to the track. The cars, the speed, the noise, the smell, it’s all great,” he said.
He said as much fun as being in a race crew was, it had a tendency to turn his hair gray.
“There’s a lot less stress watching races than turning wrenches in the pit,” he said.
During the race between Mayle and Carpenter, Mayle had mechanical issues that sidelined him a few laps into the 30 lap feature race, giving him plenty of the stress that Gheen described. That enabled Freddie Carpenter to push his car into the lead and pull away, winning the race by the length of a straight stretch.
Even though he has the nickname “Fast Freddie,” his girlfriend of 20 years, Jima Galbreath, has been tolerating Freddie’s tortoise like pace when it came to proposing. But after Freddie’s win, she received her own trophy.
After celebrating the victory, Freddie proposed to Galbreath on the start/finish line of the Ohio Valley Speedway. A roar from the crowd erupted as she said yes and accepted his ring. But having been bit by the racing bug, Galbreath said she knew what the most important moment of the evening really was.
“He works so hard providing for our family, he deserves to be happy with the win,” she said. “We’ve already been together 20 years, so I’d say the win was more important tonight.”
But sometimes the joy of competing and being a part of the racing family is worth more than a first place trophy. After making his first feature race, James Schnegg finished four places from last when he slid in front of another car, wrecking them both. An unexpectedly happy father and son race team packed up their car and headed back to Byesville following the race.
“I’m very proud of him,” said Jeff. “For all practical purposes tonight was a success.”
James’ face glowed as he described his experience on the track.
“10 out of 10. It was a great time,” he said. “Everybody is really nice. It’s a good community to be a part of.”
Sitting in her family’s motor home, Josalyn Hibbard, who will start racing the hot mod class later in the season, knew exactly what was the most important thing to her about racing. She quickly made her decision if spending quality time with her family, having fun, enjoying the racing community or winning was what she liked best about spending her weekends at the race track.
“Winning,” she said.
“Josalyn!” said Karen, correcting her daughter.
Behaving like a true dirt track racing addict, Josalyn sheepishly grinned and shrugged her shoulders.