Family night at the stock car races


IT IS Friday evening, April 21, 1961. About 7:30 the cars are bumper-to-bumper on U.S. 1 south of Baltimore. Their occupants are coming to watch what happens when old cars and young men and women and oil and grease and collapsing metal and smoke and fire come together on a clay track under the Howard County sky.

It's another night of stock car racing at the Dorsey Speedway. We're talking stock car racing as it used to be -- rough, rowdy and slightly disreputable. Although a couple of tracks remain in Maryland in the Dorsey tradition, stock car racing has gone national, drawing huge crowds and making household names of Earnhardt, Petty and others who have become millionaires in the sport.

Until the mid-1980s, stock car racing was big business in Maryland. There were tracks at Upper Marlboro, Westport, Beltsville, Budds Creek (Potomac), Hagerstown and Cumberland. In stock car racing's heyday, a track could draw from 2,000 to 10,000 spectators in an evening. (A recent race near Atlanta drew 165,000.)

On that April night in 1961, fans saw seven races. Souped-up Chevrolets, Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles with names like Big Don competed at speeds up to 70 mph. There was often a spin-out, maybe two, in a race, and a crowd pleaser was the "demolition derby," in which drivers rammed each other until only one -- the winner -- was able to move his car. There were also "powder-puff derbies" for women drivers.

The figure-8 race was usually the finale -- and usually took place well after midnight. Spectators' hearts stopped as cars shot through the intersection at 70 mph, missing each other by inches (and sometimes not at all). There was a sense that a terrible accident was about to happen. It usually didn't, of course, but more than one driver was carried away on a stretcher.

Stock car racing of this variety has gone the way of the drive-in theater -- not completely off the map but largely disappeared. These days the sport is less dangerous, more high-speed, more professional and laced with big money. But it remains a family sport, both for participants and spectators.

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