If NASCAR fans had a place to see Tony Stewart and others of his caliber burning up the tracks practically in their own neighborhood, you bet their No. 14 bumper stickers they’d be there, cold beverages in hand.
Margaret Belk and Christopher Townsend have just that place. By day, Belk is an X-ray technologist in the School of Dentistry radiology section, and Townsend is director of maintenance and safety at the Georﾭgia War Veterans Nursing Home. But every other weekend, Belk and Townsend burn rubber to moonlight at Modoc Speedway and Gordon Park Speedway
These two get in on the kind of action that NASCAR fans only wish they could reach from the stadium seating at Talladega. You’ll find Townsend under a chassis in the pits at the raceway on Gordon Highway, and Belk keeping tabs on the track in Modoc, S.C.
Surrounded by the roar of engines, torrents of dust and other mechanics, Townsend adjusts the tires, shocks, suspension and rear-end gears of the racers – all so fast his hands are a blur.
Belk scores drivers from atop the broadcast booth. She observes the cars, tracks their laps, ranks their progress and works with pit stewﾭards to get the racers’ line-ups right.
Belk laughed as she described her job in the simplest terms possible: “Basically, I stare at the track and write as fast as I can.”
Souped-up Chevys and Fords run neck-and-neck around a dirt track packed with red Georgia clay. Paﾭtrons compete with dust and din to get a look at a particularly Southern sport that began decades ago, when bootleggers and moonshiners tried to outrun law enforcement during Prohibition.
When the sport incorporated, all tracks were dirt. Daytona was the exception, but it was only partially paved. Dirt track racing is where many current NASCAR drivers got their start.
“NASCAR keeps an eye on the dirt tracks,” Belk explained, in the way that major league baseball watches their farm teams for rising stars. It’s something Belk looks forward to: watching the younger drivers move up the ranks, and come into their own.
Jeff Gordon mastered go-karts and dirt tracks before finding fame in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. Tony Stewart went from dirt track “midget” racing to NASCAR’s paveﾭment, and then hit the dirt again when he bought his own clay track, Eldora Speedway, in Rossburg, Ohio.
No matter what they’re driving on, the main objective is the winﾭner’s circle. And that’s where it gets good, because there can be only one winner in each division, from the all-powerful V-8s to screaming 4-cylinders.
Racing on dirt is much different – and in ways more dangerous – than racing on pavement. On dirt, cars often slide sideways around turns – a technique that, when controlled, is called “drifting.” Cars throw up a lot of dust, which makes it difficult for drivers to see where they’re going. Tires can dig ruts that, when located in the corners, can flip a drifting car if hit at the right angle.
Tempers flare, according to Townsend. Drivers purposely spin out rivals, or force them into the wall.
“You build up rivalries over time,” he said.
Belk chuckles at the competitiveﾭness of the drivers. She explained that drivers get shifty when they don’t place where they want to in the qualifying rounds.
“They try to ‘sneak it in’ if they don’t place where they want,” Belk said. Dissatisfied drivers often try to slip into a better race position before the start of the race. “And it can be a real challenge, when two or three cars cross the finish line together, to figure out who crossed the line first.”
“It’s amazing that they can drive so close to each other so fast,” Belk said. “They start bumping each other and pushing each other off the track. I don’t want to say it’s excitﾭing when they wreck, but…”
But it would be like hockey fans boycotting a body check. Danger is part of the equation. Townsend shakes his head with a grin. He’s not interested in driving. After all, the cars are stripped down so much that they’re little more than tin cans, a roll cage and a motor primed to push the limits.
And, yet, Belk might give it a go herself one day, in one of the smaller classes. Perhaps Townsend can keep score that night.