A Night At The Races


Every son quotes his father, in words and in deeds.

Terri Guillemets

It is as Americana as apple pie, weekend football games and election cycles that never really end. At this time of year roll through almost any small town with a dirt track on a Friday or Saturday evening and you will almost certainly hear the screaming sound of race cars tearing around a tight oval. That is what folks do for entertainment when the Friday night lights of football are dim. You load up the car with the family, drive to the local track, which is typically at the fairgrounds, pay a nominal admission fee, settle into the stands, and prepare to be entertained for the next three to four hours. All in all, one of the best deals going.

In late June we found ourselves in Cortez, Colorado, in the southwest part of the state, with nothing really to do on a warm Friday evening, but that would soon change. You see there are county fairgrounds located on the outskirts of Cortez with a 3/8th of a mile dirt track just waiting to accommodate drivers who wish to prove that they are the fastest in the land, or at least the fastest in this part of Colorado. Laura decided to take a pass on the races, but I loaded up some camera equipment and made my way to the track in advance of the start to the racing at sunset.

My late father loved watching racing, any kind of racing: stock cars, Indy cars, dragsters, sprint cars, sports cars, motorcycles – like I said, any kind of racing. When I was growing up in central Illinois, my father would often load up my three brothers and me in our station wagon on a Saturday evening and we would head to the nearby Fairbury Fairgrounds where there resided a quarter mile of dirt oval that drew some of the best drivers from the area. Sometimes my Uncle Cappie would come with us. Mom would typically stay at home, needing a break from the aforementioned four young boys.

Our vantage point for watching the racing was on a set of old wooden stands along the back straight away. The stock cars would come roaring by kicking up dirt and a cloud of dust as they made their way into turn three. My three brothers and I would sit lined up next to Dad toward the top of the stands pointing and yelling excitedly as the cars turned one lap after another. Our favorite part was when one would spin out or a couple of the cars would bang into each other fighting for position on the track.

On this evening I drove down a gravel lane to the track and parked Toad in between a couple of large pickup trucks. After paying the $10 admission fee, I walked to the stands at turn four as this would put me in the best position to shoot photos of the cars as they raced around the track. This was a much larger set of wooden bleachers than the ones at the Fairbury Fairgrounds, but equally in need of a good coat of paint. Like old times I climbed to the top row of the stands and sat behind a family with three little boys. Owing to the fact that there was not much else to do on a Friday evening in Cortez except to catch a movie at the local theater, the stands on either side of the announcer’s booth were about three quarters full. I found it interesting that many of the young boys and men in attendance wore tight blue jeans, cowboy boots, a baseball cap, a t-shirt advertising a local auto repair shop or a rodeo, and chewed tobacco. I have to admit that seeing teenagers chewing tobacco threw me, as I thought that this generation had learned the ills of smoking and using other tobacco products.

As the sun set below the horizon it was finally time for some racing. The evening commenced with a live recording of someone whose voice sounded familiar singing the national anthem. After which the announcer thanked country music star Carrie Underwood for the beautiful rendition of the song, with another thank you to YouTube for providing the recording. I could not help but wonder what Underwood’s reaction would be if she learned that they were using a presumably unauthorized recording of her singing the anthem, but I would like to think that she would be OK with it given the setting. As the song began, it was wonderful to see absolutely everyone stand, face the American flag in the infield of the track, men and boys remove their hats and hold them over their hearts, and then sing along with Carrie. Sometimes it seems that you do not see as much of this anymore and that our respect for the flag and anthem has become a bit diluted, but that was definitely not the case on this night.

I certainly got my money’s worth as I watched and photographed one race after the next, with hardly a break between them. There was an intermission of sorts that was filled with a “burnout” contest where everything from a dirt bike to pickup trucks to a converted semi-tractor spun their rear wheels in a shallow bleach pit and attempted to generate the most impressive cloud of smoke. In the end it was an orange, souped-up, 1955 Chevy that proved victorious creating a cloud that completely engulfed it. And I just sat there and took it all in, every bit of it, every bit of this large slice of Americana that engulfed me much as the smoke enshrouded the Chevy.

Around midnight I decided that it was time to call it a night even though there were still a couple of races to be run. I had definitely gotten my $10 worth. I packed up my camera equipment and then just sat there for one last moment moving my gaze over those still in the stands, out over the track and pit area to the moonlit mountains in the distance. It was a perfect evening, one that reminded me of a time very long ago when a young boy sat with his father and shared something that his father loved and that his son would grow to enjoy as well.

Photos from my Night At The Races are below. As you will see, many of the images convey motion and are a bit more abstract in nature as I wanted to see what the combination of speed and slower shutter speeds might yield.

Click on photos to open gallery in Flickr –