Late-model racing offers nirvana to drivers, entertainment for everyone else
by Gregg MacDonald, Staff Writer
The rumbling of unbridled horsepower, the pungent smell of high-octane fuel and burning rubber, neck-snapping speeds tempered with laser-focused control. These are all key elements of late model stock car racing and the passion so many feel for it.
Born in the Carolinas, late model stock cars have been the premier vehicles raced at local and regional tracks in the mid-Atlantic for decades.
Today, these purpose-built custom racers generally weigh in at around 3,100 pounds and utilize both custom-built and “crate” racing engines that produce more than 400 horsepower. Fiberglass bodies are built to withstand the rigors of short track racing, without the weight of heavier stock body panels.
THE SEASONED VETERANS
These types of races are what Spotsylvania resident and retired Quantico fireman Richard Storm lives for. As a 16-year-old, Storm got caught drag racing his 1974 Ford Maverick up and down the streets of Fredericksburg, Va., and received sage advice from a judge that changed, and perhaps saved, his life.
“He told me that if I was going to continue racing, there were better, safer — and legal — ways to do it,” he says.
Storm took the judge’s wise words to heart, then began racing at Sumerduck Dragway in Fauquier County and never looked back.
Today, nearly 50 years later, Storm is still racing, and he is also the safety director at the Dominion Raceway and Entertainment complex in Thornburg, Va.
Powered by Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, the 160-acre racetrack and entertainment venue at Exit 118 on Interstate 95 was built in 2016 and is thought by its owner to be one of the last new racetracks constructed in the country.
It includes a one-fourth-mile track, a 2-mile road course, and a one-eighth-mile drag strip. The track accommodates NASCAR, SCCA and Superkart races, along with an amateur road course for safe street racing without legal hiccups.
It also hosts concerts, corporate events, weddings and more.
The complex’s Groove Music Hall holds music and comedy events year-round, and its 12,000-square-foot 118 Bar & Grill, named after the exit number, provides food and libations that can be enjoyed both indoors and outdoors.
“No one’s ever gotten rich owning a community racetrack,” owner Steve Britt says. “But the trick to surviving is not being a one-trick-pony. That’s key.” Like Storm, Britt was bitten by the speed bug at a young age.
“I first went to the Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas when I was 16 years old and just fell in love with the experience,” he says. “Racing utilizes all the senses: smell, hearing, seeing and feeling. My dad had some Porsches when I was growing up that initially sparked my general interest in cars, but it was the specific experience of going to that track for the first time that got me hooked.”
So hooked in fact, that after going into the construction industry and becoming a successful development contractor, Britt decided to buy the Old Dominion Speedway in 2003.
Ironically, as residential development began creeping closer and closer to the Manassas track that had been there since 1954, Britt began receiving more and more noise complaints and felt pressure to close the speedway and sell the property in 2012.
If you want to know what racing is like, think about what it’s like driving a car — any car — on an icy road, and the concentration that’s needed for that.
“The county basically told me I was depressing their quadrant of land because the speedway was making nearby areas undevelopable,” he recalls. “I never really bought the speedway with the intention of selling it, but I thought to myself, ‘Maybe with the proceeds I can build another one somewhere else.’”
Britt considered parcels in Stafford and Hanover counties, but eventually decided on the current location in Spotsylvania County. “It was visible from I-95 and had direct access off Exit 118 for trucks hauling racecars,” he says.
“It is now the northernmost weekly series track in Virginia, and perhaps even on the East Coast for late model cars,” adds Storm, “And I was there from day one.”
That opening day, on April 16, 2016, was an auspicious beginning for the new raceway as the track was plunged into total darkness during its feature NASCAR All-American Series Late Model event.
“We were jam-packed with nearly 4,000 people in the stands, and drivers were in mid-race going 110 mph in the straightaways when all of a sudden, everything went black,” Britt recalls. “We think a disgruntled electrical contract worker pulled the main circuit breaker and then fled.”
Britt says it was either incredible luck or divine intervention, or both, that no one was injured. NASCAR Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., after seeing a photo of the speedway in total darkness on Twitter, tweeted, “That seems like more than a tripped breaker.” Britt says the culprit was never found or charged.
THE ROOKIES (SORT OF)
Layne Riggs is 19 years old, but he’s no newbie to stock car racing.
He began kart racing at age four in Bahama, N.C., and in 2017 at the age of 14, he won his first CARS Tour race at Dominion Raceway. “At some point, at age 14, I was one of the youngest late model racers in the country,” Riggs says. “Of course, now, you have 11-year-olds regularly racing late models.”
Formed in the fall of 2014 by owner Jack McNelly, the CARS Tour was built out of the remnants of the former Pro Cup Series and was re-formed into the dual-division CARS Tour.
Featuring both super late models and late model stock cars competing on the same night at the same track, the CARS Tour is the first series of its kind to host two premier divisions under the same banner, at the same track and as part of the same event.
This year, Dominion Raceway will hold its CARS Tour race, one of the track’s biggest races of the year, on Saturday, June 18.
Since racetracks are private property and not public thoroughfares, government-issued driver’s licenses are not required of young drivers. However, the minimum age for a NASCAR license is 14, so nobody under that age can race on a NASCAR-sanctioned track. But tracks without NASCAR sanctioning can legally allow kids younger than 14 to race, and many do, seemingly without any age restrictions. In 2014, 9-year-old Timmy Tyrrell made national news when he made his first Late Model start at Shenandoah Speedway in Virginia.
Now imagine you’re doing that at a high speed, and there are 20 other people also doing it all around you. That’s racing.” – Richard Storm
Regardless of age, most racers will tell you that when they are out on the track, the amount of concentration and singular focus required to compete at excessive speeds becomes very Zen-like, and that in many cases they achieve a form of nirvana wherein nothing else exists outside their cockpits.
“You fire up, hit the gas, and everything else disappears,” says Storm. “It’s liberating. You’re no longer thinking about any bills you might have to pay, any family issues you might have to deal with, any problems you may have with your boss—none of that. Your concentration and focus is totally on you and your car.”
Riggs agrees. “When you’re out there racing, it’s like being in another dimension,” he says. “You’re totally focused, and your mind is blank. You become one with the car. Racing may not be the most physically demanding sport out there, but I think that mentally, it takes you to one of the highest places that any sport can take you.”
That’s not to say there is not some physical challenge involved.
“If you are in a 150-lap race that lasts 45 minutes to an hour and you are going 110 miles an hour with one inch between the cars in front and behind you, you better believe there’s a physical side to it,” says Storm.
“You are using your eyes, your arms, your legs and your butt, all nonstop for the entire time. You can lose 6-10 pounds of body fluid on every drive. If you want to know what racing is like, think about what it’s like driving a car — any car — on an icy road, and the concentration that’s needed for that. Now imagine you’re doing that at a high speed, and there are 20 other people also doing it all around you. That’s racing.”
► For more information about the Dominion Raceway and Entertainment complex, go to dominionraceway.com
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