On a warm April afternoon, anticipation becomes pure sound. You can hear it in the rumble of drivers testing their engines. You can hear it in the announcer's "Check: testing, one, two ..." crackling over the loudspeakers. You can hear it in the quiet watchfulness of fans who gather to watch the Wednesday practice runs. You can hear it as sweat pours down the face of a driver who's waiting in line for his run around the three-eighths-of-a-mile track.
It's the Asheville Motor Speedway's last season, and if you don't know a thing about NASCAR, now's the time to learn, says track photographer Barb Saunders. She caught her first race in 1961 and says she's seen, over the years, how "Racing has gotten away from real racing: It's big business now. But here in Asheville, it's still grassroots."
She sips her water in the shade of the pit concession stand and eyes the drivers, the gathering fans, the vendors hawking barbecue sandwiches, the paramedics perched on the back bumper of their ambulance, the crews checking cars. "Racing is an addiction worse than drugs," cautions Saunders, and you can tell she's been hooked for years. "It might take you two races, but all of a sudden, you'll have a favorite driver and a favorite car."
She can drop names -- Petty, Earnhardt , Gant, Ingram -- racing legends who braved Asheville's small, tight track, where it's all left turns at 80 mph. But it's the unknowns, the hopefuls, the average Joes hoping to roar past the checkered flag that get her attention.
She points to Ed Surrett, car number eight. "That's a bad-ass driver there -- he'll give you excitement," Saunders says as the grizzled driver ambles over to say hi. She tells Surrett that, last Friday, his car had "sounded sweet," and she tells Mountain Xpress that, last year, Surrett missed being champ by a measly two points. As if sensing the grit that can drive you when you've driven hard and striven mightily and still come in second by a hair, Saunders swears that Surrett's one driver to keep an eye on, this year.
"I don't know about that," murmurs Surrett, modest and quiet. On the track, the "mini" class cars buzz past, looking like oversized HotWheels with just enough room for a driver to sit, butt mere inches off the track. Surrett notes that his so-sweet engine blew right after that practice, and he just got it cobbled back together the day before this one.
An engine can cost nearly $20,000, which is why all the cars are plastered with logos: You've got to have sponsors to stay in the running, advises driver Larry Ogle. Tires run $470 per set, and you've got to put on new ones every week. Just the gas is $4 per gallon. "There are people who help me," says Ogle, patting his white Chevy, which sports stickers for such products as PRO Shocks and Kendall Motor Oil. But there's one sign on his car that's strictly personal: the number nine.
"That's my dad's number, and I figured, since it was the last year on the river, I'd run with it," Ogle explains. The track champ in Greenville in 1989, Ogle was simply following in his father's footsteps: The elder Ogle kept on racing himself, up until eight or nine years ago. "Dad raced here when they had an airstrip down the middle, and we had a dirt track," Ogle recalls, adding, "They used to have to sneak us kids in under the fence while Daddy was racing." Like Ogle, car owner Tim Mann has been geared for racing since he was knee-high. He saw his first race in 1967 and remembers fondly, "Richard Petty was running that night." Hooked ever since, and a mechanic since his Army days, Mann explains, "I just love fooling with cars. It's a challenge to make 'em run faster and faster."
Paramedic Debi Tipton has seen the big names race in Asheville, too. "This race track has been here since I was born," the 40-year-old recounts proudly. She points up the hill to the Pisgah View Apartments. "I grew up in those projects, and I remember coming down to watch these races with my parents."
Fans, drivers, vendors, sponsors -- "These are good people," Tipton insists. When the track got sold and the land was donated to the city, she wasn't any too happy about the perceptions of the Asheville Motor Speedway that were being tossed around. "I am by no means an illiterate redneck," she declares. And Tipton can tell you, point by point, how the speedway contributes to the local economy, how it's a self-supporting sport that's not dependent on the taxpayers, how it's a family affair in which fans raised $8,000 -- in a single night -- for a little girl with a brain tumor. Showing people who don't know a thing about NASCAR what it's all about, down at the Asheville track -- "It's an education process," she observes.
Tipton figures that the Asheville City Council got an education, too, when they found out how important this track is to the community. "I don't think they knew what they were getting into. Yes, it was a great gift," she says of RiverLink's donating the $1 million property to the city last fall. "But they got blind-sided," she says of the criticism Council took over the issue.
This last year, though, is going to be great -- Tipton is certain of it.
Racer Charlie Brown feels that way, too. "This year, everybody wants to do good, have something to remember," he reflects. "Going off and racing somewhere else is OK, but it's not the same as being in your hometown. I'm not sure we'll have a track around here next year." And this year, he really wants to win. "That's the biggest thrill: It makes all the problems, the wrecks, worth it."
How would Brown describe driving Asheville's track?
"This place here is probably like driving an airplane down a shopping-mall parking lot: It's a real big rush," he says.
That brings to mind the addiction Saunders mentioned. "I should know -- I used to be married to a driver," she confides. "We moved here because he wanted to race here. If my husband wasn't racing, you couldn't keep him in the grandstands; he'd have to come and see things in the pit," remembers Saunders.
Clearly, she's hooked, too, and she heads out into the sun, picking a strategic spot right by the track, with the cars whizzing past just a few feet away, as she loads her film into her camera.
"I just love cars," says Mann: He wouldn't be anywhere else on a Friday night. "My wife got me to quit drinking and quit smoking: I've got to do something!" he jokes, then turns his attention back to tending number nine.
Opening night at the track is Friday, April 16.