Dirt-track racing at its finest

In the ’70s and ’80s, NASCAR was going strong with drivers like Cale Yarborough, Benny Parsons, Buddy Baker, Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobbie and Donnie Alison and many more. Most of the drivers were just good ol’ boys from the South who had learned the art of driving a race car from moonshining or racing at Saturday night dirt tracks.

Everyone had their favorite drivers and the races were well-attended. If a Chevy, Ford or Dodge happened to win on Sunday, the winning car dealerships were busy selling that brand of cars the next week.

Racing fever seemed to be catching on in our neighborhood but on a smaller scale. Most everyday working folk could not afford to own or didn’t have the skills to drive a real race car. We had enough trouble just buying a ticket to get into a NASCAR event.

Wasn’t long though, some of the guys in our neck of the woods started attending go-kart racing events in South Carolina. There was a nice track in Darlington and one just across the line on Highway 38 headed toward Bennettsville.

It didn’t take long before some of the same guys built a go-kart track in a small clay hole off Harrington Road across from Red’s Auction Barn on U.S. 220 North. The hard chalky clay made a perfect base for the track. A small grader was used to keep the track smooth and water was sprayed on the track to keep the dust down.

The oval track was about 50 yards around and was a perfect place to have a little fun on Saturday nights. Why, folks would just back their pickup trucks up to the edge of the track and sit on their tailgates to enjoy a night of thrills and spills.

At first, the racing go-karts weren’t too sophisticated. The only thing you needed to have was a 5-horsepower motor and an old racing frame that had bumpers welded on the front and back ‘cause there would be a lot of bumping and pushing during a race.

There were different classes of racing which included stock and modified engines. Also there were weight classes such as light, heavy and heavy-heavy. All ages tried their luck at the go-kart racing including women in what we called the Powder Puff race. After about one or two rough races, some of the drivers decided they would become mechanics, spectators or track officials ‘cause friendship seemed to stop when they dropped the green flag for the race.

As the drivers gained more experience and the mechanics more knowledge of the motors, the kart speeds picked up. The mechanics might try to get more speed out of the motor by shaving the head on the motor, drilling out the carburetor or running a built-up cam in the motor.

All these tricks on motors were illegal in the stock classes and at the end of a race the winning karts could be protested and torn down if another driver posted a $15 protest fee.

Fuel was another factor in being able to win a race. We started out burning premium Amoco white gas but it wasn’t long before a lot hotter fuel was being put in the gas tanks. Being a racer myself I starting buying some special mixed fuel from Terry Benfield in McColl, South Carolina I was paying $4 a gallon. but I’m telling you that fuel would make a go-kart scat, don’t you know?

We soon outgrew the little track with racers and spectators so Pleas Poole opened a bigger track right off 220 where the flea market is today. The track was bigger and had longer straightaways so you had to run a different gear ratio for the faster track. With all these combinations, I want you to know, those karts would be flying coming down that track.

When building the new track, a small wooden flag stand was built at the start and finish line but it was found to be too small for the two people monitoring the race. A newer, bigger stand was erected but the little stand was never torn down and it stood right at the edge of the track.

One Saturday night my crew chief, Mike McPherson, and I had put together a really fast kart. We had placed second in the time trials but only because I slipped coming out of the second turn. I would be starting on the outside pole position with about 10 fast karts behind me. We made our parade lap and were coming around the fourth turn to take the green flag when I felt the guy behind bumping my kart.

Well, this wasn’t nothing unusual, but as we were about to take the green flag I could feel the back end of my kart being pushed up into the air. I lost all control of the kart and it went flipping end-over-end right into the old flag stand. I don’t remember all the details, but folks told me later that the kart knocked the flag stand legs right out from under it and it fell on top of us.

Well, they stopped the race and people started pulling me out from under what was left of the old flag stand. They asked me if’n I was O.K.

I said, “I reckon I am, but help me get my kart back on the track.”

I didn’t know if my kart would run or not after the crash but you know I got right back on the track and was leading the race when my chain came off.

You know, folks, for years that go-kart track was a favorite attraction for many people on Saturday night. I met and raced with some fine folks like Buck Covington, Mutt Pegram, Bob Wood, Bob King, Jerry Maynor, Robert Goins, Larry, Jeff and Rex Crouch, The Chappells and many others who all cut their teeth at our Saturday night community go-kart tracks.

Hope this story brings back some memories for some of you. As for me, I miss the sound of the karts and the smell of the fuel, but if the track was still there, I doubt I could even get in and out of a go-kart.

J.A. Bolton is a member of the N.C. Storytelling Guild, Anson County Writers’ Club, Richmond County Historical Society and the Story Spinners in Laurinburg.