The Racing Season
By Jaed Coffin | Photography by Matt Cosby
A day at Oxford Plains Speedway
Early on the last Saturday morning in September, the sun is high and the silver grandstands at Oxford Plains Speedway are mostly empty. Today will be the final race of the 2014 Pro All Stars Series North, which began in late April with the first of thirteen races, then carried on throughout the long months of summer at tracks across Maine, New England, Quebec, and New Brunswick, and which will end this evening with a final 150-lap race.
In the distance, behind a fence on the far side of the track, in a limited-access area known as “the pit,” is the entrance to a more vivid world of so many colorful machines being tinkered with and tuned by as many teams of men, women, and children—racing families unto themselves. Cars in seven different divisions are adorned in bright oranges, reds, neon greens, and blacks. They sport the names of sponsors and wives, and even drivers who once drove these cars or died racing them. The pit holds the frenetic energy of a street carnival, the dopplering growls and narcotic fumes of a busy airport tarmac.
At nine o’clock sharp, the first class of cars—the glamorous Super Late Models— floats onto the asphalt track for a round of practice laps. Representing teams from across New England, the Super Late Models are what the casual observer might associate with the famous NASCAR cities like Indianapolis, Daytona, and Charlotte. But this year, perched on the twenty-year- old shoulders of a young man from Fort Kent named Austin Theriault, America’s most-watched sport has the renewed support of the Pine Tree State.
Just two weeks before today’s race, Governor LePage announced that he would be devoting significant state funds toward the first ever “public-private” sponsorship for a JR Motorsports “Maine Car.” The following weekend, the Maine Car, sporting the slogan “Open for Business” and painted with images of lighthouses, blueberries, lobsters, a moose, and Mount Katahdin, was raced by Theriault at a 300-mile Nationwide race at Kentucky Speedway. After having signed with JR Motorsports that spring—a team co-owned by renowned NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, Jr.—Theriault, a former high school class president and licensed pilot who grew up racing at Spud Speedway in Caribou, moved south to the racing hub of North Carolina, where he now trains full time.
Leading up to the race in Kentucky, Theriault attended press conferences in Portland and Bangor, where, standing before the governor, he spoke about his desire to bring visibility to the state where he was born. Theriault often cites Maine’s own Ricky Craven—a driver who won early success at the Unity and Wiscasset Raceways before becoming a NASCAR champion and an eventual ESPN commentator—as one of his role models. To Theriault, Craven is an example of a “son of Maine” who has never forgotten his responsibility to his home state.
Today, while awaiting practice laps at a familiar track, Theriault refers to his finish in Kentucky the previous weekend—he placed eighteenth—as “a disappointment.” But for Theriault, with disappointment comes a certain wisdom. “We all want things before we’re ready for them,” he says. And when asked how it feels to be at the center of so much media attention, he’s equally magnanimous. “Sometimes it feels good to get all dressed up, but it’s a tough job being on the road. It’s hard to imagine how I got to where I am now. The cameras flashing, the reporters; it’s all gone very fast.” Then Theriault gestures to his vehicle and the seven or eight men working on it. “But I know it’s all because of the people I have around me,” he says.
Today, Theriault will be chasing the current PASS leader, DJ Shaw, whose car—black and green and orange, number 60—sits directly across the pit. Like many drivers here today, Shaw started driving after watching his father, Dale, race cars at this very track. “It’s all I’ve ever done, since I was 12 years old,” says the 20-year-old from Conway, New Hampshire. “And I haven’t wanted not to do it since.”
In Shaw’s trailer—a trailer that once belonged to the late NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, Sr., and which still, for good luck, has the driver’s Goodwrench logo painted on the roof—are, according to his mechanics, enough parts to build an entirely new car.
Shaw has been racing in the PASS Series since April, and on the road most weekends, trying to keep his position—which a driver earns via a cumulative point system— intact. “I’m ready for it to be over,” Shaw says. “It’s the point thing. The numbers. They start to get in your head.” Currently, Shaw is up 20 points in the PASS series; to win the series he’ll need only a second-place finish—an outcome that, later in the day, many fans will assure me is very likely.
Amidst the bright glamour of the Super Late Model cars, it’s easy to lose track of the many drivers and their teams that rarely leave Maine’s six statewide tracks. From the renowned Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in Scarborough to Speedway 95 in Hermon, from Unity Raceway to Wiscasset Raceway, the racing world in Maine represents a subculture of devotees that spans nearly one hundred years. According to Jon McMullen, a racing enthusiast and board member of the Maine Vintage Race Car Association, Maine once boasted up to 53 race tracks across the state, from Machias to Rangeley, Limestone to Arundel. The first recorded race occurred over a century ago, on a sand track that crossed under the pier at Old Orchard Beach, an event attended by some 100,000 people. Despite the gradual decline in race tracks—venues that are notoriously expensive to maintain—McMullen is convinced that places like Beech Ridge and Oxford Plains are “here to stay.”
To many of these drivers, racing is as much a family pastime as a personal endeavor. Lewis Anderson, a 44-year-old auto mechanic from Hollis who drives for the No Such Chassis racing team, spends most of his evenings working on his car with his daughter, Danielle. A junior at Bonny Eagle High School, Danielle, despite her age, looks every bit the part: her hands are covered in grease, and she wears the sleeves of her t-shirt rolled up over her shoulders, showing off the muscles she gets from lifting tires half her size. “I probably spend three nights a week in the garage,” Danielle says. “I guess I could go shopping, but I’d rather be working on cars. I put on tires, take them off, put them on the rack. And I like rooting for my dad. He’s won 16 races at Beech Ridge. In one he had to go to the hospital.” The anxiety of watching her father race doesn’t get in the way of her love for the sport. The best part of coming to races: “Spending time with Dad.” Danielle’s future plans: “I want to go to college in North Carolina, study graphic design, and detail cars for NASCAR.”
Further down the pit, Richard Spaulding, of Lisbon Falls, sits in the front seat of an old school bus, which he converted into a trailer. The bus doesn’t have the gloss and glamour of Theriault’s or Shaw’s outfit, but the roofer-by-day is no less devoted to the sport. Spaulding’s car—which reads “Simmer Down!” across the back—tells the story of many lives: stickered eulogies to deceased friends and family members have been placed alongside the iconic number 88, which once belonged to Auburn driver Dennis Dee, who died at Oxford Plains in a fatal crash in 2003. Among the reminders of risk and mortality on Spaulding’s car is a more forward-looking note: “Daddy, I love you! Good luck. Go 36.”
“It’s fun,” Spaulding says when asked why he takes on this relatively expensive obsession. “Gives me something to do.” It’s not only Spaulding who loves this work: his wife Christina is one of the top female racers in Maine. She was recently featured in a New York Times multimedia film about her work, to which her husband refers proudly.
For the next few hours, cars race in threes and fours before returning to the pit for last-minute adjustments. It’s just after 1 p.m. and the grandstands are full of fans and the dirt parking lot is packed with RVs, motorcycles, and trucks. In the first heat of the afternoon, Austin Theriault, overtaking the leader around the last corner, wins a ten-lap preliminary heat. There’s something oddly hypnotic about watching cars go around a three-eighths-of- a-mile track: the way the cars make passes, one after another, can mess with one’s perception of time. And there’s also the roar of engines, and the vaulting energy of so much speed.
In the parking lot, camped out in an RV surrounded by plastic palm trees, Dick and Sylvia Thurlow are a married couple who met 44 years ago at Spud Speedway, back when Dick was racing. Although their permanent address is in the Newport/Bristol area, they call home— pointing to their RV—“wherever that thing is.” During race season, “that thing” is typically parked in front of a racetrack. Among race enthusiasts, Dick and Sylvia tell me that they’re known as the “Palm Tree Gang.”
“Anybody who comes by,” Sylvia says, “we have them in.” Their favorite driver this year is DJ Shaw, but they’re mostly here for the feeling of community they get at the races. Their diet while on the road typically consists of Coors Light, wine, salsa, chips, boiled dinner, boiled dinner hash the next morning, and spaghetti. Sometimes, they’ll order pizza and tell the delivery man, “just come to the palm trees.” As the races get going, the couple doesn’t watch every one, but rather prefers to hang out on their jury- rigged patio in the dirt parking lot along Route 26. “We like our little world,” Sylvia says.
From the bleachers, the 16 races of the day come and go with the rhythms of a track meet: after the Super Late Model heats come the Modifieds, the Sportsmen, the Late Models, the Street Stocks, the Mini Stocks, and the Legends. In these latter classes, drivers will earn as much as $400 for winning a race, and as little as $25 for placing— prizes that could never offset the money required to put a car on the track. But no matter what division a driver races in, the stakes—and the dangers—are real enough. Now and then a wreck—typically benign—sends a car twirling into the infield. With ambulance-like precision, 18-year-old Robert Philpot, from Raymond, is there to clean up the aftermath.
Philpot’s title is “wrecker driver.” His racecar: a vintage Ford F100 truck that he found in a junkyard and rebuilt in his grandfather’s garage. Philpot would like to drive, but he doesn’t see it as a realistic possibility. His limitations: “money and time.” Philpot also witnessed his father crash, an event he can “remember clear as day.”
Instead, Philpot enjoys working as a volunteer at the track. “I could get paid,” Philpot says. “But I do this to help out. And it gets me in for free.” His favorite part of his work is something he calls “hookin’”—the act of attaching a hook from his truck to the crashed car and dragging the vehicle off the track. The trick: you’ve got to perform the maneuver without ripping out the radiator. Philpot is pursuing a vocational program in collision repair on the logic that he’ll never run out of work. “Everyone gets into wrecks,” he says. “Job security.”
Like most people here, Philpot’s not entirely clear about why he loves this world. “It’s just the redneck way,” he says. Then another car crashes and he drives back out to hook it.
That evening, toward dusk, DJ Shaw, as predicted, seals the PASS championship, despite finishing second to Joey Doiron of Berwick. Theriault, following a mechanical malfunction, comes in a disappointing eighth.
But for Theriault, there were more tracks ahead of him than behind. By winter, he would sign with a new team—Brad Keselowski Racing, where he started as a development driver—for a 13-race contract in the NASCAR truck series. (The Maine Car, after its single race in Kentucky, would never be raced by Theriault again.) Many of Theriault’s races would take place down South, where drivers can race regardless of the weather. As for the rest of the drivers at Oxford Plains, they will have to wait for spring.