LANCASTER, SC — Thestate.com
On a hot, muggy Saturday night in early August, Connie Williams took her customary seat atop the grandstands at Lancaster Motor Speedway. She welcomed all comers — that is except when racing was taking place below on the 1/2-mile dirt race track.
This is a second home to Williams and many of the 673 fans who ventured out despite the threat of rain that would come later in the evening.
This is so much like home for Williams that 19 years ago she was in nearly the same spot when her water broke. She had to be tended to by rescue personnel until she could be rushed to the hospital for the delivery of her first-born son.
A week later, Williams was back at the track — her son in tow. This is so much like home that on this August evening, Zachary Morton, Williams’ son who was born 19 years ago, was at a hospital in nearby Charlotte awaiting the arrival of his first born. But Williams was at the track, deciding she could wait to go visit. She had to get her weekly fix of down-home racing for the week. There would be time later for family visits.
“There’s nothing that will keep me from the track but the good Lord,” Williams said. “I was married for 19 years. My husband went and did his thing, but he knew I grew up at the race track. He never once told me I couldn’t come to the race. I will welcome anybody to come down and watch it.”
That is the way of life for the folks in Lancaster County, where many work in the textile industry. The Lancaster Motor Speedway sits a few miles north of downtown and is one of a few dirt tracks remaining in South Carolina.
The combination of grass roots with the excitement of big-time racing is an attraction that brings generation after generation back for old fashion fun each Saturday night from March through September.
“It’s passed down and it gets in your blood,” track historian and video photographer Jackie Sims said. “You keep coming back. You get used to watching racing here, you get bored everywhere else. If you can win here, you can win anywhere.”
Timbo Mangum, the current points leader in the NDRA Late Model Division, has been coming to the track most of his life.
“I’ve been coming out here since I was little,” he said. “I started racing 20 years ago. Every week, they have the track right with a good surface. Every week, there’s good racing. It’s the best one to come to.”
This story is 59 years in the making. The track opened in 1954 and is still called the “the fastest half-mile dirt track in the South.” It hosted two NASCAR events in 1957.
Three other tracks within an hour’s drive of Lancaster are still in operation. There is a track in Gaffney and one on the state line called Carolina, that runs on Friday nights. Each track is a competitor, but they try to work together.
“We try not to hurt their racing,” race director Mark Huey said. “We’re all in the same environment. The average fan and driver, though, is committed to their home track. There isn’t much crossover. Most of our drivers come from this community or from Monroe or Union, N.C.. We’re all just trying to make a living doing a hobby that we love.”
The current configuration at Lancaster could be the most popular. Normally, you will find six divisions of racing each Saturday night — Limited Late Model, Super Street, Crate Sportsman, Pure Street, Vintage and Extreme 4.
Since the track opened, it’s been under several different ownership groups. Even during difficult financial times, they found a way to open.
The lay-out of the track is what makes the Lancaster Speedway special. There are long, parallel straights and each corner has high banks. The pits are located on the infield, unlike most of the shorter dirt tracks still running in South Carolina where the pits are on the outside.
The shape reminds many of Martinsville, with one exception. The NASCAR track at Martinsville lacks the banking found at Lancaster.
The banking and long straight-away makes for a difficult transition on corner entry but speeds stay high for the entire length of the track. A normal lap for a Late Model is around 20 seconds.
“It’s unreal how fast this track is,” 18-year old driver Jeff Langley said. “You go race somewhere else and come back here and go, ‘Wow.’ ”
The high banks give turn three an extraordinary feel. On more than one occasion, a driver has gone up and over the wall. What awaits him is the great unknown — a sea of pine trees and utility poles that they hope to avoid. The best-case scenario is to land someplace that a wrecker can reach you on the access road.
“The third turn is the fastest part of the track,” Huey said. “We’ve had guys sucked up and go over that wall. They’re gone into the gap and into the trees. Sometimes when we get back there, the cars will be sitting in the trees.”
Driver Jess Butler had tasted life over the wall. It something he hopes doesn’t happen again.
“I just got too close to the wall and it hooked,” Butler said. “The back end grabbed and I went from day to night just like that. It wasn’t fun.”
FAMILY FRIENDLY NOW
Doug McManus is the latest owner of the track and has spearheaded most of the recent changes. He took over in 2000 and has made several improvements along the way. The most important change came by eliminating alcohol sales on the infield. He also added a fence and concrete along the grandstand that keeps the fans safe.
There were often fights to go with the hard-nosed, intense racing during the four-decades between 1960-2000.
That mostly has been cleaned up and it’s a more family-friendly place these days. Along the first turn, just past the larger of two grandstands, sits a playground for kids.
That’s not to say there aren’t any flare-ups among today’s drivers. Lancaster County sheriff department Capt. Monty Craig has been around for the past 32 years. He is usually one of five deputies hired by the track to work each Saturday night.
“At the first of the year, we might have a little trouble but let them know if they cause problems, they will take a ride with us,” Craig said. “You let them argue a little bit and, usually, it works itself out.”
Three weeks earlier this summer were particularly intense at the track. Mangum and Brandy Baker — the two drivers with the biggest followers and, arguably, the most success — had been at each other. It had gotten so bad, Huey had to address the situation in his pre-race instructions.
After opening with a short prayer, this is the message he delivered to the drivers.
“The last three weeks, we’ve had three separate incidents in the pits,” Huey said. “I know this isn’t a church gathering or a social event. I know we’re going to have misunderstandings, and people will argue. But here’s the deal. We’re not going to make it where people can’t bring their families. We’re not going to have it where people are afraid to come out to the track. This is a racetrack, gentlemen. If you want to be a fighter, go join the MMA. That’s what you do. We’re going to race here.”
Mangum and Baker are usually at the focal point of winning races, flare-ups or just about anything at the track. Littered among the fans are a number of people wearing T-shirts that state, “I ride with Timbo.” There were many fewer T-shirts in crowd in favor of Baker but he had his share of supporters as well.
Many called Baker the Dale Earnhardt of dirt-track racing.
“The biggest rivalry we have is in our stock class,” Sims said. “It’s either way with Baker or Mangum. You either love them or hate them. There’s not really an in-between. Those two sometimes love to hate each other. They like to race hard and they show it.”
Baker and Mangum have known each other since grade school. They would rather beat each other than anybody else. The rivalry spills over into the grandstand, but, according to Williams, it’s all in good fun. She is related to Mangum but pulls for Baker. She’s willing to let anyone within earshot know where here allegiance lines.
“I’m the biggest Brandy Baker fan there is,” Williams said. “The fans get into it but, as you can see, we all get along. I might be surrounded by Timbo fans but I’m going to cheer for my guy.”
Baker and Mangum get most of the attention now and are in their 30s or 40s. There is still plenty of racing left in both guys, but when you start looking for who is going to carry this track into the future, you don’t have to look far.
Baker’s two sons — teenagers Andrew and Austin — race at the track and have bright futures. Langley, who runs with the Mangum camp, just graduated from Buford High and, going into that Saturday night, already owned 11 wins. He’s been racing since he was old enough to start driving go-carts at smaller tracks across the state.
McManus has no intention of slowing down, either. A typical night sees 700-1,000 fans in attendance with 70-80 cars racing. With the price of admission being 12 dollars — anyone under the age of 12 gets in free — the hope is to make enough to keep operating.
Drivers incur high amounts of overhead and, if their cars get beat up one week, they hope they have enough resources to get the car back on the track by the next Saturday night. Unless there’s special promotions with a special race, the winner of each class might pocket $1,000.
Nobody is in this to make a living. Everyone has a career outside of racing, but the love and passion to continue to make this a weekend tradition remain strong. The hope is to survive from one week to the next. Once Saturday night rolls around, the fun begins.
“Everyone here does it for the love of it,” Huey said. “No way you’re making any money off of this. Even as the operator of the track, if you make money, you’re doing good. But I don’t think anyone would trade this for anything else in the world. It’s a long-time tradition that will never go away.”