In a small corner of western Alamance County, a racetrack slumbers in the midday sun. Its asphalt oval softens in the heat. Its dented white guardrails reflect the rays. And its once-red concrete walls have faded to pink.
It spends most of its week like this. Undisturbed.
On Thursday afternoon, a landscaping crew arrives. They pull two John Deere riding lawn mowers inside the white picket fence that rings the track and cut row after row of the grassy field that serves as the racetrack parking lot.
On Friday, the scent of freshly clipped grass hangs in the air above the speedway. At 3:30 p.m., the general manager exits a white-and-red cinder-block building and opens a nearby gate. A row of trucks pulling stock-car haulers files into the infield. Soon, fans will fill the grandstand — teens dressed in skinny jeans, retirees in jeans and pocket tees, mothers watching their sons push Matchbox cars down the wooden bleachers. It’s time for the racetrack to come to life.
Race historians say that every racetrack has a personality. There’s a track in Texas that’s known as the Devil’s Bowl. Its name is ominous because menacing things happen there. Wrecks. Fights. Mayhem.
The track at Bowman-Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem earned its nickname, the Madhouse, because it’s got a single groove that makes it impossible for drivers to get around each other. All they can do is bump and run. Push and pass.
But the only track in Alamance County doesn’t have a nickname. It’s just Ace Speedway, one of the few places in the state that plays host to racing on Friday nights, and it draws people from Mebane to Sanford to McLeansville.
They arrive by ascending a hill and rounding an S-curve through a small neighborhood of single-family mill homes. As they turn in to park, they see beyond the picket fence and the fresh-cut grass. They look at the oval with anticipation. It’s just four-tenths of a mile around, and they know it has turns tighter than a paper clip. They know it can bunch drivers into a pack and send them whirling and bumping and fighting for first place.
Ace may not have a nickname, but it has character — and it plays host to characters. Inviting and ornery. Charming and gruff. Fun and vicious.
Brad Allen angles a golf cart up a short hill behind Ace Speedway on Friday afternoon and stops outside the track’s Beer Hut — a red, five-foot-square shack beside the backstretch grandstands. It’s 4 p.m. and the track is quiet and empty, except for the handful of drivers unloading their stock cars in the infield. But the speedway’s general manager has lots to do before the green flag drops. He’s got beer to stock, trophies to organize, tickets to sell, a drivers’ meeting to run, and a pre-race show to host.
Allen started attending races at Ace as a kid, and he loves being the man behind the scenes keeping the track going. He grew up racing go-karts in Burlington. He dreamed of racing at Ace one day and going from there to Daytona.
“Sometimes those dreams don’t work out that way, but they begin here,” says Allen, who won three consecutive open-wheel, modified championships at Ace before shifting from the driver’s seat to the general manager’s chair in 2010.
He took over the 57-year-old track at a difficult time. The recession hit it hard. Fans quit coming on Friday nights. Drivers stopped racing. Sponsors held on to their cash. Like hundreds of other small tracks around the country it was on the verge of being shut down.
But Allen kept it alive. He cut ticket prices. He slashed driver fees. He sold a dozen new sponsorships. Soon 1,500 to 2,000 spectators were turning out every Friday to see more than 60 drivers compete in five different races.
“We do the best with what we got and pray the good Lord takes care of us,” Allen says as he slides a Miller Lite into the fridge. “We’re one step away from broke. We just gotta believe.”
After stocking beer and running the drivers’ meeting, he steps onto the track for the pre-race ceremony. He grips a microphone and gazes beyond the 15-foot-tall, chain-llink fence that protects the grandstand from the track. Behind it, he guesses there must be 1,500 people waiting to see a race beneath the lights.
“Four months ago, I didn’t see this happening,” Allen says into the microphone. “A lot of people have asked me, ‘Who’s backing this thing?’ Look back here in the pits. Look across at those stands. Look around you. You’re backing this. Thank you. I’m just along for the ride.”
Rocky Thomas went to his first Ace race when he was 18 years old. He had just moved to Mebane from Winston-Salem, and his coworkers at GE Aviation told him that the racing was better at Ace than at Bowman-Gray, where he grew up watching short-track races. He sat in the wooden bleachers and watched drivers like Junior Miller, a modified champion from Pine Hall, roar around the short track. He came back almost every week and brought his wife, Ashley, there for their second date. They’ve returned just about every Friday night ever since.
Tonight, they are at the race with all four of their children: Lizzie, 5; Anna, 6; James, 9; and John, 12. The family always sits in the alcohol-free grandstand on the frontstretch, just to the left of the press box at the start-finish line. An Aldi grocery bag filled with cheese doodles, crackers, and chips rests between them on the bleachers.
“I’ve been to many NASCAR races,” Rocky says, leaning back and resting his elbows on the row of seats behind him. “Most people are drinking beer. They’re loud. There’s lots of profanity. I can take my kids here and don’t have to worry about them hearing something they might repeat. I don’t worry about them seeing something they wouldn’t at home. That’s rare. You can’t even go to the mall anymore and count on that.”
A single stock car careens around the track as Rocky talks. His eldest daughter, Anna, an energetic kindergartner with curly, blonde hair, catches a glimpse of the car — No. 50 — and furrows her brow.
“BooBoo?!” Anna stands on her seat and shouts. “Boooooooo! Boooooooo!”
“She doesn’t like BooBoo Dalton,” Ashley says, explaining her daughter’s reaction.
Just like NASCAR, Ace drivers are heroes and villains to the fans. Ross “BooBoo” Dalton is one of the track’s most divisive figures. He’s a young, aggressive driver in the limited-late-model stock series — the Ace equivalent of NASCAR’s Nationwide Series or Triple-A baseball — and he’s been known to wreck competitors in order to win. If he’s in the lead on the last lap of a race, half the crowd stands to cheer while the other half screams, “Noooooo!”
Anna’s a Dalton hater. She saves her love for Bethany Stovall, Ace’s only regular female driver and one of Dalton’s competitors. Stovall hasn’t won a race yet. In fact, she often runs toward the back of the pack. But every girl at the track follows the pink and purple flames on the side of Stovall’s car.
When Stovall comes into the stands before the race, Anna and Lizzie rush over to her. They wrap their arms around Stovall’s black fire suit and grip her in a four-arm bear hug.
“Who’s your favorite driver?” Stovall asks, wrapping her arm around them.
Lizzie steps back and looks up at Stovall with wide eyes and a big smile.
As Anna and her sister blush, Stovall turns and bounds down the bleachers. The track is empty and transitioning between its first and second races. Stovall only has another half hour before the limited-late-model cars that she races take the track. But she’s not nervous. The track may be aggressive, but she’s assertive and ready.
Down in the infield pit area, Bobby Griffin stands beside No. 85, his black, late-model stock car, as his team drains gear oil from the rear of the car. The vehicle has a long, sloping hood that runs from the ground to the windshield. A spoiler points skyward off its square rear end.
Griffin’s black fire suit is open at the neck and his black Oakley sunglasses rest on top of his clean-shaven head. Beads of perspiration glisten on his forehead.
The Elon native has been racing at Ace for 30 years, and he’s spent the last five years in Ace’s premier, late-model stock series. He works on an assembly line for aluminum- can manufacturer Ball Corporation and spends about $17,000 a year on his car. It’s a fraction of the $35,000 his competition spends.
“We’re not a high-dollar team, but we love to race,” he says. “Some people like to go fishin’. Some people like golfin’. We like to go racin’.”
He pauses, stares at the car, and grins. “Well, I still like to hit a golf ball every now and then, too.”
Griffin and other drivers started at Ace with dreams of moving up the ranks to the Daytona 500. But those dreams aren’t usually realized. Most stay in the amateur ranks driving for local sponsors like Flora Funeral Service, Moore’s Roofing, or Stovall’s Lawn Care. A few, like Elliott Sadler and Ty Dillon, both current NASCAR drivers, have turned laps at Ace into careers driving on the senior circuits.
But that doesn’t make Griffin any less hungry for a win on Friday nights. He’s been battling Ace for years. Its tight turns and slight banking require intense concentration. One mistake by a driver and it will sling a car into one of its concrete walls, crumpling the hood and leaving the driver shaken.
In the limited-late-model race on the track behind Griffin, Stovall discovers that firsthand. She gets tangled up with another driver in turn two and needs a push to get started again. She finishes second-to-last and watches from the pits as Dalton, who won, takes a victory lap.
It’s shortly after 9 p.m. when the limited-late-model stock race ends. In the infield, Griffin plants his left foot on the window of his late-model stock car and lowers himself into the driver’s seat. He shoves his helmet on his head. He flicks a switch by his right thigh and listens as the car roars to life.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve been sitting on those bleachers all night,” the M.C. shouts. “This is the main attraction. The big show. When these guys go green, I want you standing up.”
This is what it’s all about. It’s what Allen promotes. It’s what the Thomases want to see. It’s what Griffin wants to win. It’s why the track exists. It’s Friday night racing at Ace.
The cars roar down the frontstretch toward turn one. Griffin runs a car length past the gate, eases off the gas, and swoops down the turn’s 12-degree banking toward turn two. The car rubs against the silver guardrail and charges into the straightaway.
Wind from the cars rushes over the grandstand, carrying the smell of warm rubber and car exhaust with it. Each lap sees Griffin slip farther in the field. From sixth to seventh. Seventh to eighth. He crosses the finish line after 60 laps in ninth place and pulls into the pits. He turns off the engine and lifts himself out of the car.
Griffin is winded and disappointed. As he and the other drivers peel off their helmets and unzip their fire suits, the crowd — rowdy but sated — descends the wooden grandstand and heads for the parking lot. The Thomas girls, Anna and Lizzie, fell asleep an hour before the race ended, and Rocky and Ashley each carry one of them out. They breeze past Allen, who stands at the exit gates.
“Thanks for coming,” Allen says, nodding as they pass.
3401 Altamahaw Race Track Road
Altamahaw, NC 27244
This story appeared in print as “Ace’s Wild.”