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Racing, slinging dirt and fighting a part of life at Lancaster Speedway

The only things slick about Lancaster Speedway are the turns.

There's no pavement and no luxury suites, only a couple of diva drivers and precious little shade, much less air conditioning.

But as long as you aren't offended by beer, bologna burgers and boiled peanuts, or a little beating and banging (some of it even on the track), there might not be a better time on a Saturday night.

The dirt track just off U.S. 521 in suburban Lancaster has been rolling strong for 57 years, and may roll on that many more based on a loyal following, many of whom sit in the same seats as when they were kids.

"Been sitting here since they opened," drawled the dean of the fan base, a distinguished gentleman named Toothpick who takes the seat right next to the entrance of the grandstand near the track's press box. "I guess it's been 57 years, even though I ain't but 21 now."

Toothpick -- that's all the name you'll get if you ask -- has the best seat in the house, top row and just to the left of the flagstand that hangs over the finish line. He's had to run a few people off who mistakenly parked there not knowing it was his perch. When asked how long he's been sitting there, one of his buddies cackles "since 1800." He's got the tanned face of a man who's worked outside, covered by a gray beard, and hair pulled back in a ponytail. He's dressed like many of his fellow fans. Work pants, cowboy boots and a traffic-cone orange T-shirt supporting his favorite driver. In his case, that's young Dillon Crook, and he's got good reason for picking the kid.

"I watched his granddaddy race, and I watched his daddy race," Toothpick said before the sun went down and the crowd warmed up. "That's part of why I like it out here. We all know each other.

"You're going to see some good racing, be with some good fans, and maybe see a good fight."

On a recent Saturday night, Lancaster Speedway checked off all three boxes, in a five hour shot of rural America in all its jean-shorts and pickup-truck splendor -- regular folk having a regular good time.

For all the sparks that flew on the track, the better action may have been in the stands. Late in the night, after some tempers and more than a few filtered cigarettes had flared, things got a little dicey.

Some words were exchanged between a big fella (probably 6-foot-2 and at least 235 pounds) and a group of women from the Dillon Crook fan club. One woman charged him, jawing all the way. Two other women joined the fray, the few men nearby standing back a bit but ready in case a punch got thrown. Eventually, the man was pushed back flat onto his Dale Earnhardt Jr. seat cushion. The cops on call came and things eventually settled, though the two warring factions glared at each other the rest of the night.

"It don't take the heat to get people going around here," track owner Doug McManus said, shaking his head.

The racing alternated between maddening and memorable. Nobody flew off the track and into the pine trees (it's happened before) and some of the back-markers with duct-tape numbers and store-bought For Sale signs didn't go much faster than the wrecker with the flat right-rear tire. But more often than not, the racing was interesting enough to keep the crowd focused on the cars.

The 12-lap Crate Sportsman feature dragged way past its allotted 20 minutes, primarily because some of the more inexperienced drivers on the track couldn't get through a lap without a caution being thrown. That led to the two wreckers getting more laps than most of the cars.

"Dang it, boys," scolded race director Bruce Arrants to the drivers over the radio system each driver wears in his helmet. "We can't stay out here all night. Let's put on a good show."

The NDRA Late Model feature was better, as the older drivers in the faster cars (they can get up to 110 mph) put on the kind of display people keep coming to see. It wasn't without incident, as the starting field of 13 cars dwindled to five by the time Ronnie Mosley ran away with the win.

Like every other race in America, there's a good feud or two, and at Lancaster Speedway, it's between Timbo Mangum and Brandy Baker. They routinely roughhouse their way to the front of the field, and have dented as many feelings as fenders along the way.

Arrants had to make an announcement in the pre-race drivers meeting warning drivers about bashing other cars during cautions and after races. Baker missed the meeting, which got him some one-on-one counseling from Arrants. He's the law around Lancaster Speedway, and the drivers listen. He worked the professional wrestling circuit as a ring set-up man for years -- and has an Arn Anderson story so foul there's no way we can repeat it here -- and rules with an iron fist, sternly threatening to park cars of those who can't line up right for a restart and orchestrating every race.

Baker, who runs a successful pulpwood business by day, cruised to a win in the Super Street feature. Instead of a number on the door panel, that car's emblazoned with "Gambler," the nickname that goes with the pair of dice painted on the back of his hauler.

But in the Late Model feature, the hoped-for duel with Mangum never materialized. Mangum rode in the middle of the pack most of the night, finishing second without drama (winning a $2,000 feature the following week was a nice consolation). Baker had just worked the nose of his car underneath Mosley for the lead when his transmission let go, killing the momentum quickly just as the crowd reached full throat. It was an anticlimactic end of the night's big race.

Of course, to hear Duane Goins tell the story, nothing on the track is anything short of Armageddon.

The veteran track announcer -- who used to run a wildly popular after-hours bar on Lake Wylie and has a night-full of stories about the wrestlers, writers and working-class crowd that frequented the place -- pumps the crowd like a carnival barker. He keeps the fans posted on what's happening on the track, between hawking tickets for the 50-50 raffle and pushing the concession stand wares (you don't need his recommendation to try the bologna burger, with chili and mustard and onions, a quarter-pound of greasy glory).

"There's no double yellow line here," Goins howls as cars slide three-wide through Turn 1, some of them down in the loose mud, referring to the no-pass lines at some of the bigger Nascar tracks.

"See if Timbo's got anything for him," he cried out before a pass that never came around.

"Let me hear you if you're with Brandy Baker Nation," he implored, finishing the job of whipping the crowd into a frenzy.

But at Lancaster Speedway, the action on the track is only part of the experience.

The regulars slide in for $10 a ticket (the kids are free), and you can bring pretty much whatever you want in your own cooler as long as it's not in glass.

That's led those seeking a reprieve from the heat to seek their refreshment in bulk. Joel Sinnett was there celebrating his father's birthday, and walked away smiling from the press box after they announced a personal greeting to his dad.

A local church drops off a bus load of kids early in the evening, and for every can of beer there seems to be a kid with a juice box or a can of soda in the hands of a teenager.

Track owner McManus talks about the changes in the track in recent years, mentions the playground (complete with a babysitter) for the little ones, and the alcohol-free family sections. He said he tried bumping admission to $12 a few years back, but reverted when the regulars howled at the prospect of a non-round number.

For all the free-for-all it appears at times, the racing is top-shelf. McManus oversees a crew that dumps 90,000 gallons of water a week on the half-mile, and grooms it with the wreckers and various trucks until the turns are slick as glass. That keeps the dust down early, but by the end of the night you're going to have a layer of Carolina's finest red clay on your car hood thick enough to write a novel, even after you drive home on the other side of midnight.

You've also got a chance to see something special.

A few weeks ago, Ricky Morton of the Rock n' Roll Express professional wrestling team was here signing autographs and taking pictures with fans (there's a strong cross-pollenation between wrestling and dirt-track racing). They routinely draw strong fields of better than 80 cars a night, giving most of the fans in the stands a rooting interest in a neighbor or co-worker.

But mostly, it's a community coming together, people who work and shop and eat next to each other all week rolling in to reacquaint with a beer, kick back and relax.

"These people are like a family," said Scotty Mackey, who drops the flag on every race and directs the cars like a conductor. "I've seen six hotshoes who can't stand each other on the track be pallbearers for a woman who watched them every week. They'll knock each other around on Saturday night and see each other in church on Sunday morning.

"It's a weird family, but it's a family."

In many precincts, the racing and its fans have gone corporate and sterile. There's no chance of that here.

There's too much going on -- on the track and in the stands -- for a night like this to ever be described as boring.

"See anything interesting here tonight?" Toothpick grinned and asked the first-timer, nodding in the direction of the Crook fan club section.

"I'd say this was pretty much a normal night out here."

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