John and Linda McCormick are making a success of Thunder Valley Speedway the old-fashioned way-they work at it. Before they bought it in 2000, what may be the most remote oval track in the nation had gone through five promoters in the previous four years, says John.

"The last promoter just padlocked the gate and walked away," he says. "Linda and I were determined that wasn't going to happen to us." The track was run down and suffering from a combination of abuse and neglect.

Thunder Valley is in Mosca, Colorado. Chances are you've never heard of it. How remote is Thunder Valley? The nearest oval is 150 miles away in any direction, and getting to any of them requires towing over at least one mountain pass.

Built in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, with the 14,000-foot Mt. Blanca dominating the horizon, the track sits at 7,600 feet elevation, making it the highest circuit in the nation, John says.

"It also gives us about the shortest racing season in the country," adds John. "We begin late and end early, and in the summer we have lots of competition from fairs and rodeos. This is real cowboy country, and the horse is pretty much king here." But horsepower ranks close behind.

On a good race night, Thunder Valley will draw 80 cars, some teams towing 270 miles round-trip just to compete on the 3/8-mile clay oval. It also draws about 850 spectators. That's not a huge number by many promoters' standards, but it is about 10 percent of the local population.

The track features a weekly program made up of Modifieds, Hobby Stocks, Mini Stocks, Super Stocks, and Stock Trucks. It also hosts the Rocky Mountain Dwarf Cars and Outlaw Mini Sprints touring shows. Its Modified program is aligned with the United Midwest Promoters Association, so visiting Modified drivers know they can unload at Thunder Valley and be legal to run.

Because the track is so remote and doesn't have an affiliation with NASCAR, ASA, or any other large sanctioning organization, few of the drivers feel that success at the oval will launch them on a career in the big leagues. "This is racing the way it began," says John. "We're out here to have fun and put on a good show. There's really not a lot of pressure to do anything other than to try to win the track championship."

And then there's the fun factor. The track keeps close links to its farming-culture fan base. Its version of soft walls are 1,000-pound bales of straw. Once a year it hosts a shootout for old, single-axle potato trucks. Another feature is putting local clergy behind the wheel for the "faster pastor" shootout. Heaven help the slow guy.

"We've made a huge effort at making the track more than just a track," John says. "We are trying to make it a community center where families feel comfortable coming to spend an evening with us. There's not an awful lot to do in the area, so we try to fill the need for wholesome entertainment."

According to Larry Garner, they've succeeded. During the week, Garner works for the Bureau of Land Management as a mechanic/fabricator/welder/fixer. On nights and weekends, he becomes "Animal" and is a former track champion in a car he works on in the shop behind his house. There are two versions of how he came to be named "Animal," and neither, he says, is fit for print.

"The McCormicks have done a wonderful job here," says Garner. "It is the nicest small-town track I've ever been at."

McCormick runs a successful produce brokerage, selling the local crop to food processors and chain stores. For entertainment, he raced a Modified at Thunder Valley and realized from firsthand experience what needed to be done to attract more cars and more fans. "But I never realized how much work it could be," he jokes. "I mean, you only race one night a week, right?"

Right.

"It became a real dilemma," he says. "It began as a hobby, a way to do something away from work, and now it is becoming more like a full-time job."

The first thing they did was get rid of portable toilets and a rickety concession stand, and build restrooms and a restaurant-style, 40x60-foot covered eating area for customers. Then they built new grandstands.

They pared the race-day payroll by taking on more of the jobs themselves and making the track operation a family affair. And this year McCormick gave up driving his Modified to run the track. "I still miss that," he says. "But there are only so many hours in the day, and something had to go."

Then he hired Ed Davis-known by the nickname "Doctor Dirt"-to look at the track surface. Davis decided it needed new clay. "The track had a pretty bad reputation," says McCormick. "Folks who raced here didn't think it raced well."

About half the clay had to be hauled in from 90 miles away. "It was expensive," he says, "but it was the right thing to do."

At a small track, sometimes it is difficult to convince everyone you are doing the right thing, says Garner. "One of the biggest problems with racing in a small town is that everyone knows one another and everyone in the pits figures everyone else is getting a special deal," he says.

"But John really does a great job at treating everyone fairly," Garner adds. "And he doesn't try to pay all the bills with entry fees. He's a class act who isn't interested only in the bottom line, and really tries to treat the racers fairly."

And about those hay bales? "You don't want to get near them," says Garner. "They are like magnets. Once you touch one, it doesn't want to let you go. I know that for a fact."

Thunder Valley Speedway, 719/852-4727, www.thundervalleyspeedway.com.

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