The lessons sometimes come...
The lessons sometimes come hard for these youngsters, as shown in this first-lap melee.
Serenity Sutherland gets a...
Serenity Sutherland gets a little advice from Earl Harp, who helps officiate the Bandit races.
Youthful faces like Kirsten...
Youthful faces like Kirsten Dombroski appear every race night at Black Rock Speedway.
The Bandits receive adult...
The Bandits receive adult treatment. Here, Joe Kurtz handles a Victory Lane interview.
The phrase Black Rock Bandits might conjure up an image from an old Western, one of scruffy, gun-toting thieves about to rob a stagecoach or dynamite a safe.
But if you venture to Lin Houghs Black Rock Speedway in Dundee, New York, youll find that the Bandits are a bunch of fuzzy-cheeked youngsters, clad in Nomex underwear and firesuits instead of jeans and cowboy hats. They carry wrenches, not guns, as they prepare for battle; the mustangs they command are Fords, not horses.
Still, theyre every bit as serious about what they do as the outlaws of a bygone era.
Black Rock Speedway is a short drive from Watkins Glen in the scenic Finger Lakes vineyard region. The tracks four-cylinder division for children 12 to 16 came about when promoter Hough ran into former racer Dean Hoag at a sandwich shop. Hoags son was ready to move up from go-karts.
We wanted something for the youths, but K and K Insurance would only insure kids 15 and older with special consent, Hough says. Then I got to talking with Dean, who had found out
that even younger kids were allowed as long as it was just kids racing together. We didnt want them to have to build new cars, so we decided they could use the same four-cylinder cars as the adults.
My idea was to have the fathers and sons run the same cars on the same nights, which is what many do, Hoag says. Thats helped the division evolve, and its one of the reasons its so popular. After running a year at age 14, DIRT (Dirt Motorsports) let my son, Alex, move into the Late Models, since he had experience. Now, at 16, hes in a 358 Modified.
Learning the Ropes
It was a big learning curve, recalls Alex, who was named DIRT 358 Modified Rookie of the Year in 2000. Id never been in a car of any sort before. All Id run was Micros and go-karts. The first night, I couldnt get it into gear at all. We had a couple of red flags, and I had to restart in front of the whole grandstand in second gear. I didnt know how to use the clutch and stalled a couple of times, but I learned real quickly after being embarrassed there.
Alex, the grandson of Modified legend Dutch Hoag, soon proved he was a natural racer, as has Matt Sheppard, who has gone from the Bandits to the DIRT Sportsman division, which he dominated in 2000 at age 17. Two other drivers, Donnie Lawson and Matt Balmer, advanced to the adult four-cylinder class when they aged out of the Bandits. It appears that the 4-year-old division will produce a steady stream of upwardly mobile competitors.
My dad got into the four-cylinders, then we started building chassis, says Josh Mills, an experienced racer in the ninth grade. He shared a car in 1999, then in 2000 built his own because he kept smashing up the shared ride. We get $800 for a basic chassis and two grand for a complete car, Josh says. Late in 2000, he had a dozen old Mustangs ready to build.
Whenever Josh is on the track, his mother is at the fence, cheering him on while maintaining a watchful eye. Ida Austin says she isnt nervous. Some nights a few kids get a bit wild, but usually its pretty good, she says. They learn a lot from watching the older kids and listening to their parents, and every week the racing gets better. Everybody comes to win, but we try to teach them that its about having fun, not just winning. Hes learned not to get mad and to use his head more. He knows that if he gets in trouble or gets below an 80 average in school, he cant race.
Class in Session
Earl Harp, a four-time Black Rock Super Stock champion, looks after the youngsters for Hough. A teacher by profession, Harp relates well to the Bandits and knows the intricacies of the sport.
One night, one of the boys tried to tell me that hed lifted and shouldnt have gotten the black flag for pushing someone up the straightaway, Harp recalls. I just told him Look, Ive been there and done that, and he changed his whole tune.
These kids are really coachable. They listen, both the boys and the girls. You can tell them something, and theyll adjust. Josh, for instance, likes the high line, but a lot of the time he ends up getting into the wall. Ive been working with him to know when to move down, and hes really improved.
While the Bandits 10-lap race is for trophies only, the competitors are treated just like the adults.
If they screw up, its just like in the regular classes, Harp says. If theyre a danger to themselves or everybody else, we put em on the trailer, then after the race I go over and explain what happened and why. Thats not the fun part of this job. We recently black-flagged the point leader for taking the race leader out on the last lap, so they all know theyre accountable for what they do.
Racing isnt as easy as it looks from the stands, says young Brett Vanzile. You have to learn things, like how to stay in the groove and how to get away from somebody who runs into you. Mr. Harp has talked to me a couple of times. He told me I shouldnt do something again and that its not right to tell other drivers how they did. He wants us to tell them they did a good job, and theyll do better next time.
Thirteen-year-old Kirsten Dombroski is on the younger end of the scale but says being young, and a female to boot, doesnt phase me one bit. Were all friends here, and the boys dont give us a hard time. I didnt go as fast as Id expected the first time, but since then Ive gotten a lot faster.
My friends in school told me I wouldnt survive the first year, but I tell them its just another sport to me.
Another Bandit who may be headed to the sprinters is Joe Kurtz, who calls his mom and dad really good parents for buying him a $2,000 race car.
It was pretty easy to talk them into it, because they wanted to do it just as much as I did, Joe says. My dad raced in the old days and wanted to get involved again. He wants to get a sprint car when I get a little older, because thats what he really likes.
Unlike many of the other teens, Joe had been driving for a few years around his dads junkyard, giving him a feel that many need most of a season to accumulate.
At first, they think that whenever they step on the brake pedal, the car will stop, Harp says. Thats a big lesson. What they lack is seat time. Theyve never been on the road and dont know things everybody else takes for granted. I had to set a couple of guys down, then tell them you cant go through a wreck full-bore to pick up three spots. Until they crash, they dont really know how hard they can hit.
Its a lot more than cars going around in circles like my friends think, says 14-year-old Steve Oven. Youve got to work on the car, learn how to weave through traffic, get a line and follow it, and stay out of trouble. I share a car with Jack Harris. My dad and some other guys work on the car, too, and what I learn is what breaks. Thats how I learnreplacing whatever breaks.
Ovens sentiments are echoed by 16-year-old Serenity Sutherland, described by Kurtz as fast and pretty hard to get around.
I watched my dad and then tried to copy him and the other drivers, Serenity says. It took a long time to learn. Sometimes things work, and sometimes they dont. Its hard to explain, but I like when you dont have to think. Racing gets to be like walking: You do it instinctively and react to what happens without having to think about what to do.
Ive definitely learned how to work on the car, because Dad wont do all the work. I can change tires, I know how to change struts, and I can take engines out in my sleep. The boys seem to get it quicker, but I do get it after a while. I was worried about driving a standard shift, but its easy. We race in second gear so you dont have to shift over and up, just straight down.
What do other kids in her school think? Some are really impressed; others just look at you funny, Serenity says. They dont know that Ive gotten a few new boyfriends here.
Keeping It Safe
By any measure, the Bandits division is a success. The night Stock Car Racing visited Black Rock, Joe Kurtz, who tows some 90 miles from Pennsylvania to compete, won his fourth feature by inches with a last-turn pass. He couldnt remember the names of all his sponsors, but he made it a point to thank everybody who helped before leaving Victory Lane.
The Bandits run first on the card, so the cars shared with dads or friends can be prepared for further action. Most of the drivers intently watch the other divisions, knowing that there is always more to be learned.
Some of these kids can barely reach the pedals, and when they start, we wonder about them. But after a few weeks, theyre better than some of the adults, Hough says. My big concern is their safety, and Earl does a great job with that.
Hough, a standout Modified racer himself before becoming a promoter, acknowledges the risk inherent in any motorized competition but says the community is solidly behind the program.
We even have strong support from local police and state troopers, he says. Its taken some kids who normally spent their time on the street corners and given them some direction in life. Theyve got a race car, their friends help them on the cars during the week, and theyre all here on Friday night. The Black Rock pits teem with youngsters, nurturing a new generation of mechanics and a bumper crop of drivers.
The Bandits bring everybody from their friends to their grandparents, Hough says. Were a basic family track with a focus on fun, not business, and the Bandits are an important part of that.