The Life and Death of Rockbridge Raceway
She was dead. The surprise of it was plain in his eyes, though there was no one with him to see it. He had somewhat expected it, her demise, had prepared himself for it, but it is different to be there, to take death in through one’s own senses, the awful stillness of it. Laid bare, she looked for all the world like the carcass of some desert animal, her kinetic energy sapped, her flesh weathered, dusted, and torn like carrion, her skeleton bleached by the sky. She had always been small, but she was even smaller than he remembered. The whole valley seemed smaller. Isn’t it strange, how time shrinks the warmer memories while expanding the cold ones? Still, she retained a shadowy reminder of beauty past, of the racetrack the boys lovingly called, “The Dirty Girl.”
Telling his age, Robert “Croc” Odell had been here the day she was born. Robert was thirteen when the boys came swaggering back from their service in the second big war, returning home with newly acquired skills, cognitions, and with an itch for adventure sparked by a passion to live which had been handed on to them by those who had not. Many of them came home seeking jobs of course, but others of them were simply searching for something to do, their purpose at a seeming end, if their lives were not. Eldridge Langley was one of those types. Robert’s brother Custis somehow caught word of what Eldridge was doing here that day, and being a good older brother, Custis brought Robert along to enjoy the fun. In so doing, Custis implanted the racing bug into the younger sibling he‘d long since begun calling “Croc” due to the thick spectacles which near-sightedness forced his younger brother to wear.
Eldridge Langley had really done it. He’d “borrowed” a bulldozer from the interstate highway construction site and had driven the thing all the way out to Rockbridge using every bit of it’s 12 mph top speed so as to get there unseen by the sheriff or his cronies. Eldridge expertly maneuvered the behemoth tractor off the highway and onto a flat stretch of government land just off of Rural Route 7, where he commenced to clearing, grading, and scraping. The cigar puffing Eldridge was loudly engaged in this work when Custis and young Robert arrived in their flatbed farm truck to see what he was about, and to help if they might, but mostly the pair sat on the the truck’s tailgate and cheered him on as both the Churchill cigar clutched between Eldridge's jaws, and the Caterpillar tractor he'd lassoed, fumed out their own distinct, stinking gray smokes through overworked exhaust flaps in protest against being so rudely manhandled on a Sunday afternoon.
There having been a training camp in the lower valley during the war years, I am perfectly aware that one of the many and best things that the U.S. Army has going for it is a knack for discovering a man’s talents. It is how Eldridge wound up a Seabee rather than an infantryman, not that being a Seabee had been any less dangerous for an American in the South Pacific. Hell, fully half of Eldridge’s unit had been lost on The Canal. In the same way, Robert’s brother Custis had wound up in the motor pool, and his Uncle Charley, who could bark a squirrel with a .22 from twenty-five yards away, was made a sniper. But as it turns out, those same traits which can make a man a soldier must also make a good racer, ’cause every damn one of those Rockbridge Valley rascals who made it home in one piece not only could drive fast, but they would... anytime, and everywhere. If it’s doing the same thing over and over again that gets you called crazy, then what do you call someone who does it over and over while going faster and faster?
A durned fool of a race car driver, that’s what you call him.
When the sheriff finally told Eldridge to get the hell off the county roads and find a racetrack somewhere, Eldridge one-upped him. Mind you, for a twenty-one year old kid who had already built three airstrips atop volcanic islands all while under enemy fire, building something so simple as a racetrack didn’t seem like a big deal. So Eldridge did it. He built himself a track right here in Rockbridge, never-minding that he didn't own a tractor to grade it. Eldridge's racetrack wasn't paved. Nor were there any bleacher’s at Eldridge’s track; nor concessions, nor pit crews, nor scoreboards, nor rules, nor spectators, nor prize monies, nor any need for numbers on the sides of the cars, as those few in attendance knew exactly which car was whose. Nope, Eldridge’s racetrack was every bit as plain and without “show” as the airstrips he’d built in the South Pacific had been, but also like them, it was plenty functional. In the beginning the boys generally went at it two cars for ten laps, and the slower car had better get the hell out of the way. There was little need for civilities like helmets or seatbelts, as young men who survived war cannot be hurt. All that really mattered was that the man in the lead knew he’d won. That was how it was back in them days, and the old folks who disapproved kept themselves away from Rockbridge Valley on the theory that what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them.
"Give the boys their fun," even the prudish types remarked. "They've certainly earned it."
Born tinkerers, it was the army taught our Rockbridge boys how to build cars, and how to make them go faster. How to turbocharge them I mean, and how to bore out the valves, and to increase carburetion so as to squirt more fuel and air for increased combustion and therefore power… hence speed. But they were also smart kids who made up for their lack of formal educations through hillbilly innovation and invention, learning tricks of their own by fusing common sense with old fashioned trial and error. They raced the original American muscle; Ford flatheads, Chevy small blocks, and Dodge “Firepower” V-8’s. The Rockbridge racers built them fast, and they built them loud. The upper valley roared come Saturday and Sunday afternoons as the boys turned out to flex their mechanical muscle, kicking up dust and denting fenders. Sheriff Robertson showed out himself one Saturday, to the delight of everyone in attendance, wanting to test his government issue flathead against the boys’ home-styled modifications. But the sheriff didn’t show well that day, which led to Custis leaving the family farm to make better, easier money in town on the payroll of the sheriff’s motorpool. Sheriff Robertson had not shown well that day, but he would never again be slow when it mattered. Custis Odell saw to that.
I said before that there were no spectators, but of course it wasn’t true. Aren’t there always those few rubberneckers who can’t not see a good wreck? That was young Robert, back in those days. He would stand a good ways back from the track, alongside those few who were foolish enough to want to witness the craziness of it, far enough away that they’d have plenty of time to run when one of the boys got sideways, which happened often enough, and not even a guardrail to slow them down when they left the track. And if a car took to rolling those few spectators would run back into the danger zone, hurrying to yank the unfortunate driver out with the fear of a fire in them that somehow never sparked.
But those simple days couldn’t last, could they? Even in a timeless valley like this one change is the one constant. It is easy now to see, looking back, that those times were far too happy to last, but it was not so obvious in the moment. As the reputation of Eldridge’s track grew, the weekends brought more and more people to it. Like shavings to a magnet hotshot drivers from the surrounding counties were drawn in, hauling their own souped up muscle cars to the upper valley strapped to contrived hay trailers, or inside old horse haulers, followed by the family and friends who cheered them on. The possibility of even a tiny dab of local fame was such an unavoidable intoxication that soon, out of necessity, rather than two cars duking it out one-on-one there were now five or more cars at any one time giving battle out on the nearly egg-shaped half-mile oval, and soon after that ten or more cars. Sensing opportunity, it was Sheriff Robertson who began to organize things; putting up guardrails, charging admissions, and offering prize monies. This was about the same time when big brother Custis married Liza Weyandt and handed young Robert the keys to his prized Dodge, at Liza’s insistence. But either way, there never lived a sixteen year old who wanted a set of keys more.
Young Robert loved those older guys more than anything, but he was different than they were. Not having survived a war Robert thought differently than they did, and he did things differently. Robert wasn’t one of those older, harder-edged guys who got their kicks bumping and banging away at each other down along the bottom of the racetrack. Young Robert set his goal to win.
First off, Robert was just a tyke when Custis first saw him in his new googly-eye glasses. The glasses were why Custis saddled him with the nickname ”Crocodell,” or simply “Croc” most of the time, but it still played out when his last name was added along with it, as in CrocOdell, a play on "crocodile." It also turned out that Croc Odell made for a great racing name, somehow reaching the audience through the tinny, carnival P.A. speakers when no other name seemed to make it past the roaring of the engines. It was nothing for some farmer clear across the lower valley to hear an excited Sheriff Robertson hollering into his microphone from his makeshift press box, “… and in the outside lane here comes Croc Odell chewing up the competition! Odell pulls even with the leader in the final turn… and it’s Croc Odell taking the win by a nose!”
But Robert worked hard for all those victories. No one worked harder than that kid. Friendless but for Custis and the boys, the younger Robert took time on weekdays to go to the track and practice, something the older guys would never have dreamed of, running laps all on his own, timing those laps in his head, and filling the upper valley with daily thunder. Robert searched until he found the fastest grooves, marking them so that they could be found and used even when in the confusion of dust and heavy traffic. Enlisting help, Robert and Custis mounted the one hundred gallon tank they used to water the cows to the bed of their farm truck. They rigged up a valve near the cab so that Custis could drive around between races, or “heats” as they came to be known, spraying the clay down until it was slick as snot. They tied old tires behind the pouring water and used them to drag any ruts driven into the clay smooth again, allowing Robert the surface he needed to slide the Dodge racer Custis had given him gracefully through the turns, steering with the throttle, rather than releasing it. Using these strategies Robert raced away from the beaters and bangers, and he won… a lot. With the increase in prize monies, Robert took on his Uncle Charley and Jesse Tipton as a crew. The three of them carried Custis’ motors out on the road, chasing ever bigger dollars at ever bigger tracks. Over time the trio made them all, following the paychecks to Bristol, Martinsville, Richmond and Nashville. They hauled that old Dodge all the way down to Rockingham, Darlington, Myrtle Beach and even Jacksonville. Once they made it clear to Daytona, giving the beach a run, and scoring themselves an unlikely top ten finish down there against against the "big boys."
But there was nothing that compared to their little Rockbridge Raceway. It always called them back home, the racetrack that had been so good to them all… except, that is, for the one who fathered it. Eldridge Langley broke his fool neck the very first night under Sheriff Robertson’s brand new lights, not long after the concrete wall had been built to circle the track and the wooden bleachers built. And just as Eldridge had done for his buddies back on The Canal; everyone shed a tear that night, said a quiet prayer, and then went back to racing. They did so because “that’s what Eldridge would have wanted,” was what they said to one another. Isn’t this world just a wild, man-eating beast, wars or no wars?
But bottled thrills are intoxicating concoctions that, once drunk, are difficult for a country boy to re-cork, until tight-roping the edge of death becomes not only tolerated, but encouraged, expected even. Faster, longer, and bigger meant that progress eventually found it’s way to Rockbridge, along with seatbelts and helmets, and that worst of all things… promoters. Eldridge’s little country race track took on a new identity with him gone, almost as if it had killed Eldridge so that it could grow outside of him. But irregardless of how it grew, as with anything that isn't dying, grow it did.
But just like anyone else’s, the old dirt track’s glory days went by fast, and were few. The old girl rests idle now, her catch fence rusted, her megaphones sagging, her bleachers rotted and broken. Custis is gone, and Eldridge of course, and Uncle Charley, and even Sheriff Robertson. All of the people and personalities that made the track great are gone to time… and so, for all intent and purpose, is Rockbridge Raceway itself.
But she is different than they were, isn’t she? It would not take much to bring her back, to give her new life, would it? A couple of high-spirited good old boys could do it. Two flat-topped kids with greasy jeans, greasy t-shirts, and greasy fingernails. Two youngsters with a dollop of the old courage and a pair of fast cars is all it would need to bring her back. In fact, just one car could do it, really. Or even one truck, if the man in it took the notion. She might live again, ”The Dirty Girl” might, which was why Robert Odell had returned to her today... to see if she might be resuscitated, or rather to find out whether either one of them, him or her, might have a spark left inside them, and possibly to give the valley back it’s lost thunder. The calm is a deafening noise for one so accustomed to making thunder.
I can’t say I know exactly what Robert Odell was thinking, or feeling, as he sat there that day looking the old track over, but I think I know him well enough to have a pretty good idea. The drive out would have been plenty enough to exhaust the age-spotted hands driving the old truck. One of those hands probably shook, gripped almost helplessly upon the steering wheel, the other upon the shifter. And who knows? The hand resting on the shifter might have lifted up to swipe something away from a misty eye as it looked over what had become of his only love, having to edge up under a clinging pair of bifocals to do so. Robert’s decibel damaged ears were likely tuned to the reverberating echo of Custis’ mechanical skills as he sat, thrilling to a symphony which played on in the truck’s low rumble long after Custis was no more. And Robert might have released the brake, allowing Custis’ motor to idle the old truck in through the opened gate and onto the raceway’s time worn clay. And just as the truck’s rumble was haunted by a youthful Custis, the very act of being on the track again would have undoubtedly created a shadowy mirage of Eldridge Langley in Robert’s aged mind, fabricating ghostly images of a young man with a Churchill cigar expertly working the levers high atop a Caterpillar tractor as he labored out his love.
Having witnessed it on many occasions, I would call it likely that Robert used his bony knees to keep the idling truck in it’s lane as his shaking hands fumbled a cigarette from a shirt pocket. Whilst pinching the filter-less Pall Mall between dry lips his eyes must have squinted pitifully against the sun and smoke as, just like in olden times, his body became one with the truck’s mechanizations; one foot pressuring in the clutch, one arm grinding reluctant gears into place, the other foot increasing the throttle, the eyes searching the rearview for lead-footed rednecks, a mouth drawing in smoke as the ears waited impatiently for the RPM’s to peak so that they might begin it all again, only faster this time. He is old. The machine is old, but the two know each other well. They have cared for one another these many years, and have somehow become old together.
The truck would likely have gathered some speed on the backstretch. An elbow might have hung out the window, it‘s shirtsleeve beating against the wind, the pair circling fast enough now that man and truck would have had to lean together into what was once turn three, though grass is grown up now along that embankment. At the old mark Robert would yank the wheel down, just as though it was a Saturday night, way back when. And the truck would want to respond. It would try to slip into a slide, it really would, but it is too old, too tired and too heavy. The truck is too weighty, it’s tires too grooved, it’s speed not nearly enough, so that instead of performing a graceful slide through the turn it bogs, it’s right front tire finding a drainage rut in the un-maintained clay and bounding upward, only to fall back into another, but with the throttle still mashed and the engine still roaring and the transmission still torquing and the tires still fighting for traction atop the broken clay; it is hopeless.
Over she goes.
There is barely a sound now; a hiss from a shattered radiator is all, and the whir of a well-greased wheel as it spins lackadaisically upon an upturned axle. And from down below the shattered steel what might have been a gasp. Whether that gasp was emitted from man, truck, or racetrack, who is to say? I certainly cannot, though I can say that I am saddened by it, and forever the lonelier for it.
It is done. His race is run. The great “Croc” Odell is dead. The upper Rockbridge Valley has fallen silent once more… though down below a worm writhes, and up above a buzzard circles.
The next “heat” in the Valley has begun.
of another “racing against life” story by Charles T. Morris.