(NOTE: I wrote this in 2008 for The Racing Journal. TRJ, which covered short-track racing in north-central North Carolina and south-central Virginia, ended after four months because of the economy.)
CROWD WOOFS IT UP DURING 'BIG DOG'
By Tom Gillispie
JULIAN — Most Big Dog Shootout fans were winding down around 10:30 on Thursday, May 1. The action was pretty much over, and cars were streaming off the property.
But Jack Napier was just revving up.
An excited Napier was fluttering around Todd Tutterow's orange Willy's race car. As he got photos of himself with Tutterow and hugged various people, he exclaimed about the excitement on the track and Tutterow in particular. Tutterow smiled and patiently stood for pictures and listened to the jacked-up Napier.
Strangely, the Los Angeles native said that when he flew to North Carolina to see friend Shelanda Jones of Hillsboro, he had no idea that he would visit Piedmont Dragway. In fact, he was afraid Jones meant that they were going to have to actually race when she said they were going racing.
He said he'd been to drag races before, but he had no idea who Todd Tutterow was. But he was making up for lost time.
"I've never been this close and personal before," said Napier, who often used "my good man" when addressing someone.
"He's a very charming man, very personable man," he said of Tutterow. "After I saw the way he did on track, my God! It was acceleration and exhilaration!"
Other fans were also excited, although in a little calmer manner. Many of them had been here before.
"Sometimes it's something to do on a Thursday night," said Mike Lee of Greensboro. "I did this as a teenager, and I sort of got away from it. I remember the gravel pits they had here."
Lee was asked who his favorite driver was.
"Ronnie Gardner," the 55-year-old Lee said. "We used to go to the same church."
Antonio Randolph of Mebane had come along with his dad, Ray.
"I've been coming here since I was seven, and I'm 37," Randolph said, adding that Ray Randolph drove a '61 Impala here years ago.
The junior Randolph, unlike Napier, was a veteran Tutterow fan.
"I've been following him for three or four years," Randolph said. "I'm a Ford fan, and it made me feel good when I saw his Mustang. And I've always loved blown motors.
"I try to make Big Dog. I've gone to Farmington a few times, and races at Rockingham and Dinwiddie, Va."
Kenny Black of Halifax County, Va., has also been to Virginia Motorsports Park in Dinwiddie, Va. So have buddies Moses Ruffin and Harold Neverson of Petersburg, Va.
"If we're not working, we're here," Ruffin said. "We love the horsepower. Wherever there are fast cars, we're there. We love the adrenaline."
Black said that he rides with a friend to various tracks.
"I like Big Dog best," he said. "I think the fans here love Todd Tutterow. I believe he has more fans than anybody."
Black's a Tutterow fan, too.
"I want to see him get outrun sometimes," said Black. "I like him, but I don't like to see him win all the time."
Black got his wish Thursday, as Tutterow had to settle for winning the consolation final.
"I like to get away from home now and then," Black said, explaining his visit to the racetrack. He said he has his wife's blessing about going to the races. "She doesn't mind as long as I don't go all the time," he said. "And as long as I don't spend too much."
Joe Jackson and Stump Mabe, both of Greensboro, came together Thursday and have been to Piedmont Dragway many times. Jackson, 68, said he raced there in the '50s.
Benny Vickers, also of Greensboro, said he came to the first race at Piedmont Dragway in 1957.
"They had drag racing on dirt," the 60-year-old said. "I was 10 years old."
Vickers said he attends two or three Big Dogs a year.
"I want to go to them all, but I don't," he said. "Sometimes I have to look after my grandson Jake or do something for the family."
Vickers, who had been watching race videos on a TV screen, looked around and added, "I love the fact that there's something like this around here."
Several fans said they love drag racing but can't stand circle-track racing. Others like both. Vickers said he's been involved in NASCAR racing himself.
"A lot of circle-track people come here, too," Jackson added.
Short-track or dirt fans would have been right at home in some ways -- a group of fans had pickup trucks backed up to a fence and were sitting in the beds.
The stands were nearly standing-room-only, just as they were a month earlier for Big Dog, and fans were crowding the walking and standing areas as well. After a pass, men would reach out and bash fists, or they'd clap each other on the back. Or they'd hurry over to talk trash with a companion.
Occasionally, someone would openly count his money after a transaction.
Some fans took photos with cell phones. Women and children milled around among the men; many fans carried coolers, and sometimes a child stood on a cooler to get a better view.
Many fans put their fingers in their ears when the cars passed by, and most of the people wearing hearing protection were children.
And track personnel walk around with microphones, talking to fans and stoking the crowd's energy.
Derrick Florence of Eden was leaning against a fence and quietly watching.
"I don't come as much as I used to," he said. "I used to come every week."
He said that fans will talk trash with their friends and try to predict who'll win.
Marvin Lewis of Cary was looking over the cars. At 6-7, he towered over them.
"I've been coming to the races since I was a little boy," Lewis said. "I don't miss a Big Dog event. I'm just a race fan. I have a race car myself, a '66 Mustang Fastback. It's under construction, and I'll run bracket races at Roxboro (Motorsports Dragway) or go to Dunn-Benson (Dragstrip)."
The Big Dog crowd is a far cry from a NASCAR crowd, since probably half of the crowd is black. Some, like Lewis, Ruffin and Neverson, are racers. Others, like Randolph, have fathers who raced. Others still, like Napier and Black, got introduced to drag racing by a friend.
"They (blacks) like it; they like the racing," Black said.
Ruffin recalled his wife's puzzlement a few years ago when they went to another dragway on a Friday.
"She looked around and said, 'Mose, where are all the black people at?' " he said with a laugh. "I said, 'On Saturday, they'll come, and it'll be packed.' "
Like Big Dog.
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