By Mitch Clements
I have been a race fan all my life. As a kid just out of high school, I had a '68 Camaro that I used to take out to the local drag strip and race on weekends. These days, a kid just out of high school normally wouldn't be able to afford a '68 Camaro, but this was back in the swinging 70's when you could buy a nice one for just $1000. I wish I had hung onto all my cars from back then. I had GTO's, Chevelles, a Mustang, an El Camino, and a Buick Grandsport all purchased for around $1000 each, give or take a little. The best buy I made was a '66 Impala SS convertible, original one owner with 39k miles for $75. I'm guessing it would be worth about $30k now.
Ah, but to get back to the subject at hand, racing. As much as I enjoyed the drag strip, what I really wanted to do was race dirt track. From the first time I saw a circle track race as a kid, I dreamed about what it would be like to be out there bumping and grinding around the track with all those other cars fighting for the same real estate. As much as I enjoyed watching the action from the grandstands, I wanted to be out there!
Reality quickly put the brakes on those dreams. Racing requires mass amounts of time, money and skill. Yes, there's a lot more to it than knocking out the windows and installing a roll cage. If you want to run up front, you're going to need a strong motor and chassis set-up. It also helps if you can drive.
I was 36 when I met my wife Ashley. (My fist marriage didn't work out, it took a second try for me to get it right.) I knew right away she was my meant-to-be. Ashley encouraged me to start my own business (Clements Contracting Co. Inc) and get out on the racetrack. I bought an old '79 Malibu from a friend to get my feet wet. It was on its last leg, but it ran and came with a trailer. Some friends who owned local businesses sponsored me, so I threw on a paint job and some lettering and headed off to Mt. Pleasant Speedway for my first night of racing. It seemed like half the town was there to watch, including my sponsors, Harvercamp Sales, Outdoor Adventures, R.D. Prime, A&B Plumbing, Dave's Contracting, Elek Oil Co, and Terry's Auto Parts.
While in the lead of the first heat race, as luck would have it, my steering wheel broke coming out of turn 4 and I introduced myself to the wall. It was the most fun I ever had in my life! I couldn't wait to get the car home and fix it for the next week.
Later, I was in a Malibu exchanging quite a bit of paint one night with a Monte Carlo. The other driver and I also exchanged a few choice words after the race. After the dust settled though, we became friends. When I saw a 'For Sale' sign on his car (I guess he got tired of my tire marks decorating his ride) I took it home with me. He kept the motor and his seat, so I recycled my seat and had my motor rebuilt. My brother-in-law, Wayne, pit crewman/mechanic from the start, had a trying time keeping that car running – you name it, it broke. Rear-end blew out, overheated, carb trouble, distributor... and the next season it just got worse. In the first race of the second season I met up with another car on the front stretch, took a turn sideways and rolled it 5 times. Took most of the summer to get it drivable again, never mind pretty.
Back on the track I was lined up in the 2nd row coming out of turn 2, when I began to pass the guy who had the pole on the bottom side. Well, he broke something and decided to turn into the infield while I was running alongside him. He caught me on the right side and sent me barrel rolling again, this time I took 4 rolls. The driver passing on top was unable to stop and hit me while I was upside down. I made close acquaintance with his front bumper, hard enough to crack my helmet. Through the haze of the safety crew and Wayne asking if I was ok, I heard my wife demand, "That's it! We're done with this #&%@$ racing!"
It looked like I was going to be a spectator again for a while.
6 years later, Tri-City Motor Speedway reopened under the new ownership of Steve and Denny Puvalowki (it had been closed for years). Even better, they were tearing out the asphalt to lay a 3/8-mile clay track. A dirt track just 5 miles from my front door! Obviously, I was meant to race-¬ I just had to convince my wife.
The first year we watched from the grandstands every Friday night. Meanwhile, I went on the hunt for a car. I planned to tell my wife when I drove one home. Little was I aware that she knew what I was up to, so thankfully she was not too surprised when I pulled into the driveway with race car and trailer we'd seen for sale the week before.
I spent the better part of the winter getting the motor built, and everything else together. In the past, Wayne would do that for me, but we lost him in his own rollover accident a few years back on his way home from work. He is truly missed.
I thought it was ready for opening night, but at the last minute a problem with the motor stalled us out for about 5 races. I began to wonder if I should really be coming back to the sport. By the time I got back on the track, I ended up putting all the original sponsors on the car free of charge. I felt I owed them; they didn't get their monies' worth on the previous car.
I had to promise my wife I would be more careful this time out, and avoid any rollovers. It's working out a whole lot better this way, as it's much easier when you're able to load the car on the trailer under its own power.
Come on out and see us at Tri-City Motor Speedway. It's family friendly, good fun, and the folks who run the show couldn't be nicer people!
**I want to dedicate this racing season to Donna Clements, my mother and my best friend, who left us way too soon.