Sports » Sports Feature

Life in the Fast Lane.

Racers get off the streets and onto the drag strip.

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In a ground-floor window in a building adjacent to the drag strip, there is, positioned beside large, glossy advertisements, a small homemade sign. It reads: "Rooster you da man!"

Randy "Rooster" Newberry stands about 20 feet from that sign directing cars into position, checking for seat belts and helmets, and every so often letting out his trademark crow. As two cars prepare to challenge one another down the drag strip here at Memphis Motorsports Park, Rooster is engulfed in the clouds of white smoke steaming off burning tires. Before the fog has even begun to clear, Rooster is signaling in the next two drivers, who are eager to see what their machines can do.

Test and Tune, the event which Rooster oversees, opens the drag strip to the public, giving everyone the chance to race. According to Jason Rittenberry, the park's vice president and general manager, there are two distinct groups who show up for these events, which are held Tuesday and Thursday nights. The original concept was to have a space for the competitive racers who run their vehicles to test and tweak their performance. Then there are the kids. "As street racing became popular again, especially among the younger set, kids 16 to 22, we found that a lot of them were coming to the park," Rittenberry says.

The drag strip is down the road from the Motorsports Park's oval and dirt tracks and is a two-lane, quarter-mile course with bleachers on either side. In order to race, drivers pay a $15 entry fee and cars must pass inspection. About 35 vehicles are entered tonight, and some will race as many as a dozen times. The array of motorcycles and cars ranges from Suzuki "crotch rockets" to souped-up imports to American muscle cars and trucks, and even vehicles right off the lot. "I seen a fella bring in a brand new $30,000 truck," Rooster says. "I said, 'Man, you sure you wanna do this?' and he told me if it broke, he'd just tell 'em he was pullin' stumps."

Serious Test and Tune racers invest quite a bit of time and money into their vehicles. "The guys who race every weekend probably put about $10,000 to $25,000 a year into their vehicles to stay competitive," says Kenny Boyce, a longtime racer. Boyce, who has been racing in Memphis since he was a teenager, says being a dedicated racer is a lifestyle.

"My car is basically my wife," he says. "I would love to see this place open later and more often so that more of the street racing could be done here."

The Motorsports Park offers its drag strip as an alternative to street racing. Here, young drivers can race at the same speeds they do on the street, but under the eye of professionals and on a contained track. Interacting with professional staffers and racers, the kids might even learn something about racing and safety.

Safety comes first in the form of the vehicle inspection, but the next line of defense is Rooster himself. Before one race, he coaches a teenager who is smoking his tires, a technique used to heat up the rubber and provide better traction for the run. "You see Rooster? He's makin sure no one has to go home and tell their mamma they broke her car," says Doug Franklin, the park's public relations director.

Rooster talks to everyone who pulls up to the drag strip, looking them in the eyes and gauging them with the concern of a boxing referee who might stop a fight. "I'm usually looking right at them," says Rooster, "but they are looking past me, straight down to the end of that track."

Rooster agrees that the track is a much safer environment for racing than the streets. "I wish I could find someone to sponsor these kids," he says wistfully, knowing it's impossible to secure big sponsors for local racers. "I want this place open more nights and from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., 'cause when they get done here they just go straight to [the streets]. Between these walls, they can only hurt themselves."

Trying to eliminate street racing probably requires more than just offering a safer alternative. "The kids like to feel like outlaws," Rooster explains. "I know. I used to be just like them."

The possibility of arrest, fines and loss of vehicles is not enough to deter many avid street racers. Kerwin Whitfield, who works with the Wicked Racing team, explains: "The problem here is they have the boards turned on, so people can see your times." Street racers want to be able to go head to head, without their challengers knowing exactly what kind of times their cars are capable of making.

On the drag strip, two motorcycles are in a fast duel, topping out at 153 mph. In the parking lot, a crowd has gathered. "Beat that time? You can't beat that time!" one man says to another. A third man steps in and ends the argument matter-of-factly: "Just tell 'em we gotta race." n

Test and Tune is 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Memphis Motorsports Park, 5500 Taylor Forge Drive.

Ben Popper

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