Thunder road

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(HOST) Recently, commentator Willem Lange experienced a Vermont tradition, and loved it.

(LANGE) The green stamp on the back of my hand has faded. Not many people would know where I got it. Any Vermont racing fan could tell in a moment. Mother and I have been to Thunder Road.

You may remember the 1958 movie Thunder Road, which starred the late Robert Mitchum as a bootlegger plying his trade in the mountains of Tennessee by night, pursued by both the Feds and some very nasty minions of organized crime. That movie was no doubt the inspiration for the name of the quarter-mile asphalt track a little way up Quarry Hill Road in Barre. Carved out of a hillside in 1960 and surrounded by second-growth hardwoods, the track is pure Vermont. It’s a bit startling, after watching NASCAR races on television, in which the cars hurtle around huge ovals at speeds around two hundred miles an hour, to come upon this quarter-miler. It’s paved and banked, but there are no two hundred-mile-an-hour speeds here. The track record is thirteen point four seconds, which computes to about sixty miles an hour.

The pole position at Thunder Road is the place to be. You can hold off the other cars almost indefinitely at the entrance to each curve. It isn’t till the leaders begin to lap the slower cars and things get confusing that the drivers behind get a chance to sneak into first place.

It’s easy to find Thunder Road. Just follow the Dodge Ram pickups and the pocket rockets with the spoilers high over their trunks and their mufflers disabled. Getting out of the car, we were bathed in the thunder of racing cars. Conversation was a problem. Admission isn’t cheap, but a lot of Vermonters like racing; the place was packed, and it was clearly a family thing to do.

A friend cautioned us to change after church and “dress down.” That’s tough for Mother; she doesn’t own any slacks. I wore my work clothes. But guessing that black might be the color of choice among the racing crowd, I wore a black T-shirt visible at the neck of my work shirt (black undershorts, too; you never can tell).

The grandstand area is alcohol-free. Our bleachers, near the front gate, were on “Bud Hill,” after its denizens’ beverage of choice. Still, they were a lot less raucous than the bleachers at Fenway.

The race series was called the Milk Bowl. The winner for the day, besides taking home a hefty chunk of money, got to kiss the Milk Bowl Queen, a Holstein cow.

I checked the roster. Cyr, Demers, Dragon, Michaud, Dion, Fecteau and a couple of Irishmen. Like Montreal traffic on St. Patrick’s Day.

The first race, the cars started in the order of their qualifying. The second was more up my alley: they started in reverse order of their previous finish, putting a premium on threading through slower traffic at high speed like the road between Hanover and Norwich during rush hour. I got all excited; afterward, on the way out, I purchased a bumper sticker for my Toyota: FEAR ME!

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

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