Volume II, Issue 9, Page 1

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YOU MIGHT BE IN TROUBLE NOW, SON...

It’s high August. Woozy hot, ambient in the triple digits, heat index 114. What was I just thinking? Where are we? George Ray’s Wildcat Dragstrip in Paragould, Arkansas. No torpor here, though. People were running around like they had fire ants in their crotches.

Dust swirled in the spiky sun. Taking a breath was like standing in front of a bonfire. The only relief was in your mind. What’s that clotted brown junk shimmering on the dirt like it was alive? It’s the remnants of a chaw, son, nicotine at its messiest.

Paragould is just east of that toe Missouri pries itself into Arkansas with, but close your eyes and you could be anywhere in the Mid-South. George Ray’s operation is literally in his back yard, hugged by cotton fields surrounded by more cotton fields. Has been since 1959. Now, in the waning years of the NHRA, the outfit that made grandstanding, the corporate suite, and elitism an art form, his dragstrip has not changed in almost 50 years and is still tough as nails.

George does it with some flaky grandstands to the left of the starting line and a wire fence (for leanin’) on the other side. A shack that was cobbled from whatever he had laying around in the yard spans the concrete starting line. The pits are dirt interjected with strips of grass. A low, white, cinder-block cube on one side of the staging lanes serves as the single “food” concession. Bottled water is a buck-seventy-five. George keeps it all, of course. There isn’t any free enterprise at Wildcat.

Nor has the Wildcat ever closed. Could be the longest continually operating venue in the history of drag racing. How did he do it? By embracing country ethics and sticking to the basics for all of his life. No one else screwing with it. No one else trying to make it something it never could be. No one pressuring him to do this or that to increase the draw or to get the attention of Big Money. He stayed his own man. The fact that civilization hasn’t compromised Paragould and its environs with cracker-jack housing tracts, strip malls, fast-food junkeroos, and mega-chain eateries has made it all the easier for him.  No one’s going to call the law about the ruckus he puts up in his backyard every Saturday, although George sometimes totes a piston in his waistband.

I first became acquainted with the Wildcat when Geoff Stunkard sent me a story about the resurrected Mr. Norm Charger for Hot Rod back in the late ‘90s. He showed it doing a fire burnout, something that hasn’t been seen on a “professional” track for about 35 years, but a thrill show that used to be a common occurrence in the early ‘70s. Of course, it was done to death. The novelty faded and then was flat forbidden. Common sense and lawyers saw to that. But George Ray let it fly because he makes the rules.

In the old days, the Wildcat was a quarter-mile strip. Now, it’s half that distance and has been for many long years, I know. George’s concession to the corporate suite? There’s a big armchair perched in the fork of a tree at the end of the line, a ridiculous incongruity that fits Ray’s scene perfectly.

Just below it, a skinny shotgun shack (now abandoned) still stands at the finish stripe. The person inside it couldn’t see much more than the front of the cars as they passed by, so the human inside it, not some damn new-fangled contraption called a clock determined the winner. (I began my drag racing infatuation before the Chrondek timers were invented. A flagman got you off the line. He stuck the tip of it on a button that armed the timing device. When he raised the flag and released the button the timers began counting and didn’t stop until the first car passed over a cable stretched across the end of the dragstrip.)

Its five bucks to get in, race or watch, it doesn’t matter. We saw nothing that resembled what we’d call an ambulance. Safety inspection is minimal. Helmets and seatbelts required if you run quicker than an 8-flat. Yes. The Wildcat is wildly unsanctioned and will never change be but that doesn’t make a damn bit of difference to people who just want to show up and put the pedal down. It’s about having fun. It’s not about worrying over a bunch of inane rules and lawyer-generated regulations that would immediately exclude more than half of his clientele. It’s about being your own man, realizing what the consequences might be, and living your life.

That day we saw everything from beaters to streeters to full-on race cars. The track record holder is Blaine Morgan from Caraway, Arkansas, just spittin’ distance from Ray. Blaine has blasted that gritty, fly-blown concrete with a 4.94. He was only good for low 5s that day, but his reach goes beyond the hinterlands. People do know him in Memphis and beyond.

Despite the ramshackle appearance and totally laid-back attitude of those directing it, there is something so down-home and agreeable about the operation that you can’t help but love it. Not even in the early ‘60s in my drag racing world was there anything like The Wildcat. It’s Americana to the bone.

As we were about to depart for greater Memphis, a portly gentleman with a fat grin on his kisser strode up to Burk in the staging lanes like he knew him.

“Ah know yew mus’ be somebody impor’int,” he gushed.

“Why’s that?” Jeff returned.

The guy just laughed. “Hell, anybody who’d wear a shirt like ‘at [a reference to the loud Hawaiian print Jeff was wrapped in] ain’t frum aroun’ here, that’s fer damn sure!”

We piled in the rental, drove out of George’s backyard, and hit the highway in cloud of dust. We didn’t look back.