High octane and a Princess
By Andy Clark
Swatting away a swarm of pesky summertime mosquitoes, I walked down a quiet country road shaded by rows of elderly trees. You could say, it was any ordinary rural road except for one thing. Parked amongst the trees was a collection of battle-scared and brightly colored stock cars. All tethered onto trailers and pulled behind pickup trucks, the collection of road warriors and their owners waited patiently for the gates to open for another Saturday night at Agassiz Speedway.
Built in 1970 the speedway is a quarter mile oval track nestled into the side of Agassiz Mountain about 90 minutes drive east of Vancouver, British Columbia. Owned and operated by the non-profit Kent Raceway Society the track hosts about 12 races a season beginning in April and running through to late October.
I have always enjoyed car racing. I spent, though a few said mis-spent, some of my formative teenage youth on darkened summer highways north of Toronto in the late 1960s, riding in muscle cars and drag racing until either the wee hours of the morning or the cops chased us away. Though I witnessed a horrendous accident one night while racing I still look back on those times with fond memories.
Once the gates open for competitors at 3 o’clock sharp, the empty grass and graveled infield pits filled up and sprang to life as everybody got to work preparing their cars for the evenings races. The air is soon filled with the sound of high torque power ratchets and revving engines followed soon after by the first warm ups on the track. There was so much activity going on that at first I didn’t know where to turn my attention or camera. I quickly realized that photographically I was just spinning my wheels (excuse the pun) so during a break I crossed to the outside of the track and spent about an hour just observing. The sunlight at that time of day was horrible as it always is so it was not time wasted. I have always felt any feature shooting between 11:00am and 4:00pm on any cloudless sunny day in summer is a waste of film or in today’s terms a waste of pixels.
Just after dusk with qualifying over, now began the racing. I had been warned ahead of time, by the track photographer, that though there were plenty of lights around the course, they were not very bright and I soon found out how true that was. The old photo term “available darkness” certainly held true. Without a doubt if it were not for today’s digital cameras and their high tolerance to low light there is little chance I could have done any decent pictures at all. Any attempt to shoot this story even on high ISO film 15 or so years ago would have been futile. An interesting sidebar story, was many of the overhead lights had been donated, to the speedway, by the police. Seems the lights had been used by those running illegal indoor marijuana grow-ops and had been confiscated after the operations had been busted or raided by the police.
There was the odd story within the story. One I found was the O’Reilly family. The father, John, had raced at the track for many years and now carrying on the tradition was his 14-year-old daughter Chelsey. Driving the same 1968 Chevy Chevelle her dad had used Chelsey bravely took to the track racing against drivers twice her age and experience. Race nights were a complete family affair for Team O’Reilly. Chelsey’s two sisters Chrystal and Veronica were the pit crew, her dad the mechanic and mother Margaret moral support. This was Chelsey’s rookie year as a driver since the minimum age to race at the track is 14, though she had practiced on the track a year earlier when only 13. Chelsey’s chances of winning a race were slim but her goal was not to come in last during qualifying or races, which she successfully completed. No small feat for a driver who cannot legally drive in British Columbia for another couple of years.
Though I was not surprised to find a 14-year-old racing one thing that did give me pause was the appearance of a princess walking amongst the fumes and noise of the pit area. Dressed in a long gown and wearing a tiara the young woman looked way out of place surrounded by grease monkeys and grizzled drivers. Turns out she had been asked to hand out the trophies that night to the winners of each race. Wanting to impress, the young lady had searched e-bay to find the used gown she wore.
Though there is nothing like the thrill of standing in the pits of a Formula One or Indy Car races as I have dozens of times over my photo career, my experiences at Agassiz Speedway were by far the best. There is something about car racing at its grass roots level. No multi-million dollar cars and egos, just down to earth folks who love to race.