Tracking Vermont's mini-moterheads
Few things say summer like a day at the racetrack. And this summer, race fans have been gathering nearly every weekend at the oval-shaped Off-Road Speedway behind Empire Hobbies in St. Albans.
"Racers, are you ready?" asks trackmaster and hobby shop owner Scott Lagasse one recent Sunday over the track's PA system. Two monster trucks approach the start line. At the sound of a loud electronic beep, they accelerate down the dirt track. Both make the first turn, but the upcoming straightaway includes a jump, and one of the trucks takes a nasty spill. It crashes spectacularly, flipping end over end, its oversize rubber tires bouncing it off the hard-packed earth.
But not to worry -- there are no casualties. The truck is less than two feet long and only about a foot high, one-tenth the size of a real monster truck. Its driver, who steers using a remote control, stands on a raised white wooden platform along the opposing straightaway. He waits as one of the "turn marshals" hops the knee-high plywood fence to right the truck, which has landed on its back, wheels spinning, helpless as an upturned beetle.
Today's races are part of a summer RC (radio controlled) off-road series that Scott Lagasse and his wife Jen started in 1998. They built the 400-foot-long track with help from the racers, many of them construction guys and mechanics in their thirties and forties.
A crowd of 70 or so racers, family members and fans spreads out around the speedway to watch the miniature nitro-methane-powered trucks hit speeds of 30-40 miles per hour. The races last five minutes, and can feature as many as 10 tiny trucks at a time, their motors buzzing like a swarm of aggravated mosquitoes.
Forty-seven drivers have signed up for today's races, which include a variety of preliminary heats and finals for monster trucks and the smaller, more agile "stadium" trucks. The day's big winners take home $10 -- enough to cover next week's entry fees -- and a small trophy. But it's not about the money -- amateur RC enthusiasts race for fun. And because it's a rush.
Though their hobby shop sells RC racing gear, the Lagasses aren't just in it for the money, either -- not that they make much on the races. Scott calls it "a labor of love." When they started sponsoring the races, Jen and Scott Lagasse competed. "In the beginning we had six racers, and Scott and I were two of them," says Jen, a gregarious 27-year-old. But now that RC racing has become more popular, the couple doesn't have time to race -- they're too busy running the show.
Jen spends race Sundays answering contestants' questions and doling out transponders. She assigns each driver one of these devices at the beginning of the race and collects them at the end. The transponder sends signals to her husband's laptop, enabling him to record each vehicle's speed and the number of laps completed.
Scott sits in a trackside wooden booth. The wiry, bespectacled 33-year-old wears denim shorts and a white Star Wars T-shirt. In addition to tallying the results, he's also the official commentator. "If you find your car isn't running as it should," he reminds drivers over the PA, "now is a good time to work on it in your pit area."
Scott notes that his laptop, protected from dust by a clear plastic bin turned on its side, is a recent investment. The sprinklers, he says, are also new -- they pop up between heats from a dirt patch in the center of the track, attempting to tame the dust. But it's hard to keep the gravel from flying when these miniature trucks hit the soft banks of the curves.
During a preliminary stadium-truck heat, 10 tiny off-roaders whip around the track. When they plow into the turns, they spray dirt at the small crowd. Several spectators, mindful of the risks of standing too close, park their lawn chairs on top of a grassy ridge nearby.
The drivers, all adult men, stand on the platform, their silver radio antennae jutting out over the track. They look like they might be fishing. Meanwhile, Lagasse provides color commentary. "Oh! It's a good battle for first place!" he shouts. "Chic Corriea is in the lead!"
The kids are up next. There are two junior divisions, under 13 and 13-17. Jen points out Reice Branon, from Georgia, Vermont. "He just turned 6," she says. "He's our youngest racer."
He's not bad, either. Reice's little red truck zips in and out of the pack, spins out, and flips over a few times. He finishes the race in third place -- out of five racers -- having completed 16 laps. Adults typically make it around the loop 20 to 30 times in each five-minute race.
Reice's sister Chelcy has better luck in the next race. Though an 11-year-old, she competes in the older-kid division; her truck has a silver Mini Cooper chassis and is emblazoned with a decal that announces, "Girls rule."
Chelcy starts off in the lead, but falls back when she smacks into a wall. Still, she stays near the front of the pack, chasing the leader, a boy driving a green and yellow truck. When his truck cartwheels in front of her, Chelcy keeps her cool and speeds past to resume first place. She flies around the track, dodging disabled cars and the turn marshals picking them up. One boy's truck slams into a jump instead of clearing it -- "Ooh, lost a wheel on that one," Scott comments.
In the end, Chelcy takes the race, completing 27 laps. How'd she do it? "You just go where the trucks aren't bumping," she says, "and try not to crash."
Greg Branon, father of Reice and Chelcy, is proud of his kids. He doesn't mind shelling out up to $500 a pop on top-quality racers -- his family owns four. The 37-year-old sheet-metal mechanic readily admits he's addicted to RC racing. He revamped a boat trailer to carry the family trucks, adding a tin roof and sides that fold out to become shelves. He keeps three tackle boxes in the trailer, filled with tiny tools and extra parts, and film canisters holding metal clips and springs.
He competes in his own race after the kids are through. He wins a close heat, completing 30 laps, then walks back to the open-sided lawn tent that shades his trailer from the sun. There he inspects his car for damage, grimacing slightly when his front wheels wobble. "Looks like my front end's ready to fall apart," he notes.
Though clearly still pumped from his race -- his hands are trembling -- Branon doesn't seem overly competitive. After a few minutes he puts the car down and rejoins his family. The sun glints off his mirrored glasses. Cotton-wood pollen floats on the gentle breeze. "This is a real nice thing to do on a Sunday," he says.