In Bradford, Vt., Dirt Still Rules
Bradford, Vt. — Every Saturday night in the summer, scores of drivers turn out to test themselves on Vermont’s last remaining dirt racetrack. Bryan King, of Corinth, has been competing at Bear Ridge Speedway for more than two decades.
“Like anything, you get addicted to it,” said King, who drives a specially built Chevy in the sportsman modified class. Saturday nights find him and his family at the track, which “tries to be pretty family oriented.”
King’s son, Travis, has raced there in the limited late models class, and this year, his son Shawn, 14, picked up the habit, competing in the mini sprint, 500cc division. “It keeps him out of trouble,” King said, “and you know where they are.”
Bob Riley, a longtime track employee, said it’s “very common” for racing to run in a family. “We have two and three generation drivers here.”
Tucked in the woods of Bradford, Bear Ridge opened in 1968, and has been home to summer racing ever since. Butch Elms and his fiance, April Preston, own and operate the place, which also has a family lineage. Elms bought the track in 1989 from his father, Chuck Elms, who had bought it with some partners in 1972.
Asked whether it’s possible to make a living as a dirt track owner, Elms laughs. “It’s a labor of love, and a hobby.”
In addition to his regular work as a cattle dealer and dairy farmer, May to September is also racing season. A former dirt-track driver himself, he has a two-word explanation for why he’s stayed in the business so long: The people.
Back when he was still racing, he met a lot of great people all over the country, the kind of people who “don’t forget who you are, and you don’t forget who they are,” said Elms, who lives in North Haverhill. “We’re not family, but we are family.”
Riley, who has worked at the track full time since 2000, said the fun, close-knit atmosphere is what keeps him coming back from Florida, year after year. He and his wife, Linda, live in a mobile home on the grounds during the season.
“Everybody’s friendly, and all the employees get along well,” said Bob Riley, who helps with everything from mowing to marketing. “I have a lot of friends, both on and off the track.”
In August, the track will offer a children’s bicycle race, and on a recent Saturday night, kids had the chance to come down from the stands and ride in the racecars, the drivers taking slow laps around the 1/4-mile clay oval. The track has long offered the children’s rides, Elms said. “We’re maybe one of the old mainstays of doing that a couple times a year.”
Coming from someone who loves the sport, the focus on getting children involved is no accident.
“You’ve got to look at kids (as) future racers,” he said. “Keep them away from the computer so they can come out and do what we’re doing.”
The races continue through late September. The drivers are mostly local, with probably 80 percent coming from within a 20-mile radius, Elms said. They usually run about 90 or 100 vehicles, but a recent night attracted 120 or 125. A good night can draw 800 spectators, who, like the drivers, are mostly local, but every weekend a car bearing plates from New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island or Canada turns up in the parking lot.
With dirt kicked up on every lap, baseball caps and sunglasses are common attire for spectators. And for the uninitiated, Riley shares some oft repeated dirt-track wisdom: “Don’t wear a white shirt,” he said, laughing.