Gleason hosts junior dragsters
By SARA REID
The 11 year-old Palmersville native’s blue and white bicycle darts in, out and around a maze of multi-colored trailers and big rigs as he and hundreds of other youngsters wait their turn to blaze down the strip -- the drag strip, that is.
This past weekend, the Northwest Tennessee Motorsports drag strip in Gleason, known as the Playground of Power, hosted a national tournament for junior dragsters. Though the 14 year-old racing venue has seen its share of bit weekend races over its lifespan, according to Ed Morgan, it’s never seen anything quite like this.
The three-day event pitted youngsters in the against each other based on car class on Saturday and by age bracket on Sunday. Racers also competed in the Quick 32, a competition made up of the 32 fastest cars.
“The venue opened up in August of 1993 and that was the first race,” Morgan explained. “Ed and David Todd and Reed Exxum started it, but this is our first ever junior dragster event. Racers have come in from Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, Indiana, Georgia, Louisiana, Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, just all over the nation. This is a national tournament.”
Tim Fleming, an event coordinator from High Springs, Fla., visited the Gleason track for the first time.
“This is the fifth of seven points races that runs throughout the southeast. The cars are divided up into classes based on age and weight. There are index classes for 12.90, 9.90, 8.90 and 7.90 and then there’s the Outlaw 330 which is the premiere fastest class,” he said.
One of those Outlaw 330 drivers is Tyler Horner who also competes in the 7.90 index class. The Horners traveled from Centerville for the event.
“The Outlaw 330 is the top fuel junior dragster. Instead of going an eighth of a mile like the index classes, it goes 330 feet. The classes are based on speeds. The 12.90 can do an eighth of a mile in 12.90 seconds, the 9.90 can do an eighth of a mile in 9.90 seconds and so on. The Outlaw 330 goes 330 feet because the cars aren’t built to exceed 100 miles per hour,” Jeff Horner said. “Cars cannot go the eighth mile in under 7.90 seconds. The NHRA outlaws that.”
Caldwell, a sixth grader at Dresden Middle School, is practically a Playground of Power veteran. At the age of eight, he’d already gone 78 miles per hour and now he’s made a name for himself as a track favorite.
Racing an 8.90 index class dragster, Caldwell appears to be following in the footsteps of his father, Ricky Caldwell, who races a 1972 Vega super pro.
Ricky Caldwell went to school in Palmersville, but was bit by the racing bug when he took an auto mechanics class at Dresden.
“Legally, kids can race at eight years old. The cars are built on a smaller scale of the top fuel cars on T.V.,” Ricky Caldwell explained. “They are very strict on safety. The cars have a five-point harness seatbelt and the racers must wear gloves, a helmet, a neck brace and air restraints. It starts out as a five horse power Briggs and Stratton engine, but with work, some put out up to 65 horse power. Joey’s puts out 25.”
Quite a bit of money is put into the cars, Ricky Caldwell admitted. Joey Caldwell, last year’s track champion and this year’s points leader, has put about $8,500 into his car.
“Watching him race, to me, is more fun than racing. It teaches the kids sportsmanship and how to be a good winner and loser,” Ricky Caldwell said.
At the age of six, Joey Caldwell was already making his way onto the track and at seven, he bought his first car.
“By the time he turns 16, he’ll definitely be ready for driving a car,” Lisa Caldwell, Joey’s mom, laughed.
“Joey wanted to race dirt bikes to begin with, but these are a lot safer than dirt bikes,” she added. “The kids race every weekend and they all want to win, but they’re all really good friends, too.”
When not found on the racing track, Joey Caldwell plays baseball, basketball, football and Playstation and goes skateboarding in addition to adding new activities to his list of favorites virtually all the time. His racing has taken him to tracks in Huntsville, Ala., Sikeston, Mo., Dyersburg and Jackson.
Over at another trailer, a Georgia Bulldogs flag whips in the wind as nine year-old MacKenzie Butler anxiously waits her turn on the track again in the elimination round.
Butler, who came to Gleason from Jackson, Ga., a town roughly 450 miles away, took second place in her age group.
Next door are a passel of Alabama fans from Georgia who have managed to remain on friendly terms with their neighbors. Bailey Brown, the racer from their camp, won her bye round and waits patiently with her “Gran” Margaret Brown for the next race.
As the cars line up like crayons fitting into a box, Morgan takes a sweeping glance around the facility before climbing the stairs to return to his spot as announcer in the tower.
Though the event was an unprecedented move for the track, he knows many more races lie in the future for the venue that, for one weekend, brought some of the fastest kids in the nation to Tater town.