Puttering and juddering, engines of cars are started and revved by the faithful. Their drivers, old and young, pull onto the 3/8-mile track at Shenandoah Speedway the first Saturday of September.
When that flag falls, they send every pony of horsepower galloping through the wheels, racing — the sound reverberating in the shadow of Massanutten Mountain north of Shenandoah in Page County.
Brian Purdham, 40, of Elkton, slid and navigated with competitors before crossing the line first in the last lap of the night in his blue late-model stock car adorned with decals and his white No. 77.
Purdham said his advantage in the straights, where he repeatedly pulled ahead, came from his new, custom-built 515-horsepower Chevy 350 engine.
“It showed at the end. He pulled beside me, and I put the gas down,” Purdham said that night outside his trailer, illuminated by the glow of a light in his trailer and over the sound of a generator.
Another winner that night was Chris Lilly, of Grottoes, who has been racing at Shenandoah Speedway for 10 years. He began driving as a student in school, and now the young man works at an auto body shop.
Both Lilly and Purdham beat multiple other racers from outside the Valley.
Annually, Lilly travels for races, competing with international drivers from countries such as Finland on courses in New York, Florida and Las Vegas.
“The racing is super intense,” Lilly said of legends-style car competitions.
He said there is more to racing than going fast than most people realize.
“You have to predict or try to make [a competitor] set up a move where they’re going to overdrive their car so you have the opportunity to pass them,” Lilly said.
Purdham and Lilly said the relationship between racers and fans is symbiotic.
“The thing that drives that — the more cars at the event, the more action you see, which brings in more fans,” Jeff Vaughan, the owner of the track and the District 5 Page County supervisor, said in a Wednesday interview.
“Believe it or not, fans like to see competitive races, but they also like to see things tore up,” he said.
However, tracks like Shenandoah Speedway are struggling. Across the country, multiple tracks have closed for a variety of reasons, such as ever-expanding metropolitan development, which led to the sale and destruction of Wall Stadium speedway in Asbury Park, N.J., and the former Old Dominion Speedway, which was south of Manassas and now operates in Thornburg.
“It’s an ongoing battle and the only reason that track is still open is because I have a good daytime job, which I subsidize the track to keep it open,” said Vaughan, who is also the owner and founder of manufacturing firm KVK Precision Specialties in Shenandoah. “And another reason I do that is because I have a passion for racing, and it’s an extensive passion.”
In his younger days, Vaughan would watch Ford and Chevrolet racers go head to head in close competition that excited the audience and created a community around the internal combustion-driven contests. Vaughan was told by a drag racer, “Once you go fast, you can’t go slow no more.”
“Once you get [automotive racing] in your blood, it’s hard to get out. Especially if you’re a gearhead,” Vaughan said.
However, the future for Shenandoah Speedway looks difficult in modern times for multiple reasons, including a less-interested youth, according to Vaughan.
“That desire for those people in the community to go to short-track racing has died off,” Vaughan said. “The young generation likes drifting more so than the older track racing.”
The track was established in 2004 and had the most guests in 2006, Vaughan said. This year, races have averaged about 120 guests, sprinkling the track’s massive stands.
With low turnout and high costs, it’s keeping costs as low as possible and having a strong volunteer community that keeps the wheels turning, he said.
The last night of racing at Shenandoah Speedway this year is Oct. 3.
Purdham said many competitors stopped racing due to the high costs of the sport after the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008. But more people are looking back at getting into the sport as costs, such as tires, are being reduced by rule changes, he said.
And the closer and more action-packed the races that resound outside Shenandoah, the more fans and families will come in the future, according to Purdham, Lilly and Vaughan.
“With a finish like that, there will be more people here,” Purdham said in reference to the night’s last race.