GROVETON, N.H. — Jenna Randall is revving her viper-red 1998 Chevy Cavalier at the starting line of a 200-lap derby called the Frostbite Enduro. Three dozen brightly colored stock cars roar on all sides, most of their drivers adults. She is not one of them.
Jenna was all of 11 the night three years ago when she told her father as he was tucking her in that she wanted to race stock cars. It is an age when kids say they want to be astronauts or rock stars or major league ballplayers — when they grow up.
Jenna did not have to wait. At Riverside Speedway, a quarter-mile track in this far-northern corner of New Hampshire, anyone 10 and over can start racing in the derbies that take place here throughout the summer. At 11, Jenna was gunning full-sized, full-powered stock cars around the track at 50 miles per hour. At 12, racing in the under-14 division, she first climbed the winners’ podium. Now 14, she races against adults and has qualified for the Enduro, the no-holds-barred season finale.
Lined up near Jenna is the black-and-yellow Chevy of Nick Gilcris. He got his first car at 11, and started racing when he was 12. That was four years ago; now he is one of the favorites to win the competition.
Nick and Jenna, accomplished speedsters at such tender ages, are no exception at Riverside Speedway, which draws drivers from across northern New England to Groveton, a quiet village in the part of New Hampshire they call the Great North Woods.
Around here, racing is a tradition handed down from generation to generation. So is starting out young. It is a parent-child pastime in a region that has no major sports teams to root for. It is an activity parents laud as a way to teach self-reliance, safety behind the wheel, and maturity.
“If you got the guts and your parents say you can do it, you can do it,” says Nick’s father, Pete Gilcris. And that is true. Because the speedway is private property and the children are not driving in a public way, state law does not forbid them from racing here. (Most tracks in the state, however, require drivers to be at least 16 years old.)
Racing is also a welcome diversion, and an economic driver, in a region where the median family income is little more than half the state average. Particularly hard-hit is Groveton, where a paper mill that was the main employer closed in 2008. Some racers hope that their stock cars will be a ticket out of town. But for most, the track is a reason to stick around.
“Riverside Speedway is probably the only thing in town that’s bringing people in,” says Melinda Kennett, Groveton’s town clerk, tax collector, and a former racer who learned from her father. She raised three racers of her own, and now works at the track during races as a pit steward.
The Enduro is about to begin. Kennett casts an eye at the gloom overhead. It has been drizzling all day and the track is slick. Any ordinary race would have been canceled. But the Enduro is no ordinary competition. The rules are simple. They will stop the race after a wreck to make sure the driver is safe. Other than that, pretty much anything goes.
• • •
The reek of spray paint poisons the wood-smoke air of the Gilcris family’s garage. It is the night before the Enduro, and Nick and his father, Pete, 35, are putting the finishing touches on his car. They paint the hood bumblebee yellow, add a smiley face, and the words “Git R Done” in red over it, and paint the words “Play Nice” on the rear. A row of trophies glistens above the grime and steel of their cluttered garage. Many of those are from races Nick won. Some are prizes won by his sister, Kyleigh, who first raced at 10 and retired at 12. A long row of plaques signify the Enduros Pete won during his 16-year racing career.
That career was cut short during a practice run in 2010, when the car shot off the racetrack and slammed into a wall, snapping Pete’s neck and back violently. Pete suffered a fracture of his C-2 cervical vertebra. He crawled away from the wreck, and can move about now, but not without pain, and doctors have told him he will never race again. They also said that Nick, as slender as his father is brawny and thick, would not have survived that crash, even if he had been wearing the protective head restraint that Pete never wore.
Nick, confident but not quite cocky, says he never worries about crashing. They had told him that racing would be scary. But the first time he was on a track, Nick says, “I came out and put the hammer right down. I thought it was great.”
Pete shares that confidence. He has seen his son’s car roll over six times — “6½,” Nick corrects him — and he is certain that there will be wrecks in the Enduro. But he is equally sure that his son will avoid trouble.
“I’ve been through a lot of hard wrecks,” Nick says. “I’ve been hit hard enough where I’ve felt it for a few weeks. I’m not really scared of it. I’m more scared of totaling my car than anything else.”
Other than that, “You just go out there and beat the heck out of your car and have fun,” he says.
• • •
Nick is out to win the Enduro. After a few laps, it is clear that Jenna just wants to endure it. She spun out on a practice run, miscalculating the speed at which she needed to ease up on the gas going into the slick, steep turns. The racers do not use their brakes to slow down. They drive in third gear, regulating their speed by letting off the gas.
“I kinda learned that I can’t step back on the throttle as fast as I’m used to,” she says before the race in her precociously relaxed drawl.
In the early laps, other drivers are having trouble, too. One car spins out, turning 180 degrees and traveling backwards for a few yards, somehow avoiding a clutch of other cars before the driver is able to right the vehicle and speed off. A purple hatchback bursts into a cloud of thick, white smoke, and crawls another half-lap until it limps off into the pit area. A lime-green hatchback spins off the track, onto the infield, and out of the race. Its rear right wheel is bent outward at a 90-degree angle.
Jenna’s plastic rear bumper flies off, but her father, Tege, watching from the magenta-colored seats of the grandstand, is not concerned.
“Jenna’s stayin’ out of trouble” he says; it is clear where she got her drawl.
The steel frame of her car is intact; a steel cage protects her in case she rolls the car; a fuel cell reduces the chances of fire. She is wearing a head restraint, a fire suit, a helmet, and a five-point seatbelt. This stuff is expensive — Tege reckons he has put $2,500 to $3,000 into the car, a stretch for a man who earns a living as an independent IT contractor — but it reassures him that his daughter’s sport “is no more dangerous than football, baseball, or basketball.”
As Jenna races around the track, Tege insists that it be made clear that allowing his daughters — Jenna’s older sister, Shauna, also raced — to run stock cars is no careless act of parental neglect. No one, he points out, has ever had life-threatening injuries in this race. (Kennett confirms this, and adds that racers who start young always do well on their driver’s license tests.) As a race car fan Tege likes watching cars wipe out, but as a father, he trusts the safety equipment. And, he says, building and maintaining cars is a learning experience.
“It’s great that they’re out here using tools,” he says. “I’d rather they do it here in a controlled environment. They’re going to need to know how to use them someday.”
He stops short and runs off the grandstand into the pit area, followed by a small team of helpers. Jenna has blown a tire. Tege and his crew work feverishly to make the change. The car has two large dents in the body. Jenna looks relaxed as she pulls out of the pit and back onto the track.
• • •
Jenna does not want to be a professional racer. She has decided to be a large animal veterinarian — when she grows up.
Some drivers, like Nicole Ouellette, 16, a third-generation racer, would love to make it to the next level. She would have taken part in the Enduro, but she does not have a car she is ready to wreck. And to compete in the Enduro, you have to be ready to go home with a piece of junk. She is saving her Dodge Neon for next season, to see if she can try racing at other tracks. Today she is working at the gate, checking the credentials of drivers and their crews entering the pit area.
“I want to race with people I don’t know,” she says.
Nick is not planning to go anywhere. He works at the Santa’s Village theme park in Jefferson, N.H., operating rides. He helps Pete, who is on disability, with odd jobs in the garage. He races for prize money, he says, although “you never make back what you put into it.”
But right now, first prize, $2,000, is at stake. And the scoreboard says Nick is in the lead. Pete is watching the race intently from behind the wire fence that wraps around the track, occasionally shaking it with his hands as he cheers on his son.
“Just run and don’t be stupid,” Pete shouts at the track, pointing at his head as Nick completes the 121st lap. Nick’s primary rival seems to be Number 90, a white sedan driven by Floyd Bennett Jr. Bennett bumps into Nick’s car, and Pete curses. He grew up with Bennett and sees this as an unfair tactic.
Pete curses again. Nick has blown a tire. Luckily, this misfortune coincides with a flag that stops the race while a wreck is cleared. Pete and a friend quickly change the tire and Nick is back on the track. He has fallen out of the top three.
“He’s calm,” he gestures at his son’s car. “I’m not.”
• • •
With less than 20 laps to go, Jenna pulls her Cavalier into the pit area. This time no one is running to meet her. Steam is coming out of the hood. The radiator was damaged when she hit another car at lap 160, and now it is beyond repair.
Tege stares at it.
Jenna sits for a while then unstraps her helmet and climbs out of the car.
“It’s not the way we like to finish,” Tege says, but he does not look too unhappy. “That’s what the Enduro’s all about.”
Jenna is calm.
“Twenty laps from the finish and then that happens,” she shrugs. Father and daughter embrace and walk back to the stands.
With nine laps left, Nick is back in contention. All he has to do is beat Bennett to win the race. His bumper has flown off. Now the back of his car says just “Play.” He brings his Chevy to the inside of the track. He nudges ahead.
“Yahooooooo!” Pete cries.
But Bennett and Nick collide again as they negotiate a crowd of cars. Number 90 cruises to the win. Livid, Pete runs out onto the track as the slower cars are finishing and lumbers up to Bennett’s car, cursing.
“Pete Gilcris, as far as I’m concerned, just got his son disqualified,” Kennett says from the sidelines.
That does not happen, but as Bennett parks and Pete rushes at him, it looks as though something worse might.
Instead, Nick steps in front of Pete and grabs him by the lapels of his tattered coat. From behind, it is clear just how skinny the boy is; he is eclipsed by his father’s bulk.
“Enough,” the son admonishes the father. Pete stares at his son, shaking.
The teenage race car driver stands his ground.
“Stop! Now!” the boy says.
The father turns away. Nick is handed a two-tiered trophy with azure-blue posts.
“ ‘Nitro’ Nick Gilcris picks up second place,” says the announcer. Nick thanks the crowd. He shakes hands with other drivers. He chats with some girls. He finds out that another car passed him after the bump and he finished third. Instead of $2,000, he has won $400. He looks at his dad.
Pete scowls. Looks down at the ground.
Then he looks at his son with half a smile. And then a full one of appreciation and pride.
Nick starts to grin, then smiles openly.