Archive for Thursday, October 3, 2002

McClearys find dirt-track togetherness

October 3, 2002

In a weekend that saw the area go into a stock-car racing frenzy, Don McCleary had a hard time defining the appeal of the local late-model dirt-track scene.

"You have to be an idiot, I guess," he said Saturday as he fed another handful of quarters into the J-Mart car wash. "It's something you get hooked on a habit. Sure can't do it for the money. If it weren't for the few people giving you a little money for putting their name on the car, you couldn't afford to do it."

Don McCleary serves as chief mechanic for the McCleary family team and the late-model stock cars his sons Mike and T.J. run on area dirt tracks. Don and a third son, Donavon, made the trip from the family's home in Linwood to De Soto to wash the mud T.J.'s Chevy picked up Friday at the Lakeside Speedway.

"You can pick up a lot of it, especially on a track that runs as heavy as Lakeside," he said. "We'll probably spend over $20 getting it off."

Unfortunately for the family, mud was the only thing the McCleary's picked up at Lakeside. A bolt backed off a suspension arm, wreaking havoc on a shock and knocking the car out of the night's racing.

"We got to go home early," he said.

Weekends from May through mid-October offer the McCleary's other chances to earn the trophies and checks that go with dirt-track success. The family was headed to Thunder Hill Speedway near Mayetta for another evening of racing. According to Donavon, who helps in the pit crew, the busy weekend offered the answer to dirt-track racing's appeal.

"It's real good family fun," he said. "It's kept our family close together."

The McCleary boys started racing go-carts in the early 1980s, Donavon said. They moved up to open wheel modifieds and eventually got into late-model stock cars. Don said the family had yet to duplicate the success it enjoyed with go-carts and open-wheeled racing.

"We done good with them," he said. "We haven't done very well with it (late-model stock cars). We've got three wins in two years.

"There's learning curves to driving and adjusting all the little pieces."

Carmen Freday of Clearview City stopped to visit the McClearys as they washed the race car. Freday had a case of racing fever, fueled by a visit to a large sporting goods store Friday near the Kansas Speedway. At the outset of the track's big weekend, the store was having meet-the-drivers promotions for winning fans.

Freday didn't win, but not for lack of trying.

"I spent $300 getting gear," she said. "You don't have to go to the race. Just shopping there, you'll have a great time."

Freday's apartment has shrines to her, her daughter Julie Childers and husband's favorite drivers. Freday was happy because her favorite driver, Tony Stewart, won the poll for Sunday's race.

That rock-star celebrity is foreign to local dirt trackers.

"You can go out every night and nobody ever notices you," Don said, admitting he didn't have much interest in NASCAR. "You own one of these, you can't have any interest in anything else. For every hour you spend on the track, you spend 10 on maintenance. That's what we didn't do last night."

The competition at the area tracks is just as intense as that on the NASCAR circuit, Don said.

"There were 60 cars at Lakeside Friday looking for 22 spots in the feature," he said. "You can't mess up none. You had to get second in one of your heat races just to move on."

Don and his son said one of the things they like about racing was the friendships and bonds they developed with other enthusiasts at Lakeview, Thunder Hill, Sedelia and the other local tracks. The competitors shared their knowledge about what it takes to win on half-mile long ovals that see the cars obtain speeds of more than 100 mph.

"The strategy is in adjusting them," Don said. "What you have to do to make it turn and go fast.

"You just keep tinkering with it and asking a lot of questions."

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