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Who's got the fastest car in town and the nerve to drive it?

Young racing dreams at the 48-year-old Wake County Speedway 

Before NASCAR went Hollywood, there were short-track car races all over the South. Who's got the fastest car in town and the nerve to drive it? Find out Friday night at the Wake County Speedway.

Enter a strapping young man named Robert Arch. At 20, he's won many times in the UCAR class at the speedway and at other racetracks. Robert's dad was a heavy-duty mechanic and racer who brought Robert to the speedway from the time he was this high. When Robert was 15, his dad bought him his first stock car. But his dad died a year later, and Robert never got the chance to race against him. Robert, who talks so easily otherwise, mentions this with a note of regret before he climbs into the driver's seat of the black No. 4 car, the one he built himself from a junked '91 Honda Prelude. As he does, he shoots a glance across the infield.

That's where a vivacious young woman is about is about to take the wheel of the blue No. 8 car. Kristin Gault is 20. She's gunning for Robert. She's also his girlfriend. They met at the speedway one night last year when Robert was in the stands spotting for another driver. Kristin's father races cars, or he did until Kristin met Robert. Then she got the racing bug, and so did her 17-year-old sister, Jessica. (Jessica recently completed her first race in a different class.)

Now Murray Gault is spotting for the girls and working on their cars. For fun, he's mounted a camera behind the driver's seat in Kristen's car. Maybe, he confides, he'll see something useful to point out about her steering in the turns. She's in fourth place in the U-class points standings—but not that far out of third (Robert is second).

Gault is a very happy man. Here it is Friday night, and not only does he know where both his daughters are, he's here with them, and they're doing something together that he loves and they love. "There's no thrill bigger than watching your kids be happy," he says.

Kristin and Robert are conspicuously happy. "Romance at the speedway," Robert says, summarizing things nicely.

But don't we need some, er, sparks in our story? What does Mr. Gault think of Mr. Arch, his daughter's boyfriend?

"If they take blood from Robert," Murray Gault says, paying him a high compliment indeed, "it comes out in spurts like a checkered flag."

So now you know that the Wake County Speedway, located in Garner about 10 minutes from downtown Raleigh, is a throwback place where the "lightning fast action on the 1/4 mile bullring" is now in its 48th consecutive year. Turn right from 401 onto Simpkins Road, though—Simpkins is named for the speedway's owners—and you might think you're back in Year 1 except that the old dirt oval was paved in '87.

Otherwise, the place hasn't changed much. Admission to the grandstand is $12 or less (discounts for seniors, teens, children, the military; kids 5 and under are free). For that, you get hard-charging races under the lights every Friday night, except this Memorial Day weekend, through Sept. 3.

The racing is in multiple classes, from the plucky UCARs (4-cyclinder stock cars to which engine modifications are not allowed; it stands for "You Can Afford Racing") up to the high-horsepower, highly modified Super Late Model cars. Practice runs start at about 7 p.m., heats begin at 8. By local ordinance, the last race must start by 11.

There's food for sale at the speedway—they tout their bologna burgers—but you can also bring your own, and tailgating on the big grassy parking lot is cool, too. Indeed, everything about the speedway says treat it like it's your old home place—you know, the one where everybody knows how to overhaul an engine. That's how the drivers treat it, says Ken Childs, the speedway's publicist. Many have been racing here for years, or else—like Robert Arch and Kristin Gault—their fathers raced here, and maybe their grandfathers.

"It's a family place," Childs says, from the fact that mufflers are required (keeps the noise to a dull roar) to the way the drivers cook out together, adjust each others' cars together and then go out and bang into each other on the track. "Everyone here is kind of one big weird family," he jokes. "For every little fight you have on the track, there's a whole lot more good times, with everybody."

Even by that standard, Robert Arch stands out, Childs says. He's worked on nearly every car at the speedway at one time or another, especially the late-model and limited late-model cars that are not stock and take constant engine tweaking and replacement parts. "Robert loves the sport and he wants to help anybody who needs him," Childs says. "Robert's been my main help for five or six years now," says Kevin Floars, who drives the "55" Super-Late Model. "I've crashed a few of 'em he's fixed up."

Five or six years? "Since he was 14," Floars answers, nodding. "He's a smart kid who knows how to do a lot of stuff. His daddy was quite a good mechanic, too."

Arch grew up in Clayton and still lives there. In his young life, he's been a mechanic, worked in a body shop and he's sold cars. In December, he'll start at the NASCAR Technical Institute in Mooresville, where he hopes to launch a career in racing, probably in the crews. He'll continue racing on the side, he says, but at 20, he's "already too old" and not experienced enough driving high-performance cars to hope to be a NASCAR driver.

Kristin is a junior at N.C. State University who started as a psychology major but is "completely undecided" about a career. For now, her ambition is "to move up in cars" and challenge Robert. Meanwhile, her sister, Jessica, has started running in the Allison Legacy Series, her father says, where they run "three-quarter-scale, full-blown tube chassis race cars."

I think I got that right.

One thing about these folks: They talk fast. Or they do just before they're scheduled to race. There's a sped-up rhythm to what they say and the way they move that's exhilarating to be around.

Which is the whole appeal of car racing, of course. By day, Murray Gault is a high-level executive for Nortel—in charge of a global emergency recovery division. Equipment goes down anywhere in the world, "we have teams on it 24 by 7," he says. Back at headquarters, though, Gault and his colleagues "sit on our butts all day long."

But to race! "Out here," he says, "you go. If you're faster, you go. And if they're in your way, you give them a little bump" with "the chrome horn."

The chrome horn, he explains, is your front fender. If that fender is dented on the right front corner, he explains, showing off just such a spot on Kristin's No. 8 car, that's good—that means you bumped the other guy from behind. "But if that corner of the car's tore up," he says, pointing to the rear and shaking his head, "that's because they're bangin' you to get underneath."

If it sounds unsafe, it isn't, he adds. Some of these cars are capable of going well over 100 mph on a road course, though on a short track like the Wake Speedway, maximum speeds are a good deal less. The UCARS circle the track in about 15 seconds, hitting 50 mph tops. The Super Late Models lap it in 12 seconds.

On such a track, the driving is close, and passing is hard. They call it "the bullring," the railbirds say, because the track's more steeply banked than many, and each corner is different and presents its own challenge. "It'll throw you" like a bull would.

But that's when the safety equipment checks in. Cars do hit the wall. They hit each other. Sometimes, one car will spin out or stall, and another car just plows right into it at top speed. There's the occasional fire. But every driver wears a three-layered fire suit and shoes, and each is protected by a state-of-the-art roll bar cage and custom-fitted seat. The worst injuries anyone can remember were broken fingers and sprained wrists, even when, as Murray Gault once did, they hit the wall going 60 mph.

"I just got out and walked away," he says. "It's probably 100 times safer than you driving over here."

"And 100 times more fun," Kristin adds.


The U in UCAR: How to hot-wire your dream

At the Wake County Speedway, the big-horsepower Super Late Models supply the thrills. But the charm is in the UCARs. It's the speedway's biggest class, with 21 cars in the running for season's honors. "U Can Afford Racing" is what it means.

Here's how Robert Arch did it. Go to a junkyard. Find a standard 4-cylinder car with a working engine. Honda Preludes are a popular pick, based on engine quality, or Chevy Cavaliers. Arch's '91 Prelude needed a new radiator and a battery. He put them in. The body? Hammer out the dents or find new "metal"—it's gonna get banged up anyway.

Once you've found your car, rip out the interior—seats, consoles—and the headlights, too. It's all useless weight, and the speedway is lighted. A roll bar cage is required gear—and will protect you when you hit the wall. Cages cost about $1,200 installed, or if you're handy, you can buy a kit for about half that much and install it yourself. You'll also need your own custom-fitted driver's seat, a removable steering wheel (easier to get in and out) and a fireproof racing suit and shoes, just in case.

Questions? Visit the speedway on a Friday evening early—say, around 6—and talk to the drivers. They'll be happy to help "U" get started.

UCARs are affordable mainly because engine modifications are prohibited. You're supposed to be driving a "stock" car, which makes it about your skills, not the car's power.

And there's prize money. First prize on a Friday night is $85 in the UCAR class, $50 for second. Everyone who enters gets a minimum $15. The entry fee is $30. The muscle cars compete for bigger prizes—up to $1,500—but they cost a lot more to maintain: A new set of tires is required each week, for example, and they run about $500.

Once you've learned to race, U may want to move up in class. But starting out, think UCAR.

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