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Drivers and dreams

Editor’s note: We tracked a full day of racing across the United States on Aug. 17. The video documentary that resulted is called “Drivers and Dreams: Grassroots Racing in America” and airs at 1 p.m. ET Sept. 28 on NBCSN.

Dan McKeage leaned against a race car in his shop, where he was surrounded by his own success. Along three sides, trophies filled cases built into the walls. They lined up several rows deep, hundreds of them, big, small, gold, silver, cars perched on top, every configuration you can think of … and a couple dozen plaques were mounted on the walls, too.

His wife, Laura, won the trophies in one case, maybe 75 of them, including the championship last year in the women’s division at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in eastern Maine. Dan won the Beech Ridge Motor Speedway championship in 2010, was voted Driver of the Year that same year, and in 2017 he was induced into the track’s Hall of Fame. He still is only 42, but he’s a legend at the track, both for his success and his family’s devotion to the sport.

That devotion has been tested in the last year or so, as his car has been terrible. What that problem is, nobody knows. Laura hates the car and can’t wait to get rid of it. She nicknamed the car Veruca Salt “because she’s a salty bitch.” Every late-night note Dan has made to himself to try to fix it has turned out wrong, every adjustment his team has made hasn’t helped, every brilliant idea has turned dim.

Lately the only award the No. 40 Top Gun General Construction car has won has been for best appearing. Yes, that’s really a thing, and yes, Veruca has won it, and yes, she is beautiful, not that that’s worth a damn when she’s also slow.

But the end of the season is near, and so is Veruca’s time on this earth. Laura plans to throw an after-season party in which she will throw a match on Veruca and watch her burn to nothing.

I’m not 100 percent sure she’s serious. But if she is, Veruca will probably go slowly.

And yet here Dan was on a Saturday afternoon in August, working on Veruca, excited to take her to the track. Maybe tonight would be the night. He and Laura hoped so, even if they also doubted it.

In racing, there’s always hope.

•   •   •

I went to Maine looking for the heart of grassroots racing, and I found it at a Saturday night race at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway. I found it in the track’s owner, drivers and fans. I found it in chicken nuggets and cars turning laps on two wheels and men dressed like fireflies, one of the track’s mascots. I found it in tears of joy and laughing at failure and the never-ending search for just a little more speed. I found it in Dan and Laura’s bottomless passion not just for racing but for the friends and family with whom they race.


My experience at Beech Ridge was unique in the details — the ocean, the lobster, how wicked good everything was. But grassroots passion like what I saw there plays out every weekend at short tracks across the country, from Maine to California, Florida to Alaska.

Grassroots tracks are often called the feeder system for NASCAR, and that’s true, but it’s also an understatement. Grassroots racing is big-time NASCAR’s DNA. Show me a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series star and I’ll show you a driver who started at a place like Beech Ridge, getting beaten by a driver like Dan McKeage. Show me a Cup track with a clever promotion and I’ll show you Beech Ridge owner Andy Cusack brainstorming madcap ways to keep his fans in their seats year after year.

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Grassroots promoters, drivers and fans are the giant shoulders upon which big-time NASCAR promoters, drivers and fans stand. Yes, the stage is smaller, but the passion more than makes up for that discrepancy. That’s why Dan, owner of a roofing business to pay for his racing hobby, keeps returning to Beech Ridge week after week.

As a light sprinkle fell, Dan put Veruca in the hauler, and we piled into a minivan for the trip to the track. I drove, and Dan rode shotgun. Dan has blue-grey eyes, a slight Maine accent and peppery, short hair. He reminded me of Tony Stewart — similar frame, similar thick stubble, similar blend of confidence and self-deprecation. They even walk the same — hunched shoulders, slightly off center, a modification, perhaps, to make up for a too-snug fire suit.

Dan is not the hero of the stories he tells about himself, but he is proud of what he has accomplished. He grew up in Maine with a makeshift race track in the backyard. A family friend was in the junk car business, and he occasionally dropped off vehicles for Dan and his dad, Lyman, to mess around in. One day when Dan was in sixth grade, his dad was doing rollbacks (drive in reverse, spin around, and keep going forward) in a Subaru.

I’ve missed lots and lots of weddings and anniversaries and birthdays, all these special gatherings.

“I jumped in another car that was just sitting there. I started going around the track. He stopped like he was going to give me a hard time about it,” Dan said. “He had a big smile on his face and waved me on. From that point on, we were racing each other in the backyard.”

He has been at Beech Ridge every Saturday it has been open for more than 35 years. His first trip came when he was 6 or so and he tagged along to watch his dad in a demolition derby. He found a seat in the bleachers and was transfixed by the sheet metal mayhem in front of him. He returned to that same seat every Saturday for nine years — until he was old enough to drive. In the last 26.5 years, he has raced at Beech Ridge every Saturday but one. Fed up with Veruca, he skipped a race in August and watched from the grandstands.

He sat in his old seat.

“I’ve missed lots and lots of weddings and anniversaries and birthdays, all these special gatherings,” he says. “If they schedule it on a race day that pretty much means, I wish you all well and happiness, but we race on Saturday.”

•   •   •

The gates to Beech Ridge Motor Speedway were closed when we got there.

Track owner Andy Cusack, ever the promoter, delayed unlocking them so a NASCAR camera crew that was with Dan doing a documentary about grassroots racing could get a shot of the gates being opened and all the race cars being pulled in.

I found Andy a little while later. It was late afternoon, and he had been hustling for hours at this track that has been at the center of his life for his whole life.

We had gotten to know each other over the previous few days, watching racing, going out on a lobster boat, eating moose burgers and lobster rolls and swapping stories in his office and around his track.

Andy wears close cropped hair and carries a quick wit everywhere he goes. He was born in December and his parents took him to his first race in May. His parents, high school sweethearts, first attended a race here 1949. His dad, Ralph, won 12 championships as a driver, at least one each decade in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Ralph bought the track in 1981 and then sold it to his sons, Andy and Glenn. Andy bought Glenn out, but it still is very much a family operation.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is a mix of high school, a carnival and Lollapalooza. Beech Ridge is all of that, plus a family reunion, a class reunion and a town hall meeting. Andy, long considered one of the top track operators in the country, is the town historian and the principal.

I walked with him as he cleaned up the track, signed checks, answered endless questions over his radio and performed a dozen other tasks to keep his third-mile track rolling and on time. He’s 54 and has lived within a short drive of the track his whole life. He seemed to know everyone, even fans, by name. In a typical season of Saturday races, 36 percent of fans attend every race and 94 percent attend at least four.

“I just saw my second-grade teacher,” he said suddenly as we stood on a hill behind Turn 3. “My first-grade teacher is usually here. She was my first crush. And I still have a crush on her.”

My first-grade teacher is usually here. She was my first crush.

Andy is at least as much a steward of a legacy as he is owner of a business. He’s at his best when there’s no distinction between the two. He wants his track’s legacy to be a community where race fans gathered and built lasting relationships. “(Fans) feel a sense of ownership in the place. Beech Ridge is their place. They go to their seat,” he said. “I have to be careful about changes because it’s their track.”

The biggest challenge Andy faces is the biggest challenge every track owner faces: How to attract fans who have dwindling time and attention spans. Dating to 1990, the track’s attendance has remained fairly consistent. With a low of 92,630 (1992) and a high of 119,830 (2016), fluctuations always revert back to the mean.

And Andy is ever vigilant. For years he attended races as a fan, always sitting in the same spot, absorbing without knowing it the lessons that would inform his career that has spanned his whole adult life. He’s devoted to details and cares deeply about the fan experience. If Andy says a race will start at 7 p.m., it starts at 7 p.m. He designs racing nights so they last two hours. That leaves plenty of time for racing and for kids to get home and get to bed at a reasonable hour.

The track’s hamburgers taste good and cost little. Same goes for the chicken nuggets, which are so good it’s almost weird. In the name of diligent research, I kept eating them to make sure it wasn’t just one batch that was good and/or that my taste buds were inflating how good they were based on how much fun I was having.

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Before Andy adds or changes menu items, he gathers staff members for a taste test. If they don’t agree that the new item tastes good, it doesn’t make the menu.

Near the end of Saturday’s last race, Andy and I walked along the stands toward Turn 1. He stopped two-thirds of the way down the frontstretch and turned to the crowd. He pointed halfway to the top, toward a kid I had met at Dan McKeage’s shop, who was Dan’s nephew. I’m not sure Andy was pointing at him, but I mention it because I had only been here three days and already I seemed to know everybody.

Whoever he was pointing at, Andy said: “That kid’s in my seat.”

As we got to Turn 1, a driver named Travis Buzzell was dominating the race. He put Dan a lap down and pulled out to a quarter lap lead, by far the biggest advantage in any of the dozen-plus heat and feature races I watched at Beech Ridge.

Andy loves racing because it teaches lessons about redemption, about effort, about perseverance, about life. A win by Buzzell would touch all of that—Buzzell had come close to winning in the Pro Series (the top level at Beech Ridge), but he hadn’t gone to Victory Lane yet.  “I hope he holds on,” Andy said.

And there was something Andy didn’t know about Buzzell that would make his pending win great for a far more profound reason than simply ending a winless streak.

•   •   •

If Andy loves the power of a good story, he also loves the power of a good time. On Friday nights, the track hosts an extravaganza Andy dreamed up called Car Wars. The main event was like a Demolition Derby meets a short track race. Tires placed on the track narrowed the racing surface. Driving beater cars, the drivers ran into each other while also turning laps.

Only the best kind of nutjob enters a race like that. On restarts, only by luck did the leader make it to the start-finish line still pointed in the right direction. There were wild spins and harrowing T-bones and epic brake checks and crazy swerves and more rollovers than a month’s worth of doggy obedience school. A handful of cars were removed from the track by a forklift, one driver raced backward and the only injury was from a young man who tweaked his ankle jumping off of a Suburban that had landed on its side.

During a trick driving display between heats, Joe Pastore, last year’s Driver of the Year at Beech Ridge, turned three-quarters of a lap on two wheels and probably could have kept going indefinitely. He says it’s just a matter of figuring out the balance and then it’s easy. Andy gets annoyed at him for making the two-wheel stunt look too easy. Pastore asked if I wanted to ride shotgun with him. I said no before I knew how good he was at it.

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Instead, I volunteered to ride shotgun in a pickup as it jumped through a wall of fire. I climbed in beside Nick Cusack, Andy’s nephew and a driver in the Pro Series. He also shot the moose that became a delicious moose burger at a cookout for track employees. Nick gave me a helmet and fireproof gloves and made sure I buckled up, even though he had not done so.

“Shouldn’t you have a seat belt on,” I said, “seeing as how we’re about to jump through a wall of fire?”

He said the belt bruises his chest because of the hard jolt caused by the jump plus the explosion.

My first thought was maybe I shouldn’t wear my seat belt either if the jolt was that severe. My second thought was explo-WHAT-NOW?

Nobody told me there would be an explosion, and I hadn’t thought to ask. Somehow, “will there be an explosion when the pickup truck jumps through the wall of fire?” did not occur to me.

I asked Nick how he got roped into jumping a pickup through an exploding wall of fire. He said his dad (Glenn, who cooked the moose burger) and uncle (Andy) forced him to do it, and I’ve heard bigger lies in my life but not many. For every minute of Nick’s life, someone in his family has owned this track. He loved every last second of it.

Nick pulled the pickup onto the ramp, as if testing it to make sure the tires fit on it, even though he had done this dozens of times. He was like Gene Hackman measuring the hoop in Hoosiers, only he was in a pickup about to jump through an exploding wall of fire.

He backed up halfway into Turn 1 to get in position; the ramp was on the frontstretch and we would approach it running in the opposite direction of how cars run during races. Nick casually mentioned that he had only “missed” the ramp once, and that time was barely, so it wasn’t really worth mentioning. I didn’t have time to ask what barely meant, and I didn’t want to know anyway.

Someone set the wall on fire. Nick waited, waited, milking it.

He mashed the gas. I grabbed what Andy called the “oh s—” handle above my door with my right hand and pushed into the seat with my left. I braced my feet against the floorboard. We could have jumped off the top of the grandstands and I wouldn’t have budged.

We hit the ramp … flew through the air … I had enough time to think, “Why am I in a pickup truck jumping into an explo—” SMASH! We bounced and skidded to a stop.

This was the highlight of my whole career, this place.

Alas, something had malfunctioned. The fire had never gotten very high on the wall, and the explosion didn’t happen until after we parked and got out of the truck. Even then, I could feel the heat from 60 feet away as the fireball leapt 20 feet into the air.

Though the crowd didn’t seem disappointed — they cheered the jump and the explosion, and two ovations are better than one — Andy was frustrated. “I’m not a perfectionist,” he said, “but I want everything to go right.”

Only in grassroots racing can a track owner be disappointed that an explosion didn’t happen until after his nephew was done jumping a pickup truck through a wall of fire.

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•   •   •

As dusk descended onto the track on Saturday night, I watched practice and heat races and talked with Dan’s family and friends near the exit of Turn 2. Based on chatter on his radio, whatever was wrong with Veruca Salt had not gotten any better. A good lap time is 15.0-15.2 seconds. Dan was running 15.5.

I walked down the backstretch and leaned against the fence. A man was doing the same thing 25 feet closer to Turn 3; it was Dick Berggren, who covered NASCAR for 30 years for ESPN, CBS, TBS, SPEED, TNN and FOX. I asked for an interview. “You don’t mind if I watch while we talk?”

It was half question, half statement.

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Few people have devoted their lives to racing as Berggren has. He started two racing magazines and edited a third. Before that, he was a highly successful racer himself. He’s a member of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and the Beech Ridge Hall of Fame, and he serves now as the president of the North East Motor Sports Museum.

And Beech Ridge is his favorite race track on earth.

He won 20 features here and set the single-lap speed record when it was still dirt. He says the happiest days of his life were spent dancing with this track, trying to balance the car’s horsepower and setup against its flat and near-circular layout.

“I was interviewed a few years ago. One of the questions I was asked was, ‘If you died and God said to you, as you’re on your way either up or down, you can have just a couple of minutes of your life back, what would it be?’ ” Berggren said. “I didn’t hesitate. I said, ‘Just give me about three laps in my sprint car out here, starting in the back of the pack and passing cars. That’s better than announcing the Daytona 500, better than anything. This was the highlight of my whole career, this place.”

•   •   •

Buzzell was 10 laps away from his first win in the Pro Series. He had an enormous lead, one he would lose only if he spun, broke or crashed. Nick Cusack — the guy who drove a pickup truck through a (supposed to be exploding) wall of fire the day before — chased him from second place. He had no chance.

Andy wondered why Buzzell didn’t back off. Later Buzzell would say he did dial it down, ever so slightly, but after waiting so long for his first win, he didn’t want to crack the door for anyone to get close to him.

During the last few laps and after the race was over, Buzzell choked back tears. He had to stop his Victory Lane interview to compose himself. And not just because he finally won his first race in the Pro Series, though that was part of it.

He dedicated the win to his wife and their first child, who at that point was 23 hours old.

•   •   •

After the race I found Dan and Laura standing on the frontstretch. It was autograph night, so Veruca was parked there. They had a bag full of candy to give out to kids. It was another bad night. The first heat race was OK, but the track changed and then, nothing. Dan finished 10th out of 13 drivers.

Dan can laugh about his struggles, kind of, mostly. In every other facet of life, if he put as much work into solving a problem as he has put into solving his speed problem, he would have solved it. But racing isn’t always like life. Sometimes hard work isn’t rewarded with success.

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He doesn’t beat himself up about it or become miserable to be around, like he would have 15 years ago. Oh, gosh, if he struggled like this 15 years ago he would have been impossible about it. With age has come perspective, and the death, or at least diminishment, of the perfectionist within. His struggles have taught him that as much as he loves to win, that’s not why he races. He has discovered that he loves racing independent of the results.

Striving toward a goal is its own reward, of course. But it’s where he’s striving, and with whom, that brings him joy even if that striving is fruitless. On this beautiful August Saturday night, his wife, his sons, his dad, and his best friends were with him. They laughed and worked and sweated together. The grandstands were filled with his friends, the concession stand was selling world-class chicken nuggets to his friends, the cars around him were driven by his friends.

All weekend long, he and Laura smiled broadly as they cracked jokes at their own expense. I asked Dan how racing makes him feel, and he gave a one-word answer.


Editor’s note: We tracked a full day of racing across the United States on Aug. 17. The video documentary that resulted is called “Drivers and Dreams: Grassroots Racing in America” and airs at 1 p.m. ET Sept. 28 on NBCSN.