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NASCAR’s last frontier

Editor’s note: This story initially ran on July 31, 2018 and looks at Alaska Raceway Park. The track is part of the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series and part of grassroots racing across the country. On Saturday, Sept. 28 a video documentary called “Drivers and Dreams: Grassroots Racing in America” will air at 1 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

RELATED: Drivers and dreams seen in a day of grassroots racing

Earl Lackey pulls the pace car onto Alaska Raceway Park and a field of Legends cars lines up behind him. At full song the cars sound like angry bumblebees. For now, they hum white noise behind Lackey’s bright yellow Monte Carlo.

As Lackey pulls into Turn 1, they remain distant behind him, not tucked in at all. For decades, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers have not only tucked in behind the pace car, they have intentionally run into it, the “only in NASCAR” way to say hello to whoever is driving it. As Lackey, who owns the track with his wife and daughter, enters Turn 2, I ask from the shotgun seat if anybody has ever done that to him.

Hands on the wheel, he ponders the question. An impish grin crosses his face — one I have come to recognize after hanging out with him over the last two days and riding with him as he drove the pace car on this Saturday in May. As he hits the backstretch he looks at me and smiles. “I’m convinced they can’t catch me,” he says.

Yes, that’s the pace car driver and owner of the track talking trash about the drivers behind him. Welcome to NASCAR in Alaska, where the only thing bigger than the mountains that surround the track are the personalities that fill it.

•  •  •

From inside Lackey’s pace car, the scenic beauty that envelops Alaska Raceway Park is almost distracting. Pioneer Peak rises up 6,398 feet, so thick and tall that it fills the windshield as we exit Turn 2 and drive down the backstretch. I have to lean forward to see the top. From Turns 3 and 4 and the frontstretch, dozens of peaks from the Chugach Mountain range dominate the view.

Moose sometimes wander onto the drag strip that sits adjacent to the 1/3-mile oval located in Palmer, 40 miles north of Anchorage. Alaska Raceway Park is the northernmost NASCAR-sanctioned track in the world, so the season is relatively short — from mid-May until Labor Day. On the race day I was there, May 12, biting wind whipping down the Knik Glacier chilled me through the jacket, sweatshirt and long johns I was wearing. It got cold enough that I put on my winter hat. Cold is relative, though: Some fans were wearing shorts. By early evening, the wind slowed, and the temperature hovered in the 50s.

Alaska Raceway Park has night racing but with no need for lights. A local noise ordinance means racing must end at 10 p.m., but there is still plenty of light at that time.

The racing and setting have drawn interest across the racing world. Ken Schrader, who won four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races in 753 starts and now races on small tracks across the country, flew up there this summer to race. It marked the 48th state in which he has raced.

• • •

It’s Friday night, the day before the opening race for the NASCAR-sanctioned series. Justin Creech, the middle of a three-generation racing family, is in his gleaming hauler. It’s as shiny and well-organized as any hauler I’ve been in at the Monster Energy Series level. The brand-new Baby Grand car glistens. (Imagine a Cup car, only a fraction of the size.) Justin’s son, Dakota, will drive it in tomorrow’s season opener.

Justin Creech is among the most loved and loathed driver at Alaska Raceway Park, and for the same reason: He wins a lot. He won the NASCAR late model championship in the track’s first two seasons (2016 and 2017) and will soon begin his quest for his third. He has a bit of Kevin Harvick in him — a cocky elder statesman who backs up his brash talk with years of success and a commitment to leaving the sport better than he found it.

Also in the hauler is fellow driver Keith McGee. Until today, McGee’s nickname was Hollywood. Today, Creech has dubbed him Flip, because he rolled his No. 7 Baby Grand in practice about an hour ago. “I saw the ground right by the window,” McGee says. “I was like, ‘That’s not supposed to be there.’ ”

As Creech busts on McGee for the flip, McGee launches a counter-attack. “Did you tell them about the time you thought you were on fire and you were running around in your underwear?”

Keith McGee smiles at the track
Keith McGee is one of the many characters who races — and wins trophies — in Alaska. | Photo courtesy of Alaska Raceway Park

I think McGee is kidding — that happened in Talladega Nights, not in real life. Except it happened to Justin Creech in a race in Fairbanks. A broken exhaust line blew fluid all over him. He thought he was on fire. “I was scared to death,” he says, so he jumped out of his car, peeled his fire suit down to his ankles and tried to run to safety. “They called me Ricky Bobby for years,” he says.

Creech owns a towing company, an automotive shop, a construction business and a race car dealership, all of which make possible his habit of driving fast and turning left.

He either owns or built all of the cars in the Baby Grand series, and he’s passionate about helping the sport grow.

He figures if he builds good cars and develops good drivers to pilot them, that will lead to bigger crowds, which will create demand for more good cars and good drivers, which will lead to even bigger crowds, etc.

“Everything I do is to race,” he says.

• • •

Earl Lackey’s race day starts at 6 a.m. with a series of phone calls. The trophies need name plates, nobody bought orange tape to put on the rookies’ cars, there is a problem with the programs, etc. Earl handles all that, plus he drives the track sweeper when a blown engine drops oil on the track and mingles with team owners, drivers and other track employees all day. “Dad’s a politician,” his daughter, Michelle Lackey Maynor, says, “so he’s shaking hands, kissing babies, stuff like that.”

Late Saturday afternoon, he lingers near the inspection station — a good place to see and be seen. “Flip” McGee pulls his car onto the scale, and Earl teases him about the scratches on it, a result of yesterday’s flip. Then he stands on the scale to throw the measurement off. He tells the next driver that he looks awfully intense for a guy just getting his car weighed. A few minutes later, Earl encourages another driver who is struggling to get a tire mounted.

There is a savvy business man behind all that. Lackey’s career in the racing business started in the early 1960s, when he worked on the pit crew of a team at the world famous Nurburgring race track in Germany, where he was stationed as a helicopter mechanic in the Army. He owned and raced a sports car in Wisconsin before moving to Alaska in 1983.

In 1994, he and four other investors bought the drag strip. Five owners were four too many, and he became the sole owner in 1998. Sensing a need after the closure of another oval track in the state, the family attended trade shows, befriended other track owners and studied what kind of facility would work best in their market. To keep costs down, they built the tower themselves and cut deals with various contractors, including Dana Pruhs, the owner of Pruhs Construction who helped build the track and now races on it.

You just can’t beat when you’re going into Turn 3 and you’re staring at the base of a mountain.

Michelle started a roller derby team in Fairbanks. She wore number 53, a reference to the year of her truck, and used the nickname “Bad Lady,” a reference to her own bad self which she has tattooed on her shoulder.

The result of all that deal-making is a track that is “perfect” for the market, says Kevin Nevalainen, who manages NASCAR’s agreements with 54 tracks in the weekly racing program. It’s short, smooth and wide, all of which help keep costs down for drivers and owners and creates a better show for fans. “They definitely set the bar,” Nevalainen says. “You just can’t beat when you’re going into Turn 3 and you’re staring at the base of a mountain.”

The track is a family business. Earl’s wife, Karen, runs the ticket booth. Jim Lackey, their son, lives on the grounds and works out of a shop that is crowded with trophies from his drag racing career. Michelle Lackey Maynor manages operations and co-owns the track with her parents.

She watches the races on Saturday from the tower atop the grandstands at the start-finish line. The view is spectacular, the racing is tight, and the banter flies all over the place. Morgan, Michelle’s daughter who will turn 21 soon, jokes that she’ll have to start taking care for her mother. Michelle responds that her long-term goal is to open a Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville-themed retirement community, which is a real thing she saw when she attended the Daytona 500 this year.

“Just because you grow up doesn’t mean you have to be lame,” Michelle says. “Look at my dad. He’s the biggest badass I know. He’s 78 and still runs a race track …  I know a lot of younger people that are way less fun.”

Alaska Raceway Mountain Crossman
Photo by Matt Crossman

• • •

The next-to-last race of the night is about to begin. The winner of the previous race gives the checkered flag to Lackey, who gives it to me. As we approach the flag man stationed at Turn 3, Lackey slows down. I roll down my window and hand it to him.

Soon the Legend cars line up behind us. One of them is driven by Lance Mackey, and it’s fitting that he’s driving a Legend car, because he’s a legend in Alaska. He’s a four-time Iditarod champion who now loves to race with horsepower nearly as much as he loves to race with dog power. His presence in the race is like Jeff Gordon running the Iditarod. Mackey’s car is distinctive because it has a wolf tail flapping out the back.

Earl Lackey runs the middle groove of the track as Mackey and the rest warm up their tires. Lackey never gets above 45 miles per hour or so … but not because he doesn’t want to go faster. He would love to strap on his helmet, jump into a race car and battle those guys behind him. But he figures that wouldn’t go over too well with the rest of the field, considering he owns the joint.

“The guys you race against, if you win, they think you’re cheating. And if you don’t win, there’s no sense being out there,” he says. “I’m not in this to lose.”

Lackey parks the pace car in the corner of Turn 3, a spot with easy access to the track in case there’s a wreck. He watches every race from right there, with Pioneer Peak to his right and behind him, the Chugach Mountain range off in the distance to his left, his spotless track in front of him.

It’s the best seat in the house.

Editor’s note: This story initially ran on July 31, 2018 and looks at Alaska Raceway Park. The track is part of the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series and part of grassroots racing across the country. On Saturday, Sept. 28 a video documentary called “Drivers and Dreams: Grassroots Racing in America” will air at 1 p.m. ET on NBCSN.