Date: Apr/17/2007 03:50 PM
It's old new, but I like to share it with you all
Baltimore Sun, October 30, 2005
45-year tradition nears the finish line
75-80 Dragway in Monrovia has been Bill Wilcom's life - but tonight will
mark the final roar of the engines
BY ABIGAIL TUCKER
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED OCTOBER 30, 2005
MONROVIA // At the 75-80 Dragway, where what comes after the decimal point means
everything and a thousandth of a second can shatter hearts, 45 years seems like forever.
And yet, Bill Wilcom says, "Time flew."
Flew, like a souped-up '68 Camaro down the quarter- mile straightaway, over the paved
hill and into the cornfield beyond.
So much has packed the 4 1/2 decades since he and his dairy-farming brothers mowed
down their alfalfa field and laid asphalt in a long lane like an airplane runway, not even
bothering with a guardrail.
Forty-five years of famous chili dogs - so good, racers say, because the tire smoke is
cooked right in - and 45 years of boys who were too broke to buy one because they had
spent their last dimes on engine parts, and who instead poached corn from the
neighboring fields, roasting it in the husks over borrowed coals.
Starting-line weddings. Nearly squashed flagmen. Children who, it seemed to Wilcom,
arrived at the track in strollers and peeled out in '53 Studebakers. Broken records.
Rainouts. Whole summers built around a strip of concrete and muscle cars heaving
themselves toward glory.
But now the end is suddenly, screechingly here. After a duel with colon cancer, Wilcom
is closing the 75-80 Dragway, Maryland's oldest drag-racing track. Weather permitting,
the last race will be tonight.
"Now don't get me wrong, it's for the best," the 68-year-old raceway manager said. "The
track's old. I'm not going to deny that. The lighting. Telephone poles. The wiring. You
know doggone well I'd be lying if I told you it wasn't."
Sometimes, when Wilcom speaks of his drag strip, he's really talking about himself.
Wilcom is a rarity among small-town track owners in that he was never a drag racer
himself. He was born without the urge to buy $6-a-gallon super gas, to paint hoods with
flames. His brown Chevy pickup - with work gloves on the dashboard and coiled wire in
the back seat - lacks a name like the Widow Maker or the Galloping Grape.
He makes his rounds in this small Frederick County town at an almost grandmotherly
pace, waving as drivers he knows from the track streak by.
"Bill's your best buddy," said Bob Haskins, 47, of Poolesville, who has been racing the
same 1966 Chevelle at the 75-80 Dragway since he was 18. "But he doesn't have a racer's
In Wilcom's mind, the most beautiful vehicle at the track is the 1965 Ford bucket truck he
bought about 20 years ago, which barely starts but allows him to change the 400 tiny
light bulbs in the time clock without ascending a tall, rickety ladder. (Wilcom's not fond
of heights, either.)
"My job isn't to race," he said. "It's to put stuff together and make things click."
It's the little chores that occupy most of his time at the drag strip, which is just a lonely
outcropping of wooden buildings, port-a-potties and orange cones. And, of course, the
thin ribbon of road.
Sometimes he's not sure exactly how he ended up at this track, in this life. In the late
1950s, he was finishing a (safely earthbound) stint with the Air Force in Southern
California - the part of first consumed by drag racing.
Wilcom himself wasn't overwhelmed but, returning to Monrovia, he found that the racing
fever had infected even the five square miles of farmland where his clan had raised dairy
cows for generations. Rural American youth were already car-obsessed - drive-in movies,
drive- in restaurants and back-roads carousing dominated the teenage weekend.
The Wilcoms saw a business opportunity. They decided they could spare that little alfalfa
field, nestled right at the juncture of routes 75 and 80.
Bill, the third of four brothers, was nominated to manage the track, mostly because he
was fresh from the service and his
brothers were busy fa rming.
The rest of the family would pitch in
and share the profits - if there were any.
Nobody expected much that first racing Sunday in September 1960.
"Ninety-nine percent of people said we wouldn't last the year," Wilcom remembered.
"Didn't think we could go. Remember now, when we started it was just a road."
But hundreds of spectators showed up, along with about 40 farm boys in jalopies.
Wilcom planted a man with good eyes at the finish, another with strong nerves to wave
the start with green and red flags.
And so it flew, summer after summer, the snort and roar of drag racing, which ultimately
grew so loud that the relatively distant neighbors complained, and Wilcom promised to
close the track by .
But demand led to longer daytime hours, and soon the strip was open for business all
weekend, plus Wednesdays, as the procession of Fords and Corvettes - and, later,
motorcycles and four-wheelers and snowmobiles - flowed to Monrovia.
Gradually, Wilcom, whose idea of an exciting Saturday is a well-stocked flea market, felt
the races taking over his life. His house is visible from the starting line, and he found
himself spending all his time down at the track, particularly as years passed and the
original flagmen gave way to temperamental electronics.
Nothing could replace Wilcom, though. Sometimes before a race day he would spend all
night at the track, tinkering. And during the races, he'd hustle along the sidelines, from
starting line to gas tanks, checking that everything was running smoothly, as other men
relaxed in the sun, cracking open hoods to ventilate their engines and beer cans to cool
As he watched the good times going on in the wood-planked grandstands, the blossoming
romances and the fistfights, he was sometimes envious.
His wife, Betty, was just steps away in the food stand, but he felt he barely saw her; his
kids, Rhonda and Ron, did practically every job in the place, from selling T-shirts to
collecting empties at the parking lot, but it was as though they, too, were forever out of
"I never really got to enjoy them, because I was always on the track," he said.
But as Wilcom aged, he gradually came to see the 75-80 itself as "a big family," a part of
himself, and his customers agreed. This is why it endured, they say, as drag strips with
bigger prizes and better traction opened across Maryland.
"It's a close-knit crowd that races there," said Bob DeMilt of Germantown, a 58-year-old
who competes in a pearlescent '66 Mustang. "We've got three generations of everybody's
family racing, the grandfathers, the fathers, the sons, the daughters."
True, what once seemed big and grand has become a little country track, but it's a place
where no one would palm your screwdriver or steal your parking spot, where novices are
welcome and racing numbers are still scrawled across windshields in shoe polish.
Even though he paces the sidelines, Wilcom is the center of the warmth: intent but
cheerful, remembering everybody's name and everybody's car's name, and laughing with
his big belly - until last year, that is, when the cancer took 70 pounds off.
It's Wilcom's voice that seems to echo when you leave the track:
"Thanks for coming," an old sign says. "Please drive careful."
It was one of the eeriest spectacles in memory, several drivers said, the drag strip quiet
on a clear Saturday night in the summertime. No throaty motor roar, no plumes of tire
smoke. That was June 2004, and Wilcom had just been diagnosed with colon cancer.
For months, those who knew him guessed he was sick, but it was the stilled raceway that
"It was as though things had started to deteriorate," DeMilt said. "You wondered if Bill
would recover from this."
When Wilcom returned to finish the 44th season, then open the track again for a 45th, it
was a victory lap more than a new beginning. He had beaten the cancer, but his long
hours at the track had to end.
That somebody else could run the 75-80 was inconceivable, as much to the racing
community as to Wilcom himself, who claims to be the only one capable of
understanding the equipment's mechanical quirks.
The drag strip's future is uncertain: The Wilcom brothers collectively own the track, and
there are tentative plans to develop the land. But that could take some time, Wilcom
cautioned: It's likely the strip will lie fallow for months or years, becoming again the
open field it once was.
Flea markets, sleep
The track manager, for his part, will spend his twilight weekends getting to know his
young grandsons. He longs for Saturday evenings spent elsewhere, and pastimes that
don't smell of burnt rubber and fuel.
"Flea markets," he said, with a happy sigh. "Sleep."
Yet he has never felt so awake as he has in the weeks leading up to the end. He stares at
the bedroom wall at , wondering what it will be like. Suddenly life feels like he's
strapped into a fast car - a sensation like "a giant hand ... pushing you," as one longtime
75-80 driver described it.
Wilcom is now the center of attention; drivers he hasn't seen in 20 years are popping up
all over the place to shake his hand, and more than 1,000 people came out to the last
Friday night race late last month, breaking the track attendance record. Wilcom hopes to
do it again today.
As much as he's anticipating that long, slow slide into the cornfield of retirement, he can't
wait for the big crowd, the super-charged engines rumbling out a drum roll. Maybe an
old-timer will ask him to go one-on-one for the final duel; Wilcom will, of course, refuse.
Only there's a twinkle in his eye that hints he just might do it: Perhaps, after 45 long
years, a heart can start to race.