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Kris
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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

SUN REPORTER

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

heart."

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.

Racing fever

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 midnight.

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.

Irreplaceable

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

themselves.

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

sight.

"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."

Unnatural quiet

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

scared them.

"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 4 a.m., 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.

abigail.tucker@baltsun.com

 




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