READING, Pa. - In the back of the Maple Grove Raceway parking lot, behind rows of campers and trailers, beyond thoroughfares bustling with motorcycles, 4-by-4s and golf carts, the Jr. Dragster racing team of Cory and Vicky Baldwin is on a cellular telephone talking to their mom.
It is mid-afternoon on an overcast day in late June, and Vicky, who is 14, is about to face her first round of elimination races. Cory will race after his sister when the organizers finally work down through the eight age groups to the 11-year-olds.
Their mother, Margie, is back home in Maryland because she had to work. Their father, Tod Baldwin, an Anne Arundel County firefighter, is standing beside them at the open door of his pickup. None of them is fazed by the hundreds of people milling around, by the smell of idling engines, by the drone of the loudspeakers broadcasting one 10-second race after another.
For Vicky and Cory, who live in Severn, this is the apex of summer vacation. This Jr. Dragster moment before the rubber, so to speak, meets the road.
Within a few hours, half the 500 kids who have come to this speedway 34 miles northeast of Lancaster for the National Hot Rod Association Castrol GTX Jr. Dragster League Eastern Conference Finals will be sent home. Vicky and Cory know this all too well. They were eliminated in the first round last year.
This is why Vicky fiddles with the silver container dangling from a chain around her neck that holds some of her late grandmother's ashes. Vicky twirls the cylinder as she tells her mom she'd worried about her "dial in."
Every Jr. Dragster knows bracket racing is a numbers game. Sure, speed matters, but it's more complex than that. Two kids line up at the starting line and take off when the lights turn green, but the kid who crosses the finish line first isn't necessarily the winner.
So a girl needs to understand how the overcast sky affects the blacktop. She needs nerves of steel not to jump forward before the light turns. And she had better be able to estimate the time it will take her to reach the end of an eighth of a mile. That time is her "dial in," and it's determined before the race begins.
A Jr. Dragster wants to finish as close to that time as possible without beating it. That's called "breaking out," and that, Vicky tells her mom, has been happening to kids all morning.
"Like this one guy," she says over the phone, "he dialed in a 9.82, and he ran a 9.7. I was going to dial in a 9.8, but I changed it to a 9.75."
On the other hand, a kid doesn't want to set the time too high. And a kid still wants to be first across the line.
Vicky based her "dial in" on three trials she ran the previous day, before collapsing at the Holiday Inn afterward, worn out from the races, the hotel pool, her third day - a full eight hours each day - in the sun.
She learned about time trials three summers ago after Cory came home from a Cub Scouts meeting with a Boys' Life magazine. When he showed his dad the dog-eared picture of a Jr. Dragster, it stirred memories of the two years Tod Baldwin raced a 1967 Chevelle at the Capitol Raceway in Crofton - and that was enough.
Soon after that, Tod and Margie bought Cory his first dragster, used, for $1,800. Then they bought one for Vicky, for $2,500. Then Cory outgrew his, which was called "Pop-Pop's Headache," and they bought another for $4,500, and Cory named the new one "Rock This Boy."
Then the Baldwins bought a $9,500 trailer to tow the dragsters in and before long, all four were spending every other Saturday morning from April through November at Capitol Raceway.
Last year was their first trip to the national finals, and the four days they spent at Maple Grove, sitting in the same staging lanes and zipping past the same metal bleachers the racing legends have seen, convinced them to come back. Vicky saved her babysitting money, Cory saved what he earned helping at the concession stand at Crofton, and they each paid $65 to enter. They came with 27 other kids and their families from Capitol, and each has let the Hot Rod Association inspectors weigh their cars, measure their exhaust pipes, check their fire-retardant coats, pants and gloves for holes. And now, they wait.
`Dial in' for dollars
When Vicky is through talking, she hands the phone to Cory. One of the first things he says is, "Did you hear? The first place gets $1,000." Then he admits he is apprehensive, too. If the clouds vanish and the sun appears, he'll run faster than he should. He tells her a lot of the Jr. Dragsters have let the pressure rattle them. They've taken off before the lights have dropped down the starting pole and turned green.
In the world of a Jr. Dragster, that is "red-lighting," and it can be an automatic loss, worse even than breaking out.