A 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



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 America 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 farming.

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.

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