Racing through Sands

Stan Wittler, in the 64 car, leads the pack by less than a car length at a June 10 race at Sands Speedway.

Story and photos by Noah Hasumann

Stock cars zoom around the track at 50 mph with a thunder of engines and burning rubber, some at less than 17 seconds a lap. The drivers step on the gas and grip their steering wheels, attempting to maneuver their way into the lead—without spinning out of control. They curve around the bend and avoid slamming into the concrete wall that protects audience-goers from getting dangerously close to the action.

A quarter-mile oval of asphalt, Sands Speedway in Sands Township is the oldest paved stock car short track in the Upper Peninsula and one of only three in the U.P. The others are the one-third-mile Norway Speedway in Dickinson County and the 1,550-foot Kinross Speedpark in Chippewa County.

Ownership of Sands Speedway has changed hands several times since it started in 1969. Stan Wittler of Marquette, the track manager, is one of the five current raceway investors, and he’s been involved in racing there since its start.

“We’re keeping it going,” Wittler said. “A lot of people don’t know it’s here. Some that came here in the ’70s and ’80s don’t know it’s still running. When we bought it, it was pretty rundown, so we’ve been building it back up.”

Wittler explained the excitement of the raceway with a laugh, “It’s a place to make some noise, speed around the track and maybe hit [another car] and not get arrested.”

There was a four-car pile-up in a race at this year’s June 4 season opening, Wittler said, and one of the drivers in the crash was back the next week.

“That’s the life of a race car driver—fix it up all week just to race one more day,” Wittler said.

Sands Speedway’s 2017 season runs through August with races a few Saturdays a month. Events are rescheduled for Sundays if weather is rainy—wet tracks make for a dangerous race. The first races start at 5 p.m., and all finish before 8 p.m. Drivers and pit crews arrive early in the afternoon for last-minute tune-ups before they test their vehicles’ mettle in individual time trials at 3:30 p.m.

Destiny Bullard stands next to her car. As a 19-year-old woman, Bullard is breaking stereotypes about what it takes to be a stock car driver.

The track is cut into a grassy hill, with grandstand seating available for up to 300 spectators.

A pit pass costs $20, but tickets to watch are $10 for adults, $7 for seniors, teens are $5 and kids 12 or younger get in free.

“It’s a family-oriented thing,” Wittler said. “It’s affordable family fun.”

Mattson’s BBQ Shacks serve concessions, like hotdogs for $1.50 and burgers for $3.25, in addition to the T-shirts for sale at the souvenir stand. The speedway doesn’t sell alcohol, but spectators are welcome to carry their cold ones in as long as they’re not in glass containers.

Racing runs in these families. A lot of the audience, pit crews and track workers nowadays are family and friends of drivers. Cars often pass from generation to generation.

The drivers race in four separate car divisions: four-cylinder A-class, four-cylinder B-class, super stock and late model. Super stock and late model are the faster and, consequently, more expensive cars, better suited to more experienced drivers.

Numbers vary, but workers usually expect around 30 drivers. Drivers come from across the region, as far away as Manistique and Marinette. Since Norway Speedway has races Friday evenings, a number of drivers race at both, back-to-back days.

The Sands Speedway investors either race or have family that do. Wittler was a pit crewman until he decided “that wasn’t enough fun.” He started racing 16 years ago in a car he built with his son. Now, sporting a gray beard, he races in super stock car No. 64. At age 64 (going on 65), Wittler is one of the oldest on the track.

Stan Wittler, in the 64 car, leads the pack by less than a car length at a June 10 race at Sands Speedway.

“As long as I’m having fun, I’ll keep racing,” Whittler said. His “tradition” is to always eat a cheeseburger before a race. “I’m not superstitious—I’m hungry.”

At age 14, Parker Cain of Marquette is one of the youngest. This is his second year racing, and he’s already grabbed several victories in the four-cylinder division.

“I’ve always wanted to race,” Cain said simply.

Drivers can be as young as 13, so long as they have parental consent, sign a liability form and go through an approval process to demonstrate their driving competence, Whittler explained.

Regular heats tend to be 10 or 12 laps, but feature races can have as many as 25. Drivers are awarded prize money according to a point system: the better they race, the more points they earn, the more of the loot they get. But for these speedway folks, it’s far more a labor of love than a money-making venture.

Scott Bolster, 43, who lives in Sands, considers himself a new driver, only racing for three years now. He’s been working on cars since he was 16, and handles all the mechanics on his ride himself.

“The satisfaction of working on the car and then taking it out on the track—the reward is indescribable,” Bolster said, tinkering on his “Frankenstein” four-cylinder, which has a Chevy motor but a Ford rear end. “You make it work,” he said with a chuckle.

The real challenge is maintaining the vehicles.

“It’s frustrating at times,” Bolster admitted. “You want to give up and burn the darn thing. The car wants to fall apart. You push every component to its absolute breaking point—if anything fails, you’re done. But once you trust the car that it wants to go around the bend as fast as it can, it’s so much fun door-to-door racing.”

Sands Speedway is no stranger to female drivers too.

The crowd at Sands Speedway sits in the shade June 10, waiting for a race to begin.

“There is a large misconception that girls aren’t allowed in racing,” Bolster added. “That’s a load of crap. In a car, everyone weighs the same.” He explained that vehicles must add or subtract to maintain the mandated weight.

Destiny Bullard, 19, from Marquette, started racing go-karts at 14 and sport trucks at 16. Now she drives both, in addition to racing a four-cylinder stock car.

“We’re underestimated I would say,” Bullard said of women drivers. “I come to the smaller tracks, where I feel a bit more welcome.”

June 10 was her first time racing at Sands Speedway in three years, (studying mechanical engineering at Ferris State University has kept her preoccupied). Bullard is back for the summer and ready to compete. She had raced the night before at Norway and finished second in a heat race, but had to drop out of the feature race when her throttle stuck.

“I like the adrenalin,” she remarked. “A lot of people say [racing’s] not interesting because it’s just going in circles. But it’s a feeling—when I’m out there, nothing else matters.”

It was a sun sweltering, 90-degree evening June 10. Wind gusted up dust, while spectators fixed eyes on the racers.

In a four-cylinder division heat, with five cars on the track, Bullard—a member of the National Guard, driving car No. 23 with an American flag decal—held the lead for almost the whole race, until suddenly she veered off the track. She got back on course, but too late. Fourteen-year-old Cain in car No. 44 captured first.

Later, in a super stock heat with six cars vying for position, Wittler took the lead and held it. Crossing the finish line, he waved the checkered flag and did a victory lap.

MM

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