Note: This is part of a two-part series I wrote covering the closing of a local speedway that stood as a staple and social center of the local community for decades.
Smoke fills the air above the grills outside Manitowoc Speedway. Hundreds of brats are lined up, a single man poking at the meat. Behind him, workers carry bags of popcorn and cases of beer into sheds set up as makeshift snack shops. The low rumble of cars rolling out into the pit area carries across the speedway.
For hundreds of fans, family members and speedway workers, this loud, dusty space is home every Friday night. It’s a haphazard group — moms leading small children in massive protective headphones. Men splitting six-packs and eating burgers on picnic tables. Families in matching shirts emblazoned with their racer’s name and number.
They’re all held together by a love for racing that, for many, has been a staple of their lives for as long as they can remember.
Sit down and chat with any of these people — Jacqui Sander and Kylee Humphrey, who are setting up the Junior Racers shop; Jim Meyers, who is eating burgers with his son, Jason; Samantha Kohls, who sells beer at the bar every Friday.
Pick any of these people and ask them when they first came, for a memory from their first race. They won’t really be able to give you an answer.
“It’s just something I’ve grown up with,” says Humphrey, an eighth-grader who arrives by noon every Friday to stock the snack shop and sell candy, popcorn and T-shirts until close to midnight.
She looks at Sander, who nods in agreement. The two are close outside of race nights — Sander is dating Humphrey’s father, who is on the board for the speedway — and they agree that the community is anchored in a focus on family.
“You come with your family from the time you’re little,” Sander says. “It just becomes habit, really. It’s summer, it’s Friday night, it’s time for racing.”
At a picnic table, Jim and Jason dig into burgers and cheese curds. They came out tonight to catch a race at the Manitowoc Speedway for one last time. It’s only their second time here, but it’s been a lifetime love for the father and son.
“We just had to see (the speedway) one last time,” Jim says. The two typically watch races at a speedway more than an hour away in Shawano. “It’s something I wanted him to experience growing up, like I did, and I think he’s really taken to it.”
Jason, who is 12, has been watching racing for years. He collects Hot Shots, small printed cards similar to baseball cards that feature each of the racers, and plasters them on the walls of their garage at home. He stays after most of the races, hoping to meet one of his favorites.
“I love it,” he says shyly. “I just love it a lot.”
On the other side of the grandstand, Kohls tries to remember her first race, laughing at how far back the memories go. It was always a family event. She and her siblings clambered into the bleachers and spent the night betting dollars on each race.
“I remember it just being so exciting for us,” Kohls says. “It still is.”
Kohls doesn’t need this gig, working the bar at the speedway every Friday night. She works 40 to 60 hours a week at two jobs. The extra money is nice, but after a full day on her feet at another job, the tips placed in a pitcher on the makeshift table she leans against aren’t necessarily enough to make six more hours of work worth it.
But that’s not why she’s here. She’s here for the people, the regular customers who come by for drinks and linger longer to talk, the other workers who sell beer and brats and tickets every week. Her family members brought her into racing, but the last five years of working at the speedway have taught Kohls a new definition of the word family.
She was at the final meeting during which the decision was made to close the speedway after this season. The group there was angry, Kohls says, and then disappointed, defeated. They weren’t sure what happened, how such an integral part of their lives had been lost so quickly.
This season has been slower for her. Fewer people come out each week, unless there’s a major race like the Harbor Town Showdown in July. The bleachers aren’t filled and the food doesn’t sell out.
“It’s sad because we need the community more than ever now,” Kohls said. “It’s a huge disappointment, and I think everyone who comes here feels that.”
In the end, this is a place for family. Look past the beat-up race cars and the grungy dirt track, the booming voice of the announcer and the roar of the engines. The bleachers are filled with families, official and unofficial, children sitting on parents’ laps and grandparents shouting encouragement to grandsons who can’t possibly hear them from inside their cars.
No one knows that better than Amy Bailey, who sits with her children Brayden and Riley only minutes before the races begin. Riley wears hot pink headphones. Brayden, an 8-year-old with spina bifida, smiles excitedly from his wheelchair.
Bailey met her husband, Jim, at the speedway. The first time she heard his name was when it was announced over the loudspeakers as he sped out onto the dirt track for a race. Minutes later, he rolled his car.
Years later, they take their children out to a variety of speedways to watch races together. Tonight, Jim is working on a pit crew, helping out a friend who he used to race with.
When Jim raced, he competed here in Manitowoc often. It’s a place that holds memories for them both. And although it now isn’t their primary track to watch races, the loss of the Manitowoc Speedway is difficult for Bailey — who hopes to pass on this passion to her children.
This community is everything for Bailey. Most of her closest friends come from the racing world, and she’s found that even strangers are more than happy to help lift Brayden into a seat high up in the grandstand, to chat amiably in the quiet between races. Each of these tracks are a little piece of home.
“It’s the best type of family,” Bailey says. “I’ve learned so much and gotten so much from places like this. It’s disappointing. Honestly, it’s just a shame to see it go.”