If you've ever wondered where the Monte Carlos and Trans Ams of your youth have gone, head to the Accord Speedway on a Friday night - you'll find them racing it out on a classic dirt short track for bragging rights and some cash.
The quarter-mile speedway, mostly dormant during the week (there are some Wednesday practice nights) turns into a beehive of activity on Friday afternoons, as trucks hauling car trailers of all sizes, shapes, and colors start heading up Whitfield Road for an evening of racing.
Whitfield Road in Accord is an unlikely place for a racetrack, but the Speedway has been there for years, providing entertainment for drivers and spectators for more than three decades (there was a hiatus from '88 to '92). Karen Hoover, of Jake's Auto Body in High Falls (which sponsors three drivers and hosts an annual feature night at the track), has not only gone to the Speedway all her life, but says Jake's supports it because, "It's part of the community and a great family night out."
It has also been the object of ongoing legal battles and efforts to stop its operation as neighbors - some new arrivals, some long-term residents - try to eliminate the noise, dust and race-related traffic that are a regular part of Friday nights in Accord from April through October.
In fact the Speedway is a perfect metaphor for the way many Hudson Valley communities have grown and changed: as more and more people have come to the area for its country atmosphere and rural charms they have often become selective about which attributes they would like to keep and which they would like to make disappear. The dirt track is on the list of unwanted local charms for a vocal group of mostly weekenders that also includes some full-time residents.
But what are they fighting? It all depends on who you talk to.
An evening spent at the racetrack is unlike anything else you'll find in Ulster County. Aside from the hubbub, there's something rather timeless about it. About 125 vehicles compete in seven different classes (each class has at least one heat and then a feature race). Many of the cars date from the '70s and '80s (some are even older); seeing the cars is sort of like running into old friends without realizing you had missed them. When was the last time you saw an AMC Gremlin?
On a night with good weather, a few thousand people pay anywhere from $1 (for children under 12 - and there are plenty) to $12 for adult admission for a chance to sit in the bleachers and experience the close racing comprised of short bursts of speed connected by four-wheel skids around the tight turns. The dust kicked up by the cars can be impressive, as well.
The drivers are not professionals, though many of them devote all their free time and money to keeping their cars race-ready. One of the things that track supporters point out is that it's not just the weekly racing, but the regular discipline of working on the car to keep it in shape that is a good focus for young drivers.
These drivers get support from wherever they can find it - many of the cars sport a magic-markered "thanks" to those who help them make it to the track; more often than not, Mom and Dad head the list. For the most part, reading the sponsorship decals is kind of like leafing through the Ulster County Yellow Pages; many of the businesses that help the drivers cover their expenses are local. Racing costs vary widely depending on the class of car. Pure Stocks and Vintage Modifieds can be built for as little as $3,000 and be competitive. One pure stock driver described his weekly budget as, "Between $150 and $200, depending on what breaks that week."
But winning in the bigger divisions, like the 358 Modifieds - stock cars adapted for power and handling - is a much bigger investment. The winning teams spend as much as $80,000 to $90,000 in a season.
There are as many stories about how drivers got started as there are drivers. Many of them had parents (or husbands) that raced, and then there are those, like Greg Meola, an Olivebridge contractor who were just drawn to the sport. He became completely addicted to visiting the Speedway while he was still a New York City resident weekending in Ulster County. He always spent the extra money for a pit pass and found the drivers and their supporters to be accessible and happy to talk about their sport.
Meola's time in the pits made him realize that he really wanted to know what it would be like to be on the track instead of watching it. With advice and informal instruction other drivers, he spent a few thousand dollars to convert a '67 Chevy Malibu he had acquired from an ex-girlfriend into a Pure Stock car. "The first time I raced was scary," Meola admits. "Guys bang into you and you just spin out on the corners. But now it's like nothing - I can't wait to get out there."
The races are - unarguably - noisy. There have been several efforts by the town of Rochester to legislate lower decibel levels - currently the regulation limits the maximum average decibel over a 30-minute period at 79 dB. Levels during races reportedly top out at about 110 dB, according to Citizens Accord. Fans and opponents alike report hearing the races from a variety of locales; depending on the wind and the weather there are times you can hear the starts from as far away as Rosendale.
At the track, it's virtually impossible to have a conversation during the races, though that does not keep fans from shouting their allegiances, complete with a variety of gestures - to drivers who wear one-way radios in their helmets to hear instructions from the racing officials.
Citizens Accord, an informal (though well organized) group that has led the fight to shut the racetrack down, complains that Town of Rochester officials are uncritical in their support of the track. They cite the fact that the noise limit laws were changed a few years ago to make it easier for the track to comply to restrictions, and allege that the town's monitoring efforts are inaccurate. Over the years the group has that the town's monitoring efforts are inaccurate. Over the years the group has brought several suits aimed at closing the track, including a suit claiming infringements on civil rights (due to noise) that was dismissed in Federal court in New York City as being out of the court's jurisdiction.
The current owners, Gary and Donna Palmer, who bought the track four years ago in hopes of turning a passion into a profitable business, have said that the legal fees have been a tremendous burden. Citizens Accord has also put some effort into discrediting the Palmers, talking at town meetings and writing letters to local papers. Most recently there was a dispute about the legal status of the corporation that owns the track, but Town of Rochester Supervisor Pam Duke says that has been resolved to the town's satisfaction.
Duke also adds that the Palmers have been cooperative in response to what she describes as "few" complaints about the noise. They have rescheduled the noisiest race (which is their biggest draw), the 358 Modified Feature Race, earlier in the evening and they strictly adhere to an 11PM curfew. If racing runs late, feature races are postponed to another date to comply with the curfew.
It seems inevitable that there will be a renewed struggle each spring to prevent the Speedway from reopening, and Citizens Accord shows no signs of bowing out of the fray. But, for this year, you can decide for yourself whether the entertainment outweighs the nuisance factor by spending a Friday night in Accord - at the track or near it...depending on your view of auto racing.
The Accord Speedway is located at 299 Whitfield Road off Route 209. There are races every Friday night (unless there's heavy rain) through October 30. Gates open to spectators at 5PM, racing begins at 7PM. For more information, call (845) 626-3478, www.accordspeedway.com.