Dan Brown isn’t a speed freak, an adrenaline junkie or even a car guy. The 49-year-old electrician simply uses his Friday nights at the drag strip as family time.
“My dad had been talking for years about building this car,” Brown said earlier this month, standing next to his father’s 1933 Hudson Essex at Oxford Plains Dragway. “When my dad turned 60, some of his closest friends had passed away from cancer. At that time I figured, ‘If not now, then when?’
“My wife and sons go out to dinner or whatever they do on a Friday night, and I come here. This is Dad time for me.”
There are just two drag strips operating in Maine, the one in Oxford — located on the same property as historic Oxford Plains Speedway — and the Winterport Dragway in Winterport. Walk through either of them and you’ll find dozens of stories just like Brown’s.
A family sport at its core, local drag racing doesn’t boast the 10,000 horsepower, 300 miles-per-hour machines featured on national television each week. It has a much smaller following than its stock car cousin, but the following for this niche form of motorsports is devoted and passionate.
While Winterport has remained steady over the years in terms of participation and attendance, Oxford has battled dormant periods during its existence. Participation has risen over the last decade to reflect a rebound for drag racing in Maine, but the casual motorsports fan base has been slower to flock to the dragways to experience the sport firsthand.
‘THERE’S PLENTY OF BUSINESS IN MAINE’
Winterport Dragway is in its 51st consecutive season of operation dating to its 1967 opening, while Oxford Plains Dragway opened two years later. Both Winterport and Oxford feature 1/8-mile drag strips and a half-dozen divisions, with Oxford racing on Friday nights and Winterport running its weekly program on Sunday afternoons.
“I’m a firm believer that there’s plenty of business in Maine for two tracks,” said Andrew Cook of Chelsea, the general manager at Winterport Dragway, who also worked at Oxford Plains in the mid-2000s. “As both build their programs back up, the old race crowd who put their stuff away are coming back out now, as well as a whole new generation. It’s pretty exciting to see.”
Oxford Plains Dragway is owned by Tom Mayberry of Naples, the owner of Oxford Plains Speedway. Mayberry leases the track to Jeff Shock, who is in his fourth season as the dragway’s manager.
Winterport, however, is not privately owned. Operated on land leased directly from the town of Winterport, the dragway is run by the Winterport Dragway Association and its board of directors.
While Oxford Plains Speedway and its signature annual stock car event, the Oxford 250, generate ticket sales in the thousands each summer with print, television and digital media coverage, Oxford Plains Dragway operates in the speedway’s shadows — almost literally.
The drag strip, sandwiched between the stock car pit area to the south and an airplane runway to the north, drew 110 cars to its weekly racing event on a Friday night in early July.
That number was a record for Shock, who reopened the facility after a dormant period of two years in 2015.
“The racers support a lot of the track. I need fans to make it all full circle,” said Shock, who offers an average of $400 in purse money per division per event. “I remember the day (we first opened) specifically, it was my birthday. I didn’t know what to expect. I was on edge, I didn’t know what was going to happen. At the time, we were just hoping we’d have 50-60 cars so maybe we could break even.”
Shock declined to say what his operating expenses are at Oxford, though he did note that it includes staffing, utilities and track preparation costs. Cook estimated it costs Winterport Dragway between $1,800 and $2,500 to hold a single racing program.
Oxford and Winterport officials estimate roughly 300 fans attend their weekly events as spectators, a number that fluctuates based on factors including weather, time of year and other events in the local area. Spectator admission is $12 for adults at both tracks.
Though purses are largely top-loaded — traditionally, local dragways don’t pay for finishes outside of the top four — more interest from fans in the form of ticket sales would help boost purses, both Shock and Cook acknowledged.
MOTORSPORTS’ BEST-KEPT SECRET
Drag racing might be Maine’s best-kept motorsports secret, despite boasting all of the features that made racing popular for decades — blazing speed, roaring engines, vivid paint schemes and an array of makes and models of race cars.
Like Winterport, Oxford offers a variety of racing classes for a myriad of cars — from purpose-built dragsters in its Top Eliminator division to street-legal cars (which must be inspected and registered with the state’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles) at its entry levels. Some involved in the sport say it is such an inexpensive way to get your racing fix that they back up what they’re preaching.
Jamie Madison, a 60-time race winner at Oxford who has competed all over the northeastern United States and Canada, drives the car he competes in to and from the drag strip on Friday nights. It’s a 1990 Ford Mustang GT, which remains virtually stock and is among the slowest cars in Oxford’s Street class.
“It’s not the speed in this,” the 43-year-old Canton native said of what he loves most about drag racing. “I think it’s the people. I’ve met a lot of good people. When I was in school, I always played sports and I was always competitive. I was never the best at anything I did, I was never No. 1, but I always liked to compete against somebody that was better than me just to try and beat them just to say you could.
“It’s the same here. I’m probably one of the bigger underdogs with this vehicle, but I’m able to win a few rounds here and there and win a few races. I can sit back and get a kick out of it, because there’s some guys in this class with some serious money in their cars and I’m here with a $2,800 car.”
Madison is hardly alone in his passion for the sport. There are few — if any — reluctant drag racers. Instead, most are attracted to the speed or to the machines themselves.
Buxton’s Shawn Poitras, who was Oxford’s Street champion in 2017, said he continues to try and find ways to get his car going a little bit faster.
“I still get that adrenaline every time I take off,” Poitras said of what keeps him coming back.
Madison says the sport is as healthy now as it’s been in decades in Maine.
“I would say right now it is,” he said. “It’s healthier right now than it has been at any point in the 2000s. What you’re seeing today, for now, is very healthy.”
The observation is based on car counts, the number of spectators in the grandstands and the attention drag racing gets on social media, according to Madison.
“My biggest peeve in the world was getting the word out that we’re there,” Shock, Oxford’s manager, said. “I do social media a ton to do that.
“It’s pretty hard to have a facility without racers and fans. The biggest thing that I can say is you’re trying to make it fan-friendly and racer-friendly. It’s about listening to fans and racers and providing a facility they’re going to enjoy.”
Shock says there are two misconceptions that have kept drag racing from becoming more popular among motorsports enthusiasts.
First, the notion that the cars and drivers are largely shielded from the spectators — the way they are in stock car racing — is inaccurate. A race ticket to the drag strip gives fans free reign to see all of the cars up close and talk to drivers. Kids, particularly, can benefit from the close-up proximity to the machines, including sitting in them, Cook said.
“It’s all about us getting out there. We have to come out of our shell a little bit and realize that people don’t understand it.”“You know the regulars (at the track), they’re going to be there every week anyway. It’s the new people you see, and they are in complete awe that you can stand right next to the car,” Cook said. “Ninety percent of the racers at Winterport would let any kid sit right in their car and check it out.
The second misconception concerns the racing itself. Unlike in stock car racing, rules are much looser, encouraging more competitors from diverse backgrounds.
All drag racing at the weekly level in Maine is held as “bracket racing.” Unlike the drag racing on television, with heads-up starts designed to let the fastest cars win, bracket racing uses staggered starts and pre-determined times to help manipulate races so they are more competitive between otherwise mismatched vehicles.
“I like keeping (my car) the way it is, because it shows the guy that wants to bring the family car over that you can come over and run it. You don’t have to do a lot,” Madison said. “I have people who say they’d come, but then they say, ‘Well, I’ve got to do this to my car, I’ve got to do that to my car.’ No, you don’t.
“I’ve seen a guy come over here and win a big race with a stock pickup truck. It wasn’t a crazy diesel, it was just a regular daily pickup like you’d haul your trailer with. He won the whole thing.”
‘IT’S A SICKNESS’
Cook, the Winterport track manager, says the dragway’s unique relationship with Winterport itself is a boon for the facility.
“The town loves us,” Cook said. “The environment alone contributes to the success of the facility. We’re not battling a (private) owner or townspeople who moved in and don’t like the sounds of the cars. I think that’s the environment that’s bringing everybody to the track every week.”
Cook has seen a resurgence in the sport in Maine, notably with an influx of 20-somethings bringing cars to the track. He credits NHRA races on television, as well as reality shows like “Street Outlaws” on the Discovery Channel.
While pit areas are often dotted with an older demographic, aside from the Junior Dragster division that races at both Oxford and Winterport and fields cars for drivers between the ages of 8-15, having new blood is crucial to the sport’s success in both Maine and elsewhere.
“I read somewhere that the average age of a drag racer in the United States is 56 years old,” Cook said. “It’s a much older, much more laid back crowd than (the stock car racing crowd). … But, with an average age of 56, it’s going to die if we don’t expose drag racing to more people. We just can’t let that happen.”
Joe Brown is 71 now, and the Otisfield racer who heads to Oxford every Friday night with his son, Dan, has been tinkering with speed since he was in high school.
He raced when there were drag strip in both Norridgewock and Sanford — long since extinct — in the mid-1960s. He got his start in a school speed club, and his 1933 Essex is a bit of a Frankenstein — crafted from parts collected over decades from various towns and junkyards. It races in two classes each Friday at Oxford, Nostalgia and Modified.
Brown can’t remember a time when he wasn’t attracted to the idea of race cars and speed, a common refrain among the drag racing sect.
“I like working on cars. It’s building something out of nothing and making it go,” Brown said. “It’s a sickness, like anything. You could be playing golf or working on cars.”