I got the idea to make a documentary about the 2002 season at the Devil’s Bowl Speedway, a half-mile dirt track in Mesquite, while taking a 10-day Greyhound bus trip across America. My friend Greg Biggerstaff and I were making a movie that featured interviews of passengers who happened to sit in a particular seat. We were calling the project Seat 7-A.
During a rest stop, Greg and I got to talking about racing. Greg knew about the Devil’s Bowl; his girlfriend’s father used to race there. I said, “We ought to spend a year filming the bottom class of racers.”
Shortly after our bus trip, Greg and I learned more about what was then the upcoming season at the Devil’s Bowl. For starters, the bottom class had a name, “street stocks,” and it was made up of 1970s-era Novas, Malibus, and Monte Carlos. We also learned that there was going to be a woman racing street stocks, that she was a rookie, and that she was the only woman competing at the track. She was going to be sponsored—but not by her husband, who was set to race in the same class. Several former season champs were returning. Together they formed the best field in years. Greg and I put Seat 7-A in a box, and I went to see Lanny Edwards, the longtime owner of the Devil’s Bowl Speedway.
The offices are located in a mobile home, just off the main parking lot on Lawson Road, across the street from a catfish farm and a gun range. When the wind blows from the south, all conversation is punctuated with rifle fire. Lanny owns other race tracks in Oklahoma and annually puts on one of the largest dirt track events in the country, at an indoor facility in Tulsa. The race is called the Chili Bowl.
Lanny is 60-ish, built like a boxer, and has little time for nonsense, but he does like having his picture taken and warmed to the idea that sometime during our eight months of filming, we might snap his. He was gray-headed when we met. A month later, when I arrived with Greg to begin filming, Lanny’s hair was the color of a healthy robin. I sometimes listened in as he answered questions about the presence of cameras and microphones at the track. His answers were flexible. Once I heard him say, “They’re making a documentary about me.”
The rookie was Gayla Jones, a redheaded fireball, a smoker, a tomboy, and a stay-at-home mom with a 2-year-old daughter. For years Gayla had watched from the stands and hung out in the pits. She and her husband Andy spent the first few hours of their honeymoon sitting in general admission at the Devil’s Bowl. Gayla still had the flowers in her hair.
One of the drivers Gayla watched was Jimmy Quick Jr. Jimmy raced in one of the fastest classes (there are four), but he also owned a street stock, and he wasn’t happy with the man he was sponsoring to race it. “Don’t worry,” Gayla told Jimmy. “I’ll drive it next year.” Then, before she could rethink matters, a fire suit showed up in the mail, followed by a helmet. Soon, she was picking out a number and a paint scheme.
Our film opens with the first race of the season. Gayla is a pink and purple hazard. Fellow racers complain bitterly. “She’s hit everything but the ambulance,” one says. Gayla’s motivation for racing is ambiguous, at least to her. Shortly after racers satisfy whatever adrenaline needs they have, their attention turns to winning. As drugs go, winning may be the most addictive. Pretty quickly, it’s all about ego. And not only for the drivers. Wives, girlfriends, children, and friends are quick to jump into the frame whenever the winner gets his—or her—picture taken on the main straightaway.
Thomas Weeks, the film’s de facto narrator, would have won that first race but for a rag left on top of the engine by a crewmember, a captain for American Airlines. The rag catches fire, and Thomas is black-flagged, ordered off the track. When he was a boy, Thomas bicycled to the Devil’s Bowl and watched the races from the trees that used to line the back straight, often the site of horrific crashes. One night, Lanny spotted him crouching in the shadows and escorted him to the reserved seats. “You sit here,” Lanny told him. “You’re gonna get killed out there.”
Although the Devil’s Bowl is the fastest track in North Texas and routinely attracts top racers, Thomas and the other drivers in the street stock division know just how far away they are from the big time. “Street stocks are the original class at the Bowl,” he says. “You know, beat out the windows and go race. We’re never gonna get to Daytona, but the Devil’s Bowl is our Daytona 500. Every weekend.” Thomas once talked his way into a job working for legendary NASCAR motor builder Smokey Eunick. Thomas’ eyes still turn red when he thinks about what might have been. “My ship came in, and I didn’t take it,” he says. “But I couldn’t leave my family like that. Not when you love your daddy as much as I do. I’d kiss him right here in front of God and everybody.”
Travis Pace struggles with a new car for most of the season. He won the championship two years earlier but had to sit out the following season, due, as he put it, to a house fire. Perhaps more accurately, Travis blew up his house—and then it burned down. He was welding on a race car in his garage when drops of molten slag ignited a rivulet of gasoline, which had leaked from the car’s fuel tank. The gas tank exploded first, followed in neat succession by propane tanks, oxygen and acetylene tanks, and the various containers of racing fuel that Travis used to store along the back wall. The Mesquite newspaper ran a picture on the front page: a charred race car poked out of the ruin. When Travis describes the detonation, he points to a bench along the rebuilt wall. “The worst part about it,” he says, “was that I had just purchased a perfectly good case of Coors Light. We lost that in the fire, too.”
Cheating is a ready topic in the pits at any racetrack, dirt or asphalt. Racers break it into two categories: cheating to compete and cheating to win. All season long Travis is the subject of agitated speculation. Is he cheating? How is he cheating? How much money does he have in his motor? He is no doubt the best-sponsored racer in the class: his money comes from guns. His sponsor is the second-largest machine-gun dealer in Texas. I ask the sponsor how he happened to start selling machine guns. “I saw a movie,” he says. “I think it was Navy Seals, with Charlie Sheen. There was a gun in it. I said to myself, ’I’m gonna get one of those. Whatever it takes.’”
Trandel White wins the season opener and never leaves the top three in the rankings. When he first began racing, he chose the number 10 because it was easy to make with duct tape. Trandel sponsors himself. This is not unusual. In the lower rungs of the racing world, sponsorships are almost always local, usually automotive, and more often than not secured only after pestering a friend or employer.
Trandel is an employee of the Mesquite school system, which does not sponsor race cars, but he has a little business building trailers on the side. “I named my business White Star,” he says. “White Star came from the Titanic. The Titanic was White Star Lines. Well, it sank, so White Star was out of business because the sister ship sank also. So when I started my company I thought, ’Well, if I go out of business, I want a name people will remember: White Star.’”
Every week Bubba Meeks’ car has to be beat back into shape. By the end of the season it is difficult to find an unhammered inch. Bubba financed his first car out of the settlement he received after he was mistaken for a burglar and got shot—twice—with a shotgun. “I was 15 years old,” he says. “I was going over to a girl’s house and was knocking on her window late at night, and her brother came out and shot me.”
But before the season got under way, Bubba’s lawsuit money ran out. (He thinks he used some of it to buy a horse.) He struggles to meet the financial demands of racing and child support on a mechanic’s salary. Competing in the bottom class at the Devil’s Bowl costs about $100 per week for a 26-week season, so long as a driver doesn’t crash or break anything. That doesn’t include buying a race car, which costs between $5,000 and $15,000. Race winnings don’t help much. A perfect night pays $300. The season champ gets an extra $500. Dirt track racing is all about the trophy.
Big Tim McManus, 6 feet 5, 325 pounds, is the track bully. He declares in his first and only interview, “It’s a dog-eat-dog world. And you could get ate.” Big Tim seems to hold a particular dislike for the rookie Gayla. He spins her out. He curses her. Gradually we discover that he has done the same thing to everyone else. Three weeks before the end of the season, Big Tim is banished from the Devil’s Bowl for his treatment of Gayla and the office staff. Barely a week later, Lanny pulls me aside. “I sure do miss Big Tim,” he says.
During the course of filming, we shot 260 hours of footage. It took a year and a half to edit it down to an 81-minute movie. Themes emerged, dissolved, and reformed. One theme was consistent, though: almost everyone in the street stock class at the Devil’s Bowl worked in some under-appreciated corner of society. One drove a bulldozer at the Garland dump; one repaired giant freezers; one built cabinets for classrooms. But on Saturday nights, from April to October, they zipped into brightly colored racing suits and let the floodlights transform them. No one asked what they did at their day jobs.
If the racers were smart enough, or lucky enough, or brave enough to win, little children lined up to get their autographs. If they crashed badly, or better yet, caught fire, they signed twice as many. When the kids finally walked away giggling, old men took their places and asked about horsepower. Sometimes teenage girls paraded by in jeans so tight that there was hardly any room left for cigarettes in their back pockets.
By the end of the season, the film crew—most certainly me—lived for Saturday night. Every other day felt like Monday. “There’s just something about the lights and the colors,” one of our racers says, to open the film. “Ain’t nothin’ better than the smell of a greasy corny dog and burnt rubber and fuel and smoke. All at the same time.”
Jeff Bowden’s film Dirt is in consideration for its premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival, which will be held March 11 through 19 in Austin.