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The Franklin News-Post
P. O. Box 250
310 Main Street, SW
Rocky Mount, Virginia 24151
540-483-5113
Fax: 540-483-8013

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

By MORRIS STEPHENSON -

At some point in time during my long newspaper career, I came to the conclusion that everyone has a story to tell and in almost all cases, it's worthy of newspaper space.

I've always been of the opinion that if I picked someone from a crowd and was given the opportunity to sit down and talk with them, I could write a story about that person. I'm still convinced I can do it. It really goes without saying, but some stories are going to be better than others. The point was "driven home" to me a week ago today, Wednesday to be exact.

I was in my new office on North Main Street, doing some serious work on my book. I was deep in thought when I heard the door (the one with the new plate glass) open. Sometimes when I hear the door open, I'll look up and it will be a person entering Bill's business via way of his door. Sometimes, a person will enter my door thinking they're walking into Bill's place. This was not the case.

I looked up to see French Grimes walking toward me. That name may ring a bell and maybe it won't. He is the owner/promoter of Fork Mountain Raceway off Route 220 South between Rocky Mount and Oak Level. It was three or four years ago when French came into the News-Post office, being sent to me by Satch Worley. He wanted to run an advertisement for his big race. And he also would like for me to write a news story about him renovating the 3/8-mile dirt oval.

I've been a race fan since I was a young man and long before I got into the profession that lasted for 17 years. For that reason, French and I had a lot in common. That was especially true since I spend my last years in racing as general manager/promoter of Lonesome Pine International Raceway. The word "international" was dropped from the title a year after I arrived.

French, I learned, was also the founder of a circuit he called "RaceSaver." It didn't take long for me to find out French was on a mission. He had been working for several years to return stock car racing to its grassroots beginning. He had drawn up plans for his racing circuit with one thing in mind. He strived to make the sport cheaper for drivers/car owners to compete, while staging exciting and competitive racing with powerful race cars.

And if you are a real race fan, it doesn't get much more powerful than the winged sprint cars that compete on a dirt track. Now, if you have cable TV, you can see similar cars racing in the "World of Outlaws" events on the Speed channel.

French designed the RaceSaver rules so a driver/car owner would not have to refinance his home in order to race. Over the past 10 to 15 years, the cost of racing, from NASCAR's top Sprint Cup division all the way to the lowest Pure Stock classes, has probably more than doubled, starting with the cost of gasoline. As anyone involved in racing knows, the single most expensive thing in owning and/or building a race car is the motor to power it. When I left racing in the spring of 1999, the cost of a late model engine was between $20,000-$25,000. And about the same time, a new rule change was in the works. LMS drivers/teams would have to use a "crate motor." That was one shipped directly from one of the "big three" manufacturers. When the rule was passed, the cost of an engine dropped to less than half.

So French, who builds race cars, motors and then drives them, knew first hand what had to be done to make his RaceSaver cost effective. His idea caught on and he formed his first circuit in 1997.The first RaceSaver event was held at the former Saluda Speedway Sawyers' Virginia Motor Speedway. There were three cars competing. A year later, at the end of 1998 season, French had about 10 cars racing at Eastside Speedway at Waynesboro and Saluda.

Since that humble beginning, French has grown his concept to include 14 regions across the United States with almost 750 cars drivers competing on more than 100 tracks. That is some kind of an accomplishment in a relatively short period of time.

The next RaceSaver Nationals event will be held at Fork Mountain May 17-18, 2013. However, a race for RaceSaver drivers from Virginia and North Carolina will be held Saturday, Oct.13. The "Good Old Boys" class, featuring cars of the past, will open the show. Spectator gates will open at noon and the first green flag drops at 3 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults with children under 12 and military personnel, including veterans with proper ID, being admitted free. Now that's cheap enough for a race ticket these days.

French, who resembles a veteran fisherman with his snow white beard but minus the pipe, was born in Virginia. After moving around early in his childhood, his family settled in Madison. He has his business there and had been planning on spending the rest of his life there. But a new business opportunity changed his mind. After buying the race track facility, French started spending more and more time each year in Franklin County. French made friends with local racing legend Donald "Satch" Worley, whose family at one time owned and operated Log Cabin Raceway. As time passed, he made more friends, especially those connected to racing. And he also started taking a closer look at the beauty of Franklin County and what it had to offer. As a result, he purchased a 45-acre farm with a creek that adjoins Henry County.

It also has the county's famous "red clay," which can be used for a track's racing surface. He, like others associated with dirt trackin', knows one thing for a fact. If you're going to own or operate a dirt track, you need the right kind of dirt. The dirt must compact and stay in place under brutal punishment dished out by tires during a race. And it has to be properly watered prior to race day to keep down the dust. French solved that problem when he built a pond for FMR.

French isn't saying he's going to give up everything in Madison and move to Franklin County. He does admit, "We are moving furniture into the old farm house near the track this week."

As a driver, engine builder and car owner, French has fine-tuned his set of rules for RaceSaver. Those who know him describe him as straightforward and to the point. He's a man who'll tell it like it is if you want to hear it or not. He's also is a man of his word. "He'll do what he says he will do," said one person who has known Grimes since he came to Franklin County.

There's no doubt French loves the sport of racing and keeping at going at the grassroots level of years gone by. He's virtually devoted his life to dirt track racing.

Ray Evernham is a well-known former NASCAR driver, crew chief, team owner, TV race commentator and consultant for the Ray Hendrick Companies. Evernham has come to the Fork Mountain Raceway for the past two seasons to compete. And he brought his racing wife with him. She's a regular driver in the World of Outlaws series, considered the best by those who know. The circuit's races are featured on the Speed channel.

"My wife and I come down here because I believe in what French is doing by taking racing back to its roots," Evernham said last year before the big RaceSaver National. "This is racing like it was and more like what today's racing should be now," he added.

French Grimes is going to operate Fork Mountain Raceway with grease on his hands, dirt on his shirt and mud on his boots. You couldn't expect less from the man who does all the work, improving and preparing the track for the next race and during the off season.

If you want to find and talk to French this week, you'll have to go to facility, listen for the sound of equipment being operated and go to that area. When you get there, he'll shut down the engine of whatever he's operating and take a few minutes to talk racing. But if you talk too long, don't be surprised if you're left standing in a cloud of dust as French drives his equipment down the straight away and into the turn.

Most weekly tracks have closed for the season and NASCAR's "chase" is winding down. So if you're looking for some good dirt track action, check out FMR Saturday afternoon.

Last of the hummers? - Well, I saw my last hummer Sunday at their regular feeding time, but I didn't see any that evening. But IĀ could have missed the adult female. There was no activity Monday morning, so maybe she decided to head south. Several readers have said they haven't seen one recently and others reported one or two through Saturday. Guess we'll just see those passing through, or maybe they've all at their summer homes.

Nice letter - I received a nice letter last week from John Eames, who is at the federal correctional center in Cumberland, Md. He enclosed an item from a magazine about a "squirrel proof" homemade bird feeder, made from an old 2-liter soft drink bottle. The idea calls for the feeder to be hung between trees and/or branches and to cover the wire with short round pieces of plastic. Squirrels couldn't use the wire to get to the bottle. Of course, the feeder has two dowels forming an "x" at the bottom of the bottle for the birds to sit on. Even if the squirrels made it to the feeder, the shape of the bottle would prevent one from eating the seed.

Like others I've talked to recently, John has noted a bumper crop of acorns, hickory and walnuts, which old-timers say is a sure sign of a bad winter. And in closing, he wished me good lock with the moonshine book. I enjoyed his mail.

What a difference a day makes - Saturday was a beautiful fall day with temperatures at my house in the upper 60s. We ran the air conditioner for a short time. Come Sunday morning, the temperature broke 50 degrees and climbed only two more during the day, thanks to clouds with off and on drizzles.

Monday, it was 44 degrees at my house and colder in other areas, residents reported. We went from shirt-sleeve weather to a nice warm jacket Monday morning.

 
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