Putting the brakes on illegal street racing

Michael Smith
A dragster on display at Southern Tech on Thursday. An annual event with Ardmore Dragway has been giving young racers more information about racing safely.

Illegal street racing has been romanticized in books and movies since moonshiners ran illegal booze in the 1930s, but anybody who has seen the results of an illegal race gone wrong knows how tragic the practice can be. An effort by a Southern Tech automotive instructor to redirect the need for speed into a safer environment has grown into a campus car show that celebrated 12 years on Thursday.

Royce Sanders started the event after Ardmore Dragway was purchased by its current owner in 2008. He said the first years were focused on highway safety and teaching young people about how dangerous street racing can be. Instead of racers endangering themselves or other drivers, Sanders wants racers to instead get their cars on a track with medics and without speed limits.

“I know television promotes these outlaw racers,” Sanders said. “A lot of these kids that watch that do not understand the danger that’s involved in that.”

Over the years, Sanders started to invite different car clubs to join the event. The exposure to car owners — some are former students of Sanders — now allows his students to pick the brains of people who have years of experience customizing cars.

“Students can ask questions about how they built it, what color it was, how they did their body work, how they set their suspension up,” he said.

This year the Blue River Car Club was invited to the event. Students and other attendees milled about the nearly dozen cars outside before working their way inside the automotive building where other cars, a motorcycle, and drag racer were on display. Sanders said students actually took part in painting some of the vehicles on display.

For Ardmore Dragway owner Will Carrell, visiting the campus of a vocational and technical school to teach the finer details of racing on a professional drag strip is a natural move. “A lot of these kids, if they’re in welding, automotive or paint, it takes one of their talents to make a cool race car,” he said.

Carrell said he has been taking part in the annual event since buying the track that was started by his grandfather. He was inside a nearby classroom on Thursday and showing a short video to anybody interested in racing a fun drag.

The video mentions some obvious safety issues and other rules not often considered by first time racers, like turning off the car’s air conditioning to prevent water from dripping onto the start line. Ardmore Dragway’s Ryan Gleghorn said that is one of the biggest problems experienced on Friday night fun drags.

“Either they guy behind you is going to get into it or we have to clean it up,” said Gleghorn.

Skyler Wright is a Southern Tech student who is currently enrolled in machining classes. She has been drag racing for about six years and was an Ardmore Dragway rookie of the year in 2019. She is excited the annual car show on campus gives other young people information that could get them into the sport.

“I’m glad they’re getting people off the street and getting them to the racetrack. A lot of kids don’t know about it,” she said.

For Sanders, the annual car show is a way to show students a variety of ways their trade can support their families and an industry in the future. It’s also about saving the lives of tomorrow’s racing community.

“These are the future students that are going to run the industry and build cars, paint cars and keep them on the road,” he said.