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Proponents of improvements at a drag strip in New London had their proposal for a zoning ordinance change rejected by Bedford County supervisors.
Bobby McGuire, of Evington, speeds down the track at the New London Drag Strip in his dragster on Sunday Aug. 25. Sam O'Keefe/The News & Advance
Spectators watch through the cloud of smoke as motorcycle racers burn out their tires at the New London Airport on Saturday Aug. 24. Sam O'Keefe/The News & Advance
Michael Persinger (left) carries on a conversation with Carolyn Snyder while waiting in line to race on Sunday Aug. 25. Sam O'Keefe/The News & Advance
Saturday, September 7, 2013
NEW LONDON — The thrill of racing down a 220-yard strip of pavement on a summer afternoon is a natural high for hundreds of drivers and spectators at New London Dragstrip.
For more than 50 years, the Bedford County track has attracted legions of race fans that soak in the engine exhaust and camaraderie centered on souped-up cars and close-up views of the action.
“Once drag racing is in your blood, you can’t quit,” said Jason Overstreet, who won his first race at the track in a 1976 Nova several years ago.
The dragway, tucked off New London Road in southeastern Bedford County within a larger airport property, has seen renewed interest lately as the Bedford County Board of Supervisors initiated a proposed zoning ordinance amendment that would have allowed alterations to the track. The drag strip uses the airport runway; plane activity does not take place on racing days.
Cars, in horsepower and other factors, are exceeding levels of what the track can handle, said Junior Ward, a drag racer and a partner in New London Motorsports, which leases the strip from the airport.
After hearing opposition from some neighbors, the board last month turned back the zoning request that would have paved the way for a new strip on the airport property, a decision Ward said will make it unlikely his company would purchase it from the airport and make the needed improvements.
No matter what the future holds for the Bedford facility, though, he made one point clear: The strip is a piece of county history that should be preserved.
Life in the fast lane
It’s approaching 10 a.m. on Sunday in August at the New London Dragstrip and a steady flow of vehicles pours into the grounds as “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On” plays on the loudspeakers..
Faithful racing fans gather for friendly fellowship.
As the first two cars line up at the lights for the first race of the day, announcer Bob Villwock, who calls the action on the speakers, declares: “Let’s get this party started.”
In this sport, a second makes all the difference, as drivers in pairs line up at the green light and rip down the eighth-mile strip in speeds that can reach well above 100 miles per hour.
Drivers in brackets, from “Super Pro” to motorcycles and junior dragsters, compete and accumulate points during the season with cash prizes at stake.
Spectators huddle in clusters to watch the races and socialize while the aroma of hamburgers, hot dogs and funnel cakes fill the air. Pickup trucks line a fence adjacent to the runway, and spectators sit on their flatbeds, some with umbrellas to shade them from the heat, to watch from the side at a close distance.
Ward, who first visited the strip in 1986, describes the close-knit racing climate as “a big picnic” for drivers. Most bracket racers at tracks hardly get any spectators, he said, so the turnout is a treat.
Drivers come in all ages. Some are in their 70s, Ward said, while the youngest group of “Junior Dragsters” begins as young as age 8.
“It’s a whole family sport,” he said.
Hot rod commodity
New London Motorsports has leased the strip operation for nearly two years. Ward said the strip started in 1958 and as far as he knows is the oldest on the East Coast.
Jerry Craig, a member of the Bedford County Planning Commission who voiced strong support for the zoning change, described the strip as a “local landmark” at a recent county meeting.
The strip recently became the 100th member track of the International Hot Rod Association, one of the major sanctioning bodies of drag racing in North America, Ward said.
The IHRA has a points program in which local racers can compete on a national level,
Ward said. If local racers win a summer series, they compete in Memphis, Tenn., with race drivers from all over the world, he said.
The chance to grow
Ward said he would prefer to keep running a drag-racing facility in Bedford County and made a purchase offer to Kevin Murray, the airport owner, but feels it is “dead in the water” after the board’s decision to deny the zoning amendment last week.
The strip operates under zoning as a legal “grandfathered” use, but expansion would call for a “commercial outdoor entertainment” use not currently allowed on agricultural preserved land, the type of district the track falls under.
Ward said no improvements have been made for years at the dragway and all he sought to do was build a strip separate from the airport.
“We want to grow but we are limited in what we can do,” he said, referring to the current site configuration.
The board of supervisors voted in May to initiate the text change after learning about the plans to purchase the site, but Murray said he wasn’t given any notification the amendment was moving forward.
Murray said he was not against the drag strip and said of New London Motorsports: “They do a great job.”
However, he said he was concerned about the impact on the airport if the green light was given to the zoning change since a planning commission recommendation called for more trees to buffer noise. That would pose a hazard for pilots, he argued.
Overstreet said he felt if Ward was given the opportunity he could make the site better and give it the feel of a “real race track.”
“We don’t have lights and have to rush before dark,” he said. “If the track was bigger, it could hold more people.”
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