By Tyler Allen, Explorebigsky.com Staff Writer
The dull cough of the engine became a deafening roar when the yellow caution light blinked off and Doug Martin accelerated the modified two-seater stock car to full speed. We hurtled into the first corner of the dirt track at the Gallatin Speedway, and he yanked the steering wheel to the left, throwing me into the side of the custom safety seat.
“It’s like taking your car out on the highway at 75 mph, and then pitching it sideways,” Doug said before the Friday night races began Aug. 3.
During intermission between the heats and featured races, one lucky person gets to ride in the modified “two seater” stock car for a few laps. Martin isn’t racing this season, so this is his one opportunity to lay some rubber on the track every week.
Since 1997, the Gallatin Speedway in Belgrade has been hosting races every Friday night between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The first heats begin at 7:35 p.m. and the featured races end before the 10:30 p.m. track curfew. Regular competitors come from as far away as Billings, Great Falls, Deer Lodge and Powell, Wyo., and some drivers even travel from South Dakota and occasionally the Midwest.
The Martin family can see the track from their house. At one point Doug, his wife Tina, and their oldest son were all racing every week. While they could see their house from the track, they never saw much of each other on race night, Doug said, so now they’re just focusing on their youngest son Taylor.
At 15 years old, Taylor is the youngest driver on the track this season and won’t have his driver’s license until September. “Last year I had to start in the back every race,” he said. His favorite part is “racing side by side with another car,” describing how the cars are often a couple feet—if not inches—apart at top speeds.
Tina Martin was one of two or three women racers at the Gallatin Speedway last year. This year she sits in the grandstand during the races instead of behind the wheel. “I do miss it,” she said, “but I’m thrilled to watch my son.” Brought up in a racing family, Tina went to the track every week to help her father.
After dinner at the Martin house, the whole family can often be found in the garage, working on the car. Sometimes, when it’s just Doug tinkering with Taylor’s car, Tina tells her friends, “He’s with his 3,200 pound girlfriend.”
The winning drivers take home between $200 – $2,000 depending on the car class and event, and every driver that competes gets some compensation, said Sue Weisz who promotes the races with her husband Dave. Dave managed a track in South Dakota with his father and step mother before taking over the Belgrade track in 1998.
“My father retired, and the [South Dakota] track was too big for me to take over,” he recalled. “My folks came out when they were building this track and ran it the first season.” The next summer Dave and Sue quit their jobs, moved to Belgrade and stayed in a camper, “until it got too cold and we had to buy a house.”
After the races, young girls and boys roamed around the pits collecting autographs from the drivers on their plastic checkered flags.
“Will I get back out there?” Tina Martin wondered aloud, grinning as Taylor signed an autograph for a young race fan. “I think it’d be fun to race against him.”
Each heat consists of at most nine cars racing around the track for eight laps. The featured races are 20 laps and include all the cars in the class. Starting positions are selected randomly by a computer for the heats, and then re-drawn for the featured races based on heat results.
The night I attended there were two heats in each of the three classes: street stock, super stock, and modified. The street stock racers must retain the whole body of their cars and they have the smallest motor at 350 horse power. The super stock drivers are only required to have the front half of the original car; they have a custom body built behind it with a 450 hp engine. Modified cars have the biggest motor, from 650 – 750 hp, and any suspension the driver can afford to install.
All the cars have the same size tires, so that each one has the same amount of traction and it’s cost effective if a driver wants to change divisions.
The first races of the season were June 1 this year and the last weekly races will be run Aug. 31. The Gibson Guitar Supernationals will be held the Sept. 7 and 8, when the winners will take home up to $30,000.