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Looking down on the action at Airborne Park. All photos: Sarah Harris
Looking down on the action at Airborne Park. All photos: Sarah Harris

Almost airborne at Airborne Park Speedway

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Fans, friends and families have been coming to Plattsburgh's Airborne Park Speedway for stock car racing since 1955. Since those old days stockcar racing has become a national phenomenon, one of the nation's favorite spectator sports.

But on this popular regional track, the passion is more personal. The cars are mostly homemade and the drivers range from teens to retirees.

"Stock" doesn't really say it all about these cars, or the people who love them. Sarah Harris went to the track and sends this postcard.

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Sarah Harris
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 On a hot Saturday afternoon, in late May, the Airborne park speedway in Plattsburgh is teeming with people. Here, it’s all stock car racing, all day.

As fans watch from the bleachers, low slung, brightly colored stock cars covered with signs from local sponsors take practice laps around the track. Over in the parking lot, others drivers and their pit crews are getting ready to race. I find Brandon Nolan from Ausable Forks peering worriedly underneath the hood of his car.

"We are hoping that it’s a head gasket blown but we aren’t sure," he says. "What’s the worst could happen is the motor could blow, and we couldn’t keep the motor in we’d have to get another."

Brandon’s 17 years old.  Engine troubles aside, he says he loves this sport, which allows him to careen around the half mile oval at almost 100 miles an hour.

"The first time I went out and got behind the wheel I just fell in love with it. You get a head rush and you start shaking – I love it and it makes me smile when I’m out there," he says with a smile.

Brandon’s one of the younger drivers. There are teenagers here, retirees, and all ages in between. While most of the drivers are from the Adirondacks, others have traveled from northwestern Vermont and southern Quebec to race at the track.

The cars line up in preparation for their heats. At the wave of a yellow flag, they’re off. The track’s dark black asphalt glimmers in the afternoon heat as the cars zoom around the oval, kicking up dust, lap after lap.

There are only two women who race. Colleen Salisbury’s one of them. She’s from Glens Falls, where she spends her week working as a telephone operator. But the rest of the time, it’s all about her car.

Colleen describes her car in technical terms. What she doesn’t say is that her car is bright pink. Being one of the few female drivers at the track, she says, has some challenges.

There are sometimes that people come up and say wow it’s really cool that you’re doing it, there are other times don’t quite approve or there are times when I can tell a guy doesn’t want me to pass him and would rather take me out then let me go by," she says.

Her brother Randy Salisbury chimes in. "You do still get people who say, ‘you let your sister drive the car?’ ‘Yes!’  You think why is this such a shock, but for some people it’s still just a novel concept."

Randy and their other brother Rod help her work on the car and figure out racing logistics.

Almost every driver I meet is surrounded by family. They’re working on the motors, adjusting tire pressure, or relaxing in camping chairs with coolers and grills.   

And then there’s Lonnie Favreau from Plattsburgh, who’s pacing in front of the stands and cheering wildly for his brother, Robbie.

"That’s it! That’s it! Use that car, that’s it bro! One more and you’re in the top 3! One more!" he cheers.

I meet up with Lonnie, Robbie, and Robbie’s daughter Margo after the race. Robbie ends up placing fifth, and says he feels good about it.

It turns out, that today’s his 50th birthday.

"Been celebrating  since I got up this morning, we had a good morning, had breakfast and been relaxing day and having fun. I’m a New York state corrections officer so this is how I keep my sanity," he says.

His 19-year old-daughter, Margo, says she likes sharing the sport with her dad.

"I hear about it all day, every day, and he just loves it so he puts his heart into it when he does it. It’s a family thing and I love listening to him talk about," she says.

Robbie jokes that it’s a fair trade.  

"I went to plenty of her soccer games and basketball games so I think this is just a pay back," he says with a laugh.  

While I’m at the races, a lot happens. People who are hooked on the sport say it’s all about family and friends, but it’s also a high risk contest. On the day I visit, one car catches on fire and firefighters and EMTs swoop in.  

Two others cars hit the wall while rounding a corner and have to be towed off the track.

Everyone assures me that the cars are really safe, but guys like Kurt Giventer – who everybody knows as Metal Man – have war stories to tell.  

"Back in the sixties, these things were brightly painted, loud, unsafe, jalopies, roundy round and upside down. And I went upside down one night, went over the fence, into the catch fence, the whole car just came apart, and I have a picture and it looks like I have no head, all you can see is this arm hangin’  half outta the window there. But I survived," he says.  

Metal Man owns a towing company in Saranac, and made his entire car out of salvaged parts.

“'Junk is beautiful,' says it on the back of the car. It’s all made out of used parts. It’s very low dollar. That’s why I run towards the back!" he says.

Metal Man has been racing for a long time. I ask him what goes through his head when the race begins and he hits the gas.

"Uh, turn. Go fast and turn left. Go fast and have a good time, don’t hit nobody, and don’t let nobody hit you."

And that seems to be spirit here at Airborne. Go fast and have a good time – that’s exactly what the drivers do, zooming around again and again, til dusk settles over the track.

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