Wright On: Just good, dirty fun at Hilo Oval Track

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald file photo Hilo Oval Track is pictured last year, when it was only opened for a partial season. This year, a full season of dirt track racing is planned, with the next event scheduled for June 29.

When they crank it up and you hear the roar of the engine, you sit up in your chair and crane your neck for a better view.

Out they come, one after the other, running through a couple of practice laps on a dirt track that measures close to a quarter mile, then they work their way into position for the start and off they go.

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Look around. All the spectators are sitting up in their seats, or standing so as not to miss anything because there’s a lot going in the welter of roaring engines, short straightaways and tight corners.

Dirt track racing is a world unto itself, but then if you take a wider view, maybe it isn’t so different after all. You’ve seen the speed skaters at the Olympics on that tiny track where it’s a full out sprint, diving into corners, working angles to maintain a lead?

It’s like that with four wheels and dirt instead of ice and skates.

On the first Saturday in May, this was Hilo’s version of Race Day, and nothing against the horses in Kentucky, this was Big Island style, on the island’s only dirt track, without white gloves and ladies in fancy dresses with a mint julep in their hand, striking an elitist pose.

Nobody was making mint juleps at the Hilo Oval Track, out beyond the crowded neighborhoods, out where the only neighbors are mac nut orchards on one side and an international airport on the other.

It’s silent to anyone who lives on the Big Island, but it’s anything but quiet at the track that Ken Antonio of Ken’s Towing took over in 1990 and built it into everything the racing community here needs. He remains president of the group and expects it will be back at full strength in another month when racing resumes on June 29.

“It wasn’t much back in the day,” Antonio said Saturday before the racing started, “but you do a little here, a little there and you eventually get it where you need it to be.”

The track is re-emerging this year, its first full season in three years after two and-a-half years of down time because of construction on the nearby drag strip that forced the whole area to be shuttered. They opened for a partial season last year and are making this the first full season since 2015.

When they get out there, it’s a chaotic symphony of roaring engines, back wheel sliding through the corners, banging into each other every once in a while and, always, a race to the finish.

That was even the case Saturday when a collection of disparate events combined to hold down the crowd as well as the contestants. There was a major two-day Monster X Tour at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu that siphoned off some of the fans and crews, then there was the recovery time.

“Unfortunately, we had a lot of breakdowns last time,” said Sue Cabral the sixth-year secretary-treasurer of the track. “These are all local people and it usually take a while to get cars back up and running when they break.”

It is a fragile community in the sense that Antonio guessed there are only about 100 dirt track racers on the island at any time, supporting themselves, so little distractions can have a big ripple effect.

As a result, Antonio and his team determined Saturday would be a “fun day,” of racing, nobody would win any money, but their registration fee will be carried over until the next event and everyone competing would be awarded 230 points to keep the interest up.

Fun? You could say it was a fun day.

“Man, it’s just a blast,” said Roland Hall, 24, a Mountain View resident and driver, “you always have a chance out here and you know you’re racing against friends, so it just adds up to a great bunch of fun.”

Hall found himself at the back of the pack of four cars in his first heat of the day, but the leader couldn’t hold tight on the first turn, and by the end of the first lap, Hall had moved up.

“I have my issue on (turns) one and two,” he said, “but three and four, I got those down, I just need some more laps here. It isn’t the way you usually see it done, but I passed on the outside, got ahead and then just held on tight.”

Hall was homeschooled, which has something to do with his fun at the track.

“(Homeschooling) was great for me,” he said. “I got the basics but I also learned how to work on cars, how to fix things, how to get a job, basically.”

He fishes in Alaska during the season, hangs drywall and always seems to be working on somebody’s car.

“I actually enjoy all the work, but this out here? This is what’s really fun, “ he said, “it’s in my blood, I guess, I love racing, just love it.”

It’s a long leap from dirt tracks in Hilo to big time racing, but Hall admits he has his dreams.

“I would absolutely love to move up somehow,” he said, “but you need a sponsor to do that and I don’t have one. I would drive the wheels off any car you put me in, I’d do it every day, but for now, this is what I’ve got.”

It’s a mess out there. Dust and sometimes a bit of mud gets kicked up. Cars are packed together on the tiny course. Engines scream, instantaneous reactions are the lifeblood of all the drivers, battling the dirt, the turn and other drivers who want what you want.

“It’s addicting out here once you get started,” said Tara Blackwell, 26, daughter of veteran competitor Rick who taught her how to drive race cars when she was a kid. “My dad was doing it and I just fell into it, he knew I wanted to try it and then all of a sudden I was just doing it.”

The Blackwells drive over from Kona for the races and Tara said it doesn’t matter if it’s the big race you’ve been pointing toward, or a “fun day” like Saturday.

“Once you get out there, it’s just racing,” she said. “It’s exciting, just being in the middle of it, and I know all the drivers so I feel pretty safe out there.”

Compared to driving the streets with stoplights and cross sections and all the rules that don’t really apply at the track?

“Oh, the drivers out here are much better,” she said, “there’s no question about that. Yes, there’s some stress when you get in and start thinking about (the race), but once it starts, that stress sort of melts away, you really don’t feel it, you’re just having fun, just competing.”

You can find them at hiloovaltrack on Facebook or Instagram, or you can catch one of the six remaining race dates.

For $10, with homemade concessions and updated restroom facilities plus all the noise and chaos of dirt track racing?

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It makes for a wild day of expectation and surprises, even when it isn’t the first Saturday in May.

Comments, column suggestions? Contact Bart at barttribuneherald@gmail.com

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