Friday, August 30, 2013

My Favorite Pennsboro Race

I grew up going to races at Pennsboro Speedway in the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s. It was always a magical place for me as a kid, sitting in that old wooden covered grandstand near the first turn. We went to other tracks as well, but this was my favorite, with two bridges (and a large culvert bringing another stream to join the main one in the infield) as well as an asymmetrical design (turns one and two had a much longer radius, while turns three and four were much tighter). It had served as the Ritchie County Fairgrounds and was originally built in the late 1880s for racing horses, but evolved into a track for man-made horsepower. It was a tricky track, demanding the best out of drivers and machinery.

Unlike other speedways with lights that could run at night, the big old half mile at Pennsboro ran on Sunday afternoons. While this may seem as a limitation to some, it ended up allowing Pennsboro to draw a wide range of cars, beyond just the normal West Virginia/Eastern Ohio/Western Pennsylvania region. They could run their home tracks on the weekend evenings, and then haul to Pennsboro to end the weekend.

I got to see Butch Hartman and Don Gregory race there before they made it big in USAC and ASA respectively. As the word spread about Pennsboro, more fans and more cars came from further distances. I remember when the cars from Michigan started coming down—drivers such as Ray Nece, Marv Parenteau, and Erv Baumgarten.

I’ve seen lots of great races at this track, and most people would most likely pick one of the Hillbilly Hundreds (my favorite was when Dorus Wisecarver won in his ’67 Plymouth) or the Dirt Track World Championships (probably Jim Dunn’s upset win) as their favorites (or maybe even the ARCA race that was held there, which rates high on my list). However, probably my favorite Pennsboro race was the Spirit of ’76 race (a 76 lap feature in conjunction with the Fourth of July holiday) back in 1979.

By this time, I was old enough for a pit pass, and brought my pocket instamatic camera with me (hence the accompanying pictures). After many years of drivers from outside the state winning the big races, Charleston’s Gene McNeely had won the Hillbilly Hundred the previous Labor Day, and his yellow Camaro with the orange chiseled #20 on its sides was a favorite to win the July 4th special race. As I recall (and I don’t claim to have a perfect memory, but it makes the story better), this native West Virginian set fast time and sat on the pole, leading the early stages of the race that day.

Gene McNeely driving fast out of turn four that day.

This race was memorable to me because it brought in a new challenger from a new region. Most out-of-staters came from the north or the midwest, but this one was different. The long awaited Interstate 77 had finally been completed into North Carolina, which was enabling many West Virginians to head south looking for jobs, as our state’s economy weakened.

However, I-77 goes both ways, and on this day it brought a white Camaro with blue and red trim northward, all the way from Kings Mountain, North Carolina. Besides the double zeroes emblazoned on the doors, it had sponsorship from “Petty’s of Spartanburg.” We knew that Richard Petty was from North Carolina and probably wasn’t connected, but just to have “The King’s” name on the side was pretty cool. It turns out that this new guy was named Freddy Smith. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was a name we would get to know well over the coming years.

Besides the "Petty's of Spartanburg," if you look close you can read "Smith & Sons Automotive, Kings Mtn. NC" on the rear quarterpanel. Also note the 10 feature win stickers on the plexiglass support for the rear spoiler.

I don’t recall where Freddy started the race, but it wasn’t long before he was on Gene’s tail, dogging him through the turns. I remember that Freddy’s car had a limp strip of black rubber below the plastic front spoiler, in an effort to keep air from under the car yet still having flexibility for the unevenness of a dirt surface. At high speeds, this black rubber strip would undulate back and forth. This rhythmic flexing reminded me of the “wings” of a manta ray as it swims along the ocean floor. It looked threatening.

I remember thinking “Surely a guy who has never seen this speedway ever before can’t come into this oddball track and knock off the homestate favorite!” Although he was a rookie at this track, Freddy Smith wasn’t a rookie racer—he was a heckuva driver, and indeed he passed Gene McNeely. I thought the homestate hero might get back around him before it was over, but it didn’t happen. Despite never having been to the track before, Freddy Smith went on to win the Spirit of ’76 race—the first of many checkered flags he earned at Pennsboro.

He was the first of many racers who came up I-77 from the south, as transportation links improved and Pennsboro's reputation grew. However, I’m not sure there has been any other driver from anywhere else who came into Pennsboro for the first time and beat the established veterans there. It was a great race—one of many I was able to enjoy as a spectator at this historic speedway.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Allegheny Highlands Trail

I ventured to Parsons recently to add another West Virginia bike trail to my list. I’ve done the North Bend Rail Trail, the Greenbrier River Trail, the West Fork Rail Trail, the Deckers Creek Rail Trail, and the Mon River Trail. This time I wanted to try the Allegheny Highlands Trail, an abandoned train line now converted for bicyclists, hikers, etc. I parked at the old train station visitor center parking lot (along Rt. 219 behind Sheetz) and hopped on my bike. The first five miles or so are paved for easy riding.

As I left Parsons, I soon encountered the first of several historical markers about the 1861 Battle of Corricks Ford. Being a Civil War buff, I stopped to read them all. Most people don’t realize how important “Western Virginia” was during the first year of the Civil War, as Confederate forces sought to secure all of Virginia, including the B&O Railroad. Union forces under General George McClellen were sent to protect the vital railroads, and push the Confederates out of “loyal Virginia”—paving the way for West Virginia to become a state.

Corricks Ford received lots of national press coverage because it was the first time that a general (for either side) had been killed in battle. Confederate General Robert Garnett was killed along the banks of the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River, and his body was brought by Union troops to the Corrick house, which still stands near the bike trail. As other major battles occurred during the later years of the Civil War, the early battles in what is now West Virginia were crowded out of the history books, but in 1861 the eyes of the nation were upon this area.

Beyond the battlefield, the next landmark was the Kingsford Charcoal Factory. I always prefer Kingsford for my cookouts, because of its West Virginia connection. I thought it was interesting to see this large industrial complex along the Shavers Fork.

Not long thereafter, the trail veered away from the river, and started working its way uphill. This rail-trail diverts onto a country road for a while, although I did not have to deal with much traffic. Soon, I was off the road and on a hard-packed gravel trail, going up through the forest. I could sometimes hear (and occasionally glimpse) U.S. Route 219 off to my right, but mostly it was just beautiful West Virginia woods. Around every bend, I kept hoping to see the crest of the hill, but it seemed each new stretch of the trail continued upward. I pressed onward.

Finally, I crossed the top and started down the other side. The downhill section was nice, but to my disappointment, not nearly as long as the uphill stretch had been. The trail crossed Rt. 219 a couple of times (be careful!) and spends most of the next ten miles or so rolling through the countryside, with no more major hills. Often it runs beside a lovely little creek, and in the distance one can see the giant wind turbines on a high ridge. The trail also runs past Elkins Speedway, where race cars fly around the dirt oval on Friday nights.

The last few miles of the trail are paved, making for a nice ride. Eventually, I reached the end of the trail, just a mile from downtown Elkins, and about 21 miles from where I began in Parsons. Plans were recently announced to finish the trail all the way into downtown, but for now (unless you want to run alongside the highway), it ends at Milepost One. I took a break and ate the lunch I brought with me, before heading back.

It was fun to see things from a different angle on the way back. After about a dozen miles or so of relatively flat peddling, I began to climb out of the Tygart watershed. Fortunately, since I was not as energetic as when I had begun this journey, the Elkins side of the mountain is not as intimidating as the Parsons side. It still felt good to reach the cut through the rock that marks the crest of this old rail line.

From that point on, it was seven miles of downhill all the way to Parsons and the Cheat River. What a nice way to end a wonderful day on a bike trail through West Virginia!

If you are considering biking this trail, I highly recommend starting on the Parsons end, so you can hit the big hill while you are fresh, and then reward yourself with the nearly effortless downhill ride at the end of the day. If you don’t think you are ready for a 42 mile round trip, then I still would start at Parsons, because one can read all the Civil War markers, see the Kingsford plant, and enjoy the whitewater of the Shavers Fork, all within about a five mile round trip.

Regardless of how far you go, I had a great time on the Allegheny Highland Trail, and encourage others to check it out.

Looking up Shavers Fork toward the Kingsford factory.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

10% Loss = 100% Profit

Last January, another new year started for me, along with another New Year’s Resolution to lose weight. Just like a bear preparing for hibernation, it seems I always gain weight in the fall as the days shorten, the weather gets worse, and the holiday food appears. As a result, I’ve repeatedly told myself I will lose weight in the coming year (to varying degrees of success).

This year figured to be yet another long battle with dieting and exercise. On January 3, 2013, I saw a timely article on MSNBC about a different incentive program to help people lose weight. Entitled “HeathyWage” (, it uses money as a motivator. You put up $150 up front and get an official weigh-in. If you lose 10% or more of your weight in the next six months (and follow a few simple rules), you get paid $300.

I did some additional research which seemed to show this company was legitimate, so I decided to give this a try. Normally I am the skeptic who is extremely cynical about claims made on the Internet, but I knew I needed a good motivator to lose weight. I don’t just throw my money around (yes, friends and family say that I am frugal), but I took a chance on this one.

Since I am in Morgantown frequently, on January 6 I visited a local fitness club there that is listed on the HealthWage website as an official weigh-in site. That provided my starting point, and I knew I had to lose 10% before July 6 to get my money back. I had to get a picture taken of what I looked like at the start, and I had to create a profile on their website to provide regular updates of my progress (you only need an official weigh-in at the start and at the finish—the intervening time you self-report your weight).

I tried to work out a few times each week after work, primarily using a rowing machine and a stationary bicycle. Once the weather got better, I started walking a lot in City Park and around town. I began walking or bicycling to and from work (more than five miles round trip) as often as possible, as well as walking at lunch, including the Quincy Hill steps. I entered a couple of 5K walking competitions (my best time was 36:25), and did some long distance bike riding on the bike trails.

Using a phone app, I tried to track my food intake, although after several months I eventually dropped this habit. However, it helped me attempt to keep my calories under 2000 per day. It also tracked my exercise so I could see my net total of calories. This dieting and exercise regimen is not something new for me. I have been doing it off and on for several years—I just seem to do it better during the first half of the year than the last half of the year.

Work is where I am best able to limit my calories. I generally bring my food with me each day and “graze” at my desk. I eat a lot of fresh fruits (bananas, oranges, grapefruits, apples, etc.) and veggies (snow peas, carrots, peppers, cucumbers, etc.), along with boiled eggs, nuts, yogurt, cheese, and other healthy items to keep the diet from getting too boring. I also drink lots of liquids to stay “full.” It might not work for everyone, but it is my method to eating smart (especially in the summertime when I’m getting some of my food from the local farmers’ market).

I had a few ups and downs, but as the end of the six months neared, I knew I was going to make it. On Friday, July 5, I returned to the fitness center in Morgantown for my final weigh-in, and indeed, I had ended up losing more than 10% of my weight. Because of my success, I had to provide HeathyWage with a photo of myself after the end of the six months.

At this point, I figured they would find some technicality to avoid paying me. However, to my surprise, there was no hassle. Since I don’t have a PayPal account, I chose the option to have them mail me a check (which takes a bit longer), but I recently got my $300. I’m not a betting man, but it was a great feeling to win this wager. It was a good motivator for someone who doesn’t like to waste his money! When you consider the low interest rates on savings accounts these days, this was an incredible return on my investment!

My final check is shown above. Note that this is not an attempt to brag, but merely to present this information to others who might benefit from this program.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Thurmond (by way of Matewan)

In the late ‘80s, I enjoyed watching an interesting film entitled “Matewan,” about labor strife in the coal fields of West Virginia. If you haven’t seen this movie (directed by John Sayles and starring James Earl Jones, David Strathairn, Chris Cooper, Kevin Tighe, and others), I highly recommend it, because it provides a glimpse of the “mine wars” that gripped southern West Virginia nearly a hundred years ago. “Back in the old days” when I had West Virginia History in the eighth grade (a requirement for all West Virginia students), there wasn’t much mentioned about this controversial era of our history—it was only when I went to college that I finally learned about this fascinating period (complete with colorful characters such as Mother Jones).

The folks from Hollywood who made this movie decided that they couldn’t film it in the actual town of Matewan, but instead decided to use the old preserved town of Thurmond, which is located in the National Park Service’s New River Gorge, as the backdrop for some of the filming (including the pivotal scene of the “Matewan massacre”). I’ve been past the town of Thurmond several times while rafting down the New River, but other than the bridge, you can’t see much of the town from the river. I knew that someday I wanted to drive down into the gorge and explore this historic location, and recently I finally got the opportunity to do so.

The National Park Service has tried to preserve the buildings which still stand to provide a history lesson about this once bustling river town. They offer guided tours of the town from time to time, but we just parked at the train station and roamed around on our own, reading the interpretive signs that explain the background of each remaining building. Be aware that while time has seemingly stopped in Thurmond, the trains have not stopped—two eastbound trains and one westbound train went by while we were visiting—so look both ways when crossing the multiple tracks!

Among the most interesting of the few features remaining in Thurmond are the old train station (where you can still hop aboard an Amtrak train bound for Chicago or New York), the former National Bank of Thurmond, and the railroad coaling tower, which held 500 tons of coal in elevated storage, allowing steam engines to pull underneath to have their coal cars refilled. However, each of the buildings has its own story to tell about the city during its prime.

The road we took to visit Thurmond starts in Glen Jean and follows Dunloup Creek to the New River. About a mile or so from the river, the creek topples over a nice 20 foot waterfall adjacent to the road. If you know where to look, you can catch a glimpse of these falls from the road, and with the radio off and the windows down, you can definitely hear them. Fortunately, there is a pull-off area big enough for a couple of cars. On the way back up, we parked and explored the rocks and trails around Dunloup Creek Falls—I love the sights and sounds of waterfalls! It was the perfect end to an interesting day exploring the town of Matewan—oops, I mean Thurmond.