Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The First Family of Bear Ridge

Local stock car racing has a tradition as a sport accessible to every member of the family, and seemingly every track in America has a marquee family team that transcends generations in both the pit area and victory lane. Bear Ridge Speedway in Bradford has one, too: the Grays of East Thetford, Vermont.

In 1968, Herb Gray leased a parcel of land high up in the hills of Bradford to local garage operator George Barber, who plowed out a 1/5-mile dirt track. Gray himself was a competitor at the track for many years, running in the Coupe and Modified ranks into the 1980s. As he reached the end of his driving career, sons Tim and Troy entered the sport. In 1985, each picked up his first Bear Ridge championship: Troy in the Sportsman Coupes, Tim in the Street Stocks.

Nearly 25 years later with six Bear Ridge championships under his belt, Troy is regarded as one of Vermont's finest dirt-track specialists, and is also a force to be reckoned with on asphalt, winning a Street Stock championship at Thunder Road in Barre in 1987, a 200-lap Enduro there last July, and currently ranking fourth in the track's Street Stock division. Tim has retired from driving, and now focuses on the budding careers of his children, 23 year-old daughter Amanda and 18 year-old son Jason.


Jason got his start in the four-cylinder Hornet division in 2006 at age 15. He moved to the headline Sportsman Modified class last season, where he finished fourth in points and was named Rookie of the Year.

On Saturday, he earned his first Modified feature win by holding off five-time Bear Ridge champion and current point leader Chris Donnelly.

Amanda, a second grade teacher at Chelsea Public School, began racing in the Hornets last year -- not the ladies-only Hornet Queens division, but rather against the boys -- earning three feature wins. This season she has a pair of third-place finishes and sits third in points after four events.

The family name, it seems, is in good hands for the future.


Both of the third-generation Gray drivers race at Bear Ridge Speedway with a family that is still very much involved. "I grew up here," says Amanda. "My grandfather raced when I was little, then my dad and my uncle, and then my brother started and he got me into it."

"It all goes back to my grandfather," agrees Jason. "He raced here when they opened [in 1968]. I work on my car, my uncle helps me, my father helps me, my grandfather will come down and support me quite a bit, I've got a couple friends that help me, and we've got a good family friend that is here to help me a lot. They all contribute somehow. If it's not right here in the pits, it's helping pay for stuff. My grandfather is supportive behind it. Not many people would give a kid a dirt Modified and say, 'Here, have at it.'"

As a tightly-knit bunch with a lengthy background in racing, everyone understands the risks, but knows there are worse things than crashing a race car.

"They're probably safer [on the track] than they are on the road," says Tim.

Amanda says that she's been shoved around on the track a little bit by her male competitors, but she gets her revenge by winning races. "Yeah, it's tough. At the beginning of the year they think that I'm just going to push over easily, but they learn quickly that that's not the case."

"I get a little nervous with my sister because she had a rollover [last year]," said Jason. "But, you know, she's won three races, too. I built the car so I feel pretty safe with her in it."

"I think it's just the fact that [my competitors] think it's kind of a facade I'm putting on, but it's really fun and I seem to do pretty well at it," says Amanda. "I think they just hate it that I can beat them at their own kind of game."


With a family history of wins and championships, there's a little bit of pressure to perform when you race in Vermont with the surname Gray. But for now, Amanda and Jason are just having fun.

"You get to get a major rush from it," says Amanda. "It's fun and it's a nice hobby aside from some other vices that you could choose. The hard thing is that I'm not incredibly mechanincally inclined, so I help when I can, but my dad and my brother do most of the wrench work and everything."

"We'll see where it goes, I guess," said Jason, who is happy just to be in the position he's in driving a winning Modified. "For me as an 18 year-old kid to come out and race with these guys, it's awesome."

Depsite the success she's seen in just over a season's worth of track time, Amanda has no immediate plans for moving up the racing ladder unless her family wants her to. "I mean, if they think that it's worth it, maybe, but for right now it's just pretty fun and exciting."

But still, winning is what it's all about.

"It's pretty fun to beat the guys, and when I get out of the car and the sponsor sees that I'm a girl, they're like, 'Oh my God, that's a girl,' you know? It's kind of exciting and kind of not what you would expect," Amanda says. "And it's an interesting hobby that I have that I share with the kids [at school]."

"Jason finally got one," said Tim, moments after his son crossed the finish line a winner last Saturday. "He came close last year a couple times, and finally got one. Maybe my daughter can win tonight, she's won a bunch."

While Amanda didn't win her feature in the Hornet division that night, she came home a solid fourth, running the entire race up front with Bobby Bell, Tom Placey, and Carl Sweet, three of the division's better racers.

And Tim Gray, a proud father, stood in the pit area at Bear Ridge under the lights, satisfied. Looking at the track, a big grin came across his face as he spoke of his children. "Couldn't be any better I guess at this point."

(PHOTOS: 1. Herb Gray in the early days of Bear Ridge Speedway; 2. Amanda Gray (#00) races with the boys in a recent Hornet event; 3. Jason Gray's first Modified win was a sweet one. Photo 1: Courtesy catamountstadium.com; Photos 2 and 3: Justin St. Louis/VMM photos)

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