SCARBOROUGH — Cars zoom around the track in a blur, the smell of exhaust and rubber fills the air and fans pack the grandstand to cheer on their favorite drivers.

Things haven’t changed much in the 64 years since Jim McConnell carved out an oval dirt track, erected a grandstand with boards he cut in his own sawmill and started a Saturday night tradition that now spans three generations.

It’s a tradition that, decades later, continues to attract new fans to the Beech Ridge Motor Speedway for race nights under the lights. New generations of drivers compete on the track, longtime spectators bring their grandchildren for a night at the races and campers stay for the weekend, creating a community of race fans who say they wouldn’t want to spend their Saturdays anywhere else.

At Beech Ridge it often feels like everyone has been coming to the track forever, said owner Andy Cusack.

“Most of our drivers were at one point a kid in the grandstand. They grow up and they dream about racing and they get a car built, come out and do it,” he said.

Last year, the speedway drew nearly 152,000 spectators, including a growing number of young fans who are discovering the sport, according to track officials. On an average Saturday night, more than 4,000 fans fill the stands.

The increase in spectators at Beech Ridge comes as attendance at NASCAR races is on the decline across the country. From 2005 to 2010, nationwide attendance at NASCAR races declined 22 percent, from 4.6 million to 3.6 million annually.

The 1/3-mile track at Beech Ridge opened in 1949 after McConnell, an airplane mechanic who worked in Boston, decided to bring auto racing to a plot of land he owned in Scarborough. The speedway has operated continuously since then and has been owned by three families.

Cusack, whose family bought Beech Ridge in 1981, grew up at the speedway watching his father, Ralph, race his way to a record 12 track titles. The few changes made by the family include converting the track to asphalt and planting flower plots around the grounds.

Yearly attendance has grown in the past two decades, rising from about 85,000 NASCAR Nites fans in 1983 to more than 104,000 last year.

Attendance at Thursday Thunder, which is especially popular with families, has held steady, attracting about 47,000 fans each season for the past three years. The two-hour show features local amateur racers competing in seven events, and is economical for families, with $4 adult tickets and children under 12 admitted free, Cusack said.

“We’ve seen a great resurrection in new and young fans, which is good to see,” Cusack said. “Many of our fans have been with us since the ’60s and ’70s. All of a sudden we’re seeing a kind of rebirth of race fans.”

Cusack attributes the change in part to the popularity of Thursday Thunder and the familiar faces at the track.

“I think it has a real sense of family and a real sense of connection. All of our drivers, our athletes, are local people,” he said. “They’re people you bump into in the local variety store, or they’re delivering parts to you or they’re somebody who does the plumbing on your home. They’re local people you can really connect to.”

Like a reunion

Dan Walker of Portland clearly remembers his first trip to Beech Ridge, with his grandfather in 1971. He was 11 years old and instantly hooked. He has worked at the track in various capacities for the past 31 years and said the Beech Ridge community is a big family.

On race day, he drives the speedway’s old security van through the dirt pit area, slowing to wave to track employees and drivers hanging out near their cars.

Between practice laps, crews make adjustments to the cars lining the perimeter of the pit. Drivers lean against their hoods, their race suits’ arms tied casually around their waists. The metallic clank of tools and the constant revving of engines nearly drowns out the announcer calling different divisions to the track for practice.

Across Two Rod Road from the pit entrance, campers sit in front of their RVs while children ride their bikes nearby.

There are more than 30 motor homes scattered throughout the parking lot, most tucked in the shade of the tree line. The campers, as usual, are a mix of racing families and fans who would be spending their weekend at the track anyway, Walker said. There are a few extra motor homes because the American Canadian Tour 150 racers are here.

Standing by the gate to the pit area while checking in race cars, Stephanie Minott of Windham looks over to the camping area, where she stays with her family several times each season.

“It’s a whole different atmosphere out there. We have a ball,” she said. “It’s kind of like a huge reunion out there every weekend.”

The motor homes of the Yankee Travelers, a chapter of the Family Motor Coach Association, began arriving late in the week. The group’s annual rally draws members from across New England for a weekend at Beech Ridge, said rally co-host Bob Townsend of North Grafton, Mass. This year the rally included 23 motor homes, 48 people and a few dogs. Members circle their chairs under a canopy to eat a chicken dinner together before heading to the races.

“This is one of the nicest tracks that we visit. It’s the cleanest track we go to,” said group member Dan Meservey of Chatham, Mass., who races at Beech Ridge every May. “Maine fans are probably the toughest fans. You can see they’re true race fans.”

For driver Andy Field of Buxton, the interaction with fans is one of the “amazing” things about Beech Ridge. The 29-year-old is a third-generation driver who races in the Sport Series. The Field family has raced at the track continuously for 40 years.

“I’ve been coming here since I was a month old,” Field said, as his crew worked on his car between practice laps. “As a kid, I would fall asleep against my mom’s back in the grandstands.”

Field said the “Happy Half-Hour” after each race allows him to interact with fans on the track, but social networking has allowed him to connect even further.

“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “You don’t just become their Saturday night hero, you become friends.”

Like Field, 19-year-old Bobby Timmons of Windham can barely remember when he started coming to Beech Ridge. His grandfather raced here in the 1980s and he and his older sister, Nicole, began racing go-karts more than 10 years ago. Timmons won his first Pro Series race on July 21.

“This place is tough,” he said. “They always say if you can win here, you can win most anywhere.”

And we’re off …

As practice winds down and the 6 p.m. race time approaches, employees kick into high gear.

Cusack is keeping a close eye on the weather as storms make their way across New Hampshire. In the pit concession stand, manager Sherry Severance of Hollis supervises employees frying up beer-battered onion rings and chicken nuggets. Burgers sizzle on the grill as members of pit crews wander up to the window to order. The food, she said, has been named “Best Track Food” by national racing organizations.

Betsy Field, Andy Field’s mother, walks through the pit area trying to track down two drivers to meet with children later in the evening. She is the “tour guide” on the Bunny Bus, an old red school bus that is driven around the track with a load of screaming children and Speedy, the track mascot.

Across the track, the grandstands fill slowly with fans who spread out blankets and padded cushions. Young children, including babies in strollers, wear headphones and ear plugs to dull the roar of engines. Attendance for the day is 3,800, down slightly because of the threat of rain, Cusack said.

As cars pull onto the track, the crowd cheers and the races begin.

Sitting in the third row of the grandstands, Judy Reid of Brunswick hollers for her favorite drivers to pick up the pace. Her cheers are interrupted only by friends who stop by to say hello.

“It’s my addiction,” she said. “This is the best track there is in Maine.”

Fifteen laps into the Sport Series race, Andy Field is involved in a wreck on the back stretch. As a caution flag goes up, he pulls off the track with a crumpled hood. He was back a few minutes later, but ended up finishing 19th in the field of 27 competitors. He is sixth in the point standings for the season.

As the local races end and darkness falls over Beech Ridge, children and their parents bounce onto the Bunny Bus for a cruise around the track. They roll down the windows and hang out, waving to the crowds as the bus speeds past the grandstand.

“This bus is too quiet,” Betsy Field calls over the loudspeaker, prompting the noise level to inch ever higher. “Let them see how happy you are to be on this bus.”

After a quick visit with two drivers, the bus drops passengers back at the front gate as the ACT 150 race starts and raindrops begin to fall. A few fans leave, but most are in it for the long haul.

One hundred and twelve laps later, the rain is falling too hard for the race to continue. Austin Theriault, an 18-year-old from Fort Kent, takes the win.

Back in the parking lot after the grandstand empty, the previously festive mood at one campsite is dampened slightly by Ray Parent’s finish in the ACT 150. The Tiverton, R.I., driver and his family had hoped he would have a strong race, but a flat tire and wreck led to a 17th place finish.

While Parent’s wife, Stacey, and nearly a dozen family members wait for him to return, they prepare for a clam boil. Colored lights hang from the awnings of the family’s RVs and food is spread across two tables. Campfires from other sites flicker in the background.

When Parent and his pit crew arrive, they spend a few minutes dissecting the race before turning their attention to celebrating the last night of their week-long camping vacation. The race talk will continue another day.

“A bad night of racing is a good night of camping,” Parent said.

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