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Waiting, And Hoping, For A Racing Season At Thunder Road

A white and green race car with the number 94 on it, in front of a large shelf of trophies.
Erica Heilman
Brendan Moodie's car is all ready to go for the racing season at Thunder Road, which normally begins with the summer, but is currently on hold for COVID-19.

Mike Martin Auto Repair is off of Town Hill Road, which is off Route 14. It’s between Craftsbury and Albany in the Northeast Kingdom. Mike Martin and Brendan Moodie work on cars there, and usually this time of year they’re getting ready to race at Thunder Road. Erica Heilman stopped in to talk with them about the upcoming season.

Brendan Moodie races late models at Thunder Road. Mike Martin races in the Flying Tiger division. Mike’s son Steven races. Brendan’s father Brendan used to race. And Brendan’s son, also Brendan, is coming into racing.

For these families — for a lot of families — summer starts with Thursday nights at Thunder Road in Barre. But like all public events, the season is uncertain. They’re holding out for a May 24 opening, but who knows. I went up to Martin’s Autobody to talk with Brendan and Mike about the pandemic, and about the prospects of a summer without a weekly pilgrimage to Thunder Road.

More from Erica Heilman:

Me: “When did you start going to Thunder Road?”
Brendan: “I think I was two when I went to my first race at Thunder Road because my dad raced there. And I don’t think I’ve missed two races since then. It’s not really a hobby no more. It’s a lifestyle. It’s not like we just race on Thursdays and then you go on with life the rest of the week. You got two, three nights a week during the summer where you’re working on the car, and you got Thursdays when you’re racing.

“I can’t even sleep at night in the summer, because you lay down and go to sleep and you’re thinking, ‘What can I do to make the car a little better next week?’ And it’s not like you get done in the fall and then you just start back up in the spring. Most of us go through everything and you get new bodies, it’s a lot of work in the winter. Yeah, it’s usually always on your mind.”

Me: “Opening day at Thunder Road. What does that mean to you?”

Brendan: “You’re showing off what you did all winter. You got a nice new shiny car. Everybody’s there looking at it. Summer’s started. That’s another positive.  And usually the first couple weeks everybody wants to keep their car clean. And then once you get a few dings into it, it’s on then, and you ain’t worried about the car. Everybody just races ‘em.”

Me: “So this thing hits, and of the first things must’ve been like, ‘Woah. What does this mean about the season?’ Right?”

Brendan: “Well I was just thinking, selfishly, ‘When am I gonna be able to get out and get in that race car?’ But. You know. It stinks. We all wanna get out there. Even the fans. There’s a lot of fans down there that are dedicated just as much as we are, and if it weren’t for them we wouldn’t be there. But. Phil’s doing the right thing. We gotta do what we gotta do to get this under control, and eventually life will go back to normal.”

A person in a hat and blue auto repair shirt.
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
Mike Martin.

Here’s Mike Martin, owner of Mike Martin Auto Repair:

Mike: “You know obviously I worry about the economy and what the effects that’s gonna have on racing. This has got to hurt people that get sponsorship rely on sponsorship like we all do to race. People are not able to run businesses at all, or not the way they would like to run them, because they’re shut down. And we gotta face it. Someday all this stimulus money and all that we’re doing to help people, which is great, but somewhere along the lines we gotta pay this back. And you gotta worry about how that’s going to affect he economy in general.”

Me: “How do you think that the Kingdom is gonna to get hit different from maybe other parts of the state?”

Brendan: “I guess if you’re asking the difference between country folks and city folks, I would have to say country’s gonna survive maybe easier. ‘Cause most of the people around here, we hunt, we fish. I probably got a hundred pounds of deer meat in the freezer still right now. If we couldn’t go to the store for a month, you know, we wouldn’t starve, that’s for sure.”

Mike: “People in the Kingdom seem to find a way to survive more than—maybe that’s a foolish thing—but seem to find a way to survive better and get by. I’m afraid a lot of people in the world are living above their means. Like a lot. And it’s the American way I guess. A lot of people live week to week, paycheck to paycheck, and you start going a few weeks without a paycheck or not what you normally get. It’s made a lot of people stop and think about what they’re spending money on, and ‘How do I reduce this.’

“I’m very worried about the economy. I’m hoping the area around here might survive better than some. But it’s definitely going to be a long road to get out of. It’s not gonna be a quick fix. But the way life up here is, you take care of your neighbor. You help your neighbors out. And you hope the same is returned to you and it usually is, tenfold.

A sign reading "Mike Martin Auto Repair" below a street sign.
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
Mike Martin Auto Repair is in Craftsbury.

“I know if my neighbor called and said, ‘Hey. I’m out of beef.’ Or, ‘I’ve got nothing to put on my table for my kids tonight,’ I would send some beef over because we have raised beef and we have it in our freezer and people will do that around this area. That’s why I feel like we’ll get through this.”

Me: “Worst case scenario. You don’t get a season this year.”

Brendan: “It’d stink. I’m pretty pumped this year. I got a new car actually and a new crew, so I’m itching to get out there and see what we can do. I guess ain’t nothing gonna change. It’s still gonna be there next year. But. I can’t believe we won’t make it out for at least half a season. I would think everything would hopefully blow over and we’d get back to normal. We’ll see.”

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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