WEST HAVEN, Vermont — As the roar of nearly 100 stock car engines fills Devil’s Bowl Speedway on a summer Sunday night, 16-year-old Travis Billington sits inside his all-black number 30 car calm and ready to race.
He’s been racing for 4 years, but his cheek-to-cheek smile and youthful joy could trick any outsider into thinking it’s his first night racing.
His experience, mixed with the natural brashness of a high school boy, complements his “first or last” mentality.
“I love going fast and having fun,” Billington said. “As soon as you put the helmet on, it is full race mode. It puts me in the zone.”
It makes sense his favorite movie stars Will Ferrell as big-time NASCAR racer Ricky Bobby.
Like Ferrell’s character, Billington is a competitive, charismatic driver whose entire week is either made or broken by how he races Sunday night.
Billington is one of the top racers at Devil’s Bowl. His spot atop his division’s leaderboard backs that up. The South Glens Falls native routinely beats racers twice his age.
Driving in the O’Reilly Auto Parts Limited Sportsman Feature, Billington flicks his helmet’s visor down, signaling it’s go time.
Later on this July 29 night, he’ll enjoy a celebration in victory lane. But first he must drive a clean time trial.
Suddenly to his left, Billington sees two people approaching and his serious racing face drops. Billington’s girlfriend, along with his father, longtime racer Floyd Billington, are at Travis’ driver side with a smile.
A few words of encouragement and fist bumps later and Travis Billington is back on the race track, right where he says he belongs.
He took the test for his driver’s license a few months ago. That was easy compared to the chaotic battles of Devil’s Bowl Speedway’s dirt track.
When a racer gets behind the wheel, it does not matter what their day job is, or in Billington’s case, what homework is due Monday.
Winning, respect and the love of high-speed competition is all that matters on Sunday nights.
Built in 1967, Devil’s Bowl Speedway has been open for drivers and racing fans for almost 50 years. Originally a dirt track, which is actually natural clay, Devil’s Bowl was covered in asphalt in 1971.
Mike Bruno purchased the race course in 2012 and two years later he added a small dirt track inside the half-mile asphalt track. This year, Bruno decided to switch back to full-time dirt racing.
Media relations Justin St. Louis said attendance numbers are up “across the board.”
Devil’s Bowl Speedway is a NASCAR-sanctioned track located north of Fair Haven, Vermont. All racers are NASCAR license holders, meaning they simultaneously compete for state and national championships against drivers at similar tracks throughout the United States and Canada.
A grassroots-level, family-oriented track like Devil’s Bowl is nothing without its supporters. St. Louis said on average between 900 and 1,200 people show up on summer Sunday nights. On special event night, crowds can grow to almost 2,000 race fans.
The drivers compete for cash prizes. The top division can take home up to $3,000 a race, while lower divisions race for cash between $1,000 and $200.
For drivers like young Billington, it is the cheers of the crowd, and his family support, that has turned a hobby like stock racing into his lifetime passion.
“My dad is everything to the race team,” Billington said. “He helps me work on the cars. He maintains them and helps me get here.
“It is nice because I get to spend a lot of time with him.”
A car cannot race until it is built properly, inside and out. For Travis, all the workings of an engine and parts is not as appealing as the thrill of race day.
But to a 30-year racing veteran like Queensbury resident Curtis Condon, the hours spent with grease-covered hands each week leading up to a race is all the fun.
Condon is at peace in his garage.
A small man cave built off the side of his two-story home, Condon spends close to 30 hours a week working on his crown jewel.
Racing in the Super Stock division, the majority of cars Condon races against are former street cars, usually 1980s Chevrolet Monte Carlos. Condon uses the division’s flexibility to his advantage, crafting his car to his liking but within the rules.
“This is where my heart is,” Condon said, standing in his garage. “It still wows me every time. If you don’t love it, I wouldn’t be doing this at 53 years old.
“There is nothing like pulling in with a hot engine and you just beat the best car out there.”
Earlier this season, Condon, known as “Crazy Curtis” on the track, captured his first win at Devil’s Bowl in three years, beating points leader Chris Murray.
Murray holds six wins this year, while second-place racer Scott FitzGerald has won twice. Condon is third in points with his lone victory.
“He’s got a brand new everything,” Condon said. “His cockpit looks like an airplane’s cockpit. While mine looks like I built it.”
Not only is Murray a talented driver, but his car also looks the part.
Condon would not want it any other way, however. He takes pride in building his vehicle piece-by-piece, with no computer help, just his eye for quality parts.
“Front was about 35 bucks,” he said pointing at his car. “Hood was 50, and the tail, well that was basically free.”
Condon’s love for engines started as a child. He remembers going to junkyards with friends to look for parts.
“That is where I go on my days off,” Condon said. “The junkyard.”
Like Will Hunting staring at a complicated equation on a blackboard, what Condon sees as valuable pieces to a puzzle, most people see as trash.
In his mind, that is their loss. He once took three engines apart just to build one transmission gear that worked properly.
Due to the Frankenstein-like creations he crafts, he calls his car “patches.”
“I’ve cut and trimmed everything myself,” he said. “It is just patches on patches.”
Despite his nickname, Condon is a levelheaded man with a passion for racing and garage wizardry. But like any reasonable adult, Condon’s family comes first.
His son Caleb, will be a senior at Hudson Falls this year and is the Tigers starting quarterback.
No matter how much money Condon puts into his car, his son’s success trumps all.
“It does not matter if I just bought new brakes, or a new tire or anything like that,” he said. “ If he needs new cleats or shoes, I do not say no.”
You won’t miss Jessey Mueller’s trailer when it pulls into Pit Row.
The all-black monster takes up nearly two parking spaces and the bright yellow design of “Mueller” is air brushed on its sides.
Mueller has been racing since 2010, when he won his first race as a 16 year old. Since then, he’s gained a following and he and his family are well known at racetracks throughout New York.
Tall, blonde and confident, Mueller, with the support of his family and team, lives for race weekends.
“Once you get this racing in your blood, it is like a drug honestly,” Mueller said. “You just want more of it and you want to get better at it. It keeps us going.
“We work really hard at it and we do it as a family.”
Before a Sunday race, Mueller’s mother Geanette sits on the edge of the trailer while Mueller and his father fine tone their car.
A few hours before go time, Geanette Mueller reminisces about her son’s early driving days.
“He was about 4 years old and he took the skidder out,” she said. “I just about couldn’t believe it.”
Jessey works for his dad’s company, Mueller & Sons Towing & Truck Repair. His dad bought a race car when Jessey was 8 years old.
But the family quickly realized it did not have the money to race competitively yet. Once the finances were right and Jessey was of age to drive, the racing lifestyle consumed the Muellers.
“Any spare minute, on every single day of the year we are thinking about race cars and working on race cars,” Jessey Mueller said. Every chance we get.
On race days, Mueller is calm, and his mind is in race mode. He starts thinking about what his car might need and the changes he needs to make.
But with his brand, comes some distractions.
“A lot of this stuff beforehand just takes too long,” Mueller said. “When you hit a certain level, so many people want to stop and talk to you, but sometimes I gotta keep my head down and work.”
Geanette Mueller takes pride in watching her son fine-tune an engine. She recognizes the track is what brings her family together as the Mueller name continues to grow.
“We love this,” she said with a smile. “We all support each other as a family but this is Jessey’s show. He is the driver, the crew chief, he’s everything.”
The Young Gun
Travis Billington springs out of his car and jumps atop his driver’s side door. Smiling bright, he throws a fist pump in the air as the crowd cheers.
For the first time in a month, Billington is in victory lane, standing proud with his family and pit crew.
“It felt pretty good because everyone down in (victory lane) helps out with the car every week,” Billington said. “It feels good to mention their names.”
Billington took first in the O’Reilly Auto Parts Limited Sportsman feature, his fourth victory of the season.
Though Billington is glowing after a big win, it is not hard to hear the rumblings of older drivers, who continue to lose to the 16-year-old speed demon.
Whispers like he is “too young,” “his dad does everything” or “he is spoiled” reach Billington.
“I just try to ignore it, he said. “But sometimes it gets to me.”
Racing is as competitive a sport as any other. Though tempers can flare after a race, there are plenty of people at Devil’s Bowl that rave about Billington’s fearless and fast style.
“He’s that good,” Condon said. “He is fast, and knows what he’s doing because his dad has had him around racing.”
Devil’s Bowl, and racing in general, is not just a community, but a brotherhood. The cars and their drivers are just as important as the fans at the track.
The racing at Devil’s Bowl is more than going fast and turning left sometimes. It is an oasis for families and friends to come together for a night of dirt flying, high-speed action.
“The other week, randomly a lady came up to me and said, ‘I live in Queensbury and I cheer for you every week,’” Condon said. “Just to hear that there are Crazy Curtis fans, that is why I’m out here.”