BREWER, Maine — “True Grit” met “Home Improvement” in the banquet room of the City Side Restaurant on Saturday as United Bikers of Maine held the second of its six Belt Sander Drags races.
Belt sanders? Racing?
Hey, for guys like Kenny Rogerson of Bangor, you don’t need wheels. If it has a motor, it can be raced.
So it wasn’t that much of a stretch for Rogerson, who has raced everything from cars and trucks to motorcycles, snowmobiles and even lawn mowers, to soup-up a belt sander and turn it loose on a 78-foot drag race-style plywood track.
“It’s fun, and it’s something you can be competitive and creative with,” Rogerson said.
It’s also a way for UBM to raise funds for its affiliated charities such as Manna Inc. of Bangor.
“We raise about $1,000 annually from this series,” said co-organizer and racer Wayne Bragg of Eastbrook.
Racers compete in modified or stock divisions and can win $30 gas cards donated by local businesses for first place, $20 cards for second and $10 for third.
These guys don’t fool around, either. The 78-foot, dual-lane track is 2 feet short of the national standard length, but conforms to the 12-inch-wide standard for individual lanes. It also features a “Christmas tree” starting system featuring segmented red, yellow and green lights and a finish line featuring infrared sensors.
And that’s just the racecourse.
“In stock, you can’t do anything to the sanders except put guides on it or decorate them,” said co-organizer and racer Dale Holmes of Greenbush. “In modified, you can change the gears on them, the motors, whatever, and soup ’em all up. As long as it’s still a sander, it’s legal.
“Getting it to go straight down the track is half the battle. You want the proper balance of weight and friction.”
Things went smoothly for Rogerson in the stock division as his “I Think I Can” sander finished first, but the going was rougher in modified as his “Junkyard Dog” finished second to “Big Block,” owned and raced by R.J. Picken of Levant.
“Yeah, it could’ve been better,” Rogerson said with a grin.
He wasn’t referring just to his finishes. Rogerson has a need for speed and is constantly tinkering to get more.
“My top speed’s 29 miles an hour,” Rogerson said. “But they can get as high as in the 40s.”
Holmes said he has seen them go 40-plus mph.
“The fastest one I’ve seen went 44 miles an hour last year, but the guy who had that one broke it,” he said with a laugh.
The sander speed barrier is as mythological and prone to rumor and speculation as the activity’s origin.
“The most common theory is some guys at a construction site either accidentally plugged one in with the trigger locked, or two guys on their lunch break set them down and wanted to see if they could race them,” Bragg said. “Nobody really knows for sure.”
As for local history, this is the seventh year of the UBM series, but belt sander racing has been around for decades.
“This doesn’t get much press, but people have been racing these things for at least 20 or 30 years,” Bragg said. “They did it in Maine back in the ’80s, but it kind of died out and then we started it back up again.
“Now there are races in Eastport, Brunswick, Sagadahoc and other places.”
The UBM series first was held at a former pool hall on outer Broadway in Bangor. It then moved to the Brewer Weathervane restaurant’s banquet room. Now it’s at City Side, formerly known as Dino’s.
“I think we’ll be here for a long time,” Bragg said. “It’s a great location because at least one big advantage is they have a big room here for racing.”
Well, not quite big enough.
“It’s not quite 80 feet long,” said Holmes. “The only reason we shortened it is because if it was any longer, we wouldn’t be able to walk around it.”
For the 20 entrants ranging from teens to men in their 50s Saturday, there’s a common thread. None of them started belt sander racing with any intention of sticking with it.
“I went and checked it out and we started building this track. I didn’t think I’d get into it too bad, but it’s a lot of fun and it catches on real fast,” Holmes said. “It’s something to do for the winter. It’s kind of hard to ride a motorcycle in the snow, and this is a lot cheaper than snowmobiling or skiing.”