WINTERPORT, Maine — Gil Brundage and his wife Debra make the trip to race at Winterport Dragway at least six times a year — even though it is a 143-mile drive from Buxton.
Gil started drag racing in the 1960s, took a long hiatus to raise a family, then returned to racing four years ago.
He drives a short-chassis, front-engine dragster that has reached 128 miles per hour on the one-eighth-mile asphalt track at Winterport Dragway, a former airstrip that first hosted racing in 1967.
“I guess you’d have to say we’re all a little bit adrenaline junkies,” 64-year-old Gil Brundage said. “It’s a thrill going down the track and it’s always fun to compete.”
“Driving a front-engine dragster, you’re living a bit of life on the edge … you’ll never feel more alive than when you lift up your shield at the other end,” he added.
Maine has another drag strip, Oxford Plains Dragway in Oxford, while New England Dragway in Epping, New Hampshire, is the only other drag racing facility in New England.
Debra began racing late last season and now, at 64, she is in her first full season racing a 1970 Chevy Nova that her husband bought for her.
The Brundages attend all six Saturday events each season that feature the Gassah Guys Nostalgia Reunion Tour at Winterport Dragway. The tour features cars from the 1960s and 1970s, or replicas of those vehicles.
“My personal enjoyment now is from trying to keep the spirit of drag racing the way it was in the ’50s and ’60s alive,” he said.
A drag racing family
Debra Brundage loves the adrenaline rush of racing, but said the experience at Winterport Dragway goes beyond what takes place on the dragstrip.
“We have a lot of great friends and have made a lot of new friends,” she said.
“I have been to drag strips all across the country and met a lot of nice people but I’ve never been to another track like this one. When you come here, you are accepted as family immediately,” Gil Brundage said.
Three years ago, when the Brundages were new to the track, Winterport Dragway drivers found out Gil had recently lost his daughter in an automobile accident. The community raised money and established an annual event in her name: Jacee Johnston Memorial Footbrake Day.
It is one of several memorial races held for people with ties to the track.
“That tells you about the quality of the people here,” said Gil. “It costs me $120 every time I haul cars up here, but it’s worth every cent of it.”
Dennis Greene of Clinton, 65, races a motorcycle. His resume includes three national records and five national class victories in the 1980s. He started racing in 1979 when a friend suggested he try it because he was driving too fast on the streets.
“I tried it and I was hooked,” Greene said.
Brittney Marston of Winslow races a snowmobile and an AMC Hornet. Her father, Jim, used to be an ice racer but made the transition to to asphalt in 2008.
“It’s a nice stress reliever from work and regular life,” Marston, 28, said.
“It’s a good thrill ride,” said 17-year-old Leavitt High School senior Danielle Fusco of Turner whose dad, Paul, also is a racer.
Debra Brundage said Lou Pisanello, who waters down the starting lane and teaches the inexperienced drivers the ropes, has been a huge help to her.
Lobsterman Jonathan Coffin of Steuben races a 1966 Nova. He enjoys being part of the Winterport Dragway community.
“I’ve been to a lot of tracks but I’ve never been to one like this where they all treat you like you’re a relative,” Coffin said. “I’ve never seen a tighter group of people.”
Something for everybody
Virtually every kind of motorized vehicle is raced at Winterport Dragway. Race coordinator Rick Kopper said the track averages 100 competitors for race weekends.
Competitors come from Maine, other New England states and Canada.
“It is the cheapest type of motor sport you can do. You can race a Yugo if you want to,” said racer Patrick Berry of Sebago, who prefers Winterport Dragway to the track at Oxford, which is only 45 minutes from his home.
Berry’s daughter Aliviah, 12, made her debut in the Junior Dragster class on Sunday.
Racers pay an entry fee of approximately $40 and the fastest finishers in each division earn money. The top classes pay $500 to win and $300 to the runner-up. A few special races each year pay $1,500 to the champion.
There also is a cumulative points fund which at the end of the season rewards racers for their finishes in their respective classes.
There are two types of drag racing. In bracket racing, each driver sets a projected time and the slower of the two cars receives a head start based on the discrepancy in times. Any racer who goes faster than his or projected time is disqualified.
In heads up racing, both cars start simultaneously.
A competitor can even race the family car with only a helmet as extra safety equipment as long as they don’t reach a certain speed.
“The faster they go, the more safety equipment is required,” Kopper said.
Investing in the future
Winterport Dragway is run by the Winterport Dragway Association, which has a board of directors. The track is on land leased from the town of Winterport.
Two years ago, the dragway was repaved and the computer system was upgraded. The starting line and shutdown areas were improved.
Kopper, who has worked at Winterport Dragway for 18 years, said the track desperately needed a new surface.
“After we put down the brand-new surface, a lot of older racers have come out of the woodwork to race again,” track manager Andy Cook said. “We’re having an awesome year.”
More than $100,000 was raised to make the improvements and it was the racers themselves, along with the 12 track owners and the fans, who played a huge role in the effort.
“It came from the goodness of their hearts,” Kopper said. “This is a unique place. Every year, it amazes me a little bit more.”
Drivers say the renovations have made a significant difference in the quality of the racing.
“They really want to keep this going,” Greene said. “You’re going to see it grow and grow.”
“I love this track now, it’s beautiful. That’s why I drive all the way up here instead of going to our local track at Oxford,” Berry said.
For fans like Dave Wakefield of Unity, whose son Brock is a drag racer, and Dan Nolin of Winterport, watching racing is a nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
“I like the noise. It’s a place you can make a lot of noise without getting in trouble,” Nolin said.
“We like to see the fast cars and the camaraderie,” Wakefield said.
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