As a full moon the color of melted butter jumps from the Georgia pines, 14 race cars growl their way around a loop of crimson soil. A smear of chalk dust marks the starting line; a concussion of noise evokes war. When the green flag is out and the pack goes by, you can feel the earth shake.
This is Cordele Motor Speedway on Oct. 27, the last day of the 1996 Sportsman division racing season. A few hundred women and men are in the bare cement grandstand, sprawled on patio chairs, watching the racers as they hurtle, shudder and career through the packed-clay turns. The cotton field beyond the north rim of the oval gleams ripe and white in the moonlight. It's harvest time in Crisp County.
The vehicles on the track are so battered that the races ought to be picketed by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Automobiles. The tow truck turns more laps than the pole sitter; the yellow (caution) light shines just about as often as the green.
Tomorrow, the men who steer these cars will once again be small-town mechanics, laborers and farmers. In their off-hours they will tinker and dream toward the new racing year that begins in March '97. They will pass the winter in hamlets such as Fitzgerald and Coolidge and Arabi, adding up the modest gains and bank-breaking debits of another year on the dirt. None will get rich driving one of these whining, wounded wrecks, yet the emotional poverty caused by giving up racing would be too much for any of them to endure.
Among this fraternity—yet simultaneously removed from it by the distance of generations—is 73-year-old Harvey Jones. Once long and lean and fiery, now thicker, quieter, deliberate in movement, Jones may be the most remarkable active sportsman in the U.S. Forty-seven years after he drove (and won) the first heat he ever entered, 34 years after he pulled his dying brother from a race car in Valdosta, Ga., Jones remains as competitive and skilled as rivals one third his age. He will be back in 1997, God willing, and many years after that.
Asked about retirement, he says he will quit if and when he can no longer win races. He says, "I ain't gonna sit there and watch the races from a race car."
At Cordele (pronounced core-DEEL) in 1996, Harvey Jones finished the season sixth in points in the Sportsman division—and might have finished higher had he not missed four weeks while doctors fitted his left eye with a lens implant. (Rubbing his eye, he had torn a retinal blood vessel, flooding the vitreous cavity with blood and making it seem, he says, "like I was lookin' through a stained-glass window with water runnin' down it.") This year his plans for the off-season include installing a new engine in his blue Oldsmobile racer and having the cataract in his left eye removed. Eight years ago he had heart bypass surgery. An aspirin a day and undiluted pride keep him ticking.
Jones never attained the pinnacle of his profession—a rich man recruited him to drive the Indianapolis 500 in 1960, but Jones turned the offer down, fearful of abandoning his full-time job with the telephone company in Tallahassee. He has reigned, instead, at Lake City and Dothan, Ala., Wewahitchka, Fla., and Valdosta, amassing countless trophies, regional celebrity and so little prize money that, even after half a century, $50 plus or minus at Cordele makes a measurable difference in his mood.
What matters to Jones is how his car performs and where he finishes. (The biggest payday of his career was $2,500 for second place in a 100-lap special.)
"Do you feel," I ask him, "as if the Lord must be on your side?"