2009 Blue Gray 100

November 2009                       Dale Wilkerson

     The Blue Gray 100 was held this past weekend at Gaffney’s Cherokee Speedway before a capacity crowd.

     This two day event gave the race fans plenty of reason to stand on both days. Side by side racing, cars on the edge of control, the excitement of a fireworks display, a very patriotic rendition of our National Anthem by Mary Beth Hicks, and fans cheering for their favorite drivers were just a few of the things that had folks standing during the event.

Out of everything that was happening on track, two drivers stole the show Sunday evening, and one of them was not in a race car. Chickamauga Georgia driver Dale McDowell, who drives for Sprint Cup star Clint Bowyer, battled lap after lap with Illinois driver Dennis Erb, Jr. These two drivers worked their way to the front and separated themselves by a straight-a-way from the field.  After trading the top spot a few times, McDowell recaptured the lead inside the last twenty laps, and pulled away to pick up his first ever win at Gaffney.

     “I raced here many times and have never been able to close the deal, but it all came together tonight. The crew and I thought we went the wrong way on the tires, but this set was awesome. When Dennis got back around me, I knew that I just needed to get up on the wheel and get after him. The track crew gave us a great surface to race on tonight. Lennie and his folks did a great job,” said McDowell after the race.

     There were 31 cars that lined up to qualify with Jonathan Davenport grabbing the pole. Among the local drivers, Zack Mitchell won the B-main to become the youngest driver to qualify for this event. Just a few weeks ago Mitchell, who is only 13-years old, became the youngest Super Late Model feature winner.

     Two Gaffney drivers, Dennis Franklin and Chris Madden, both had problems. Franklin was swept up in a seven car pile-up around lap 20 while Madden’s car broke an axle after contact from Austin Dillon.

     The crowd gave McDowell a huge ovation, both as he took the lead for the final time and when he crawled from his car after the race. McDowell is one of the most respected drivers in the nation, and he is a fan favorite where ever he competes. In fact, the ovation that McDowell received was second to just one other driver.

     As the cars were lining up for the feature event, PA-man Kevin ‘Fat Baby’ Wray announced that he had a guest in the press box and he said he would be handing his microphone over to that guest. Then he Wray said here is Jeff Cooke, the cheers where louder than the engines at full song. 

     Cooke, who received facial injuries 11/4/09 while racing at the Dirt Track at the Lowe’s Motor Speedway, thanked the race fans for the prayers, cards, kind words, and support that they have offered him and his family during the time after his accident. Due to his injuries, including a broken jaw, Cooke’s voice was muffled but with the hush that fell over the crowd when he spoke, no clearer words had been spoken at the track.

     “Thank you for all the prayers for me and my family. It has been tough but your prayers are getting me through this,” said Cooke.

     When Jeff took the microphone, all the fans in the grandstand stood up, turned toward the press box and listened intensely to what ‘Mr. Saturday Night’ had to say. The ovation that he received was incredible, but the respect the fans gave him as he spoke was a very moving moment. No, we didn’t get see Jeff’s famous #99 make any laps, but that car was on everyone’s mind.

     Race fans also stepped up to help Cooke finically. There was a silent auction, donation buckets, and the drivers passing their helmets to collect funds for Cooke and the family of the late Phillip Seifert.

     Among the auction items was an event t-shirt signed by the drivers that started the Blue-Gray 100 and a framed picture that featured several of Jeff’s cars over the years, that was donated by Tony Hammett.

     “A lot of people patted me on the back yesterday, but I told them it was nothing to do with me. I simply created a vehicle to allow the generosity and caring side of dirt racing fans to be manifested. Racers can beat and bang on each other week in and week out, but when the racing family is in need, they and their families, friends and fans are the very same people who step up and give until it hurts to help!” said Hammett.

     Cooke has several months of recovery ahead of him, and for folks who want to help him with his medical bills; you can make donations at Clements Racing Engines on Melvin Drive in Spartanburg of at Harvey’s Drive Inn on Limestone Street in Gaffney.

     The racing was great. The crowd response to an injured driver was incredible. The look of accomplishment on Dale McDowell’s face after winning, and the look of sincere gratitude in the eyes of Jeff Cooke as he thanked the fans, was priceless.