By Jerry Reid
Since automobiles were invented, men (and lately more women) have felt the need to race them. The motorsports are now big business, but there remains a large group of drivers who go after victory as a hobby.
Our home track, Eastside Speedway, just north of Waynesboro on Rt. 340, is a microcosm of the vibrant state of the local short track racing in America. Two local drivers competing on this 4/10 mile red clay bullring represent opposite ends of the spectrum: Matt Hildebrand is just 15 and Brad Sayler is 63 years young.
A recent Saturday night of speed and adrenaline saw them both approaching their racing goals. Hildebrand was taking steps towards the possibility of professional racing, while Sayler was simply savoring the challenge with no aspirations of moving up in the ranks.
Moving to Virginia from Indiana, home of the Indianapolis 500, when he was eight, Hildebrand is now a sophomore at William Monroe High School in Stanardsville. He and his family make the trek to Waynesboro almost every Saturday during the summer racing season. Dad Stephen (who has also raced stock cars), mom Michele and older sister Paige, plus other siblings, are supporting his dream to make it to the big time. Also at the track are Hildebrand’s uncle, Tommy Hoy, second in Late Model points, and his cousin Tyler Hoy, who is in a tie for first place in Sportsman ranks. Hildebrand is sixth in points in that same division, 33 points behind the two front-runners.
At school, Hildebrand is concentrating on his grades, and he backed away from playing football because of his intense desire to race. “I’m worried about my education,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about college. There’s no other way to do this,” he said. His drive and commitment in the car are unquestioned, and he has a calm maturity concerning his dedication to success in his whole life, not just racing.
Beyond Eastside, Hildebrand’s the long-term goal is to “make a name” for himself in racing. NASCAR’s K&N Series is a possible next step, as is the ARCA Series, where many drivers have had the opportunity to show that they can handle the “Big Boy” speedways such as Daytona and Talladega.
Only a small portion of the driving talent across the country makes it to the top, but Hildebrand is aware of that. He understands the costly long shot he is taking, and he won’t break the bank trying to make it happen. Even on the dirt track, he said, “I will do what the family ends up doing, and what we can afford. It’s always the family, and if worst comes to worst, I’ll sell everything and give the money back to the family.”
Brad Sayler, now retired from the University of Virginia where he was a computer systems engineer, is anything but retired from a lifetime of motorsports competition. Also from Indiana, now a Crozet resident with his significant other of nearly 29 years, Laura Spring, he was a baby in his mother’s womb when he attended his first Indianapolis 500 in 1951.
By age 10, his family was in Philadelphia, and he was exposed to the Langhorne and Nazareth race tracks and became a fan of Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt. “The first inkling I got that I would be racing was at 15 or 16,” he said. Motorcycles were on his mind. The call of adrenaline, a lifetime companion for this racer, was answered in Motocross competition.
“I started working in a cycle shop, and doing bikes on the dirt,” he said. “I did fairly well, but didn’t make it out of the amateur ranks.” In 1977, he saw some flat-track dirt bike racing, and “fell totally in love with that.” Two years later, he moved to Boston, cultivated an interest in playing ice hockey somewhere along the way, ran some ice races on bikes and did Enduro racing. By 1982, he was getting worn down by the grueling Enduros. These races went through the woods, up and down hills, through water, all while running flat-out for five or six hours. There were “too many accidents; too many broken bones. So I stopped with the bikes; stopped racing altogether.”
His last 15 years in Crozet have been all about cars on dirt at Eastside. He said he “realized right away that this was a hobby for me for various reasons. One was that I was starting at age 49, and another is the cost. If you can’t go racing and wad it up and walk away from it, you’re in the wrong division.” Or maybe the wrong sport.
Sitting in the stands one night at Eastside, he thought, “You know what, I could do this.” He found a home in a low-buck, entry-level class known as U-Car. Originally designed for rear wheel drive compact cars, Sayler answered the bell with a Pinto and then helped usher a shift to front-wheel drive cars in 2002.
“My first front-wheel drive car was a very inexpensive, very good Dodge Omni. That car won from 1/3 to 1/2 of all the races I entered.” That period also saw short-track rubbing and bumping from his fellow racers who envied his success. Sayler’s philosophy says, “just because somebody rubs you one night doesn’t give you the right to take them out.” Give and take ensued, but he continued to win until he switched cars in 2002.
Currently racing a Chevy Cavalier that refuses to stop sliding the front wheels is a new challenge, but Sayler is not backing down. “I enjoy the fact that I can do it all. I’m owner, sponsor, crew; 100 per cent effort and skill that I brought to the table. I can do everything [to this car]. It’s a one-man band and I take some pride in that. And it keeps me out of trouble, because I would rather be busy than bored.”
There is danger inherent in throwing cars at a wall and hoping you miss. Saylor said, “I love going door-to-door and when I raced bikes I loved the handlebar to handlebar action. I’m an adrenaline junkie, always have been in my life. And when I get to the track, my whole life melts away. I don’t think of bills to pay or anything else but racing.”
Since 60 is the new 50, will there ever be a time when he hangs up his helmet? “If it is, it won’t be the money that stops me in this class. Getting older presents problems, some of them vision problems, but as long as my bod holds together, I’ll keep on doing it.”