Tom Pitts is elder statesman of local racing

Most of today’s racers at the Willamette Speedway were in diapers or weren’t even born when Tom Pitts started driving on the one-third-mile dirt oval track.

The year was 1964 €“ as close as Pitts can recall now, 45 years later €“ and he’d actually been driving in the destruction derbies in Salem with his buddies when the idea of racing stock cars first came to him.

“My dad used to scrap cars on the side,” said Pitts, now 72, who grew up in Crawfordsville. “We always had a bunch of cars around. Me and a bunch of friends grabbed torches and started cutting fender wells out. We raced around the block a few times in Crawfordsville for practice, and then we went to the track.”

The Willamette Speedway on Airport Road outside Lebanon was relatively new at the time, he said.

“We drove to Lebanon and we pushed each other into the ditch a few times,” Pitts said of their first trip to the track. “I don’t know how we made it through Brownsville without getting stopped.”

When they got to the speedway, officials at first were reluctant to let Pitts and his buddies race, but they finally relented.

Except for one 10-year period when he had a job that required a lot of travel, Pitts has raced there almost every week since.

Pitts is the oldest driver at the track, but he still races almost every weekend. For three years his wife Peg did too, but she called it quits after ending up in a wreck that left her with stitches in her neck.

“It was too much money to keep up two cars,” Peg said.

Tom said he doesn’t finish as well as he used to €“ he has won two championships at the Speedway, both in the 1960s. He remembers he and his buddies had a regular routine.

“We always got three beers at Nieman’s after the race,” he said.

But these days he’s racing youngsters who could be his grandchildren.

“One race out there, I was the oldest and I was racing the youngest €“ Joey Tanner out of Portland,” he said, adding that Tanner was in his mid-teens at the time.

Pitts said he learned how to set up a basic race car from fellow destruction derby drivers in Salem.

“They taught me a lot of what to do in a car, to put a smaller tire on the left than on the right,” he said. “I just hit the right thing by accident like everybody else, I guess.”

It was pretty simple back then.

“My old 1957 Ford used to outrun all those Chevys,” he said. “I’d have to change bodies about twice a year.”

“We used to have motor rules. I had a 1958 Ford and all that could be in it was a 352 (engine). They swore I had 390 in it, the other drivers. They protested.

“They took (the engine) up to Albany, tore it down, took the head off and measured it. They were going to put back together,

but I said no. I don’t want my competition putting my engine back together. I told them I was going to do a valve job this weekend. ‘I’ll just do it myself.'”

Cars were basic production models with factory suspensions back then and Pitts and his buddies raced on street tires.

“When we first started we had highway tires on our cars,” he said. “Then those guys came down from Salem and they had slicks. We thought, ‘Oh, scary, scary.’ But we were able to beat them with highway tires.

“Now we use Hoosier Humpers €“ regular dirt tires.”

A lot has changed over the years, he said, particularly the racing technology.

“It’s a lot more technical than it used to be,” said Peg Pitts, who has been married to and has raced with Tom for 10 years.

“It used to be old cars with the windows knocked out and a roll bar put in. Now they have all these fancy doo-dads.”

Tom says the technology’s got a bit ahead of him.

“They’ve put a lot of science in those cars since we started. I’ve tried to read the books, get the set-up, but I don’t understand the geometry and numbers and letters.”

Drivers and their crews can adjust springs that dictate how the cars will ride on the track and racers use computerized scales to adjust how much weight is on each wheel. They use special factory chassis made for race cars.

“If that car’s not right, nobody can drive it,” Pitts said. “I think if they’re right, anybody can drive them.”

Back in the 1960s, cars would hit 90 on the straightaway. These days the leaders run top speeds of 100-plus.

The Pittses said money makes a difference too.

“A lot of guys are buying crate motors from GM for $5,000,” Tom said. “You put it in and it’s warranted for two years.”

“We don’t have all the high-dollar stuff some of these other guys have got, like motors,” added Peg. “We build motors ourselves. We don’t get a new motor every season.”

Generally, the Pittses head off to the track about noon on Saturday, setting up their pit area and running some practice laps before the time trials start around 2:30. Their pit crew is Peg’s son, Rob Wirth.

Wirth is not the only family member who’s been involved at the track. Tom’s father George also raced for a while, he said, and his grandson Jason Pitts also raced, as did his twin nephews, Tom and Ed Pitts, 15 or 20 years ago.

For all the racing he’s done, Tom says he’s really never been badly hurt in a wreck.

“I went end over end one time, way back when,” he said. “I had help, though. I didn’t do it by myself.”

Another time, he said, he had to get George Waters to drive his car after he injured his hand.

Both Tom and Peg say he’s slowing down, though he did win a B Main event last year.

“I don’t keep up at all any more,” he said. “I start first and finish last. I win by default. When they go out, I gain a spot.”

“I give him a bad time because his time is the same as mine used to be,” Peg said. “But he does better racing than a lot of younger guys who spend more money.

“He races all the time. He races under the lights. He races on the freeway. On the freeway he wants to be at the front of the pack.”

“But I don’t get tickets,” Tom said.