PENWELL, Texas (Nexstar) – Under the dimming sky, the vast acreage of the Penwell Knights Raceway is slowly taken over by an army of machines.
It’s a different type of Friday night lights, where rubber meets the raceway, and fast. Welcome to your local drag strip.
Drivers showcase their rides.
“Alright, so I own a 2020 Mustang GT.”
“It’s a 2016 Challenger Hellcat.”
“…2017 Camaro. It’s a 4 cylinder and it’s slow.”
Motor heads, automotive aficionados, and your classically trained racers are gearing up for a night of testing and tuning, where top speeds become surreal. Drivers in line were asked for the reason they showed up.
“It’s just the rush you get whenever you launch.”
“It helps me because speed is my therapy.”
“I rather be racing than doing anything else, I rather throw money on my car.”
“It’s fun. You break parts, fix it, and go faster.
“A good environment, man. I love it. It keeps you off the streets.”
Staying off the streets… that’s something that rings true to Gary Gardenhire, the owner and co-operating manager of Penwell Knights Raceway.
He first took over the raceway in 2008.
“It’s something that, usually, once you do it one time, you’re addicted to it,” Gardenhire said.
He has spent most of his waking moments taking care of this safe haven for racers.
After closing up last year because of the pandemic, it’s become a welcoming sight for many drivers that Penwell is back open. What’s most important at the track isn’t necessarily coming in first, but putting safety first.
“Everybody has got a job. And their number one job is safety,” Gardenhire said. “Trained people in the right places: track crews, safety crews, paramedics, firefighters, people from the front gate to security.”
Just like the cars they drive, the raceway is a well oiled machine, one with so many moving parts, to keep drivers who have a need for speed safe.
About 6 years ago, Scott Erwin’s life came to a full stop.
“Everything changes from the point of the accident, going forward,” Erwin said. “There’s your life before the accident and there’s your life after the accident. It’s not ever the same.”
His son, 22-year-old Zack Landry, was killed racing.
Scott says Zack wasn’t racing on a track, but instead, on the street.
“The rawness of it all when it first happens, may not be there near as much at 5 years, but the grief is still there,” Erwin said.
Scott says Zack was leaving work to go home for lunch. His friend was leaving work at the same time. They ended up racing on 42nd street in Odessa.
Scott says a driver pulled out in front of Zack. It was too late for him to stop.
“We’re not saying don’t race. We’re just saying don’t race in the streets, where it’s so dangerous, and there are so many things you can’t control,” Erwin said.
Scott says for parents to take it a step further by talking about all sorts of reckless and distracted driving, like texting while driving, drunk driving, and of course, racing.
“When your kid gets their driver’s license, that’s not the time to stop teaching and getting involved,” Erwin said. “Because at the end of the day, we’re responsible for our kids, their good decisions and their bad ones.”
Scott says Penwell Knights Raceway has been very supportive. After Zack’s death, they came up with a slogan, “Take it to the track for Zack.”
While Penwell’s mantra is about helping lead-footed folks to speed down their strip safely, Gary Gardenhire is also talking about basic education for anyone ready to get behind the wheel.
“If you teach them at a young age, how to drive, how to respect the speed, what a vehicle can do, the dangers of it, and the safety factors of it, it goes a long way for the future,” Gardenhire said.
Gary says that education starts way before the starting line, with kids as young as 5.
One driver at Penwell tonight has her parents by her side. Colette is just 7.
“It feels exciting, and I’m nervous,” she said.
Colette’s mom adds, “I’m nervous, very nervous. But, I’m excited for her. She’s going to have a blast.”
As for the drivers here, there seems to be consensus about why they’re here right now at the track, and not on the street.
“You’re not driving on a rinky-dinky street out in the middle of nowhere,” one driver said.” You don’t know whats going to hit you, you don’t know if a deer comes out, bystanders you have no idea.”
“You’re not going to do damage to anyone else or anything. It’s always better on the track. Keep it on the track, that’s it,” another driver said.