PARAGOULD, AR (KAIT) - For nearly 51 years, George Ray's Wildcat Drag strip has entertained the public and those that go to race there on Sunday afternoons. The historic strip, built by a man who became a legend is now an icon. Ray passed away in 2009, his wife Bonnie now runs the track.
A typical Sunday at George Ray's Wildcat Drag Strip will host upwards of a hundred drag cars. All types, from rails to classics to cars that drive everyday on the street, come together to race.
George Ray built his drag strip in 1961 after a bad experience in Tennessee. Tom Cray said he figured out that some tracks favored drivers.
Cray, "What he (Ray) always told us was that he didn't like the way a lot of other operators run their tracks so he built his own."
Ray bought some acreage off Highway 135 and poured 2600 feet of concrete in a 30 foot wide strip in his back yard and opened his track in November of 1961.
Cray looked around at the current track and pointed out that, "It was a quarter mile for one thing. It was longer. The starting line used to be back farther. "
Now it's an 8th of a mile but many of the original buildings are still there including the walkway across the track and the older bleachers.
And from the very beginning George Ray was everywhere after all, he built it...and owned it. Race at your own risk say the signs.
Cray who drives one of the older cars there, a bright orange 1940 Willys coupe started racing when the track opened. He said Ray ruled the roost.
Cray, "He classed the cars, he made sure that you were going to be running safe and pretty much run the rules."
In the beginning there was no Christmas tree, that's the automatic starting lights for the races.
Another old time racer Steve "Pop" Wallin who came to the track in 62 and still has his original car. Said the races were controlled by George Standing out between 2 cars with his checkered flag.
Wallin, "And he'd point at you and point at the other car and then he'd throw that flag just like it started in the 50's." Wallin said there was a man in a booth at the end to turn on a light to indicate who had won or he'd walk into the lane that won and wave a flag.
Ray was himself a racer, his personal dragster now sits just behind the starting line beside an empty lawn chair waiting for it's owner to return, like a faithful dog.
Cray, "He was good, ain't no doubt about that, he was fast!"
Since opening day the track has always been a place for families to come and share in the racing experience. The crowds the Sunday I visited were a mixture of young and old with several generations all sitting in the stands or gathered around a car getting it ready to race.
Wallin said his daddy had brought him to the track to get to stop racing on the streets. Wallin says he continued the tradition with his kids. "I brought mine from the tenth grade on. Now if you look around down here, look real close . You'll see a grand-daddy bringing his grandson up here."
Trey Williams was waiting for his time trial. He is one of the youngest racers on the track at 17. He is a second generation driver.
Williams, "I been racing since I was a little baby. Been coming here since I was a year old. Dad's been racing, passed it on to me."
Tom Cray and Trey Williams, one of the oldest drivers and youngest drivers sat side by side for a time trial. Tom in his orange Willys and Trey in his 23 altered. The lights turned green and with a high squeal and cloud of white tire smoke they were off, not running against each other but against the clock.
From the Spring to the Fall, they race every Sunday unless it rains, heads up racing, side by side down the track they run. One of the very few tracks left in the state.
Cray, "Probably the only drag strip that has stayed steady for all this time. The rest have all came and gone. It's the only game in town."
Some people put thousands into their cars, others drop hundreds. Why do they do it.
Tom, Cray, "For the fun, for the thrill."
"Pop" Wallin, "Unless you just come every now and then it's hard to explain. It comes from within in all honesty. That's the way all these other people are down here."
George Ray may be gone but his legacy and the history he left behind, drives on.