As night falls on the Georgia-Tennessee state line, the pungent smell of expended fuel and tire smoke are overpowered by the deafening roar of engines. Racers line up to take their turn seeing how far they can push their vehicles and reflexes as some cover an eighth of a mile in just over five seconds at the Brainerd Optimist drag strip.
Optimist International is an organization where volunteers from all over the globe use various methods to raise money for area youths. The Chattanooga chapter began using drag racing as its fundraiser in 1957 to create scholarships and benefit local organizations, including Orange Grove, Senior Neighbors, Big Brothers Big Sisters, among others.
“I think we’re the only Optimist club that’s got a drag strip,” said 2013 Brainerd Optimist past president Larry “Red” Jordan while standing trackside.
Jordan has supported the organization since 1972. He can be found most weekends perched in a booth overlooking the facility where he announces drivers’ names and times. One name that Jordan frequently calls out over the loudspeaker is Gary McGill.
McGill, 64, has been drag racing since he was old enough to drive. He started on the street but quickly realized it was not the best idea so he took to the track. While he has won numerous races, he is more proud of the fact that he has managed to bring two generations of family members into the sport.
“It beats going out, getting in trouble, losing your license, your insurance and your life,” McGill said.
McGill’s grandson is 18-year-old Mika Clark, who recently placed second in his first-ever bracket race. Clark grew up around drag racing but did not begin enjoying spending family time at the track until he got behind the wheel. Now the Chattanooga State Community College freshman can’t wait to strap into his vehicle — red scaffolding, a huge engine, swollen tires on one end and wheels slightly thicker than dinner plates on the other.
“The coolest thing ever was when my dad won the $5,000 race out here,” Clark said.
The track gives car enthusiasts of all kinds a place to legally test the performance of their machines while raising money for a good cause.
“I’d rather be doing this than selling cookies or car washes every week,” Jordan said with a chuckle before announcing on the P.A. that the concession stand was open.
Dan Henry, a native of Atlanta, Ga., graduated from the University of Georgia with a bachelor’s of fine arts and a minor in journalism in 2001. Dan worked as a photojournalist in Atlanta and North Alabama before joining the Chattanooga Times Free in 2005. While in Chattanooga. Dan has received numerous state and national awards on a multitude of platforms including still imagery, video, and multimedia projects. Contact Dan at 423-757-6693 or firstname.lastname@example.org.