By Joe Buckles
TERRE HAUTE — Drag racers from across the Wabash Valley gathered at Action City Dragway USA on Saturday to pay honor to the man who helped keep their sport alive at the local NHRA-sanctioned dragstrip.
On a day set aside for the memory of the late Dallas Montgomery, racers turned out in large numbers to make it one to remember for all in attendance.
A season-high 168 cars and an accompanying car show swelled the pit count to 214 machines.
Toss in a successful silent auction to benefit the underprivileged children of the Valley and it was easy to see why the family of the late promoter sported appreciative smiles throughout the day.
When Montgomery died unexpectedly in February, the fate of racing at the eighth-mile dragstrip was shrouded in uncertainty.
Montgomery’s nephew Marty Sabla, who had joined his uncle only a year earlier to help resurrect the fading fortunes of drag racing locally, was suddenly thrust into the role of keeping the mission intact.
Sabla acknowledged he didn’t know if he could or wanted to stay involved with racing at the dragstrip following his partner’s death. He was living in Indianapolis and his relative inexperience with operating a racing venture weighed heavily on his decision whether or not to continue is his role as race promoter.
“Initially it was like, man, I’m just not ready to be the only one to do this. Last year, I learned a lot from Dallas. I knew nothing about drag racing. Everybody knew that. With Dallas’ passing, it’s been tough. Real hectic,” confessed Sabla.
With the future of the dragstrip hanging in the balance, the local drag-racing community did what racers do best when times are tough. They rallied behind their own to give Sabla and his staff what was needed to keep the gates open.
“The outpouring and support of the racers has been amazing. It’s like family. Billy and Connie Langman have really stepped up. They’ve taken care of everything,” praised Sabla.
For the Langmans, it’s been a labor of love. Like many, they just want to see racing continue at the southside facility. They say the outlook is encouraging.
“I’ve seen the dream that Dallas and Marty had for this place. Connie and I want to see that dream kept alive,” offered the 20-year veteran of the sport.
Billy Langman says car counts have shown a gradual increase and are much improved from a year ago.
“The racers see the commitment we have here. We’re averaging 105 to 110 cars a week. A year ago, it was about 70 cars. We’re guaranteeing our purses. If the economy improves and our sponsors help us, we’ll be back next year,” added Langman.
Sabla shares Langman’s hopes and enthusiasm but cautions that operating a race track cannot survive on those elements alone. The bottom line, it’s a business.
“I think we are on the right track. Our car counts have shown steady improvement. Matt Agresta and Greg Eversole have really gone out and got us sponsors. Sponsors are so important. With the economy the way it is, they are harder to land and keep,” Sabla said.
”My biggest concern is the economy. Right now, it’s not being good to drag racing. We’ve got some guys out that haven’t run all year. They can’t afford it. I understand that. There’s things you love to do but just can’t because of the economy.”
As for the future, Sabla says car counts will decide the final fate of drag racing at the Wabash Valley Fairgrounds.
“Right now, we’ve got to see where we stand at the end of the year,” he said. “I want to keep the track. That is my plan, to make it bigger and better.
“To do that, we will have to have the car count to make it a successful business.”
Asked about the continued threat of commercial development at the Fairgrounds, Sabla thinks signs are encouraging.
“With the success they are having over at the oval [the Terre Haute Action Track] and what you see going on here tonight has to show the fair board that racing at the Fairgrounds is a viable business,” Sabla emphasized.
Everybody had their own special memories of Dallas Montgomery on Saturday. Sabla shared his.
“Dallas was a special person,” Sabla reflected. “He had a lot friends in racing. You look out there today and he still has a lot of friends. I’m just trying to make this thing work for him.”
• • •
• Cause to continue — One of Dallas Montgomery’s prize projects in life was the formation of the Racing for Kids Christmas program. Over the years, he dedicated countless hours to see that the needy children of the Wabash Valley always had a Christmas.
With his passing, that cause has now fallen into the capable hands of his sister Laura Collins and Larry Wilson out at the Wabash Valley Family Sports Center.
Both were on hand to see the cause get off to an early and successful start. The silent auction generated more than $1,100, a nice start for the fund drive that will culminate with the annual Christmas auction Nov. 8.
“With the help of Larry, my kids and I have vowed not to let the program go away with Dallas’ passing. It meant so much to him and the racing community,” said Collins.
Wilson shares Collins’ commitment to see that the annual program continues.
“Dallas came to me five years ago to see if we would help with the auction. He lived in Indianapolis, came to Vigo County to raise the money and saw that the money stayed in Vigo County,” noted Wilson.
“We’ve formed a committee to see that the auction continues. We’re not going to replace Dallas, but we can certainly make sure that he is happy with what we are doing for the area kids.”
Joe Buckles can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.