Speeding cars get green light on Texas highway

Updated: April 25, 2009, 12:01 AM ET
Associated Press

SANDERSON, Texas -- Once a year, to the delight of speed demons from around the country, a stretch of normally deserted highway becomes a Texas version of the autobahn -- a road with no speed limit.

And better yet, the traffic cops allow it. They've been known to encourage the speeders who sometimes top 160 mph.

"It's like grown-up summer camp," said Lester Pittenger, a 55-year-old retired social worker from Somerville, N.J.

Pittenger drove his white 2001 Corvette 1,965 miles to West Texas to take part in this weekend's Big Bend Open Road Race, one of only a handful of opportunities for people with fast cars to go real fast -- legally -- on a regular highway.

"People can hardly believe it when you tell them about this," he said. "They go like: 'You've got to be kidding! Race 120 miles on a public highway?' But it's true."

He's among 160 drivers who paid upward from a minimum of $300 -- most pay much more depending on how fast they want to go -- for the privilege of maybe skidding off U.S. Highway 285. Or maybe having a muscle "pucker," as one driver put it, when being surprised on the road by a "suicide pig," buzzard or deer.

"It's just a hobby, an expensive hobby at that," said Houghton Furr, a 66-year-old retired financial examiner who brought his 2001 Chevrolet Camaro from Nebraska to run the 118-mile roundtrip from Fort Stockton to Sanderson and back. The road features 59 turns and elevation changes, like one that takes a driver roaring through a gap carved out of the top of a mesa and diving to the desert valley hundreds of feet below.

The annual event, now more than a decade old, had a waiting list this year despite only word of mouth and no advertising, said Kenda Furman, one of the race directors.

"We're kind of known as the most challenging open road race in the world," she said.

The event required a state permit to close the road for much of Saturday after officials scrutinized a safety plan and approved "a pile of paperwork with an enormous amount of insurance," Furman said.

A similar race is held in Nebraska annually, and another is set for Nevada, where drivers said organized open road racing gained traction in the U.S. in recent years. A century ago, in the very early days of motorsports, open road courses were famous in France near Le Mans.

People came to Texas this week from as far north as Calgary, Alberta. Others were from South Dakota, California and the East Coast. The influx nearly doubles Sanderson's population of about 750. The former wool shipping center bills itself as the Cactus Capital of Texas. It's just north of the Rio Grande about 240 miles west of San Antonio and was nearly wiped out in 1965 by a flash flood that killed 27 people.

The other end of the course is Fort Stockton, an Army outpost established in 1858, abandoned during the Civil War, then re-established in 1867 during the Indian Wars. About 8,500 people live there.

There are 17 speed classes in which drivers run against the clock. The "street rod" class aims to average 85 mph to 95 mph over the two 59-mile passes. Speeds go up incrementally in each of the next classes and top out with serious lead foots in the unlimited class, where speeds can top 160 mph.

Each driver gets an individual green light to start, with a minute or two separating each departure. The classes are staggered as well, with the fastest group going first, then the next fastest, and so on. The course is set up so that all classes must be done before the racers begin the return leg to Fort Stockton. That ensures the cars don't pass each other going in opposite directions on the mostly two-lane, asphalt road.

Approved racing helmets are required but regular seat belts are OK for the lowest class. The more serious classes require rollover protection, five- or six-point restraints more typical of race cars, and fire-resistant clothing.

Most cars are street legal and were driven from home, but some serious gearheads bring their cars on trailers or haulers.

Organizers say they have all kinds of safety measures, from aircraft monitoring overhead, radio-equipped volunteers along the route to make sure the road is clear and medical crews on standby. Cowboys are inside the ranch fencing near the highway to discourage wandering cattle.

Pittenger, who's both a racer and serves as an instructor for rookie drivers, said there was a fatality in the early days of the race when a driver wrecked and later died from a ruptured aorta. That resulted in rule changes requiring anyone in any sort of crash to go to an ambulance and be checked out by a doctor, Pittenger said.

Safety is such a major concern because organizers know the whole thing could get shut down if there are problems.

Still, this race comes with more than the usual mechanical hazards.

One of the fears is the occasional low-flying buzzard eyeing some roadkill. In one recent race, a car collided with a buzzard, and the impact split the frame that holds the windshield and sent what was left of the bird into the navigator's helmet.

"We saw an eight-point buck on the side of the road this morning," Mac Ashby, from Snyder, Texas, said during a practice session as he sat in his wife Barbara's red Corvette, which she drives and he navigates.

Or maybe roadrunners, the official mascot of Fort Stockton that's also quick enough to snare a rattlesnake for lunch.

"You see stuff by the side of the road and you just pray it doesn't come over," said Furr, who towed his Camaro to Texas and hopes to average 150 mph over the route.

"Every once in a while you see a suicide pig," said 58-year-old Brian Donnelly, from Colleyville, referring to javelina packs that frequent the desert.

Pittenger, whose target average is 145 mph, remembers seeing a herd of the wild pigs "pass in front of me, some of them 300 pounds."

"You hit them, and you're done," he said. "They're just doing what they're doing. You just lift and brake as fast as you can. Don't go crazy or you'll end up off the road."

All of these distractions come up quickly while barreling through places like Six Shooter Draw and Big Canyon.

"You don't look out the side windows when you're going that fast," Donnelly said as he readied his 2006 Corvette for his fifth visit. "Your brain can't process. I'm looking at my markers and average speed and my navigator is doing the rest. She's got the hardest drive, telling me what's coming up on the road, a turn or curve."

"I enjoy it," said Brenda, his wife and navigator. "I'm not sure I'd care to drive."

There is no prize money.

But the top three finishers in each class get a trophy.

And proceeds go to local causes like scholarships for kids and equipment for public safety agencies.

Plus, the racers get the unusual satisfaction of roaring down the freeway with sheriff's deputies cheering them on.

"It's a hoot," Pittenger said.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index