Start your engines

Two cars race Saturday night at the International Presidio Dragstrip in Presidio. Over 300 people attended the return of drag racing in the Far West Texas border community. (Sarah M. Vasquez for The Big Bend Sentinel)

PRESIDIO – Presidio High School coach Robert Romero has loved the sound of loud cars and the smell of burnt rubber ever since his father introduced him to drag racing. It’s what motivated him to take the reigns of the International Presidio Dragstrip, which re-opened Saturday night after closing nearly a decade ago. He along with Alex Automotive owner Alejandro Jimenez and other residents volunteered their time and weekends building the two-lane race track on FM 170 northwest of town.

“We all have toys and these cars that you see here, that’s our hobby,” said Romero. “Some people like to golf. Some people like to hunt. We like to race.”

The new track is 310 feet long, an improvement from the previous track of 60 feet. The track also boasts lights and a new casita to house the electronic equipment that monitors the drivers’ race times. There were technical difficulties with the track’s system, so Autodromo Ojinaga loaned their system along with a column of lights, known as a Christmas tree, that signals the start of the race.

Presidio Municipal Development District (PMDD) awarded a grant of $15,000 to help rebuild the track with some Odessa businesses pitching in. Neighboring Big Bend Concrete donated concrete that was later paved by volunteers.

“We gave a lot of manpower with just four people at one time, and it’s only on the weekends because we have full-time jobs,” said Romero.

Racers draw numbers from Alejandro Jimenez to see who they will compete against during the race. Jimenez and Robert Romero, left, spearheaded the efforts to bring drag racing back to the City of Presidio. (Sarah M. Vasquez for The Big Bend Sentinel)

Twenty-four drivers traveled from Texas and Mexico for the return of drag racing in Presidio. It was a bracket race, meaning drivers compete against each other until there’s a winner. The event begins with a time trial, determining each racer’s time. Johnny Sanchez, a racer from Marfa, said the idea is to be as consistent as possible.

“When you’re racing for your time, you’re racing against the clock,” said Sanchez.

He compares the time to a handicap in golf. Once the driver’s time is determined, it’s written on the car window. To keep the race fair, the drivers draw numbers to see who races against who, but time continues to play a factor in determining a winner. If a car with a time of 7.5 seconds runs against a car with a time of 7.0 seconds, the first car would leave the starting line before the second one. However, the racer must stay within their time to stay in the race. If they stray too far, they are disqualified.

The overall winner receives 75 percent of the total of entry fees collected––each driver paid $40 entry fees. Second place takes home 25 percent. Drivers can re-enter the race with a buyback during the first round. While each individual race last mere seconds, the overall event can be long, sometimes lasting until the wee hours of the morning. Sanchez has been at races until 5 a.m., but Saturday’s race ended at 1 a.m.

It’s been seven years since Marfa resident Miguel “Mickey” Gonzales sat behind the wheel ready to race, so he was nervous when he arrived to Presidio. After his first time trial, the adrenaline all came back to him. Gonzales, 60, has been racing since high school taking home money and trophies along the way. His mother, Genevieve Bassham, has never particularly enjoyed his pastime saying, “I don’t really like it.” Yet, she understands that he likes to fix cars and that racing is his hobby. She also said that Mickey waits to tell her he participates in a race until he returns––even though he’s an adult.

“This morning, I loaded up my car real quick and left before she came out.” he said, followed by a laugh.

Marfa driver Johnny Sanchez checks the engine of fellow racer, Miguel “Mickey” Gonzales’ car after Gonzales had some issues during the race. (Sarah M. Vasquez for The Big Bend Sentinel)

He was out of the race after his 1976 Chevrolet Nova stopped shifting, later realizing he needed to fix his transmission, but his friend, Sanchez, had a bit more luck. Driving his 1976 Pontiac Ventura––named Lil Sunshine after his wife––he came in third place. He bought the car body in a junkyard ten years ago in Presidio for $100 and built it from the ground up.

“I’ve always been interested in street racing,” said Sanchez. “After I retired, I had to do something, so I started building this car.”

Far West Texas has AutoZone and O’Reilly auto parts stores, but sometimes the drivers have to order parts online. Sanchez takes advantage of his wife’s frequent business trips to Dallas to get what he needs for his car in Arlington. He races nearly full-time and has traveled to Hobbs, El Paso, Roswell and Abilene to compete.

“It’s an expensive hobby but very rewarding for me,” said Sanchez.

Osvaldo Acosta Jr, a driver from Presidio, owns three race cars all requiring some work.

“First comes the job because of course, you need your job to maintain the race car,” said Acosta.

He decided to drive his street-legal car, a Pontiac Solstice, for Saturday’s race because it was ready to go when the announcement came two weeks ago. He didn’t have time to get one of his other cars ready, saying that he needs at least three weeks to prepare in case he needs to order a part. He decided to participate in the race to have fun though. Acosta and his father wore matching denim button down shirts, Osvaldo Sr. has a racing background of his own––growing up he raced horses eventually moving into drag racing.

He fondly remembers his own days on the track. “We’ve missed it, because we don’t have a whole lot of things to have fun in Presidio, so we were ready for this track to be open,” said Osvaldo Sr.

Two cars prepare to race. Twenty-four drivers traveled from Texas and Mexico to race in Presidio. (Sarah M. Vasquez for The Big Bend Sentinel)

Similar sentiments were heard throughout the night. People lined the track with their cars and trucks, many watching from tailgates. The smell of burgers mixed with the smell of burnt rubber signaling that the track had opened again, and the community was enjoying a night at the races. Jimenez was surprised by the turn out. Based on the amount collected from the $10 entrance fee, at least 300 people attended that night.

Adalberto Jaques from Ojinaga took the top prize of $750 and Abram Contreras from Presidio came in second and won $250. Jimenez and Romero plan to host another race in September during Labor Day weekend with a little more notice.