Soon after Colleen and Pete Reis moved to Phoenixville, they had a son. Not long after that, Colleen’s dad discovered the quarter midget racetrack a half-mile from his daughter’s house.
His own modified stock-car career behind him, Tom Kelleher was soon a regular at the track, and he introduced his 8-year-old grandson, Adam, to racing. “He fell in love straight away,” says his father. “Then it’s like, ‘OK, how much will this make my wallet hurt?’”
To a certain breed of racer, Phoenixville is known as “Pville.” Every year, local families join those from Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, Florida and other states at the largest quarter midget racing club in the country. With over 330 members, the Montgomery County Quarter Midget Race Club has more than 100 drivers ages 5-16. Under normal circumstances, races happen Wednesday nights May-September, continuing with special events into the fall.
Sanctioned by the United States Auto Club, the sport features miniature cars with single-cylinder engines not much bigger than lawn mowers circling a banked dirt track that’s just a 20th of a mile. The cars are scaled-down versions of an actual midget racer, and they can hit speeds of up to 45 miles per hour. Parents and supporters are “handlers” for the true members—the drivers.
Pete Reis admits that being a handler takes some work. “But it’s manageable, and it helps us grow as a family—not just on race day but all week, cleaning and fixing the cars,” he says. “I’m in the auto mechanic field, so Adam is learning how to do the same on small motors.”
With coronavirus still looming, Reis is one of seven board members still hoping for a short season. The track also has a national race slated for June. But the club has something else to worry about: a proposed access road to a nearby 55-plus community that would come within feet of the facility. “It will probably cause our track to close,” says Corey Bailey, the club’s president. “The safety of our drivers, their brothers and sisters, and everyone at the track could be at risk with a road that close to the track.”
Related Article: Why Kids Are Abandoning Organized Sports
Club officials aren’t even sure the track could be insured—and without insurance, “we wouldn’t be able to race,” says Bailey. “Hopefully, the solution can be found without going through the track property, disrupting residents of (neighboring) Fillmore Village and also risking the safety of students at Renaissance Academy. If we have to move or are shut down, we currently have nowhere to go.”
The club has dealt with similar issues in the past, stirring intermittent debate over whether such a track is a detriment or a benefit to the community. It’s one of about 70 tracks around the country—essentially Little Leagues for auto sports. The oldest continuously running dirt quarter midget track east of the Mississippi is the Hulman Mini Speedway, operated by the Terre Haute (Ind.) Quarter Midget Association since 1958. Out West, they pioneered the manufacturing of quarter midget cars, which are collectibles today. California’s Capitol Quarter Midget Association nurtured NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon. Regionally, there are seven tracks within a 50-mile radius of Phoenixville.
Begun in 1955, the Montgomery County club originated in Collegeville before bouncing between various sites. One, a junkyard, was abandoned when the cars kept picking up broken glass. The original Phoenixville track was located just behind deSanno Field, home to the town’s Babe Ruth League. For years, Wednesday evenings were particularly popular at the venue because fans could watch both baseball and racing. After developers broke ground on a senior housing development on the property, the club moved to its current home outside Phoenixville in 2004.
These days, some drivers are third-generation racers. Club secretary Michele Pinder has been involved for nearly 30 years. Her uncle and cousin raced, and she has a daughter who started at 9. Her other daughter, Cassi, began racing at age 5, traveling as far as Knoxville, Tenn., to compete.
Reis equates the excitement of race day to an emotional rollercoaster. “Your heart is in it because your kid’s racing, but it’s not just your kid,” he says. “If someone gets a flat tire, 50 people go help get that car back on the track. That’s what it’s about.”
And the trophies are nice, but so is seeing his son smile. “He wants to show everyone his race cars,” says Reis. “He can’t get enough of that.”