10 Questions: Sue Clements: Southside Speedway's co-owner/promoter
by Kent Jennings Brockwell
September 4, 2006
Your family has owned Southside Speedway for a long time. How long has it been?
Daddy [J. M. Wilkinson] bought the land in 1957 and 1959 was the first year he ran as Southside Speedway. Emanuel Zervakis was the first track champion. And we have been racing here every Friday night since then from April to September.
How is the short track racing experience different from what many people, who might normally only watch NASCAR, be used to?
At the short track, I like to think that it is more of a family event. A lot of our drivers are from this and surrounding areas and their families and friends and kin people can come to watch them race. Of course we do have drivers that come from out of state, with one division in particular, the Legends division. They come from New Jerseys on down to Texas and the Carolinas as well.
While NASCAR fans might be used to the Busch and Nextel divisions, what kinds of racing divisions do you have at Southside Speedway?
We have the Late Model Sportsman division, which is one of our main featured divisions out here. We also have our Modified division, which is a featured division also. We also have the Grand Stock division, which is a car that cost less money to build and maintain and we have a larger division there. We have the U-Car division, which is a little division that for the car driver and the owner is much less expensive and is a good way to start in racing to see if you really want to drive. Then we have the Street Stock division, which basically means you bring what you have. Of course we have safety rules and regulations that go along with that division but during the time they race here I believe we had 30 or 35 cars in it. I heard that years ago they used to draw as many as 100. I hear they would literally touch each other going around the track. We also have the Pro Six division, which they say is also quite an affordable division to start in.
On a typical night, what kind of racing do you feature?
This last week, we had the Late Models here, we had the Grand Stocks here, and we had the Legends here and the Pro Six. This coming Friday, we had the Modified, the U-Car and the Street Stock. We alternate them so that I can make a better purse for them and it gives them a week off. If you had damage to your car last Friday night, then you don't have to get it ready for this Friday. Everyone seems to enjoy having the alternating schedule.
What is a typical experience at Southside for the fans?
It is friendly and it is family. It is just like home and I don't know how else to describe it. My husband had a lady come in the other Friday night when I was out on the track and she said 'Tell Sue I said thank you for the clean bathrooms.' The spectators feel free to come to the door and say 'I feel this is wrong' or 'Thank you for doing this.' Your opinion is listened to here and you are heard and it's just like that with the drivers too. Most of the fans know the drivers. Most of the spectators are friends of family or they have been coming here long enough that they know them. On Friday night after the races are over, the fans, if they choose to, the gates are opened and the spectators can go to see the drivers and the children can go and touch the cars and meet the drivers. I just like to think of it as a friendly place where the children come and have fun, the parents feel that the children are safe and people just have a good time.
What is the big lure of a local short track like Southside?
Well, I think that the sport is one where you just get it in your blood. I can't tell you how many years ago, and I grew up here, I knew a driver in the 1960s and his grandson is driving now and his son is driving now. And that could be anybody. We have got lots of drivers that are like this. It is a circle. The dedicated people at this track are the people that have come along through the line. Everybody has been associated through somebody. One of our champions out here was Ray Hendricks and I think he started racing back in the '50s but he raced all through the '60s and the '70s. Now here comes Roy Hendricks and he took up racing here in the '70s and now we have his son Brandon and he is out here racing every Friday night. It is lots of them that are like that. They grew up in it and it just stays with them.
Southside Speedway has bred a few big time racecar drivers, most timely Denny Hamlin, but could you tell me about another big-time Southside driver, Bobby Allison?
Bobby Allison stared here in 1961 and after the race was over, he would go home with my mother and father and spend the night and then he would get up and go to his next track the next day. With his truck, he would tow his racecar from Alabama and then when he got to Chesterfield County, he would go to my mother and father's house and would clean up, eat and go to the racetrack for the race.
Besides Allison and Hamlin, who are some other big champions that have graced this track?
I think it has been six or seven months now since Sonny Hutchins has passed away but he was one of the very top drivers. He by himself could have filled up the stands just from the following that he had. People loved to come and see him. Tommy Ellis was like a rival with Sonny Hutchins. Sonny was more like the clean-cut driver and Tommy had a little spunk in him and they put on quite a show out here. We used to have some really large crowds when they were out here racing. Then we had Runt Harris, who was another legendary one that raced here. Jimmy Hensley was here. Eddie Johnson was here. Cal Johnson, his father, was also here. The list just goes on and on. Many champions have been through this track and many have gone on to NASCAR.
Denny Hamlin has to be the biggest name at this time to come from this track. What kind of effect has Hamlin's recent NASCAR fame had on other young drivers at Southside?
Now, I was not here when Denny Hamlin was here, but I haven't heard that from any of the current drivers or the new ones coming along. Unfortunately, I have not met Denny Hamlin out here but I have met his mother and father. However, there are a lot of our drivers that are still here that raced with Denny Hamlin.
Do you have a favorite racecar driver at Southside?
I try not to have favorites because, I guess, with my father, everyone was the same and I always, even as a child, never saw any difference in any one particular driver and I never really found myself rooting for any one. Daddy would always have driver meetings at his house and we had so many drivers that have achieved so much here it would really be hard to identify just one.
Why is local short track racing important?
I think it all starts from the small children. For the ones that have the desire to race, they have their local go-cart tracks to start but with a local speedway, that is their next start. This is a track but a testing-tuning place. It's a place to see how well they can do. I think the short track is important. It gives them the place to get their start. The one time I met Denny Hamlin's father, he said that when he used to ride up and down Genito Road, he used to look over here at the speedway and say 'I hope that place is still open when Denny is old enough to get there.' That is what he told me. Apparently, Denny had that desire when he was a young child and it worked. The gates were still open and he did get to come here and race and just look at him now.
Do you have a favorite racing movie?
We are kind of advertising the 'Talladega Nights' but I have not gotten to see it yet. I hope it will still be showing when Sept. 29 [end of the season] comes so I can see it. There was a movie named ['Cars'] but I didn't get to see it either. I don't really have free time to see movies, to be honest.
Do you have any NASCAR drivers that you are a fan of?
No. I look at all of them. Of course, a lot of the staff here and a lot of the officials here talk about their man but, no, I can't say that I have a favorite. I enjoy watching all of them. I watch NASCAR more than just watching the drivers though. I watched the May race at [Richmond International Raceway] and loved watching it. I loved watching it and seeing the interviews with the drivers. I loved that and I try to take that and get that going out here. I watch the things on TV and try to get an idea. I listen to what the announcers say. Kenny Wallace was one that I heard say during the rain delay 'I hope you are out at your local short track tonight. Don't worry. It's raining and you aren't missing anything but you support your local track.' I though that was encouraging and I enjoyed hearing that...And, of course, I am looking at the pace trucks and the fences and I am looking at other things other than who is in the lead. I am looking at the grandstands and other things.
Ever taken a couple of laps around your track?
Oh yeah! Oh yeah! (laughs.) And just once was enough.
How many times did you go around?
Oh, Lord! Way too many times for me. I was scared to death. I was petrified. I like to think that a million more grey hairs came out on my head because I shook for hours. For two hours, I literally shook. I was a nervous wreck. The driver [Sean Cook] scared me to death. He called me later that night and apologized...I told him not to apologize because I said 'I tell you what. You gave me a special memory. You gave me something I will never forget.' It was an experience and I will never forget it.
When your father owned the track, did he ever take a few laps?
Well, in February, my father and mama would always take a trip down to Miami to vacation because that was the only time he could have little vacation. Before he got to Miami, he would always stop in Daytona and would always get his schedule straight and planned for the upcoming season. There was one particular year, and it would have been back in the early to middle 1960s, there was a driver, and I can't remember who he told me the driver was but I tend to want to think it was Bobby Allison. But that driver was on the track and he told my father to 'come on and take a drive around the track.' He got in the car and he went around Daytona and it scared him. He used to always say that it took his breath straight away and I know now what he is talking about.
Being a little girl growing up around all of this racing and having the sport in your blood, like it or not, did you ever want to be a racecar driver?
No. I drove a little mini-stock out here one time...but I never had that desire.
Do you consider yourself a race fan?
Oh yes. I am a race fan out here with these guys...There is never, never a lap of any race that, if indeed I get to watch it, I will watch that first one but I tell you my head does not turn until that last one comes around. I watch them all. I am not just going to watch one and two and I never have done that. And I know I do that because I catch myself doing that. I am not just watching and praying and thinking about the first one, I am watching and praying and looking at all of 'em. Every one of them is important to me. Every one of them.
Some racers as well as Southside regulars say that this track can be pretty rowdy at times. How rowdy does it get?
I am not out there that much. Now I know that I have been in the office and have stepped out of the office...and locked the door because I have heard all of the fans hootin' and hollerin'. It has literally drawn me out there. I had to see what was going on out there. Well, the fans were so excited with what was going on out there on the track, I heard them in here.
Now, this track is flanked by a lot of really nice, fancy neighborhoods, like Brandermill and Nut Tree. Do you get many complaints about the noise?
Not really. We mark it down on the calendar each night and we try to be done by 10:30. We certainly try to be done by 11. Now, granted, there have been times that we are later and sometimes we are much, much later. We don't want that to happen. We have a lot of people that come here that work shift work. I have stood out by the door to ask why people are leaving. 'I have got to go to work.' 'The children are sleepy.' We want the shows to start on time and then be done because the children do need to go on home and be in bed. There are people that have to go to work at 12 o'clock. But the most important thing is that we try to accommodate the neighborhoods where the sound carries to. Of course, we don't want to be annoying to them, but I will tell you the honest truth, this year I have not heard the first complaint. If there is a problem, the police will tell me, but I haven't heard any of that this year.
Sue Clements and sister Patsy Stargardt took ownership of Southside Speedway in Chesterfield County from their father J. M. Wilkinson in 2004. The 1/3-mile asphalt racetrack premieres local racecar drivers in several different races most Friday nights from April until September. Southside Speedway has been in Clements' family for almost 60 years.