Jeff Gates, a tool and die maker from Republic, was hoping to introduce his 1965 Ford Ranchero to the world during Thursday Night Thunder on this fine evening at Dragway 42 in the Wayne County village of West Salem. The car, however, had other ideas.
“I’m having charging issues — it’s just not getting enough volts to run the ignition,” he says, standing inside a trailer with his brother Tom. “I’ll just take it home and pull the system apart and see what’s going on.”
When asked if he couldn’t just drop it off at a local garage and have them repair it, the veteran racer laughs.
“No, this is the fun part,” he says. “At least most of the time, so long as you get to run them every now and then. I just enjoy building this stuff.”
Dragway 42 has been home to thunderous speeds — hosting everything from street legals to top fuels and funny cars — since 1957. But a lot has changed there since Ron and Mary Anne Matcham purchased the track in 2013 and started on an almost complete metamorphosis. “I demolished the whole racetrack,” Ron Matcham says while roaming the facility on an ATV, intermittently talking to staff and chitchatting with racers and fans. “I turned it around 180 degrees and we built all the mounds. I designed it after Blossom Music Center. We have stands for about 3,000 but room on the grounds for about 15,000 more.”
Matcham’s connection to the drag strip is his own past. “I used to do some drag racing in Elyria,” he says. “I had some Cobra Jet Mustangs and I raced NHRA and really, I just have a love for drag racing. But I choose not to race now. I have very good cars, but all my money goes into the racetrack.”
In addition to the repositioned track, Dragway 42 now boasts a massive new announcer’s booth overlooking the track, new timing boards, and 23 clusters of high-intensity lighting. The latest addition is a new tractor-pulling track, which has also been used as a venue for monster trucks — events that attract thousands of spectators.
Some of the recently completed improvements came with help from a handful of Holmes-Wayne Electric Cooperative linemen. Zach Condren was one of those who donated time and expertise to elevate Dragway 42.
“I grew up in West Salem, and I still live there, so it’s always kind of been in my backyard,” Condren says. “It’s a totally different track than what it was when I was growing up as a kid. It’s a top-notch facility now, I’d say one of the best in the state.”
Condren and co-workers spent many a night and weekend hour at the track — they installed underground primary power off a street pole and lent helping hands with the most intensely watched point at any drag strip: the timing board, a quarter-mile from the starting line.
“I guess they like the park, and they’re a community-oriented company — and so are their people,” Matcham says. “Plus, I think they just like working with me.”
According to West Salem Mayor Dale Klinect, the track is a town staple.
“Without the sound of the track during the summer months, it would be weird,” Klinect says. “My father actually ran the track way back when, and I grew up out there, so racing’s sort of in my blood. I’m 100% for it. And since it’s been there since the 1950s, it’s just part of West Salem.”
Racing takes place most weekends throughout spring, summer, and fall at Dragway 42, 9161 Rainbow Hwy., West Salem, OH 44287. Call 419-853-4242 or visit www.dragway42.com for details.