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LEGENDS | Culture & Arts from the Cradle of American Music

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Twin Engines, One Track

 

Whynot’s Spencer and Ellie Hughes

 

Photography by MARIANNE TODD

 

In the driver’s seat, the whole world rumbles. A stampede of engines roar around turns and rattle the earth; torque-churning dirt and deafening horsepower. Two dozen heavy-metal beasts charge full-bore, battling for position lap after lap, onward to the checkered. The dirt-track drivers are locked in, surrounded in anonymity by helmets and safety gear and roll cages and, when the race features the 2,000-pound super late models, a combined 20,000 horsepower. Among these drivers, jockeys pushing their steeds forward, mortals amidst the machines, are fearless 17-year-old twins, Spencer and Ellie Hughes. They’ve been racing since they were six and eight years old – and they're having the time of their lives. 

 

“Their dad, Johnny, raced when we met,” said Jennifer Hughes, the twins’ mother. “I was pregnant with them, still going to the track. They were practically born at a dirt track.”

 

When they were small, Spencer and Ellie raced battery-fueled power wheels. When Spencer was six, Johnny took him to watch go-karts race. The next weekend, Johnny bought a used go-kart. A week after that, Spencer was behind the wheel. He had never been on the track before, but within three laps, he had found his line. “Having a line in racing is like knowing the best path to take on a track,” Jennifer says. “Knowing the fastest path. And the owner of the track was there. And he just looked at us. And he was like, ‘Are you sure this kid hasn’t been in one before?’”

 

It has been a steep learning curve for Spencer and Ellie since graduating to stock cars. Both have emerged victorious on the track, including Spencer’s 2016 NeSmith Street Stock National Championship as a 15-year-old. It’s irresistible to ask them the questions: “What’s it like racing against and beating grown men?” Or for Ellie, “How does it feel to be a female driver finding a line in a male-dominated sport?” But then again, when the engines rev and the race is on, their age doesn’t show. 

 

“It doesn’t really matter whether you’re racing against Dale Earnhardt or someone else,” Spencer says. “They’re just another race car driver. You just try to do the best you can to beat them.” 

“I show up and race like everybody else,” adds Ellie. 

 

The Hughes’ home track is Whynot Motorsports Park in Meridian, Mississippi. Rodney Wing, a race car driver with a pitch-perfect race car driver’s name, owns the Park and works tirelessly to promote and showcase the sport there. In 2005, he purchased the historic speedway, overgrown with brush and nearly forgotten, and rescued it from inconsequence. The ⅜ mile, 80-foot wide banked clay track is just the right right size for speed and excitement. “It really puts on a good race,” Wing told a reporter from the Clarke County Hot Topics as he slowly drove the loop one race day. “It’s got enough of the goody for the guys who like to really go fast, and then it’s … small enough to have enough action to scratch that itch as well.”

 

Jennifer Hughes likes to joke that this whole thing is Rodney Wing’s fault. When Spencer was 13, Wing phoned Johnny Hughes one evening. “I’ve got this factory stock sitting over here and I’ve heard Spencer is pretty good at that go-karting thing,” Jennifer recalls Wing saying. “If he wants to come over and help work on it he can drive it. He can give it a shot.” That’s what started it. 

Race fans will know the difference between a NeSmith Street Stock car, an Open Wheel Modified, and a Super Late Model. They have different parts, different rules, and their own character. But all you really need to know is that between Spencer, Ellie, and their father Johnny, the Hughes racers might drive a dozen different cars in a given year, tearing up the track on any given weekend. 

The family owns Spencer’s #11 HughesYourDaddy NeSmith Street Stock car and Ellie’s 602 Sportsman NeSmith Crate Late Model, both of which are sponsored by BJ’s Tire and Service Center. The Open Wheel Modified Spencer drives is owned by Gregg Hollingsworth with 100 Service Center. Spencer also drives the #10 Henderson Motorsports Super Late Model, sponsored by L&D Trucking (the Super Late Models are the cars with upwards of 800 horsepower, or the equivalent of two Corvette engines). 

 

Anyone with a few years under their belt knows that teenage memories never fade, and Spencer and Ellie plan to etch every race into their minds. But there are a few races that will always stand out. 

 

“There was a heat race I was pretty fond of,” begins Ellie. She was racing against a field that included the son of the tech man (the tech man is the official tasked with making sure all equipment and racers adhere to the rules). The tech man’s son “doesn’t like getting outrun,” says Ellie. “And I passed him right there on the last lap on the outside … That’s probably my favorite one.”

 

Spencer recalls the 3rd Annual Fall 40 Street Stock Championship at Magnolia Motor Speedway in Columbus in September 2017. He bested a field of talented drivers, including his former boss. “I worked for Mike Bolden for about two years,” says Spencer. “He’s considered one of the best from the state - he’s won about 800 races, they say.” Spencer started ninth and quickly made a move up to third, behind Bolden and another racing mentor, Justin McRee. “Justin and Mike swapped the lead a time or two,” continues Spencer. “I ended up getting by them around lap ten or so and led until right there before the checkered.”

 

Nearing the end of the 40-lap race, McRee passed Spencer in lap traffic. Spencer pushed. He recalled one of his favorite dirt track adages: to be the best, you have to beat the best. With three laps to go, Spencer took the lead and the $5,000 purse. McRee and Bolden - running second and third - joined Spencer on the podium. “To outrun two of them,” Spencer says, “was definitely one of my proudest moments.” 

 

Dirt track racing is community commitment. Wing has mustered every entrepreneurial muscle to turn the track into a success story. There are bills to pay like every business, and prize money for the winners, but no one does it if they don’t love being part of the racing family. “It’s the same atmosphere as like a high school football game,” says Wing. “It’s really family friendly. We have church groups that come out here. We have all types of fan interactions with the kids.”

 

Spencer and Ellie are part of a racing lineage, but they also see their fans, fellow drivers, and crew members as extended kin. Racing has matured them; it’s easy to forget they’re only 17. The track, and the people there, have helped raise them. Life lessons include: Find your line. Use your head. Don’t get crazy. Keep your nose clean. They don’t pay nothing for the first 20 laps. It’s not worth it to tear half the car off going from fifth to fourth if you’re running three nights straight. Be patient. Give and take. Get along with people. Work hard. 

 

Jennifer and Johnny are proud of the people Spencer and Ellie have become. When the kids were little, they chose racing over tee-ball, and the family has been all-in ever since. Johnny shares everything he knows. Jennifer documents races from the stands and hashtags them with #familythatracestogetherstaystogether. In a race, the object is to leave folks behind. Turns out, in dirt track racing, everybody sticks together. 

 

Want to go?

Located at 4680 Old Highway 19 SE, Meridian, visit whynotmotorsportspark.com for lists of races and events. 

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