There’s a dragstrip in northwest MO — 85 miles from Kansas City and 105 from Des Moines, Iowa — that makes no bones about its M.O. A sign near the entrance of the Thunder Valley Raceway property on Highway 136 pulls no punches: “Leave your throttle stops, stutter boxes and shoe polish in the trailer. This is real heads-up drag racing for real people.”
Translated, that means there’s no bracket racing going on here. No, the track, which has been closed and reopened a handful of times in its 45-year existence, hosts only heads-up competition. No dial-ins, no breakouts, it’s run whatcha brung, and you’d be laser-sharp on the Christmas tree, or you’ll be on the trailer.
Reopened for one race in September 2016 and operating since on a limited basis, Thunder Valley’s car count and spectator attendance have grown to the point that it’ll operate basically every other weekend during the 2020 season.
“Everybody’s so used to bracket racing. It’s all about your (elapsed time): ‘My car runs 10.50, 100 miles an hour,’ “said Jeremy VanMeter, who operates the track and is the grandson of one of its founders.
“Well, that doesn’t mean a thing here. All that matters is whether you get the win light.”
Here’s how it works. Racers make time-trial runs from 4:30 until 7 p.m., and the staff then sets up the classes while the track is prepped for eliminations. The goal, VanMeter said, is “to have all cars in your class within half a second of your qualifying time.” After that, it’s up to the slower driver to make up the difference at the starting line.
“The cheaters still cheat. I can see a cheater coming from 10 miles away,” said VanMeter, whose background includes 20 years running a Walmart, oversight of a wiring harness factory, and current management of production of multiple hog farms in nearby Milan, Mo.
But without a cash purse to race for — or a minimal one, at most — there’s no real point in cheating. In 2019, the winners didn’t receive so much as a trophy. This year, with the help of some sponsors, class winners will recoup at least their $25 entry fee. Fan admission, by the way, is only 10 bucks.
The area residents have responded to the return of drag racing because … well, there’s not much else to do for entertainment in the community of about 3,300 residents.
There’s a dirt track, Bethany Speedway, west of town at the Northwest Missouri State Fairgrounds, but it’s only in operation 11 times this year from late April until mid-September. There’s BigTime Cinema on South 15th Street. And in the fall, there’s the South Harrison High football program. Last year’s squad went 11-2 and reached the fourth round of the MSHSAA 1-A playoffs with the help of wide receiver Jaren VanMeter. That’s Jeremy’s son, who, in recent weeks, signed a national letter-of-intent to play baseball for NAIA Central Methodist University.
Jaren’s also a fourth-generation drag racer, wheeling a dragster that covers the eighth-mile as quickly as 5.5 seconds, 125 mph. Jeremy VanMeter also races, driving a 296-inch, ’68 Camaro called “Lil’ Stinker” that runs the eighth at around 6.70, 102.
“Dad bought the Camaro in 2000 in pieces, and we put it together,” Jeremy said. His father, Jerry, purchased the dragster “in 2004ish” with the idea of putting daughter Haley in the cockpit, but she chose to not pursue motorsports.
Jeremy spent a meager $693 to get the dragster ready for competition, and he oversaw Jaren’s total assembly of the 355-inch powerplant.
At least Jaren and his dad have a place close to home where they can race. That hasn’t always been the case, as the facility has “closed and reopened six times,” according to drag racing historian, announcer, and TV personality Bret Kepner.
Even without property in hand, Bethany residents Dale Ruff, Jim McDaniel, and Carl VanMeter formed Midway Timing Corporation in 1963 to build and operate a track. It opened May 14, 1966.
Years later, after the passings of Ruff and McDaniel, and VanMeter’s concern about liability, the track closed. Randy Wilson ran it on an off- and on-again basis and closed it in 2008. It remained that way until Doug Dale, owner of The Speed Shop and a farmer, purchased it.
Dale, said Jeremy VanMeter, took the facility, made needed repairs, and left much of it the way he found it, including a gravel return road.
“If you grew up around a dragstrip in the ’60s or ’70s, that’s what this place is,” VanMeter said.
Dale reopened the track in late 2016 for an event called “Rumble at the Valley,” and the cars involved had to be from years 1964 and earlier. Approximately 100 cars showed up, along with throngs of fans, and that set in motion its current operating status. He has since turned the operation of the track over to Jeremy VanMeter.
One of the biggest proponents of Thunder Valley’s heads-up competition is Casey Wilson, a maintenance worker at the high school. He raced there more than a decade ago but sold his equipment in 2006 because he wasn’t interested in being a bracket racer at other tracks in the region .
“There’s a bracket track about 45 miles south in Osborn, and I’d go down and watch,” Wilson said. “You sit around and listen to people talking, but people don’t even know what they’re watching at a bracket race unless they’re there with a racer.
“I told a guy one night that they just need to take the word ‘racing’ out of the sentence when you’re talking about bracket racing. It’s the only kind of racing that I know that you can get to the finish line first without redlighting and still lose. That’s just not racing to me, and it’s never going to be.”
When Thunder Valley reopened under VanMeter, Wilson’s desire to race was rekindled after the 10-year absence. The 40-year-old bought a Nova more than a year ago and has spent the interim getting it ready to race in 2020. He’s eager to bring 4-speed, 296-inch vehicle to the line, wind the powerplant up to an ear-splitting 9,500 RPMs, and pop the clutch.
“My parents used to take me out there. I grew up in the ’80s watching that heads-up stuff, and I’m just stuck on it,” Wilson said.
“The fan base has just been over the top. … Bethany’s a small town, so we get people that come from quite a ways away. Everybody’s been excited about it.”
You won’t find a disparaging word about the track on its Facebook page. Dustin Hysell posted, “Can’t get enough of this place. The atmosphere is different (in a great way) than other races I attend. Thanks to the staff and all the racers for making it a truly ‘for the love of racing’ track.”
“I posted this year’s schedule on Facebook,” Jeremy VanMeter said, “and the last time I looked at it, it had gotten 140 shares and 12,000 reaches. That was in just four days, and I didn’t even boost it.”
The 2020 season opens May 9 and concludes Oct. 10. Casey Wilson, for one, is eager for racing to get underway.
“We had some guys here last year with 3,200-pound cars running with motors less than 300 cubic inches, running in the fives, doing three and four dry hops,” Wilson said.
“That’s what I missed, and I can’t get away from that. I can’t wait to get back on the track.”