In the pits, 73-year-old Nancy Roland, poker visor down and a Marlboro Light dangling from her lips, pushes an ice scraper across the hood of the race car, sweeping off chunks of orange clay. Thirteen-year-old Will Roland steps out from behind the trailer, zipping up his black-and-red fire suit. He slips on his helmet and climbs behind the wheel of the number 22 Roland Tire Crate Late Model. The engine roars to life—400 horsepower rattling 2,300 pounds of car and 95 pounds of driver. Mark Roland, Will’s father and crew chief, leans in to shout a few words of advice before sending his son onto the oval alongside men twice and even three times his age. Will raced quarter midgets—essentially souped up go-karts—from age five, but this is his first full year in late model, on the dirt where speeds approach 100 miles per hour. As the cars rev their engines for the qualifier, the PA booms: Wheel to wheel. Hub to hub. Doorpost to doorpost. Here we go! Will pulls away early, but he falters on the penultimate lap, coming in loose and high to turn two, leaving an opening for the surging number 87 to attempt a pass. The two cars come within inches of contact as they accelerate into the straightaway. Will holds him off, barely. Pacing at the fence, Nancy pulls a fresh cigarette from her red fanny pack. She remembers the wreck at Rome that retired her son, Will’s father. That nightmare recedes as her grandson takes the checkered flag. “He won! He won!” Back in the pits, Will removes his helmet and climbs out of the car, stepping over the glittering decal for Roland Tire, the family business back in Jasper that is his birthright should his NASCAR dreams fail to materialize. He needs to tell his dad that the track is getting slick and that they might want to attach the spoiler to the car before the next race. But not before getting a congratulatory kiss from his biggest fan.
This article originally appeared in Atlanta magazine.