First comes the sounds of motors revving and tires shrieking. Then the smell of rubber on pavement on a hot August day. A hint of dirt mixes with the heavy air. The sun blazes over Riverhead Raceway, without a cloud to dull its glare.
Brendon Bock has been here since just before 1 p.m., and it will be nearly 12 hours before he heads home to Franklin Square. "We're usually one of the last to leave," says Bock, 17. He has just finished a second practice run in his Legend race car, a throwback to autos of the 1930s and '40s. Legends were designed for a class of affordable racing and are a good intermediate step for younger drivers between go-karts and other divisions.
The soon-to-be senior at Chaminade High School and defending Legends champion has settled into a folding chair in an air-conditioned trailer.
"It's social, you get to know the other drivers," he says, as friends and family come and go, chatting, teasing. From May through Septembr, he spends Saturdays here.
Same goes for Amanda Lee Anderson and her father, Mike Mujsce, 55, from East Quogue, a few stalls over. "I look forward to it all week," says Anderson, 20, one of the few women who compete at Riverhead. "On a rainy Saturday, we don't know what to do."
As 6 p.m. approaches, families, couples and groups of friends arrive to fill empty stands. They claim picnic tables and set up chairs while kids play and climb through the underbelly of the bleachers. French fries begin to flow from concession windows.
Kirsten Skarka has staked out her usual spot under the scoreboard to watch her boyfriend, Mike Van Houten, in the last-chance heat to qualify for the evening's feature event.
"It brings back childhood memories just listening to it," says Skarka, 39, who grew up in Riverhead and used to hear the cars from her home a few miles away. Now, she sits at the edge of her seat, grips the armrest and puts her palms to her forehead as Van Houten's car gets in a tangle.
Several yards away, Kyler Driscoll is hard at work with his brother, Caelym, 10, and his other "helpers," all in brightly colored T-shirts that read, "The Cardboard Kids." Drivers order scaled-down cardboard replicas of their cars from Kyler, 13, of Baiting Hollow, who uses the funds to maintain his own go-kart. When those drivers are racing, Kyler and the other kids slip the creations over their heads and march around the track.
Setting their sights on Vegas
Finally, it's time for the Legends. Tonight's winner secures a starting spot at nationals in Las Vegas this October. Bock, in No. 38, gets into his starting spot. And they're off, with the drone getting louder and louder, as though someone has flipped the switch on a beehive. Soon, Bock has pulled up to the head of the pack. The scoreboard shows him keeping a steady lead as the sun sinks behind it with an orange glow.
"Viva Las Vegas!" booms the announcer's voice when Bock wins.
Back in the pits, Anderson and Mujsce pick apart her race. Mujsce will soon compete in the Figure 8 race, tracing the shape with its dangerous intersection in the middle. At the inspection station, officials check Bock's car -- along with those of the second- and third-place finishers -- to ensure they've played by the rules.
After the Figure 8s have been raced, and the demolition derby has raised its share of smoke, spectators desert the bleachers and stream toward the weekly "party in the pits."
Folding tables appear, grills are fired up and paper plates are loaded with post-race fare. Frank Oldring and Ashley Langdon, both 8, from East Moriches, take turns getting Bock's autograph and ducking into his car -- which is topped with lollipops and light-up toys.
It's pitch black and past bedtime by now, but Frank and Ashley are wide awake, still giddy from a visit to the races. Frank clutches his autographed card and exclaims, "It was so cool!"
WHEN | WHERE 6 p.m. Saturdays through Sept. 13, 5 p.m. Aug. 31, 4:30 p.m. Sept. 20 and 27, 1797 Old Country Rd.
INFO $25-$30 adults, $5 ages 6-12, free 5 and younger; 631-842-7223, riverheadraceway.com