Aleia Geisler straps in for what will be her last quarter-midget race.
Lowering a freshly polished helmet over her head, she sinks into the seat of her throbbing fiberglass car. Her parents double-check her brakes before pushing her out onto the dirt track.
For the last five years, this ritual has become a routine for the Lehigh County family. But the day's prerace run-through was a momentous one.
"This is the last year," Geisler said. "This is my last ride."
Not only will the 15-year-old driver be too old to compete, her 140 fellow young racers in the Montgomery County Quarter Midget Racing Club might not have a track to go back to next year.
After more than 55 years of putting 5- to 15-year-olds behind the wheel, one of the largest and oldest clubs of its kind stands in danger of losing its charter.
Since 2003, the group has raced on a one-twentieth-of-a-mile oval on property it rents in Phoenixville. It is now losing rights to the track - ringed by concrete barriers and a set of bleachers its members constructed - to foreclosure.
If it can't find a new home by the next racing season in April, no track will mean no club, said Steve Senn, a Montgomery County landscaper and father of a 12-year-old racer.
"It's going to be devastating," he said. "The club's an institution. To find something else for these kids to do will be next to impossible."
Every Wednesday night from April into the fall, dozens of families from as far away as State College, Pa., flock to the four-acre tract, carved out of woods behind the Moose Lodge on Township Line Road.
They go to the Phoenix Speedway, hauling trailers for their cars and equipment. Young racers in jumpsuits - some no taller than their cars are long - mill around in twilight, revving their engines and waiting for their time behind the wheel.
The tradition predates World War II, when quarter-midget racing developed as a competitive sport along the East Coast. Some say the cars, featuring one-cylinder engines and roll cages to protect the drivers, are named for their size - nearly a quarter as long as the open-wheel racers they are modeled after. Others say the name comes from their speed.
With a maximum velocity of about 35 m.p.h., the cars go only a quarter as fast as their speedier counterparts.
No matter where the quarter midget got its name, Luke Harrar, 29, of Pipersville, knew before his son, Wyatt, was born that he wanted him in one. A former stock-car racer, Harrar gave up his sport when his girlfriend told him she was pregnant. Now 5 years old, Wyatt - a shy boy carrying a bright-orange helmet - is just putting his first series of wins behind him.
"He's pulled a good number of wins," his father said at a race while Wyatt busied himself with his car. "Three wins on three tracks."
Many racers, like Harrar, have stories of their sport's passing down through generations.
Geisler's father raced before introducing her to quarter midgets when she was 11.
"I had actually never seen a race before my first one, but I won," Geisler said. "It's made us a lot closer. We're together nearly every weekend."
Others, such as Nicole Bower, a 20-year-old business-management student at Delaware State University, hope to build off their quarter-midget careers. She has moved on to more professional forms of racing, as have many of the Montgomery County club's other graduates.
This year, Bower became the first woman to win a sprint-car race at the Williams Grove racetrack near Harrisburg, which she hopes will help her follow in the footsteps of former quarter-midget champions such as NASCAR superstar Jeff Gordon.
Yet she can still remember her first time behind the wheel of her blue-and-orange race car with chrome siding and her name painted down the middle.
"The adrenaline rush when you touched the gas pedal - it's incredible," Bower said. "You actually get butterflies."
Since moving out of its first location on Mile Hill in Collegeville, the Montgomery County club has bounced from place to place, including a 44-year stop at an old slag site on the grounds of the defunct Phoenix Iron & Steel Co. in Phoenixville.
But since 2003, the club has called the Phoenix Speedway its home, leasing the land from the Loyal Order of Moose.
But this year, when the order closed down its lodge, it also walked away from a mountain of debt.
Within months, New Century Bank decided to foreclose on the property, sending the racers scrambling for solutions.
"We were discussing everything," Senn said. "We sat in restaurant after restaurant with bank managers, our board of directors, everyone."
The club first proposed buying only the portion of the tract where its track lies. But with property values rising during Phoenixville's revitalization, it couldn't muster an offer to satisfy the bank.
This summer, the group floated another proposal: moving to the property of a home in Upper Providence. That idea fell flat when the township's supervisors, concerned about noise, rejected the proposal to build on 18 acres west of Old State Road.
Now, less than four months before the next season, the club still has no plan.
"I don't think we're ready to accept that mentally," Senn said.
So before waving what could be its last checkered flag, the group suited up for one more go-round on the track late last month. Dozens of racers battled frigid winds on a Saturday to drive it for the last time.
Geisler, who has already moved on to Pro-4 racing, sat wistfully by her quarter midget shortly before her heat.
Later that day, she would finish first in her class and sell her charcoal-silver beauty with a pink No. 9 to a younger racer.
"This is a really big part of my life," she said. "It's something I'll really miss. It's something we'd all really miss."
To view a slide show from
the Phoenixville track, visit www.philly.com/midgetracing