Story and photo by Rhonda Beck
Chester Brooks currently works as race director on Friday nights at Carolina Speedway in Gastonia, N.C. and on Saturdays at Lancaster Speedway in Lancaster, S.C.
A long-time racing aficionado, Brooks has lived in Shelby, N.C. all his life and enjoyed working on cars with his dad when he was growing up.
“My dad (the late Chester Brooks, Sr.) used to do a little drag racing at Shadyside when I was little. My uncle, Bill Bradshaw, won a lot of trophies, and people used to think that we had a professional engine builder. But my dad built his motors and he was a pretty, good mechanic.”
The first dirt race Brooks recalls going to was at the fairgrounds in Shelby, N.C. where they also hold the Cleveland County Fair.
“I can remember seeing ’55 Chevrolets and ’56 Fords and stuff like that, and I was hooked from there,” said Brooks.
After that track closed down, he didn’t attend any races for a few years. Then one Saturday when he was 11 years old, his dad came home from work and said, ‘Come on boys,’ and took him and his brother, Michael Brooks, to Cherokee Speedway in Gaffney, S.C.
Brooks said. “Me and my brother–we couldn’t wait ‘til Saturday for him to get off work. The first thing he was going to do was come in the house and watch rasslin’ and then the sun would start to come down and we’d go to Cherokee Speedway. They had Freddy Smith and Mike Duvall and Buck Simmons and all those guys. I was always a Freddy Smith fan.”
Another memorable racer for Brooks was Butch Bowen, who ran late models at Cherokee Speedway. They became good friends when Brooks worked for Tedder Dodge and Bowen’s shop sat right behind them on James Love School Road in Shelby, N.C.
Tommy Tedder, originally from Shelby, N.C. and now living in Spring Hill, Tenn., said that Brooks started working for him and his brother Richard, cleaning cars. Over time he became a really, good technician.
“Chester is a hard worker. He does the same things in racing. He’s worked crewing a car, he started race directing, he’s done flagging; he’s an honest person and tries to make a fair call in everything he does,” said Tedder, who is also the announcer for The Ultimate Super Late Model series on dirt.
After the dealership went out of business, Brooks got a job with the Cleveland County School System as a mechanic.
“This December will be my 10th year working for the school system. But I got my first taste of working on a dirt car with Rodney Goins. He drove in the bomber division at Cherokee,” said Brooks.
Brooks was a crew member in the early 1980s, first changing things like motors and tires. From there he went on to work for Roger Hamrick of Shelby, N.C. after his friend Jeff Mcshaw introduced them. Later he worked with super late model racer Jeff Cooke of Spartanburg, S.C.
“My first year with Roger, I think was ’95 and we raced together for 10 or 11 years,” said Brooks, who worked on late models and did some go-kart racing along with Roger Hamrick, Jr. for Hamrick.
“Towards the end, I wanted something a little different. So then I started working with Jeff Cooke. I was a crew member for Jeff for about two years and then I became his crew chief. With Jeff was the first time that I actually built a body for a dirt late model by myself,” Brooks said.
As far as favorite racetracks go, Volunteer Speedway in Bull’s Gap, TN is high on Brook’s list. On his first trip there with Cooke, he initially didn’t know where they were going.
“We turned down a dirt road and I said, ‘Jeff, where are you taking me?’ And he said, ‘We’re going to the racetrack.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘Just what I said. It’s a mile back up in the woods and that’s the reason it’s called ‘Mileback’.”
Brooks said they broke the track record in qualifying that night.
“Everything is just so quick. And the banking in the racetrack–it was amazing. We went out for practice, and I was clocking him on the stopwatch, and I said, ‘Wait a minute, this can’t be right. I think I got him at the wrong pole or something. He’s not that fast.’ Then the next lap I said, ‘Well, I guess we’ve got something to work with.’ They used to run the twin 25’s and we started on the pole. We fell back and ran fifth in the first one. I made some adjustments on the chassis and he made a shock change and in the second one, we checked out on the field.”
Brooks’ experience being in the race booth and as an official started around 2004 when he went to Cherokee Speedway in Gaffney, S.C. one night. The track is owned by Lennie Buff and Buff’s wife Christy asked Brooks if he wanted to run RACEceivers. These scanners are a communication device that make the sport safer by allowing officials to talk to drivers out on the track.
“I said, ‘I’ve never run RACEceivers before,’ and she said, ‘It ain’t nothin. I’ll show you.’ She shown me how, and I started running RACEceivers at Cherokee. I done that for the first one-and-a-half or two years and then Lennie offered me the Race Director for Southern All-Stars East super late model series and it went on from there.”
Being a race director involves some specific duties and utmost attention to what is happening on the track.
“When I get there, I write up my thing for my drivers’ meeting. Then I go upstairs and put on my headset. When the classes come out, you’re running the racing operation on the racetrack–keeping the drivers informed. And like I always tell them, RACEceivers are mandatory. I have seen RACEceivers save racecars. I feel like when them guys are out on the racetrack, their lives are kind of in my hands. There can be a three-car battle for the lead, and you can glance at it, but you have to pay attention to everything that’s going on. It can be hard sometimes. If I see something, like a driver’s side facing oncoming traffic, even in an Enduro race, I will throw a caution because that is life-threatening.”
Brooks said that probably the most exciting race he remembers calling was at Cherokee Speedway.
“It was a Beast series race, I believe, and Dale McDowell was leading. They had come down and took the white flag. I can’t remember who exactly was behind Dale, but he was right on his tail and there was a lapped car that they was going to catch going into turn three. I told the lapped car to hold his line and I told Dale to take him on the high side and the other car to take him on the bottom. They split him going into turn three and it worked out for Dale and he ended up winning the race.”
Brooks said that most racers cooperate with his instructions on the RACEceiver and know that the goal is to keep them safe and their cars intact.
“I try to tell the lapped cars or the leader things like, ‘Get to the bottom, the leader is six car lengths back and now he’s three and two and one; he’s outside; hold your line on the bottom.’ But if the race leader is on the bottom, I’ll tell the lapped car to move to the topside. Every once and a while you do have that one that will not get out of the way. What I try to explain to them is the RACEceivers are there for the racer. I mean, just pay attention, it will save your racecar if you get out of the way. It will stop that man from turning you into the wall and destroying your car.”
Brooks credits the way he was brought up as influencing the way he tries to approach his work at the track.
“My parents have always taught me to respect the other man. I have been to racetracks where track officials actually show a little bit of favoritism towards certain drivers. But racetracks where I’m officiating at, I tell my staff that I don’t care how much you dislike someone who drives a racecar; whenever you put the headset on, you treat ‘em fair,” said Brooks.
Years of racing has also afforded Brooks many opportunities for travel. He recalled one memorable trek from the road where he had to do a lot of driving.
“We joined Stan Lester, who owns the FASTRAK Racing series. They had a race at Thunder Valley that night and we went up there to help them. The next night we had an Ultimate race at Jamaica, VA at Mr. (Bill) Sawyer’s racetrack. We left Thunder Valley at about 4:30 in the morning and I’d never drove anything like that. But Stan asked me, and I said, ‘Give me five minutes, and I can drive.’”
“I started driving at about Salisbury, (N.C.), and I drove all the way up to the racetrack. I got up, started checking racecars, done the drivers meeting, went upstairs and called the race. After the race was over with, I come back down, loaded everything up, crawled back under the steering wheel and started driving back home.
“We got to around Burlington, N.C., and I said, ‘Guys I can’t go anymore; I’m starting to see that little black dog run across the highway.’ And I said, ‘When I start seeing the little black dog, it’s time for me to get out from behind the steering wheel.’ Stan started driving for about 30 miles. He got sleepy, so I had to start back driving again. I made it to Charlotte, and I said, ‘That’s it. I can’t go no further.’ Stan drove on ahead and dropped us off in Blacksburg, S.C. They went on to where they had their next destination and I went home and that was it.”
Over the years Brooks has seen and competed at the dirt tracks against some of the past and current NASCAR drivers.
“As far as the Cup guys go, we raced against Clint Bowyer, Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon, and Carl Edwards.”
Brook’s wife of 28 years, Lisa Watkins Brooks, used to go to the track at Gaffney, S.C. on Saturdays when they first met. And when it comes to discussing NASCAR drivers, his family members have different favorites.
“I was a Dale Earnhardt fan and my wife was a Jeff Gordon fan and my daughter, Latrice, was a Jimmie Johnson fan. But they picked their drivers because of the colors of the cars,” claims Brooks.
Outside of racing, Brooks has a grass-cutting business, and is involved with Bethlehem Temple Church in Grover, N.C.
“I’ve actually been a deacon at our church for about the last eight years. My dad was a deacon before he passed away. My mom, Dovie Brooks, is a minister and my wife is a minister also. So I basically grew up in the church.”
Regarding the current state of affairs involving the corona virus, protests and other things that are affecting people’s daily lives, Brooks has a few views of his own.
“I tell people that the good Lord blessed me with common sense. If I know you have the corona virus, I’m not going to come around; I’m going to play it safe. I say a prayer every morning. All I can do is ask the good Lord for his protection. I try to practice the safety stuff, to keep my hands washed.”
As one of just a few African Americans working at local dirt tracks over the years, Brooks grew up with the Confederate flag around him.
“I tell people that I just turned 55 years old. The Rebel flag has been here as long as I can remember. To me it represents down-home Southern living–playing out in the woods and in the creek, mud bogging, riding dirt bikes and all kinds of stuff like that including dirt racing. It’s a tradition. I don’t see it as some people say it is.
“I think a lot of people are going around now, and you see how they say, ‘Black Lives Matter’ and my thing is ‘All Lives Matter.’ It says that in the Bible—love thy neighbor. I spoke at church here a couple weeks ago at Wednesday night Bible study. I said, ‘I hope people have a memory when they get to heaven and see it’s not white folks on this side, it’s not black folks on this side, it’s not Mexicans on the other side. We’re there as one and we’re all God’s children.’”
Brooks just tries to lead by example, showing love and respect to his fellow man.
“Like I say. Life is so short now. Every time you turn around you see that someone has passed away and you say, ‘Wow, I just talked to them yesterday’ or ‘I just talked to them last week.’ It seems like you gotta go day by day and be thankful for what you have. Live life to the fullest; just do it the right way.”