In the rural northeast corner of Arkansas lies something that is actually quite common in the area: A home-grown dirt track, void of the glamorous amenities boasted by the likes of Eldora Speedway, Lucas Oil Speedway and other well-known racing facilities.
At a glance, Crowley’s Ridge Raceway, known by locals as “The Ridge,” may just look like another well-kept dirt track in the South. However, getting the dirt on the track’s history and current health reveals a hidden gem of a racetrack and provides a great picture of how dirt track racing can truly be a family sport.
In 2016 The Ridge celebrated its 30th consecutive year of operations, an impressive feat in itself. More impressive, though, is the fact that the track has been under the same ownership since its inception.
In the mid 1980’s the Francis family, led by the late Glen Francis and his wife Pat, made the move from California to Arkansas to pursue the dream of running a race track as a family.
Glen Francis, a long-time racer and NASCAR veteran, took on the duties of prepping the track, while his son Trent promoted it and their wives – Pat and Brenda – dealt with the business side of things. Since the track broke ground in October 1986, the Francis family has hosted more than 700 consecutive points races without missing a scheduled date, weather permitting. In addition, they’ve hosted multiple special events throughout the course of each season.
After 30 years of racing, the track is healthier than ever and the Francis family is just as involved as it ever was.
After his father Glen passed away, Trent Francis took charge of prepping the track, while his wife Brenda continues to run the concession stand. Meanwhile their daughters Paige and Peggy, who are both school teachers (taught by their grandmother, Pat through the years), are in charge of everything on the “business side” of the racetrack. Whether it be pit entry, scoring, points, payout, or paying bills the young ladies handle whatever needs to be done on the bookkeeping end of things. Also in the family to help is Paige’s husband John Hill and Peggy’s soon-to-be husband Josh Greene.
The track typically hosts between 24 and 30 Saturday night points races per year. Each week dozens of cars pass through the gates, which makes for great competition in every class. The Comp Cams Super Dirt Series Super Late Models and United Sprint Car Series have also become a mainstay on the special event docket each year for the tight bullring.
Trent Francis, who has now been around racing his entire life, is not afraid to say that his racetrack has a touch of old-school dirt track flair.
“We’re not your typical dirt track,” Francis admits. “We still race back to the caution unless there’s a major wreck, and my rules are pretty ‘redneck-loose.’ Other tracks in the area are a little bit tighter. We’ve got about five rules that we enforce for each class, and we’re really strict on those rules, but we don’t get in and start measuring wheelbases and all that.”
In a world of political correctness and black and white rules, Trent Francis tries to have some fun with the way he runs his track. A perfect example of this is his philosophy on punishments for fighting.
He states, “A lot of tracks kick people out for fighting, but you don’t get kicked out here. If you get in a fight here, you have to buy two arm bands the next week, one for each arm!” Francis laughed. “If you make it through that week without fighting, you’re back to one arm band the next week.”
The Ridge’s strategy seems to be working because Arkansas race fans can’t seem to get enough of it.
“The stands are full every Saturday night. This place is redneck-friendly like you have never seen! We’ve had proposals, weddings, family reunions and there are weekly birthday announcements. All that good stuff in life happens here at The Ridge.”
To cap off its celebratory year, The Ridge incredibly recorded its most successful season finale attendance in its 30-year history on the last race of the 2016 season.
“The last Saturday night we raced, I told everyone that if they wore any present or previous Crowley’s Ridge t-shirt, they’d get a dollar off of their entry fee,” recollects Francis. “The stands and the pits were on overflow with a record car count. There was some other stuff going on that weekend, and I didn’t expect that kind of crowd.”
Every year, The Ridge celebrates the end of the season by giving awards and trophies for each class on the last night of the season, and the packed grandstands and record car count made its final night of this celebratory season especially memorable.
With a huge smile Francis proudly states, “It was a wonderful 30th year celebration thanks to the racers and fans!”
Francis mentioned that paying the bills on time and keeping the facility clean, tidy and maintained are some of the practical reasons why his track has been able to endure so many years of operation. However, one of his philosophies may sound pretty outlandish to most racers and fans – they don’t sell alcohol at the track.
Francis explains, “The track has always been a family affair, including our racing families that support the track weekly. It’s what we are all about, and we want it to always be that way.”
Although it makes sense from the standpoint of helping to keep the show under control, many tracks rely on beer sales to make a profit or break even on a given night. Even NASCAR veteran Ken Schrader, an annual visitor and competitor at The Ridge, expressed to Trent Francis that he was surprised by the idea.
Francis listed several reasons why the track has been able to thrive throughout the years. However, he believes the most prominent reason The Ridge has been successful is the fact that the Francis family were racers long before they opened the track and are able to see things from a racer’s point of view.
30 years of racing doesn’t come without a good story or two, so it’s no surprise that Trent Francis has a few doozies.
“Here’s a good one,” Francis laughs. “About 15 years ago, every week we were having a fight or a disturbance at the scales. My dad was fed up! Well that Sunday we all went to dinner after church and I told dad, ‘I bet you $100 we’ll never have another fight at the scales again.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll take that bet.’
“The next week, dad was off in Memphis or somewhere, and I took the scales out of the infield, I just took them out. That weekend after the first feature, dad walks up to the scales to tech the cars and when the cars pulled up, there weren’t any scales there. Dad said, ‘Where are the scales at Trent? What are we going to do?’ I said, ‘No fight, you owe me 100 bucks!’ Easiest $100 I ever made!”
Many racetracks in the country face an unstable future, but racers and fans of The Ridge can sleep easy.
Francis notes, “The track really does not need to make a lot of money to keep operating. My living is made away from the track in the billboard business, so this racetrack is more like a hobby for me and my family.”
After so many years of racing, Francis says that The Ridge is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.
“Everything’s good. This place is running well and will continue with the third generation. I don’t see why this place can’t run until the end of racing time, whenever that is.”
The Francis family and everyone at The Ridge would like to thank the racers and fans for a successful and memorable 30th year celebration, and they look forward to many more in the future.
One thing is for sure. If you are look for old-school racing action, then The Ridge is the place you want to me – no frills and no luxuries, just hard-nosed dirt track action every Saturday night.