By TONY TAGLAVORE, Journal Sports
Carved out of tucked-away land surrounded by pine trees on the good side of the Louisiana-Texas state line, a quarter-mile circle of red clay dirt saved Derick Grigsby’s life.
Grigsby had just struck out on a promising baseball career. So promising, the Houston Astros chose Grigsby — and paid him a $1.125 million signing bonus — in the first round of the 2002 Major League Baseball amateur draft.
“He had a fastball that lit up radar guns and a slider that buckled knees,” wrote esteemed Houston Chronicle baseball writer Richard Justice.
But on the eve of his fourth season in the Astros organization, Grigsby’s grandmother died — on the same date his mother died six years earlier.
“I had pretty severe depression and anxiety,” he said. “I still deal with anxiety today. The depression, not so much. I still go to counseling.”
So, Grigsby came home, finding comfort while working on his father’s race car. There was also the weekly payoff pitch — cheering Dad to the checkered flag on Saturday nights at Boothill Speedway in Greenwood.
“Just getting out there and being around people,” he said, “it was good for me.”
These days, Grigsby spends late nights (“It’s really like a whole other 40-hours-a-week job”) turning wrenches on his car. Saturday evenings, Grigsby is turning the wheel left, while Dad cheers.
“It’s the competition,” Grigsby said, explaining a hobby which costs more than it pays. “We’re not out there making a living for sure. Just being able to race like I always wanted to means a lot.”
Like several of the 115-120 drivers hauling their cars to Exit 3 on I-20 in Greenwood, Grigsby once dreamed of racing at legendary tracks like Daytona and Talladega. “I thought I was going to be the next biggest thing,” he admitted. Now, the 39-year-old married father of four settles for earning part of a $12,000 weekly purse — spread over six classes of races.
“To be the fastest and baddest race driver at that moment,” said fellow racer and track promoter Brian Frazier, explaining why drivers love Boothill. “To be the guy holding the trophy and, back in the day, kissing the girls in victory lane.”
But for all the excitement, attendance (both fans and drivers) has dropped off like a Limited Modified running on fumes.
“My grandstand area will hold 3,200 people, and it would be standing room only,” Frazier said of Boothill’s glory nights. “Now, those standing room only crowds only happen a few times every year. It used to be every week.”
You don’t have to pop the hood to find out why.
“Cars aren’t easily worked on,” Frazer said. “We aren’t car-centric, or as ‘car nuts’ as my dad’s generation was, and as my generation was, where we could work on them. We’re struggling with our crowd dying. I don’t know another way to say it.”
Meanwhile, Grigsby — who spends more than 50 hours a week changing oil, tires, and brakes at his lube shop — keeps working his “other job.” Grigsby’s skin-cracked hands are a self-described “mess.” There’s grease under his fingernails, and hard, yellow-tainted callouses that take a romantic toll on his wife.
“Last night,” he said, “she was saying how she didn’t like how they felt on her hands.”
But it’s all worth the price to be, mentally, in a better place.
“It’s kind of like an escape from every day, and the stress of everything,” Grigsby said. “When you get out there and get strapped in, you don’t have to worry about your problems. You’re just out there having fun. It’s kind of like a getaway.”
Grigsby and his fellow racers will be back on the track at Boothill, having fun, Saturday night at 7:30. Gates open for the loyal fans and all comers at 6.
Photo courtesy SCOTT BURSON