Mike Spooner lights up when he gets to talk about racing.
One gets the feeling that the big fellow would live in a tent in the Gold Pan Speedway pits if he did not have a wife to convince him otherwise.
“The roaring of the tires, the squealing of the brakes, the smell of exhaust and racing fuel … you get hooked on it,” Spooner says with a big smile. “It’s a very addictive sport.”
Mike got his start in the sport in 1984, driving the crash truck down at the track.
“If somebody crashed and spilled oil on the track, I went around and put cement on it and picked up the parts from the crash and put them in the back of the truck.
“That’s how I got hooked on it.”
He built his first car, a 1972 Mercury Montigo, in 1985. His mom called it “the tank.” At the time, all the cars where red, white and blue but Mike got the mix wrong and ended up painting the car grey.
“It was a big land yacht,” says Mike. “It was the longest car on the track. When the back end kicked out, it took up the whole track. It wasn’t the prettiest car by any means, but I did win some trophy dashes with it.”
Mike points out the first Grey Ghost was the only Ford on the track. At the time, everyone else raced Chevys, so he caught quite a bit of flack for it.
But the Ford was reliable, with a strong frame.
“Those Chevys bumped into me and banged into me, but most of the time, they lost,” he says proudly.
He rolled the first car in 1986, and it was time to replace it with another. Mike can’t remember the model, but he kept the grey paint job, got someone to paint a white cartoon ghost on the side of the car, and a legend was started.
“When I put the ghost on the side of the second car, people didn’t know me, but they knew my car and the kids loved it,” says Mike.
That vehicle survived a crash-to-pass and went on to race a couple more years.
Three more iterations of ghost cars followed, with many near-misses, crashes and the odd trophy to go along.
Mike’s wife Kathy was part of his pit crew and loved racing almost as much as he did.
In 2000, Mike got Ray Gibbs to build her a 1978 Ford Thunderbird.
Kathy took to the sport quickly and even beat her husband in a few races.
Unfortunately, everything changed for the couple when Kathy took a nasty crash into the wall at the Gold Pan Speedway in September 2001.
“Him and I were racing against each other when I crashed,” says Kathy. “He had been taken out and was in the pits when I hit the wall with 10 laps left in the main [event].”
“It took the ambulance nine minutes to get to the race track, and they had to get the roof off the car, bolts undone and the backboards into the car to lift her out onto the gurney and into the ambulance,” Mike remembers. “It seemed like it took an hour though.”
“Apparently, they kept him busy,” says Kathy. “They were getting him to fetch miscellaneous things from the truck that they didn’t need just to keep him occupied.
“That ended my racing career. I spent 12 weeks in the hospital in total, and now I can’t lose my head,” she jokes.
“Because it’s screwed on — literally.”
“There are bars on both sides of her neck,” Mike adds, seriously, “She shattered her ankle, collapsed both lungs. They had to jumpstart her twice on the way to the hospital.”
Even when talking about reviving his wife, Mike uses car analogies.
That was the beginning of the end of that stage of their racing careers.
Kathy has no interest in racing anymore, but she’s still involved. She was the secretary for the club up until 2012 and still manages a lot of the club’s media.
Race-goers can still find her manning the bottom gate for the track on race day too, but she keeps her distance while racing is going on, as it gives her some anxiety.
Mike raced another year and competed at the 2002 Billy Barker Days, but he says the fun of ripping around full-speed on the track had all but disappeared for him. On race days, Kathy would be cringing, and Mike did not want to cause her more suffering.
Since then, their son James took up the sport in 2011 and raced for a few years, and as time has gone by, Mike has softened to the idea of returning.
When a car came up for sale at the right price earlier this year, he snapped up the opportunity.
With the help of James’s friend Reg Ettinger, they made the new ghost race-worthy for just under $1,000.
Kathy seems OK with the idea of her husband getting back on the track too.
“Not that the safety features have been improved. I’m a little bit better, but it does still scare me. He knows I’m not going to go to the pits during the races and I will not be part of the pit crew.”
Mike will race in the Grey Ghost 5 next Friday (Aug. 23) at the Doug Larson Memorial Race at the Gold Pan Speedway.
He says his goal is to not finish last.
“You don’t get rich doing this,” he says. “It’s just for fun.
“Once you get out on the track, you don’t think about life. All you think is, ‘hard on the gas and turn left. Oh, and try not to run into anybody.’
“It’s an escape from reality, and if you don’t have escapes, you start banging your head against the wall.”