On Saturday, Aug. 21, scores of racing go-karts will take over the town's southside streets for the inaugural running of the Autocar Grand Prix, a road-course race in which young drivers will compete for trophies and thousands of dollars in prize money.
Planning for the race – which is part of the Midwest Championship Series of the Southern Indiana Racing Association (SIRA) – has been under way for nearly a year, ever since the 2009 Jubilee Days ended, says Hagerstown resident Ed Nugent, a Nettle Creek Lions Club member who is overseeing the planning effort.
"We knew we wanted to do something new, something that would really add some excitement to Jubilee Days," says Nugent. "We contacted a few other towns to see what sort of events they offered at their festivals, and we found that Goodland, Indiana, did a Grand Prix kart race."
After several discussions with SIRA officials and with the race organizers in Goodland – and an actual visit to northeast Indiana on June 26 to watch the qualifying runs for the Goodland Grand Prix – Nugent and his fellow Lions Club members are convinced the local street race will be a high-speed highlight of Jubilee Days.
"The folks in Goodland have been doing this for nine years now, so it's pretty much like clockwork for them," Nugent says. "We have a lot of work ahead of us to make this happen in Hagerstown, but I'm sure our club will rise to the challenge."
Nugent has been impressed with SIRA's professionalism and attention to detail. "These are very well-organized events, and SIRA is in charge of supervising the actual races," Nugent says. "Our job at the Lions Club is to prepare the course according to SIRA specifications and then to operate one concession area for the racers."
Nugent says preparing the course – which will be laid out in a two-block area of closed-off streets on the south side of town – will be a precise process. That process is dictated by SIRA rules that mandate safety fences around the course and straw bales at each turn, official "flaggers" in each corner and strategically placed water buckets around the course. Emergency medical personnel are also required to be on site.
"These karts aren't toys," Nugent points out. "They are competitive, racing karts that go 40 to 50 miles per hour. They're part of a real racing circuit."
Local sponsor Autocar is putting up some $10,000 to help with course set-up, to help promote the event, and also to add to the purse, Nugent says. Admission will be free for race fans, who will be able to watch the action from bleachers that will be set up by Lions Club volunteers.
Visitors and competitors will also get a chance to meet British-born driver Darren Manning. Manning, who drove karts himself beginning at age 10, has driven for Indy Racing League teams such as A.J. Foyt Enterprises, Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.
The Autocar Grand Prix is expected to draw as many as 100 karts competing in 14 different groups, based on the kart's power class and the age of the driver. SIRA estimates that each kart will bring three or four people to town – most of them seeking the same sort of family fun that has brought visitors to Jubilee Days for decades.
"This is definitely a family thing for a lot of these SIRA teams," Nugent says. "You know, each of the kids has his own kart, and the families do all of the wrenching themselves. It's a family affair – like travel-team soccer. They just pack up the trailer, join the circuit and go racin.'"
The recent closure of Welliver's restaurant may have left a false impression with some out-of-towners. Naturally, no one was happy when the landmark smorgasbord ceased operations this spring. But the closure didn't exactly signal Hagerstown's economic demise – and visitors this summer certainly won't see boarded-up storefronts or watch tumbleweeds rolling down Main Street. In fact, Town Council President Peggy Cenova says local business is more vibrant than ever.
"There really is a lot going on – especially when it comes to food," Cenova says, pointing to several new and growing businesses in Hagerstown. For example, about the same time Welliver's closed, restaurateur Nancy McCormick stepped up to reopen the downtown eatery formerly known as Carla's Café, renaming it Nancy's Main Street Diner.
Another Main Street establishment, Dale's Pizza, is also on the rise, expanding to add a bar area that Cenova thinks will be a local favorite. "The owners there, Kyle and Lori Cross, have already done a wonderful job with that building (at 54 West Main), and I'm sure that new bar room is going to be top-shelf."
And for anyone with a sweet tooth, Bowman Bakery at 48 South Perry is a must-stop location for a morning doughnut or an afternoon cupcake. "I haven't sampled everything at Bowman's," Cenova says, "but I have tried their cupcakes, and I'd put them up against any I've ever eaten." The bakery's owner, Travis Bowman, is an area native who worked for a time as a chef at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., "but he came back home to Hagerstown, and he's doing well," Cenova says.
Other new firms run the gamut, from a silkscreen printing operation (the Logo Shoppe) and the local IGA grocery store and (both under new management); to a specialty shoe store (the Boot Box); to a cutting-edge fabrication firm making high-tech, non-lethal ammunition (Teetor Advanced Manufacturing).
"Cindy Oler recently took over at the Logo Shoppe, and the grocery was purchased by Tony Fultz," Cenova says. "You know, in a small town, a good grocery is really important, and Tony does a great job of keeping everything on hand that we need."
Over at the Boot Box at 60 West Main, owner Gary Schuette is "doubling down" as a Hagerstown entrepreneur. As the longtime owner of Nettle Creek Hardware, he's already a familiar downtown fixture, and his new venture allows him to try his hand at specialty retailing. "It's a really cool shop," Cenova says. "Gary's appointed it beautifully, and you can get just about any kind of boot in there – from work shoes to cowboy boots."
If there were a prize for the town's most innovative business, however, it might go to high-tech entrepreneur Ralph Meyer, president of Teetor Advanced Manufacturing. Meyer – grandson of local engineering legend Ralph Teetor of Perfect Circle Corp. fame – is marketing a non-lethal, crowd-control bullet that police and security personnel can use in conventional firearms.
All of these firms, and others too numerous to mention, are thriving in Hagerstown – with good reason.
"We have a lot to offer any entrepreneur," says Cenova – and it's her job to know. She works as a business adviser at the Richmond-Wayne County Regional Small Business Development Center.
"First of all, entrepreneurship is our heritage," she says. "This area was built on innovation, thanks to the Teetor family. Also, we have wonderful infrastructure, good high-speed Internet capability, and we're in the perfect location. Interstate 70 is right at our back door, and we're within a day's drive of every major Midwestern city: Dayton, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis."
"And we've been able to assist some small businesses with low-interest loans from the town's EDIT (Economic Development Income Tax) fund, so that's another plus."
Clearly, even without a smorgasbord, business success is on the menu in Hagerstown.
In January, the department purchased a thermal imaging camera (TIC), a special device that allows firefighters to "see" areas of heat through smoke, darkness or heat-permeable barriers.
"It's something we've been looking at and planning on for years," Fire Chief Rick Cole says of the TIC. "We're really happy to have it, and we think it's going to be a real asset to the community."
A TIC works by focusing on the waves of infrared radiation emitted by an object and then translating this radiation – this heat – into a visible image. TICs can be used to find smoldering fires inside walls, to locate electrical wiring that might be overheating – even to search for victims outdoors on cool nights (by scanning for their "heat signatures").
The advantages of such a device are clear, and Cole says they more than justify the unit's $11,000 price tag.
"Let's say we have a resident who says he smells smoke in his house," Cole points out. "Well, we can turn that camera on, see through the walls and find the heat source quickly and handle it before too much damage is done.
"It's also great for search and rescue," he adds. "We can find people who might be unconscious from smoke inhalation, and we can also assist the police in searches – for a lost child, for example, or an Alzheimer's patient."
Because of their obvious benefits, TICs have become popular with police and fire units all over the nation. In fact, fire departments in several nearby communities have them, including Richmond, Centerville, Cambridge City and all of the fire departments in Randolph County.
Cole says the Randolph County TICs were purchased with grant money from a private foundation. In the years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, dozens of other American cities have purchased such units with equipment grants made available through the Department of Homeland Security. Here in Hagerstown, however, the fire department paid for its Bullard-brand TIC from its own pocket.
"We'd been trying to get a grant for a camera like this for two years, but it just didn't happen," Cole says. "We're careful with our budget, though, and at the end of 2009, we had money left over, so we ordered the camera."
The TIC – a battery-operated unit that can run six to seven hours before it needs to be recharged by way of a truck-mounted charger – has been in service since January 2010. Cole says every member of the department has been trained by Bullard representatives on how to operate the TIC, and he estimates that it's already been put to use "10 or 12 times" on firefighting runs.
Despite the high-tech, cutting-edge nature of the infrared camera, Cole says its purchase is actually nothing new; rather, it's part of a long-standing pattern of professionalism that the department is committed to maintain.
"We're very serious about ongoing training, and we always try to upgrade our equipment," he says matter-of-factly. "This is just part of that."
The next upgrade, he hopes, will come in the form of a new truck equipped to fight grass fires. He estimates the vehicle's cost at $60,000 to $65,000 – money he wants to obtain through a government grant.
"The grass truck we're using now is a 1982 model," he says, "and it's getting harder and harder to find parts for it."