The Birdman visits Yello Belly: Grudge racing at an outlaw track in Texas

Unsanctioned drag racing thrives in Texas. It only takes one run, a shootout between a legend and a local hotshot, to understand why.

James Finney stalks the racetrack of Yello Belly Drag Strip, examining the surface with a professional's eye. It's about 660 feet long, not long enough to let his twin turbocharged Pontiac Firebird rip off a full pass. So the main strategic question is, when will he let up on the power, giving himself enough room to slow down while still giving fans something to remember?

The track's loudspeaker blares: "And there's the Birdman, walking the track." At 3:30pm it's still early, but the smattering of race fans that care about cars more than the Cowboys game crane their necks. Finney's moniker has long been one of the best known in Texas grudge racing, but appearances on Street Outlaws cemented a national following. Here at Yello Belly, the stout, bald man stalking the track is a celebrity.

"I've been grudge racing for 30 years," he says, after posing for a photo with fans. "I never thought it'd be like this."

Drag racing has come out of the shadows, a little, in recent years. North Texas and Oklahoma have some of the most avid fans and experienced racers, many of who spent their lifetimes in the rich race history of the region. When it comes to authentic racetracks, Yello Belly is in a class of its own. In operation continuously since 1955, it's one of the oldest tracks in the country.

It's also an outlaw track, meaning it's unsanctioned by the National Hot Rod Association. No roll cages, helmets or even seatbelts needed. Texans call it a "run what you brung" drag. There are second and even third-generation fans at Yello Belly, open every Sunday and Thursday.

For the Birdman this visit is part paid appearance and another, smaller part in support the race community. "Little tracks like this are important," Finney says. "If these weren't here, these guys would be racing on the streets."

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Eason Wright is in the tower at Yello Belly, watching an ATV square off against a pickup truck. He works the lights with a push of a laptop button, and the pair tears down the track. Their times and maximum speed are displayed on the laptop screen.

From this perch, Wright can also see the line of cars at the track's gate, lined up to see Birdman. "People in the racing world love these fast cars," he says, pleased at the crowd. "And the Birdman is an icon."

The Wright family has owned Yello Belly for nearly 60 years. The business is still reeling from the 2017 loss of Bud Wright, the family patriarch, who died at the foot of the tower at the track at age 82. He left behind his wife, Patricia, known as "Mrs. Pat," and children Eason and Beth Taylor. These three run the track, backed by a staff who have spent decades working here.

Part of their aspirations is to lengthen the track and resurface it with concrete to attract faster cars. But even for heavyweights like Birdman, Yello Belly fits a useful niche in their ecosystem as a place to test and fine-tune their vehicles. In fact, Finney stopped by the track several months ago to prepare for a race.

"I remember looking out there and wondering whose big ol' trailer was pulling in," Wright recalls. "Turns out it was the Birdman, looking for a place to get ready."

This was a big deal. Drag race fans and trade press often call Finney the King of No Prep Racing. Preserving a true street race heritage, he doesn't race on tracks that apply adhesive compounds to help its grip. Yello Belly does treat the track with compounds, but didn't on the day he tested his machine, in deference to his reputation. Wright asked him to return for a fee, as a way to spark interest in the track. Birdman set a date and agreed to take on a track regular in a race.

The driver that will face him is Robert Viera. He owns an auto collision shop in Irving, Texas and modded his Mustang with high-end parts. He and Birdman are vying for $500, just to make it interesting. No one thinks Viera will win. Viera says he hasn't seen the movie Rocky, but when he hears the plot he recognizes his long-shot role. But he doesn't give up all hope. "He has a faster car," he says. "But I know the track. So I have a chance."

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The Birdman is happy. Last night he won more than $25,000 at another track. His competitive spirit seems more satisfied than his need for cash, but the victory also helps keep his team viable. "We needed it," he admits. "Last year we broke even. Well, almost. This gets expensive."

Finney owns a service that specializes in cleaning the oven hoods of restaurants. It's grown big enough to support his life's love, but he still considers racing a side gig to that business. "We're weekend warriors. We can't think of this as a business," he says. "We'd go broke."

Team Birdman races about three times a month, between March and December. Finney travels with a handful of friends, and uses his winnings to keep the car running. He says when he's shared winnings with the team, they've sunk the money back into the car and trailer. Drag racers of Birdman's stature do get some sponsorships, but he says the fees are typically small and often come in the form of trade for things like fuel and oil. That leaves the team eager for grudge victories, Finney says, to keep doing what they love.

One thing Finney's team uses to improve the odds is a sophisticated computer program that evaluates the track conditions after a trial run. Using feedback from a slew of onboard sensors, the computer determines the optimal strategy, almost like a flight control computer determining a flight path. "Data wins drag races," Finney says.

After the Cowboys game ends and the sun sets, the crowds arrive for the drag race. Viera takes the left lane, Birdman on the right. The crowd thickens in the stands and surges into the pit, hoping for a view. Finney is about to put to practice his advice to young racers: victory comes in the first seconds.

Racing at Yello Belly Drag Strip

The two cars rev their engines and spin their tires, warming them for the race. The crowd mills around in anticipation. There's no betting in the stands, but the excitement builds to see one of the fastest cars in Texas take on this outlaw track. Eason Wright triggers the lights and the cars leap off the line in twin roars.

Birdman smokes the Mustang, his Firebird leaping ahead by a couple car lengths before he lets up on the power at about halfway down the track. A collective cry of surprise and wonder rises from the pit and stands, and breaks apart into dozens of extended conversations of how damn quick that car was.

This crowd sees fast cars all the time, but Finney has lit up the track in a way they've never seen, and without even being able to flex his machine's full muscle. The times are not announced; it's hard enough for Birdman to get big races without people knowing exactly how fast his car is.

Viera joins Finney for a post-race conversation, payment and one-on-one tour of the trailer. His respect at the track has risen. "Bad ass run," one friend comments on a Facebook video of the race. "You had the balls to try and say least you tryd [sic] and gave him a good run." His collision shop gets a couple calls from new customers, citing the race.

This may be a scene from a softer era of grudge racing, one taken from illegal street races to venues that have become communities of their own. Every community has its own ethos, traditions and legends. In the drag strip world, history was made at Yello Belly last Sunday, when the Birdman came to town and took young Viera for a ride. It's all part of the drag race continuum. On Thursday, more aspiring legends will arrive to write their own histories on the track's asphalt.