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All in the family: Thetford’s Jason Gray trades winter hardwood for summer dirt roads

  • Thetford's Jason Gray (00) goes door to door with Orford's Chris Donnelly, rear, coming out of turn 4 during the Sportsman Modified division feature at Bear Ridge Speedway in Bradford, Vt., on Saturday, June 8, 2019. (Alan Ward photograph)

  • Jason Gray works on his Sportsman Modified race car in East Thetford, Vt., on Tuesday, July 9, 2019. Gray is also the Thetford Academy boys basketball coach. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jason Gray with his father Tim Gray in his father's race car in an undated photograph. The Gray family has been racing cars for three generations. (courtesy Jason Gray)



Valley News Sports Editor
Tuesday, July 16, 2019

EAST THETFORD — Jason Gray can’t seem to slow down.

When he’s not busy coaching the Thetford Academy boys basketball team in the winter, he’s using his free time to tear down and rebuild his competition race car. When it’s the summer racing season, Gray spends two nights a week working with the Panthers in offseason training and practice, not to mention the occasional team camp.

What’s a guy to do? In Gray’s case, everything.

“I talk to some of the kids about it a little bit, but most of it’s nonsense (to them),” Gray said of his racing habit last week during a break from car work at his East Thetford shop. “There are a couple of kids that have gone to Bear Ridge Speedway and watched me race and a couple of parents that have come up to me during the (basketball) season and said, ‘I didn’t even know you raced.’

“It’s kind of unique. People think you’re a one-sport athlete or whatever. It’s a whole different perspective of coaching basketball to racing cars, or playing basketball to racing cars. It’s a whole different mindset of what goes on and how it all works.”

Racing is a big thing in the Gray family.

Even before Jason took his first competitive laps at the age of 15, he had a grandfather (Herb) who’d held an ownership interest in Bear Ridge, the tiny dirt oval in the hills of Bradford, Vt., and a father (Tim) and uncle (Troy) who’d raced there as well. Sister Amanda drove. Younger brother Brandon still drives. Grandmother did powder-puff events.

Everything comes back to the Grays’ business center. Jason’s garage sits on a property that also houses C.W. Gray & Sons auctioneers; his work day can include selling used cars or any number of other labors.

“If it wasn’t for my grandfather and my grandmother starting the business,” Gray joked, “we’d all be in trouble.”

Gray, 28, splits his racing season between two tracks. The priority is Albany-Saratoga Speedway in Malta, N.Y., where he drives in the Sportsman division. As the schedule allows, he also heads upriver to Bear Ridge for that facility’s Sportsman Modified class.

Between work, basketball and his own family — he and wife Katelyn have a 2-year-old daughter, Alice, with another girl, Nora, due in mid-October — Gray doesn’t race a full season at either facility. Bear Ridge is convenient, but Albany-Saratoga provides stiffer competition.

“He certainly doesn’t give up,” said Barrett Williams, the new Rivendell Interstate School District superintendent, who was Gray’s varsity basketball coach for two years at Thetford back in the mid-2000s. “Whether he’s in the front or back of the pack, he runs hard all the time. The comparison I’d give is our AAU team when he was in eighth grade. We’d get beat up more often than not, and he played hard regardless of the score. When we were more successful at the high school level, it didn’t matter — he was still playing equally hard.”

Even with all of the juggling of responsibilities that comes with life, there’s something to be done with Gray’s race car or his Thetford basketball team nearly every day of any given summer week.

Mondays and Wednesdays are basketball nights, when Gray will either have a workout with his Panthers or marshal them to a scrimmage or summer league game. Tuesdays will be car nights, for fixing up his ride after work or, if necessary, driving to New York state to get needed parts. He’ll leave work early on Thursdays to spend two or three hours prepping his tires for the races.

Albany-Saratoga, a storied 4/10ths-mile dirt oval three hours southwest of Gray’s East Thetford base, runs its shows on Fridays. Bear Ridge stages its races on Saturdays. Gray’s busy life is reflected by his mid-pack points standing at both tracks: 15th at Albany, 15th at the Ridge halfway through both schedules. He’ll hit both tracks if the car is intact after Albany and the slate allows, but that’s a relative rarity.

With the weekend’s dirt racing done, “Sunday is wash day,” Gray said with a grin.

If winter is the down time for racing, summer is the same for basketball, but only up to a point. Gray considers it an important opportunity for his younger players, and it’s also essential for his own growth as a coach.

“You have to be willing to give up things to make yourself a better coach,” Gray noted. “For me, I feel if I gave up basketball in the summer, I’d lose a step as in coaching. So I have to juggle that all around to make myself better.”

Gray’s coaching intensity doesn’t necessarily wane when the temperature outside increases.

“Obviously, summer is a little bit more relaxed because you’re coaching young kids who will be on the JV and also coaching the varsity players at the same time,” said recent TA graduate Owen Deffner, a member of the Panthers’ VPA Division III state championship from last winter. “It’s a good mix of intensity and relaxed attitude.

“When we went to the Castleton (University) team camp, that would be when he would ramp up the intensity a little bit and expect more from us. Summer practices or summer scrimmages, it’s fairly relaxed.”

Without season championships as a focus, Gray takes satisfaction in smaller accomplishments on the track, such as moving up in the field in his feature races or picking off the occasional victory. He won the final Modified event at Canaan Fair Speedway before that track’s closing a few years ago. He claimed three feature wins at Albany last summer — two of them back-to-back — against fields of 34 to 40 cars each time. He capped the 2018 campaign by winning a Bear Ridge 100-lapper.

But Gray can also see a time when basketball or racing will have to take a back seat to life. With a growing family and a job, one or the other of his passions will eventually have to give.

“Extremely hard-working would be the biggest quality that comes through with his basketball,” Deffner said. “That’s his personality, and I’m sure that’s his racing personality. … That constantly working to improve and working his job and all that was really very clearly his character.”

Greg Fennell an be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.