It was hot, even by Presidio’s standards, when my brother, photographer Justin von Oldershausen, and I pulled up to the Presidio International Raceway last September. We arrived at the racetrack early, and there was no shade or shelter from the sun. It was hot, though it had been raining. The land was green on either side of the road that runs south from Marfa, rare for that time of year. But the rain wouldn’t reach us.
The racetrack appears off FM 170, a single-lane highway that runs parallel to the Rio Grande, here a silty band of torpid water. Past a manufacturing complex for prefab homes, there’s a flagpole with an American flag and the Texas state flag below it. Alex Jimenez, vice president of the drag races, who’s affectionately called “Pumpkin,” told me they want to put the flag of Mexico below the Texas flag. Normally, they’d get at least a half dozen racers from Mexico, but the border had been closed because of the pandemic. (It reopened in November.) Through word of mouth, they’ve attracted racers not just from Ojinaga, the Mexican border town opposite Presidio, but from as far out as Chihuahua City and Delicias. “That’s why we’re called the Presidio International Raceway,” Alex said, gesturing to his T-shirt bearing the name.
The quiet, unassuming border town of six thousand, just west of Big Bend Ranch State Park, started hosting drag races in the early aughts. Back then, officials would shut down a piece of the highway for the races and reroute the highway traffic with cones. Eventually, the town built a real racetrack, which had fallen into a state of disrepair until 2019, when Robert Romero, president of the drag races, and Alex took it over. They rebuilt the whole thing and extended the length of the track. In July 2019, they hosted the first drag race Presidio had seen in more than ten years. Shortly after, though, they were forced to shut down again because of the pandemic. They resumed in May 2021.
The racetrack is two lanes with a starting light in between them. Only part of the 660-foot track is concrete; the rest is made of asphalt. When I asked Jimenez why, he rubbed his fingers together, indicating that money was a factor. They were able to secure a $15,000 grant through the city’s development district, which was enough to pave it with concrete only halfway. As of April, they added another ninety feet of concrete to the track with money raised through private donations, including $2,000 donated by Presidio’s only grocery store.
It is bracket racing, meaning the aim for drivers wasn’t to reach the finish line first. It’s a little confusing in that way. A car that absolutely smokes the one next to it doesn’t necessarily win. Before the races, the competitors determine their individual target times in a series of trials. The goal is to get as close to that time as possible. The car that finishes closest to its target time wins. It’s all about consistency and how quickly the drivers respond to the green light. Souped-up Camaros race against work trucks—it’s all fair game. “Bracket racing is a poor man’s sport,” Romero said. The top three finishers get a trophy, and first and second place receive cash prizes—a percentage of a pool made up of entry fees.
The races are a uniting force. There were folks coming out from Midland and Odessa. They’ve even had a couple Border Patrol agents race, the same ones who police the town. One of them recently crashed into the barrier. Crashes don’t happen often; no one’s gotten hurt yet. “A lot of guys get real nervous competing,” said Adrian Jimenez, Alex’s brother, who helps out at the races. “We’ve got to make sure their car is pointing straight forward, and their tires are also pointing straight forward.”
I heard that a sixteen-year-old girl named Dafny Moreno was racing. It was her fourth time; the last time, she came in second place. “She’s a natural,” Romero said. “She’s good at it.” About 90 percent of the racers are men. They’re hoping more women participate.
“Does she even have a license yet?” I asked Robert. Doesn’t matter, he told me. As long as she’s got a legal guardian present, she can race. Out here, the rules of the road don’t apply.