Family from Australia Reopens Aonia Pass, Fueled by Young Daughter's Passion for Off Road Racing

Published on 3 October 2023 at 07:26

Grand Reopening at Aonia Pass October 6-8.

Ruby Howell (r) and sister Matilda are joined by their two younger brothers Oliver (3) and Noah (1) and parents Emily Jane and Aaron.


 

      Ruby Howell dreams of a future NASCAR career, not so out of reach for any ambitious, talented young girl with the racing gene.

She’d be following in the footsteps of drivers like Sara Christian — the first woman to break into the sport during stock car racing’s formative days in the early ‘50s; modern legend Danica Patrick, who’s proven her worth in NASCAR and INDY car racing; and lesser-known names like Hallie Deegan and Jennifer Jo Cobb, both regulars in the NASCAR truck series But if Ruby ever gets there, it’ll be along a very different and challenging path.

     Ruby, who hails from Ramornie, New South Wales, Australia is nearly nine. She’s a slim, precocious girl with a long blond pony tail, and by all accounts a stellar student. You’d be hard put to tell she’s proving her mettle in the CORS (Competitive Off Road Racing Series) kid / youth class piloting a Polaris RZR all-terrain vehicle. Ruby is the oldest daughter of Emily Jane and Aaron Howell, who’ve traveled from Australia on a mission to revitalize the late Perry Gunter’s Aonia Pass Motorsports Park, and Ruby, they admit, is the reason the Howell family ended up in Washington.

     Aaron and Emily Jane Howell oversee Ramornie Rivers Pastoral, a 1200-acre cattle operation about 220 miles south of Brisbane in eastern Australia. “Pretty quiet, not many people around. We live on a road that’s got maybe 10 neighbors,” says Emily Jane. They also operate a trucking and excavation concern in nearby Grafton (still a half-hour away — think Washington-to-Thomson). In that environment, Ruby got her first motorized ride before the age of two. By five she’d graduated from electric power to a gas-engine four wheeler, which she quickly mastered. Aaron carved out a track where she could drive her ATV safely and fast. “She saw the kids racing over here (in the US) on YouTube and said ‘I want to do that.’” 

      But there were a couple of impediments: Ruby was born blind in one eye and wears protective glasses. Her parents were told she’d never be allowed to legally drive. Nonetheless, determined to teach her driving skills, they put her in a series of ATVs. Once race ready, they discovered the local sanctioning body doesn’t allow racers under twelve years. Then on a post-COVID visit to Utah last year, they saw that CORS has a class for kids up to twelve. So they found a CORS event in South Carolina, rented an appropriate ATV, and Ruby was on her way (this year, Ruby’s competed in five rounds, with three more to go). At a second race last year, someone mentioned the series was looking for new venues, and told Aaron the Aonia property in Wilkes County was on the market.

        A decade ago when the Georgia DOT proceeded to widen US-78/GA-17 between Washington and Thomson, part of the plan was to re-route a portion of the highway away from the existing route near the 1904 Ebenezer Baptist Church, the last remaining landmark of the historic Aonia community. The new route cut a diagonal swath across a large portion of the motorsport park property. Perry Gunter tried to appeal the plan, which left a significant area often used for parking isolated from the remainder of the property. Sadly, when he passed in 2015 the appeal was dropped. One family member decided to fence off a large grazing area and a new entity took over the operation of the motorsport park, with limited success. Eventually, the property was put on the market, which is where Aaron and Emily Jane entered the picture. After a visit and discussions with the Gunter family, the Howells struck a deal.

      The journey from Ramornie to Washington covers more than 9,000 miles: four hours up the east coast to the nearest airport in Brisbane, the trans-Pacific hops to Hawaii, then Los Angeles (14 hours), and across the US to Charlotte (five hours), then three more in an RV to Washington. All with four children and a couple of adult travel companions in tow.  Along the way, they were delayed five days in Hawaii due to a health crisis with one of their companions. So a week late to Washington, they faced a shortened deadline preparing the facility for its planned re-opening October 6-8.

        “We’ve been doing everything here at the park, trying to get it all set up. Things we’ve been told were going to happen haven’t happened, so we’ve been chasing our tail a bit,” she explains. Trying to pin Aaron down for a conversation is nearly impossible; he’s constantly moving, checking the progress of a brigade of plumbers and electricians getting the campsite hookups ready, all the excavation work on the motocross and ATV racecourses, getting acres of grass mowed, and all the other necessary details.

            “We want people to come out here and enjoy the space, it’s a community place.” says Emily Jane. “So why shouldn’t people be able to come out here and do that? Aonia Pass was Mr. Perry’s dream. We intend on making it the premier off-road racing park in Georgia.”

 

        With all the buzz going on, Ruby remains focused on her racing. She spent Saturday morning driving at Durhamtown, finishing second overall and first in class. Then it was back home, while open practice was in progress, to get in a few hot laps on the newly groomed (and very dusty) SXS track in her Polaris RZR 200, running lap after lap, each one a little faster, until she ran out of fuel. Just like a true racer would.

 

         The October 6-8 re-opening event includes motocross on the upgraded MX course, CORS round-six ATV racing, flat-track motorcycles on the quarter-mile oval, and a pit-bike race.   A weekend pass is $35 (one-day, $25, reduced rates for kids and families); for attendees, in addition to the racing, there’s an extreme freestyle motorcycle demonstration (think X-Games), food vendors, fireworks, and live music by the July Turner Band, all following an opening ceremony. The following weekend, there’s a truck and tractor pull on the newly-revived dedicated track on Old Aonia Road, sponsored by the Southern Pulling League and the Pro Pulling League.

         November 12-13 sees the return of the Atlanta Motorcycle Club’s AHRMA vintage racing series, which includes trials, motocross, cross-country, and flat track competitions. The following weekend features The AMA / Southern Roots XC Race tour for UTVs and micro ATVs, which also plans to return in February 2024.

         Hopefully the Grand National Cross Country series will be returning in March 2024 for the event they call “The General”. The GNCC is the largest off-road motorcycle series in the United States, and has been a regular event in Washington for many years. The series features many top domestic and international cross-country racing teams and sponsors, and the crowd in recent years has made it the second-largest community in Wilkes County for the weekend.

          Aonia Pass has also been the site of the southeast qualifier for the Loretta Lynn National Amateur Championships, and is the track where the great Ricky Carmichael began his comeback in 2012.

 

You can learn more and keep up to date on their website and Facebook  page

 

Reported by Richard Crabbe

                  

 Ruby’s always looking for the best racing line on the new ATV track at Aonia. She was the first to drive the new track.

Emily Jane’s dual roles are mom and crew chief. She has to insure Ruby has all her safety equipment and is securely strapped in.

Aonia is having a weekend-long grand reopening beginning Friday.


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Comments

Melissa bufford
7 months ago

Do yall need some flaggers or someone help with cleanup from time to time I used to work out there a few years ago flagging I really enjoyed it!!!

William Shields
6 months ago

I’ve been told that there was once a go kart track on that location, are there any plans to revamp that also, there are quite a lot of racers in this area that would be interested in racing there

Mary Ann Peeler
6 months ago

Best wishes with your new endeavor …