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Motorsports Fan Report
By Jim Zufall

Rweb Note: Thank you to Jim for sharing his Motorsports Fan Report updates/news with us. We also thank Aaron Zufall for producing the videos included with some of Jim's columns. Great work, guys!

The Off-season That Keeps On Giving

With the turn of the calendar to 2014 a few weeks ago, thoughts of a new race season begin to swirl in the heads of race teams and fans around the country and right here in Western Pennsylvania. Race cars are getting their much needed off season makeovers, clubs, sanctions and tracks are holding awards ceremonies, and fans are dreaming about looking down at the layer of clay dust on the head of their beer. Yes indeed, it is the off-season!

And what is traditionally a time of year when a trickle of news about a track or team making some minor changes for the new year, this winter has been anything but quiet. Newly sanctioned car classes, a series with local roots becoming a big player in the dirt late model ranks, and some major changes to the landscape of NASCAR sanctioned asphalt racing in the area. Hold on, the potholes aren’t the only thing making for a bumpy ride this year!

The RUSH Dirt Late Model Series has spent precious little time sitting around staying warm this year. Just as the final checkered flag of the year flew for the Crate Late Model series, an expansion was announced to bring the New York/Northeast style center steer modifieds into the crate engine world. RUSH announced in early October an alliance with DIRTcar that will bring organized crate engine modifieds to several tracks in the area. At the time of the release, four tracks had already committed to hosting touring races in the division. RUSH also announced that several more tracks have signed on to include the crate lates into their weekly programs.

On the subject of dirt late models, the NDRL has made some substantial changes as well. In early January, the National Dirt Racing League announced that they had formed a new Northeast Late Model Series as well as a Modified Series. Just a few years old, the NDRL has become a real player in the dirt late model world. Much of that success has come at the hands of series president Jason Shank. A Pittsburgh native, Shank comes with deep pedigree in the world of late models, having been an official in both the MACS Series and the All-Star Late models. Last year’s wildly popular Pittsburgher 100 at Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania Motor Speedway came at the hands of the NDRL. Most in attendance said it was the best Pittsburgher in many years. Look for the series to continue to grow at both the national and regional northeast level.

Western Pennsylvania racing is well known for its plethora of dirt tracks. While asphalt racing has always been there, it seems that over the last decade or so pavement tracks have disappeared or were on life support. That came to an end this winter. If there was no other racing news during this off season, the news from the asphalt world would be huge all by itself. Every winter, the rumors begin to swirl about Jennerstown Speedway re-opening. Everything from a small group of investors to Tony Stewart himself have been said to have the money and the magic to reopen the Somerset County track. Well this year it looks like it could happen. Three investors, Bryan Smith, Rob Beck, and John Taylor have reportedly purchased and taken over the track from former owner Dave Wheeler. Reopening Jennerstown will be no small task as it has fallen victim to a series of vandals over the years. Copper wiring and piping have all been stolen and a number of other issues including the ravages of neglect will provide quite a challenge for the trio. The thunder may once again rumble on the mountain as the group has a target of this spring to get the place whipped into shape and start racing again.

The other asphalt track in the region, Motordrome Speedway released some rather surprising news of its own in the last few weeks as it was announced that Miley Motorsports has sold the track to Turn 4 Entertainment. Headed by former Lake Erie Speedway founder Todd Melfi, Turn 4 has hit the ground running, promising a 2014 schedule and rules package very soon.

The track reopening story isn’t confined to the asphalt ranks. Just a few weeks ago, it was announced that Tri-City Speedway near Franklin PA would come under new ownership and reopen as Allegheny Motor Speedway. The Thomas Organization, led by Mike Thomas released a unique YouTube based press released where Thomas outlined the plans for the track and its future.

On the national racing scene, NASCAR continues to try to reach out to the fans and try to refill the seats their member tracks built at the height of the big league stock car craze of the late 1990’s. In perhaps the biggest change in procedures since the introduction of the”Chase” format, NASCAR has wised up and decided to give the fans something to watch other that the naptime that is time trials. The new qualifying format is a NASCAR-esque complicated scheme that boils down to actual racing for your starting position. What a novel idea. Wonder where they came up with that? Time’s up. They got the idea from the incredibly popular NASCAR Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway last summer. Fans got to see actual racing for starting position. You see NASCAR, your fans have figured out that watching one car go around the track by itself really fast is about as exciting as watching one car go around the track by itself really slow. In the short track world we call what you’ve decided is a great idea “heats.” The format would take several more paragraphs to explain, but suffice it to say that it’s about time NASCAR tried to remember the fans and the entertainment value they want for their dollar. Single car qualifying laps ain’t it.

This rather active off-season has been anything but quiet. Schedules start to get released, rulebooks begin to take shape and the banquet season is well underway. In just a few weeks, we’ll all be gathering at the Clearview Mall and Pittsburgh Mills looking at the shiney new race cars and dreaming of warmer days and dirt in our beer.

Goodbye, Farewell & Amen

Goodbye, Farewell & Amen. Anyone old enough to remember will recognize these three words as the title of the final episode of the long running TV show M.A.S.H. It seemed a fitting title for the weekend that just passed. With the Western Pennsylvania racing season winding down, the time has come to say “So Long” to the tracks, staff, bleacher buddies and pit neighbors we’ve spent all summer with.

For a dozen years or so, the place that this part of the country used to bid farewell for the season to all your racing buddies was Challenger Raceway’s Fall Fest. Once the dates for Fall Fest were announced every year, there was a rush of dirt racing fans heading to their calendars, red Sharpie in hand, excitedly circling the dates on the October page. Fall Fest became the place where memories to hold on to through the coming winter were made. The opportunity to hang with friends you’ve pitted with all summer, the annual ritual of meeting up with folks who run at other tracks during the regular season, and making a whole new set of friends were some of the highlights off the track we all looked forward to at Fall Fest. The highlights of the eight or ten divisions on the track were almost as memorable.

After the permanent closure of Challenger a few years back, there was a tangible void in the racing world as the season wound down. That “one last time together’ experience was gone. Then in 2009, Lernerville Speedway rolled out the first annual “DIRTcar Roundup Steel City Stampede.” A three day weekend with camping, entertainment, multiple activities and three nights of racing make up the Stampede weekend.

This past weekend marked the fifth Stampede, and it has already grown to have that same feel of Fall Fest. The sights of endless rows of campers, the wisps of campfire smoke dotting the campground landscape, the smell of food cooking and most of all, the camaraderie of the assembled race fans and teams have made this the place to be to finish out the season. The sight of 260-some race cars, racecar haulers ranging from the biggest toter home/stacker trailer combo, to an open trailer pulled by an old pickup; these sights are just the back drop of what’s really going on.

You see, racing is and has always been a family sport; but not just the family connected by blood. Sometimes the family connected by mud (or reddish brown clay) is even closer than the family you’ll find on The cars, trailers, sights and sounds of the Stampede serve as little more than the canvas for the connections and relationships that will last a lifetime. The Stampede serves as a place to firm up these friendships, but also to say goodbye for the winter. Sure there’ll be banquets and swap meets and get-togethers over the winter, but the time spent in the heat, cold, rain and mud are where the “family” gains its strength.

As for the action on the track, Saturday night’s action did not disappoint. To a guy who knows nothing about preparing a dirt track, it always amazes me how a track crew can keep a track surface that consistent for that long. Every feature race I saw was more competitive than the last. Beyond the track management’s decision to drag out the victory lane ceremony and photo ops way too long, the product on the track Saturday night was what we’ve all come to expect from one of the best joints in the country.

A couple items from my Steel City Stampede notebook:

*With temps plummeting through the thirties and a real threat of rain, the crowd was as loyal as they were plentiful. I didn’t see much of the typical rush for the exits when the top three divisions were finished. In fact what I noticed was that as the top three or four divisions were finishing up and packing their trailers, the grandstands began to fill. There was no rush to the gate to head out. Instead, the racers and teams chose to stick it out to watch the rest of the program. Perhaps it was the fact that many weren’t going home, but back to the campground, but it still felt good to watch some of the support divisions race in front of a larger crowd that they may be used to.

*For those folks who don’t much care for the support divisions, shame on you. On a typical Friday night, if you leave your seat and head for the car after Lernerville’s top three divisions are finished, I have news for you: You’re missing the best part of the racing card. The Pure Stocks, or Street Stocks or Sportsman or whatever they call them now almost always put on the best show of the night. The Saturday night portion of the Stampede was no different. The support divisions put on some of the more competitive racing of the night. In fact, the next guy who tells me that the Crate Late Model racing is boring, well let’s just say he and I are going to be in a strong disagreement.

*We all watched closely as the laps clicked down in the RUSH Crate Late Model feature, counting positions between championship contenders Mike Pehger Jr. and Ryan Montgomery. In fact for me it was nearly as riveting to watch a gentleman (I can only assume it was Montgomery’s father) pacing the length of the turn four bleachers watching the championship slip away from his son’s grasp. The poor guy was crestfallen when the checkers flew. But as is the true nature of the folks in this racing family of ours, he was stopped by no less than a half dozen fans shaking his hand. I couldn’t hear a word they were saying, but I can only imagine that they were handshakes of condolence for the loss of the championship and congratulations on having a great season.

*Perhaps the most gut wrenching farewell on Saturday was the one I had with Butch Lambert. Saturday night was the swansong for Lambert and Lambert Racing as he is hanging up his helmet. And while nothing is forever, he seems perfectly content with his decision. After talking with him for a while and hearing some of the reasons for the decision, I can honestly say he’s doing it for all the right reasons. An easy interview and always candid with his comments, Butch Lambert will be missed in the pits. His on track presence didn’t always have him at the top of the scoreboard, but a 16th to fourth hard charging finish with his faithful family race team looking on was the way to go out in style. Well done.

Alphabet Soup visits Lernerville

It is already the middle of July and last Friday was the first full race program I’ve been able to make it to at Lernerville Speedway. Sometimes life just steals your schedule and there’s not much you can do about it. But finally good weather and spare time met at the same place and for me that was Lernerville.

On this night, the track that boasts itself as the only one in the country that features the big three of dirt racing (Winged Sprints, Super Late Models, Big Block Modifieds) nearly every week had none of them. Instead it was an alphabet soup of visiting sanctioning bodies that Lernerville hosted last Friday.

The evening was co-highlighted by the BOSS (Buckeye Outlaw Sprint Series) Wingless Sprints and the RUSH Dirt Late Model Series. For both, it was the first ever appearance at Lernerville.

As I made my way through the pit area on my arrival, I had the chance to talk a little with track General Manager Gary Risch Jr. about Lernerville’s season and just how, when every track in Western Pennsylvania cancelled their shows the previous weekend, did they manage to pull off the three day Firecracker 100. “It’s pretty cool to see that this event has grown to where it can handle stuff like that,” said Risch. Y’know the race is one thing, but the concerts and all the other cool stuff that’s involved with it. You got to realize that’s a big part of it too and we were able to pull that stuff off Friday night. Then we were able to get all that racing in on Saturday. And pretty good racing!

As for his track crew’s effort in getting things in shape for such an event with the conditions they had to deal with, Risch beamed. “You got Dan Bauman and Chad Alchier that live here. And then we have Larry Fink, that’s our traveling guy that does Volusia with Chad. We call them guys the A-Team for a reason. They’re the best in the country.” As for having the BOSS Wingless cars competing for the first time, “I think it’s a neat deal,” says Risch. “I liked the USAC stuff we did back in the day. This BOSS Series is perfect for what we need around here. They seem to be doing a great job with it.”.

While a number of the regulars following the BOSS series have zip codes in the Midwest, some very familiar names are taking part in the series as well. Friday’s roster included Brent and Brandon Matus, both longtime Lernerville regulars. Other locals include Arnie Kent, Runner up Brandon Spithaler and winner of the 25 lap wingless feature event, Jack Sodeman Jr. The father and son team of Brent and Brandon Matus shared their thoughts on running the unfamiliar wingless cars. “A lot of finesse,” explains the senior Matus. “That’s the biggest thing. It’s not about horsepower, it’s all about driver. When you take the wing off of it, that puts the skill back into racing.” The younger Matus added, “You don’t have the wings and everything fighting against your setup.”.

As for the two year old BOSS organization, president and founder Aaron Fry talked about his series and his experience at Lernerville. “We visit several other facilities; Freemont Speedway, Wayne County and a lot of other tracks that also run the wings. A lot of the fans just like seeing a different version of sprint car racing. But then we also go to tracks that also don’t run sprint cars at all; like Pittsburgh’s (Pennsylvania) Motor Speedway. I think they run a special or two. That’s another thing that’s good for us because it helps expose fans that don’t see any sprint cars to see some form of sprint car racing.” Fry commented both before and after the evening about Lernerville, the only new track on their schedule this year. “We’ve already been here a couple of hours and everyone’s been fantastic. I already love the place.” A day or so after the Lernerville event, he continued to show his pleasure for Lernerville. “I felt the night went really well. Twenty-three cars was a little low by BOSS standards, but was still better than average wing 410 car counts in most places. Overall experience I would give it an A+++++. Every single person we dealt with from Smoky in the pits, to Gary Risch and everyone in between was great to us! The flagman, Tyler in scoring, the announcer, and just everyone I can remember was just super and complimented our show. We really look forward to a return visit to Lernerville.”.

The RUSH Dirt Late Model Series co-headlined the program on Independence Day Weekend. It was the beginning of the RUSH “Cross the Borders Speedweek,” a five night race week covering tracks in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Friday’s 37 car field included race teams from five surrounding states and Ontario Canada. Josh Double took a commanding lead and led the entire 25 lap feature holding off some of the best in the crate late model business in Western Pennsylvania.

The evening ended as it usually does on a Friday night at Lernerville. That is with the most competitive race of the night, the DIRTcar Sportsman division. I had the pleasure of sharing a bleacher seat with friends Bob and Karen Bechtold of Bairdford PA. When the two featured classes were finished and loading their trailers, Bob turned to me and said, “So these are the cheap, slow cars?” My answer, as always when posed this question was: “Sit down, hold on and watch.” What unfolded before the night was in the books was a 20 lap feature, door to door, multiple groove, top five under a blanket, good old fashion stock car race. I told my friends that far too many people are turning the ignition key in their car when the best race of the night is taking to the track.

When the dust settled, it was young AJ Flick coming away with the victory. “I was working my way to the front and catching Jimmy Fosnought, who was running a fantastic race,” said Flick back at his hauler. “But I ended up screwing up coming out of (turn) four, half lost it pushing for every ounce I had. We got a caution though, restarted on the inside.” After spinning his tires in the remnants of the fluid on the track from the previous caution, Flick tells the rest. “I just had to fight my way forward.” Flick also spoke to the competitive nature of the division. “We have so many cars in this division that can win every night. Last year or so it was about 9-11 cars that won every night. This year it’s already been about four or five. We may not be the fastest division out there, but we put on the best racing, have the most passes, and if the track is slick or tacky, I just feel like we excel.”.

A few notebook items from Lernerville:

*A new car turned up in the pits with a familiar driver and sponsor. Ben Easler, son of Alternative Power Sources owner Sylvan Easler was driving his new number 7 car in the DIRTcar Sportsman division. Easler racing has purchased two cars from longtime division regular Greg Beach. Ben’s younger brother Aaron will start racing in another week or two. Both are standouts in the go-kart ranks, and Ben has a few years racing asphalt in a pavement modified at Motordrome Speedway.

*Other friendly faces in the pits were the gang from Lambert Racing. Butch Lambert, two time Pure Stock champion is now competing in the RUSH Late Model Series.

*While this was the only appearance of the BOSS series this year, the RUSH Late Models are scheduled to return for the season ending Steel City Stampede in October.

RUSH Series Headlines Emig Memorial

Sharon Speedway held its first two day show of the season as the Sweeney RUSH Dirt Late Model Series was the headliner for the Memorial Day weekend Bill Emig Memorial. The Emig Memorial, honoring one of Western Pennsylvania’s most successful car owners, has moved around to several tracks in the region. It all started at Lernerville Speedway for the Six-Cylinder Modifieds. It was moved to Hickory Speedway and eventually to Mercer Raceway Park.. With the demise of the six-cylinders, it changed to the Big-Block Modifieds before switching to the 358 Modifieds while at Mercer. The last couple of years have seen the event change to Limited, or Crate Dirt Late Models and move yet again, this time to Sharon Speedway.

After a couple years under the FASTrack Series banner, the newly formed Sweeney RUSH Dirt Late Model Series was the sanction hosting the memorial that has a history spanning over two decades. “My father, between him and I owned a race car in this part of the country for 40 years,” stated Vicki Emig, owner and promoter of the RUSH Late Model Series. “He started in 1969. He’s been gone 22 years, and he just instilled his love of racing in me. A lot of what I did at Mercer Raceway and what I do with this, not just present a plate of racing, but do as much as we can do to give back to the racers. I had the best teacher in the world. Bill Emig didn’t know how to read, write or spell, but he knew how to treat people right.

The RUSH Series has taken off in popularity with both drivers and promoters, mostly due to Emig’s reputation and her and partner Mike Leone’s involvement with the FASTrack Late Model Series over the last several years. Emig spoke of the willingness of many local racetracks to partner with her new series. “When I decided to make the transition, I went and sat down with each individual promoter, told them my thoughts, my hopes and my direction. Obviously in the end it was going to be their decision once Mike and I sat down and talked with them. When it was all said and done we’ve been very, very blessed. Once I got situated with the promoters, I started to approach sponsors.

Butch Lambert, one of the long time drivers in the area who ran with the FASTrack series since its arrival in the Northeast has, like so many others switched to the RUSH Series along with Emig and Leone. “With Vicki and Mike running it, it’s just going to be a bigger and better thing,” stated Lambert. “They’ve made the crate racing deal up here grow in leaps and bounds. Vicki really knows how to promote and get the money and big races.

While Lambert’s night didn’t go as he’d have liked it to with a twentieth place finish in a 25 car field, fortunes were much better for Emig Memorial feature winner Ryan Montgomery. After a horrible opening night in the two day event, Montgomery came back to take over the lead on a lap nine restart and pulled away from the field the rest of the race, which went caution free from there. “Last night we had some bad luck going for us. Wound up getting in a really big crash; tearing up a car,” Said Montgomery. “Tonight we got it totally turned around. It was just awesome, you know, coming up here and starting up front in the heat race, just doing everything we could.” The young Montgomery found himself in a mass of lapped traffic near the end. Such was his focus on getting through the cluster of cars that he nearly lost track of where he was in the lap count. “I didn’t even notice the laps wind down. There were like six rows of them (lapped cars) two wide. I didn’t know how I was going to pass them. It just depended on how those cars were going to move. I was going around a lapped car and saw the white flag, and I was like, ‘Is that really the white flag?’ I didn’t really know, but I came back around and it was the checkered flag. It was a good time.

The RUSH Late Model Series continues weekly at Sharon Speedway as well as a number of other tracks in the area. The touring series continues throughout the summer and fall with a couple dozen races covering three states. More info on the Sweeney RUSH Dirt Late Model Series can be seen at


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