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!
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 Ancestry.com. 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 www.rushracingseries.com.
(04/12/13)...“The pace car’s pacin’, Now the green flag’s wavin’. Uh oh another six pack summer comin’.” Perhaps Country star Phil Vasser sums it up best in his 2001 hit “Six Pack Summer” when he put to music the way most of us feel by mid April; especially when the winter of 2013 was this cold and miserable. The light at the end of the tunnel has come! Get that green flag in the air and let’s get to racin’!
The 2013 season gets underway after one of the most active off-seasons for a number of local drivers, race teams, sanctioning bodies and media outlets. In short, you may need a scorecard to keep all the players straight.
A few events are already in the books. Mercer Raceway Park’s “Chiller Thriller” took place on Saturday April 6th, just one week after its scheduled date. Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania Motor Speedway also delayed their test and tune Saturday by a week. Both tracks launch into their full points schedules this Saturday April 13th. The mid-state tracks had their traditional early season kick-offs underway. Williams Grove, Port Royal and Selinsgrove Speedways all got their programs started in mid-March.
In a couple of interesting twists on the Western Pennsylvania circuit, Lernerville Speedway will end the 2012 season just before they kick off the 2013 campaign. Lernerville’s Steel City Stampede fell victim to the weather back in October. With the chances of getting any better weather later in the fall rather slim, speedway management made the decision to run off the balance of the show before the new season starts. All that happens this Sunday, April 14th when the 2012 DIRTcar Round Up Steel City Stampede Finale will feature no less than 10 divisions of racing all on one Sunday afternoon.
In another schedule twist, Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania Motor Speedway has taken steps to try to avoid some of the risks of early season weather. PPMS which runs a weekly Saturday night program has instituted an early season schedule which moves the racing program to the afternoon for the month of April. Racing starts at 2:00 PM on April 13, 20 & 27. The action returns to Saturday evenings on May 4th. With a predicted high temperature of 49 degrees on Saturday and an overnight low of 33, the move to the afternoon already looks like a good one.
The off-season has also had no shortage of new arrivals in the world of sanctioning bodies as well. Most notably in the world of dirt track late models, two new organizations with very familiar names behind them have arrived on the scene in the last six months or so.
In the Super Late Model world, the National Dirt Racing League has arrived with a rather large splash, announcing that each event will pay $20,000 to win each feature event and an impressive $1500 to start. Billed as a Super Dirt Late Model Mini-Series, the NDRL hopes to attract some of the top names in the sport by keeping the events on their admittedly short schedule away from other, more prestigious events in the Super Late Model ranks. “We will not schedule against either national series or against events considered ‘Crown Jewels’, says NDRL President Jason Shank. We are also attempting to schedule events that will be logistically convenient for the nation’s top drivers to attend.” Both Shank and NDRL owner John Kennedy, come with a good pedigree in Late Model racing and should have little trouble making a high paying, modestly short series work well. The crown of the inaugural season will be the sanctioning of Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania Motor Speedway’s season ending “Pittsburgher 100.” The 25th annual Pittsburgher will return to its original 100 lap format and pay a cool $25,000 to win.
In another form of the alphabet soup that dots the Late Model landscape, the RUSH Dirt Late Model Series has come on to the crate engine late model scene in a big way this winter. Vicki Emig and Mike Leone, former Northeast Region Directors of the Fastrack Late Model Series, have introduced the RUSH Series to, in Emig’s words, “Better serve our racers by being an independent series. By being a regional organization rather than a national one will allow us to be more responsive to our tracks, teams, and fans.” With a similar formula to Fastrack, certain speedways will sign on as weekly RUSH tracks, having the tracks’ Crate Late Models sanctioned by the series. Currently Sharon, PPMS, Roaring Knob, Allegany County, Allegheny Mountain, McKean and Bradford Speedways have signed on as member tracks. In addition, there will be an extensive touring component to the series, bringing the best of the region’s Crate Late Model teams together several times a year.
“We have 13 speedways that will host a Weekly or Touring event in 2013,” stated co-director Mike Leone. “Lots of interest from new racers from around the region. Our touring base looks really strong and with the Rock coming on and the events at Hagerstown, it has really drove interest to the east. Really looking forward to our inaugural Touring weekend (Roaring Knob/Hagerstown; April 19-20), which will be historic as it'll also be the first ever Crate Late race at Hagerstown. The interest has been phenomenal.”
So the 2013 racing season is coming to life and will be in full song in just a few days. Uh oh, another six pack summer comin’!
Lake County Speedway
(08/18/12)...It isn’t important just how it came to be that I had the task of transporting a group of high school juniors and seniors to a wedding in Cleveland a week ago (I think the groom lost a bet). But when I found that the job had been given to me, and that I now had to find something to do for several hours on a Saturday night somewhere east of the Forest City, the choice was clear: find a race track!
There was little doubt the best choice for this trip after scouring the Ohio landscape for a short track in the area that Lake County Speedway in Painesville would be my destination. It turned out to be a pretty good option. I often struggle to find a way to best describe a track I’ve never been to. Or a track that I think those of you that take the time to read this column might want to visit someday. Describing Lake County Speedway is easy. It is the epitome of quaint.
Every Sunday (or Saturday night) while watching a NASCAR race broadcast, you will see a number of promos for NASCAR Home Tracks. Those little short tracks that dot the landscape of the nation, offering the vast couch potatoes of Sprint Cup fandom the opportunity to see live local racing somewhere in or near their own backyard. Lake County might be the best representation of this ideal that NASCAR is trying to sell.
A charming little one-fifth mile paved oval along Route 2 in Northeastern Ohio, Lake County has all the parts to make the NASCAR Home Track formula work.
Not only is the track itself small by most standards, but the entire facility is just plain comfy. One of those everyone-knows-everyone-else type atmospheres that makes itself a Saturday night home away from home for a grandstand full of fans. Touting itself as the only Figure 8 Track in Northeastern Ohio, they make good use of the big X in the center of the infield with two divisions of Figure 8 cars. Added to the weekly card are Limited Late Models, Street Stocks and Factory Fours.
The President and Promoter of LCS, Randy Holbrooks is not one to manage from afar. Always on the move, in the pits, in the grandstands, in the midway and even clearing the track of debris at times, Holbrooks is very much in touch with his racers and fans alike. Unfortunately, due to a rain shower that came through sometime between heat and feature time, and my need to return to my duties as a taxi driver back to Pittsburgh, I never had the chance to have more than a few words with Holbrooks, but his actions as I observed his movements in the pit and fan areas tells the story of a guy who loves this place.
As for the action on the track, there is little time for much more that a picture or two between each race, as the pace of the evening is always moving ahead. Just as one division is off the track, another comes on for a few warm up laps and the green flies again. In a rather unique format, each division runs a couple of heat races and a feature like most any track across the country, but Lake County also runs a 10 lap pursuit race between the heats and features. Little question that the loyal fans of LCS get a full night of racing for the mere $10 admission fee.
So if you find yourself in the Cleveland area, and don’t mind having the random proud grandfather tell you about his grandkid and how he is tearing the place up, or the roaming track announcer who calls a race from the flagstand or sells 50/50 tickets by the circumference of his head, or the next generation of fans populating the place in huge numbers, you may want to give Lake County Speedway a try. Visit them at http://www.lakecountyspeedway.com/
(07/30/12)...No matter what walk of life we come from; what activity we are involved in, one thing is common among all of us: We all need to not forget our history and where we came from. In racing, we all owe a debt of gratitude to those who came before us and plowed the road to where we are today. One of the ways race fans have been able to honor the pioneers of our sport in this area is Lernerville Speedway’s Nostalgia Night. On the Lernerville schedule in early June every year, the event has a long history of falling to a rainout. This year was no exception.
So, on July 13, 2012 the annual installment of Nostalgia Night took place in the midway area of the speedway behind the grandstands. With nearly 15 cars of several styles on display, there was enough on hand to make most any race fan from the 1960’s or 1970’s reminisce about days from their past. Also in attendance were several retired drivers and car owners that were happy to rekindle old acquaintances.
Don Gamble of Speedway Productions and the “Rappin’ on Racin’” radio program is the impetus behind Lernerville’s Nostalgia Night. He spends countless hours contacting retired drivers and car owners, working closely with speedway management to bring the new and old together for this one special night.
This year a new twist has come on the scene. The Pennsylvania Vintage Dirt Modified Racing Series, the brainchild of Jim Kirkwood, brought several members of his club to Lernerville’s Nostalgia Night. Thanks to the vintage modified club, the night’s racing took on a look that set it apart from all the Nostalgia Nights in the past. After all the “Fab Four” divisions had run their preliminary heat races, seven vintage modifieds took to the track for a heat race of their own.
This was no parade either. Full speed racing, almost the way it used to be. I say almost since these guys have an agreement that while they want to race, they also don’t want to tear up their equipment. They just can’t go online and order more sheet metal and have things looking like new again by the next race. But it was racing to be sure. The best part for me, a fifty-something race fan, was watching these guys drive. By that I mean you can actually see the drivers working in the car. Just like I could see them from these same grandstands four decades before, sitting with my dad watching Lou Blaney, Blackie Watt, Ed Lynch and others master a 1970’s Lernerville Speedway.
Lernerville Speedway’s Nostalgia Night has taken on a whole new meaning with the addition of the PA Vintage Modified Series. It truly took me back to a simpler time when my dad and I sat in the grandstands of a very new Lernerville Speedway or North Hills Raceway. Watching these guys in the vintage modifieds makes us really remember those guys that came before the current crop of drivers; those guys who truly plowed the road to where we are today.
The video below, hosted by Don Gamble takes a look at the importance of an event like Nostalgia Night. It also includes interviews with Jim “Dingo” Kirkwood of the PA Vintage Modified Series as well as driver Paul Bacchus, ultimately the winner of the Vintage Modified feature race that night. Thanks to all of them as well as Lernerville Speedway’s Gary Risch and Eric Westendorf for their hospitality. As always, thanks to Aaron Zufall for the awesome video work!
(07/09/12)..."In the heart of Erie County’s wine making region, just off Interstate 86, lies the brand new Lake Erie Speedway. It has become what is probably the finest short track in the country. Built on a 120 acre piece of property just a few miles south of the town of North East, Pennsylvania, it finds itself centrally located between Cleveland, Buffalo and Pittsburgh. This puts eight million people within a two hour drive of the speedway."
Those were the words I wrote exactly ten years ago when I visited Lake Erie Speedway in its inaugural season. The management team even saw fit to use the quote in their 2003 Media Guide. And while I’ve been back a number of times as a fan, the chance to cover a race night as the speedway enters its second decade of operation gave me a unique chance to explore the many changes the track has made in that first decade. Perhaps it took ten years to figure out just what sort of place it wanted to be, it has finally lived up to its potential.
Built over the space of two years at the dawn of the century, the 12 million dollar facility was and remains second to none in terms of fan friendliness. The Midway area behind the grandstands provides just about anything a race fan and his or her family would want. A kids play area, complete food concessions, a beer stand, Mike’s Hard Lemonade stand and a number of sponsor interaction areas are just a few of the attractions on the backside of the huge all aluminum grandstands.
The action on the track kicks off every week with a short fireworks and flamethrower display just before the green flag of every division. LES runs off a six division show in just over three and a half hours including intermission. The day we visited was the night before Father’s Day so the intermission entertainment was tricycle races on the front stretch between selected dads in the audience.
The only real disappointment at LES is the small size of their top class, the Late Models. While not an enjoyable fact, it is pretty much the norm in asphalt racing in the area according to LES Vice President Brandon Kaczay. Asphalt Late Model counts are down at area tracks such as Holland Speedway in Western New York and Motordrome in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The other classes at LES didn’t disappoint. From the entry level Bandoleros to the Asphalt Modifieds each division put on a good show.
Perhaps the track design itself is the reason for the competitive racing. The little three-eighths mile oval with its progressive banking and short straightaways lends itself to some very interesting racing, often times four wide in the corners. The unique track was designed after the famed Irwindale Speedway in Southern California.
Perhaps what stands out the most about Lake Erie Speedway is the crowd. It is huge. I have visited LES six or seven times since their opening season ten years ago. There have been times, such as my last visit in 2009 when you had your choice of seats in the massive grandstands, a fact at far too many short tracks these days. Since their season opener in late May, the 6000 seat grandstand is nearly full. You will often find Kaczay himself in the spectator parking lot helping direct traffic. The marketing plan he and his staff have put into place operate under the theory of "racing entertainment." They are not just selling the product on the track, but the entire package. Kaczay explains much of their marketing plan in the accompanying video. It would be time well spent to pay a visit to Lake Erie Speedway if your summer plans take you to the Lake Erie shore of Pennsylvania or New York.
06/11/12...Saturday night, June 9th Pittsburgh's Pennsylvania Motor Speedway was buzzing with a packed grandstand, stunt riders on Quads, a Figure 8 Race, five divisions of racing, and a Monster Truck smashing cars in the infield. What a night!
With PPMS coming off a history making week the previous Saturday after Kari Gasser's Super Late Model victory, what better way to follow up that with a beautiful 80-something degree day, and a grandstand full of families and little kids waiting for a close up look at a real monster truck. Joe Sylvester and the “Bad Habit” monster didn't disappoint. With the truck on display in the midway area behind the grandstands, the kids in attendance got an up close look at a real monster truck, building their anticipation for the car crushing fun that would ensue at intermission.
I got to speak to a rather exasperated Ty Miley in the concession stand during feature time, who told me this had been a crazy night. Not only the monster truck, quads and Figure 8 race, but the number of Groupon and other special deals for Saturday night had the place as full as any night during the regular racing season.
After the festivities at intermission, the regular five division racing did not disappoint, giving the fans of monster truck competition a taste of what is available every Saturday night just a few minutes out of Pittsburgh.
The features started with Bernie Blair Jr. pick up his first win of the season in the Young Guns just five days after his 16th birthday. In the Hobby Stocks, Eric Goldburg had a substantial lead until he suffered a pair of flat tires handing the lead to eventual winner Tyler Fox. A six car tangle in turns three and four led to a lengthy red flag in the Fastrack Late Model feature. When the race resumed, it was Mike Pegher Jr. in Victory Lane for the second time in as many weeks.
Mike Johnson ended a two year drought at PPMS in the Super Lates, keeping a 10 car lead over a multi lap struggle for second between Alex Feree and Daryl Charlier. Jake Simmons doubled his efforts for the night, winning the Sportsman Late Model feature about an hour after he hoisted the checkered flag for a win in the Figure 8 race.
PPMS wasn't the only Western Pennsylvania track to enjoy full fields and grandstands. The picture perfect weather with daytime temps in the low 80's and comfortable evening temps welcomed thousands of fans to all the local tracks this past weekend. Lernerville Speedway offered half price admission to all active Fire, Police and EMS memebers on Friday night. All in attendance got to see Danny Holtgraver get the win in the Sprints, Brian Swartzlander took advantage of some bad luck suffered by Jeremiah Shingledecker and got the win on the last lap of the Modified feature. Swartlander's car was powered by a small block allowing him to take advantage of the weight break rule with the smaller engine. Alex Feree took the win in the Late Models, while Paul Schreckengost led wire to wire for the win in the Sportsman.
On the asphalt Friday, Motordrome Speedway hosted a three division show with the added attraction of a 100 lap Enduro race. Neil Brown, continued his dominance winning his fourth feature in the Late Models. Billy Hribar took the Modified win and Matt Sever bested the Street Stock field. The Enduro was won for the second time this season by Super Compact division standout Steve Long.
Over in Hartford Ohio, Brian Swartzlander continued his winning weekend by taking the checkers in the Big Block Modified feature at Sharon Speedway. Other winners were Will Thomas III in the FASTRACK Late Models, Jack Young in the E-Mods, and Paul Davis in the Stock Cars. Brandon Blackshear won the Econo-Mods and Jim Haefke, Jr. took the Mini-Stocks. In a couple of make up features, Jim Dellinger and Scott Gilliland won the Econo's and the Mini's, respectively.
At Mercer Raceway Park, Danny Holtgraver doubled up his win total for the weekend in the Sprints. Other winners were Rob Curtis in the Modifieds, Joe McEwen, who inherited the win in the Outlaw Sprint Warriors after Jason Scoville came up quite light at the scales, Mark Marcucci in the Mod Lites, Jerry Batcher in the Mini Stocks and Rusty Moore in the Stock Cars.
Every track in Western PA and Eastern Ohio got in a full show thanks to the incredible weather of last weekend. A look at the long range forecast for the coming weekend looks like a carbon copy of last week. I'll be at the Lake Erie Speedway hoping to do a column with an accompanying video on Saturday night. Get out to a track near you this weekend!
05/21/12...In pit areas of race tracks across the country there is a single common denominator. It is the people. And while from track to track and region to region we may all look and talk and sound different, we are all pretty much the same. And we're there for the same thing: a night of racing. If you take the time to look beyond the race cars, the pit carts, the tool boxes and haulers, you find what is real behind it all, the people.
And while the shiny, loud racecars make up the canvas, it is the families and their stories that really make a local short track a home away from home for so many of them. For these families, they miss out on so much of what you and I might consider everyday life. They give up some of the many aspects of a "normal" life that we might enjoy for the time in the garage and the track.
For Pastor Bill Beck of Motor Racing Outreach, it is these very people and families that bring him to two Western PA race tracks every weekend. At Lernerville Speedway on Fridays and Mercer Raceway Park on Saturdays all spring and summer, you'll find Pastor Bill, aka The Racer's Pastor, roaming the pits, making friends, listening to stories and sharing the Gospel in a way few other clergy would be suited for.
The founder of Motor Racing Outreach, Max Helton, had a vision for his organization. To provide chaplains to all the major racing sanctions in the country including NASCAR, Indy Car, AMA Motorcycle racing, boat racing and beyond. As his ministry grew, the need for chaplains at the local short track became evident and his hope and vision for the future of his ministry would include a chaplain at every short track across the country, spreading the Good News of the Gospel to racers and their families.
For Pastor Bill, his part in Helton's vision includes serving as chaplain to both Lernerville and Mercer every week. His duties are as many as they are varied. To the fan in the grandstands he's little more than the preacher who prays for the night's events before the National Anthem is played. But to those who have had the honor of his friendship and ministry, he is something much more. In this video, Pastor Bill shares his thoughts and experiences he has encountered in this unique form of ministry.
Pastor Bill has for some time wanted to expand his mission to more racetracks around Western Pennsylvania. And while there are others in the area that have the same calling, like Rev. Bill Waugh of Racing with Jesus Ministries, there are still not enough. Pastor Beck has expressed many times in the past his desire to find a few dedicated folks that would like to take on this unique ministry so other tracks in the area can have a chaplain to call their own. If you think that person might be you, Pastor Bill Beck would love to hear from you. Keep in touch with "The Racer's Pastor" and Motor Racing Outreach at http://racerspastor.com/
04/20/12...On as nice a Friday evening as any race promoter could hope for, Motordrome Speedway opened the gates for week two of the 2012 season last Friday, April 20th. With 71 cars in the pits for racing action, according to track announcer Mike Lysakowski this was an increase over opening night a week before. The Super Compact division had 18 cars checked into the pit area, which speaks not only to the popularity of the division, but the prospect of more young drivers coming up through the ranks in coming years.
After the heat racing action, the Street Stock division took to the track for their 25 lap feature. After a number of years piloting a stock car on the dirt of Pittsburgh's Pennsylvania Speedway, AJ Poljak has created quite a stir in the Motordrome Asphalt Street Stocks. Poljak dominated the feature race with his only challenge coming with the checkered flag in sight. A caution came out as the flagman had the checkered in his hands, essentially eliminating the half straightaway lead held by Poljak. When the green white checkered was completed he showed it was more than luck that had him out front for so many laps. He has proven he'll be a force to contend with in the coming months on the pavement of Motordrome.
In other action, the 50 lap Late Model feature saw Acme, PA's Neil Brown take the lead on lap three and never look back. Brown has driven for a number of owners on the asphalt. He currently pilots the Bob Bentz/Stan's Transmission car. He was followed across the line by Barry Awtey, Gary Wiltrout, Bobby Henry and Steve Black.
The best side by side action of the night came in the Charger division. The top three cars ran a good portion of the feature bumper to bumper withRon Eiford holding off all comers for the win. A small but stout field of Modifieds put on a good show as well with winner Billy Hribar pulling off a second to last lap pass for the lead and going on to take the win. Super Compact driver Greg Staggers came from his eleventh starting spot to secure the second win in as many weeks.
I had a chance to speak to Motordrome Promoter Stan Lasky on Friday. He talked about the new season and what's in store for the fans this year. You can see a video of his interview HERE.
In other action last weekend, Lernerville Speedway kicked off the 2012 campaign under the same warm cloudless sky. The move to a later starting date seems to have paid off as the grandstands were full of fans more than ready to get the season underway. Former Sprint Car champion Kevin Schaeffer held off Danny Holtgraver for the first feature win of the season at Lernerville. In the Late Models, Jarod Miley held off a hard charging Chub Frank for the victory. Once again, New Yorker Chad Brachman came to opening night before his home state Big Block Modified tracks get up and running for the 2012 season. The visiting Brachman repeated his 2007 performance beating out a Who's Who of Western PA Modified stars. Finally, Cory McPherson held off the likes of Jim Fosnaught and AJ Flick for the Sportsman feature.
The rest of the weekend fell to the rainmakers as every Saturday track in the area fell to the weather for the second time in as many weeks.
Speaking of rain, Pittsburgh's Pennsylvania Motor Speedway announced a rainout policy that moves a rained out Saturday night program to the next day. Sunday's events will all start one hour earlier than the regular Saturday night shows.
The silence around the world of local racing has finally come to an end for another winter. However this past winter will go down as the warmest and perhaps the one with the most possibility of racing during the off-season that we’ve ever seen.
A handful of notes from the off season from all forms of motorsports:
Perhaps one of the most ambitious attempts at starting a vintage racing group in this part of the country is underway, thanks to Jim “Dingo” Kirkwood. The Australian born Kirkwood has launched Pennsylvania Vintage Dirt Modifieds. For those of us who fondly remember the cars we simply called “coupes” racing around the western Pennsylvania short tracks, we now have the opportunity to relive some of those long ago days. Kirkwood has put together a racing club which will compete and display vintage Modifieds at a short track near you this season. I hope to get a few words with Kirkwood to share his vision for the vintage car club in the coming weeks.
One of the best quotes coming out of the season ending flurry of events at the end of the 2011 NASCAR season came from eventual champion Tony Stewart. It seems that in an interview featuring Stewart and Carl Edwards, both dirt track racers at heart, Edwards commented that he just wished they could simply go to a dirt track somewhere and settle it all there. Stewart’s classic reply: “I have one in Ohio we could use.”
By this time of year any other year, Lernerville Speedway would have two Friday night events under their belt. This year however, the difficult decision was made to start racing three weeks later, on April 20th. Track General Manager Gary Risch Jr. candidly explained that it made no sense to continue losing money with the weather cancelling or curtailing racing every spring. Speaking at the track’s annual awards banquet, Risch reminded everyone that this is a business after all and they had to make the right decision for everyone involved. And while the rest of the spring could have seen a successful race night most any day of the week, right on cue the skies opened up with a good old spring thunderstorm on Friday evening, March 30. That would have been opening night right around feature time.
I had the chance to spend Saturday evening, April 7th with Don Gamble, Dick Curry and a few others at Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania Motor Speedway for their season lid lifter called “Blastoff.” A chill in the air kept the crowd down a good bit, but the car counts in the top divisions were fairly good. It would be nice to see a few more entries in the Hobby Stock and Young Gun Divisions, but they may well pick up as the year continues.
Opening night saw Todd Weldon and Jake Simmons continue their dominance in the Young Guns and Sportsman divisions, respectively. The Super Lates saw Mike Norris take the lead from Alex Ferree on lap 12 of the 25 lap feature and never look back, winning by a full straightaway. Pro-Late ace Mike Pegher Jr. took his 20 lap feature by the same margin over runner up Chad Ruhlman. Ed Wiser won the Hobby Stock feature. A common theme from the winners in Victory Lane was about the improved track surface, many noting the hump missing in turn three, which makes for a much smoother exit from turn for down the front stretch.
A look at the PPMS schedule shows a genuine departure from what we’ve seen in the past. They’ve brought back the “Super Series” concept with separate point standings for each division to determine the series champion. For the Super Late Models, it’s the UFo Super Series; the Pro Lates have the Summer Sizzler; then there’s the Showdown Series for the Sportsman cars. For the open wheel visitors on the schedule, the Black Jack 21 Series is for the 410 Sprints and the Three Headed Monster Series for the BRP Big Block Modifieds. Throw in a couple Figure 8 races, another Monster Truck exhibition, and the BOSS Wingless Sprints, it’s going to be a busy year for PPMS. One change on the pit side of the track is a new face in the tech area. Long time Motordrome Speedway Tech Inspector Red Feitt will join Jack Siak in the PPMS tech area.
So PPMS, Mercer Raceway Park, Sharon Speedway and a few others are already underway. Next up are NASCAR sanctioned Motordrome Speedway this Friday, April 13th and Lernerville Speedway on April 20th.
Finally, I want to thank Jody Halbedl for welcoming me to the staff of Racingweb.com. As always, any comments, questions or snide remarks can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.