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
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
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.