Around The Track: Racing in northern New York entertains and gains momentum

WATERTOWN DAILY TIMES FILE PHOTO
Number 35 Steve Park leads after a caution flag near the end of the Edge 150 NASCAR at the Adirondack International Speedway.

BY: Matt McClusky
Most of us felt like prisoners of Mother Nature over the last few months, with flakes of snow and shards of ice acting like crystalline bars on the jail cells of our homes. Cabin fever?  

    By the time April rolled around, it was more like Cabin Black Plague practically wiping out the very concept of springtime.  Since mid-October, the region’s residents were stuck indoors while snow, freezing rains, snow, record-low temperatures, snow, ice, and to top it all off, more snow took over the outdoors. Now, after that seemingly endless winter, we’re all ready to simply wear shorts and t-shirt instead of snow pants and a parka. It was an anxious feeling that went double for race fans and race officials, who all waited to feel the rumble of the big and small-block engines firing up for the first time in months. You can’t blame the gearheads, because not only is it finally their time of the year, there are also some major changes coming for the area’s tracks. Basically, everyone’s ready to drop the green flag on summer and on the race season.

    Getting out to the speedways that are still proudly standing—our version of circular skyscrapers jutting out of pastures and fields—is a May-through-September tradition for generations of families.  Sure, to be fair, fast cars on the oval roadways used to be like busy snowplows:  one visible every few miles or so. But through ever-changing landscapes, rising costs, increased competition, and the decline in the amount of drivers, the race scene in upstate New York has downshifted in the last ten to twenty years. It’s potentially emblematic of a nationwide issue that has seen the overall popularity of auto racing fall off. Just look at Watertown, now trackless, the county seat used to be home to burgeoning raceways, all of which are long gone. All of those memories of what used to be makes the remaining tracks, be they paved with asphalt or layered with dirt, forever lined with nostalgia.

    When thinking of the racing past, you don’t have to go much further than Can-Am Speedway, where new owner Tyler Bartlett is looking to hop into a Delorean a la Marty McFly and have fans feel as though they traveled back in time. Bartlett is all about throwbacks, as he is working to bring back a full race card on a weekly basis, with full grandstands becoming a regular occurrence again, too. Champing at the bit for the snow to melt, Bartlett is more than eager to showcase the changes he has made at the 44-year-old half-mile dirt oval.

     First behind the wheel of a go-cart at Can-Am at the age of nine, Bartlett has been around the track in LaFargeville one way or another virtually his “whole life.” It’s a bit of a family thing actually, as his brothers, uncle and father all have put a pedal to the metal at some point at Can-Am. In fact, back in the mid-1980s, Tyler was in the stands as a one-week-old, watching dad David rip around the track. To recapture those moments is a goal practically always on Barlett’s mind. Like with his hiring of Bob Thurston Jr. as general manager. A move done based on Bob Jr.’s qualifications, experiences and the fact that his father, Bob Sr., owned the track back in the mid-1970s. The Thurston name is as associated with racing in LaFargeville, as is the name “Can-Am.” Now in his thirties and the head man, Bartlett said he and his crew have “been busting our butts, painting, organizing,” in an attempt to bring the track back to its glory days.

    Part of the retrofitting at Can-Am includes switching up the racing schedule by flipping it from Saturday nights back to Friday nights—a onetime staple of Can-Am for decades. The new leader Bartlett hopes Fridays will allow for more drivers to take part in the different racing series being offered up and to again carve out a spot in the schedule of busy racing fans. Further, another style of bait being dangled to lure racers is also old school: more prize money.  “We’ll be the top-paying facility for dirt small-block modified and sportsman’s series,” said Bartlett. The goal is to make getting to the track as convenient as possible, and once there, to coax the drivers into going all-out at all times.

    One last major change is really nothing new for Can-Am at all.  The speedway has once again realigned with DIRTcar Racing, a governing body that holds member tracks to a “stricter” set of rules. It’s something Bartlett claimed will “bring back a lot of credibility” to the dirt-covered oval that will host races from May through early September. Having the backing of Dirtcar, and having a hands-on approach will allow for Bartlett to create what he calls a “no drama” raceway, putting a “normal, honest and straight-forward approach” for everyone from the grandstand to the pits, the way the newbie owner says Can-Am used to be known for having with drivers and customers.

    Still, if it’s going back in time that really revs your engine, then the folks at Evans Mills Speedway are excited that the cold cleared to allow for their own big schedule changes to be unveiled. Racing at the Speedway will now be on Saturday nights instead of on Sundays. According to Operations Manager Tracy Chirico, the track briefly considered going to Friday nights for the summer, but scrapped the idea once Can-Am announced its move. “We didn’t want to split up fans between the two tracks,” said Chirico. The decision, much like with Can-Am’s change to Fridays, is being done to attract more drivers and more fans through the gates.

    There are other differences coming for fans of the 3/8-asphalt mile this season, including the return of the “sport compact” class featuring “turbo four-cylinder” cars that once paced the pavement in Evans Mills. Chirico stated that the Speedway has attempted other series in place of the sport compact, but they didn’t seem to attract the numbers. “We’re going to offer up choices for the fans,” Chirico stated. Among those options all summer will be a monster truck event on July 28 and a “Race of Champions” for the Sportsman Modified Series in September.  The Rusty Wallace Experience will also be making a pit stop in Evans Mills for a one-day appearance in early June. That will give fans a chance to participate in a traveling race school that allows fans to pay to ride in or even drive cars on actual tracks.

    Over in Lewis County, with winter finally in the rear view, the track known for attracting future Nascar stars like Joey Logano and this year’s Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillion is set to get down and dirty. Owner Paul Lyndaker envisions the “Stuck in the Muck” programs at his Adirondack Speedway will provide some of the most entertaining moments of the summer, and he isn’t just talking about on the racing circuit.

     Over multiple blocked-out weekends between May and September, Lyndaker’s small oval in New Bremen will be turned into a dirt-racer’s dream, with “truck and ATV events for every mud-bogger, racer, motor head, and off-road lover.” Lyndaker said the mud events will be another attempt “to help make some entertainment options for fans.” With mini-monster trucks and four-wheelers from “all over the eastern part of the states,” Stuck in the Muck, as well as the popular annual Demo Derby will showcase all of what Lyndaker intended Adirondack Speedway to be, a “versatile” 600 acres designed for drivers and fans of all types.

    As for the blacktop racing, don’t think Lyndaker and his team have forgotten about the core of what the track was first founded on back in 2001. There will be some beefed-up competitors looking to take the checkered flag this time around. Every other week, V8 muscle cars will be added to the lineup of trucks, thunderstocks, sport-compacts and what’s known as the “Barebones” series. Lyndaker stated that the V8 drivers are “some of the country’s fastest” who will put on good shows all race season.

    The thawing of the grueling winter means Mohawk International Speedway once again is gearing up as well. The track in Hogansburg is set to team up with another area speedway for the first time since 2011. It will split up its Sportsman Series with Airborne Park Speedway in Plattsburg. It’s a five-race series with two events scheduled at Airborne; the first is the season-opener May 26 and the other planned for August 11. With Unique eCigs as a new sponsor, the sportsman series will award the winner between the two tracks about $2,000, and the top eight being “honored at the 2018 Mohawk International Raceway awards banquet.”

    Sponsorship change is also coming to the modified lite division at Mohawk, with it now being backed by Green’s Performance Shop, a business catering in window-tinting, t-shirts, signs, hats and banners. But the reason it’s on board is because owner Bryan Green was a longtime Sportsman driver at Mohawk until he suffered an injury. To add insult, a fire destroyed much of his racing inventory, putting him out of the game for good. Now, after recovering and having seen success off the track with his shop in Ogdensburg in St. Lawrence County, Green is helping fund the division he once participated in for many years.

    The speedsters in Hogansburg will be, like always, battling it out on Fridays all season long. Certainly not one of those major changes for fans like what’s going on with other tracks. Still, there are a variety of alterations to the weekly planner, with a fireworks display set for July 4 weekend (July 6) and a couple of special Saturday races in September set to include big blocks and a season finale, one-time-only “Slick Track Ironman Enduro.”

    From LaFargeville, to Evans Mills, to New Bremen, to Hogansburg, and well beyond, racing fans should get plenty of chances to see the many big and small adjustments for these old longstanding favorites.  Modifications clearly meant to reconnect what has worked in the north country since the rubber first starting meeting the road: fender-to-fender action on both the pavement and on the dirt all the way to Labor Day. That is, so long as Mother Nature allows for us to escape our wintry lockups long enough.