The closed entrance to Unity Raceway remains closed in July 2016. The raceway is back in the hands of longtime owner Ralph Nason. George Fernald Jr., of Benton, made the decision at the end of last week to exit his agreement to purchase the state’s oldest race track. (Michael G. Seamans/Kennebec Journal)
Unity Raceway is back in the hands of longtime owner Ralph Nason.
George Fernald Jr., of Benton, made the decision at the end of last week to exit his agreement to purchase the state’s oldest race track, citing health and financial reasons. Fernald has been suffering from an infection in his spinal cord that has spread to his brain.
Nason and Fernald entered into an arrangement two years ago for Fernald to buy the race track for an undisclosed amount.
Fernald had 10 years to pay off the purchase price and said he’s paid roughly $25,000, which he began paying in July 2016.
“I had all these ideas and dreams,” said Fernald, who was diagnosed with encephalopathy, a brain disease stemming from an infection in his spinal column, last fall. “I have my own business, and I was trying to do the race track, and I wasn’t prepared for (the illness). We’re financially broke now trying to deal with that. We don’t have money for the track.”
Nason said he is not looking to immediately sell Unity Raceway or the 35-acre property it occupies.
“We’re just playing it by ear,” said Nason, who bought the track in 1980 from original owner Ed Knowles, who opened it for stock car racing in 1948.
Fernald entertained a couple of offers this winter from potential financial partners, most notably former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Ricky Craven. Craven, who now works for ESPN and lives in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area, began his racing career at Unity in the 1980s.
Craven and Fernald connected in February. Through a mutual affinity for Unity Raceway, they talked how Craven could help Fernald financially.
“I never really wanted the track for myself, and frankly I still don’t,” Craven said Monday. “I just don’t have the time, and geographically I can’t operate it. I have an objective, because I don’t want to see the facility close.”
Craven still owns the car he won a Cup race with at Martinsville (Virginia) Speedway in 2001, his first of two career wins in NASCAR’s top series. He would like for that car to end up on display in Maine someday. Unity Raceway, he said, would have been an option.
Craven is still the only Maine driver to win at the Cup level in NASCAR. He also won at Darlington (South Carolina) Raceway in 2003.
“Unity Raceway is not part of my DNA the way it’s part of Ralph’s DNA, but it was something I wanted to do,” Craven said. “Ralph’s a good friend, as well. He was a hero of mine growing up, but I did not enter into any discussions with Ralph (about buying the track).”
Nason, however, said he didn’t support a possible Craven-Fernald partnership.
“The thing that I had for a red flag was I was losing my storage and my garage and everything else (on the property), and I had nothing for it,” Nason said. “Two years down the road, (if) Ricky says to Georgie this isn’t working, ‘I’m going to do something different,’ well now I’ve made all these changes, and I’m back to being really screwed.
“It’s nothing against anybody … but if you came up with that kind of money to buy it and get me the hell out of the picture and something changes, then I’ve got nothing.”
In April 2017, Fernald announced that Unity Raceway would make a transition to becoming a dirt track. Following the season finale last October, the asphalt racing surface was torn up — except for a small section on the frontstretch at the start-finish line — in preparation for the switch.
Nason said Monday that most of the ground-up asphalt still needs to be removed.
Fernald began experiencing significant migraines and back pain last August. He recalled a morning in which he woke up and did not recognize his wife, other members of his family, or his friends. He did not remember who he was, he said.
His wife immediately took him to the local hospital, where it was discovered he had a shingles infection in his spinal cord. The infection spread throughout his nervous system and into his brain.
“I woke up four and a half days later, and I thought it was the next morning,” Fernald said. “The doctor told me I was lucky she brought me in when she did. It would have been a matter of hours before I could have died.”
Fernald spent most of the winter in bed, unable to tolerate light, noise or physical activity. Last month he returned to work for the first time, operating his family’s mobile home business, but struggled.
On a return trip from Connecticut, he needed a relief driver to meet him and finish the trip home.
“It’s been a long, hard recovery,” Fernald said, noting that he is uncertain when he will return to full health. It could be two weeks or two years, or never.
The realization came last week that he could no longer handle the stress of running Unity Raceway at this time.
In a statement on the track’s Facebook page late Saturday night, Fernald wrote: “It is clear to me now, that in order to regain my strength and well-being, I need to make my health, my first and most important priority. So, I have decided to exit the agreement to own Unity Raceway and invest instead, in my health, my family and my life.”