UNITY — The boos didn’t rain down from the grandstands at Oxford Plains Speedway. No, they poured from the lungs of more than 12,000 people on a summer night in 1998, with an energy sounding less like a displeased crowd and more like thunder of a fast-approaching storm.
Arms hurled litter into the air. Hands cupped the ears of young children, shielding them from vile language. Distasteful single-fingered salutes didn’t dot the bleachers; they dominated them.
At the center of the storm — the target of so much ire — a salad salesman from central Maine stood defiantly in the Oxford 250 stock car racing victory lane.
“I was laughing at them,” recalled Ralph Nason, 78. “I thought to myself, ‘Too (expletive) bad, you guys.’”
The 45th annual Oxford 250 stock car race on Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of Nason’s first career victory in Maine’s largest single-day sporting event. Nason went on to win not only that first Oxford 250, but the two that followed, earning a combined $121,000 for the three crowns. The lifelong Unity resident and Jim’s Salad Co. owner is the only driver to win the country’s richest short-track race three consecutive times.
Qualifying at Oxford Plains Speedway begins at 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
More than 700 drivers — dating to the inaugural 1974 event — have tried to win a race that promises a minimum $25,000 payday to the victor. Eleven NASCAR champions, including titans of the sport such as Jeff Gordon and Darrell Waltrip, have raced in the Oxford 250. Two Daytona 500 champions — Geoff Bodine and Kevin Harvick — have won the Oxford 250. The Daytona 500 is long considered the Super Bowl of stock car racing in the United States.
Yet for all of the names associated with the history of the Oxford 250, only three drivers have won the race three times in their careers. And for a dominant stretch from 1998 to 2000, nobody was better than the polarizing Nason, whose aggressive racing style and fiery personality often frustrated his competition, infuriated fans and angered race officials.
But all he did was win.
‘We smoked them’
Today, Ralph Nason is 78, and the garage in which he spends most of his days is filled with restoration projects. His current pet is a 1955 Ford F-100 pickup truck on the shop floor, but the room behind that is filled with Plymouths and Cadillacs from the 1940s and 1950s, lined up and waiting their turn for work.
The garage is on the Unity Raceway property, the track Nason has owned since 1980. Only two things illustrate the history Nason has made in the sport.
In the first bay of the garage, two oversized checks — from his 1998 and 1999 Oxford 250 wins — hang on the wall. And deep in the far corner of the second room, behind a pair of Plymouth sedans, is the car Nason piloted to two of his three Oxford 250 victories.
“It’s a good old car, and since we stopped racing that car (regularly) we did one race with it,” Nason said without a hint of sentimentality. “It told me something. It raced against all the new, latest and hottest technology, and here comes this old 1992 model, and we smoked them.”
Nason never thought he’d end up racing stock cars. In the early 1970s, his racing fix came from snowmobiles as he raced with factory support from Chapparal, a manufacturer in Colorado. When Chaparral ended its competition program after the 1973 season (it stopped production of its sleds entirely a year later), Nason figured cars were the better way to go.
“I decided then I wasn’t going to try to do both anymore,” Nason said earlier this month, sitting on a chair in his garage. “It’s a lot warmer to race cars than it is snowmobiles, and there’s lots of tracks around, so I didn’t have to drive far.
“Once we started working on the car and only the car, we got better and better and better. That’s how we got serious in racing.”
So serious, in fact, that his daughter Sue Ferreira recalled a childhood that was largely spent at racetracks in New England and Canada.
“That’s what we did,” Ferreira said.
And what Nason did, almost immediately, was win.
“I can remember driving in the back seat of the Ford with the race car hauler when we’d pull in the (track) gate,” Ferreira, 48, said. “Everybody just stopped what they were doing and watched. It was as if you could hear them saying, ‘Why did I even bother? Ralph’s here.’”
To this day, Ralph Nason can’t remember how many career race victories he has or the number of tracks he’s competed at. He’s won at Oxford, at Unity, at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in Scarborough, at Thunder Road in Vermont, at Airborne Speedway in New York, and in Canada’s eastern provinces. He’d become so prolific at winning that in 1997 he won seven of the 14 races he started in the now-defunct Northeast Pro Stock Association — part of a six-year stretch in which he amassed 20 wins in 43 races against some of the best competition in New England each summer.
By the time 1997 concluded, however, Nason still had a gaping hole on his resume.
He’d yet to win the crown jewel Oxford 250, posting seven finishes of 25th or worse in 12 tries.
Good at racing
Nothing breeds contempt like success, and Nason felt the brunt of that.
Nason’s familiar black-and-yellow No. 10 cars won so many races, fans’ enthusiasm wore out. His abrasive style on the track also angered competitors, as the driver would gladly move others out of the way with a bump or a shove if he felt they were holding up his progress toward the front of the field.
He had no bigger rival than Turner native Mike Rowe, who has seven track championships and more than 150 career victories at Oxford Plains Speedway alone.
“He’d bang into me and I’d bang into him, but we had good races,” Rowe said. “I heard him get booed a lot — but that’s not always a bad thing. It means you’re good, and Ralph was good and winning races.”
Time has cooled the caustic rivalry between Rowe and Nason. Rowe, 68, is still racing and has his eyes set on a record fourth Oxford 250 win this weekend.
But Rowe’s son, Ben Rowe — himself a two-time Oxford 250 winner — remembers the rivalry as much more than simply being ultra-competitive. For him, it was scary.
“I remember how much my old man and Ralph hated each other,” Ben said. “I mean, it was almost 30 years ago, so they might not say it now, but they hated each other. Absolutely.”
The intense animosity made for anxious racing days as Ben’s own racing career was taking off in the late 1990s.
“When I started, Ralph was the one that I was scared to death of. I was freaking petrified,” Ben Rowe said. “I thought he hated me as much as my old man. He had this persona that you were afraid of.”
That fear bubbled in 1997, when Ben Rowe won his first career race, which came at, of all places, the very Unity Raceway that Nason owned. Nason chased Rowe down and moved him out of the lead late in the race, with Rowe rallying back to pull off a similar move and muscle past Nason for the win. Nason finished third, and as is customary for all top-three finishers, went to victory lane for post-race interviews.
“When I drove back around with the checkered flag, I see him out of his car standing there with his arms folded,” Ben Rowe said. “Remember, this is Unity. This is Ralph’s track. I’m thinking, ‘Man, I’m going to get it.’ I drove right past him and parked outside of victory lane, down toward turn one, just to give myself a little more room ‘in case.’
“I’m hardly out of the car, and here he comes already. I’m thinking, ‘Here it is.’ I mean, my knees are buckling I’m so scared. I’m not even kidding. He lets me get out, and he gives me this great big bear hug, and he says, ‘That’s how you’re supposed to race stock cars.’ I’ve never forgotten it.”
‘Turned the wick up’
In 1995, Ontario driver Dave Whitlock won the Oxford 250 in one of the most dominating performances the race has ever seen, winning more than $52,000 after leading far and away the most laps. His win came in the same car Canadian racing legend Junior Hanley had built and driven to Oxford 250 victory lane two years prior.
Nason bought that car in the winter of 1997-98 and had it loaded for bear by the time the 25th Oxford 250 rolled around that summer.
It didn’t miss a beat — even after Nason was sent to the back for a rough driving penalty in his qualifying race that day.
In four laps, Nason drove back to the front to win his heat race and earn a starting spot on the outside of the front row. The rest, as they say, is history.
“We came in and pitted for tires, and we just turned the wick up right then,” Nason said. “We just drove right by them. The motor wasn’t anything extra, but it ran good. … That’s probably my favorite (Oxford 250) because the car was just so dominant.”
And when he got out of the car in victory lane — finally having the biggest win of his career after being thwarted by poor-handling cars, engine failures or mechanical breakdowns dating back 23 years to his first crack at the race in 1977 — he was greeted with deafening boos.
The boos, he said, only motivated him over the next two years at Oxford Plains Speedway.
“I was racing for me. I wasn’t racing for all them fans and spectators,” Nason said. “I was racing for me and my team. That’s what we were doing, doing the best we could with what we had. They didn’t like me, and I didn’t really give a (care). I wasn’t there for them anyway.”
“You have no idea the emotions that were going through my head,” Ralph’s daughter, Sue Ferreira added. “They were booing him, and he said something to effect of, ‘I don’t come here for you people. If you don’t like it, you can kiss my ass.’ I’m like, ‘Dad! You can’t say that to people.’ But that’s who he is. He loved to egg them on. I remember when he did get out of the car, they were booing. He was raising his hands as if to say, ‘Keep going; keep going.’”
The record books
There have been countless drivers and race teams with cars good enough to dominate and win the Oxford 250 in front of the tens of thousands of fans the race attracts each year, some even good enough to win the race in consecutive years. Morrill native Travis Benjamin is the most recent driver to have won two straight Oxford 250s, in 2013 and 2014.
But no driver — not from the stock car racing capital of the United States in Charlotte, North Carolina, not from Canada, not from anywhere — has done what Nason did from 1998 to 2000. Twenty years ago this summer, he kicked off a run of three straight Oxford 250 victories that has never been equaled.
Nason’s $187,715 career earnings in the Oxford 250 are a record. In New England’s most prestigious stock car race, Nason has three titles, six top-five finishes and nine top 10s in 18 starts. His 16.7 percent winning percentage is tied for best among all drivers with 10 or more Oxford 250 starts — not that any of that has changed him.
“There’s two things about winning three in a row,” Nason said in a rare moment of reflection. “It would have been four if I hadn’t gotten blocked up by a guy with 20 to go (in 2001, when he finished third). I was headed back to the front, and we were going to get there. He was protecting for (race winner Gary Drew). That thought comes to mind.
“And the other thing, when Travis won it the second time, I congratulated him; and when he went for the third, I wished him well and hoped that he did it — because then you’d all stop asking me about that (crap). That’s how it is.”
Ferreira says that beneath the gruff exterior, Nason changed after winning three in a row.
“It was never about him or what he accomplished. He’s never been that way,” she said. “But I can tell you this: That’s the most excited I’ve ever seen him after winning a race in his whole life, and he’d won a lot of races, from Oxford to the provinces. He’s been everywhere.
“It was finally the monkey off his back. He’d been trying and trying.”