Oxford 250: Still the biggest little race in America? You bet, drivers say

0

That’s an intriguing coincidence, because it is a history whose peaks, valleys, hyperbole and seemingly constant state of flux make it difficult to evaluate as any presidential administration.

The race has evolved into a weekend with a carnival atmosphere. More than 80 drivers will compete for a top prize of up to $50,000 Sunday night. Hundreds of recreational vehicles have lined the sprawling parking lot since Tuesday. Three-day attendance likely will approach 20,000.

“This is still the richest short track race there is,” two-time winner Ben Rowe, 40, of Turner, said, borrowing a promotional one-liner nearly old as he. “There are people coming from all over for it.”

License plates don’t lie. Christopher Bell, a 20-year-old winner at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway on the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, is here from Oklahoma, driving for a team owned by 2011 winner and Sprint Cup star Kyle Busch.

Advertisement

So are Spencer Davis from Georgia, Tate Fogleman, Ben Lynch and Derek Kneeland from North Carolina, Tyler Dippel from New York, Chola Shay from Pennsylvania, Raphael Lessard, Patrick Laperle and Eric St. Gelais from Quebec, and Cole Butcher from Nova Scotia.

“Whenever you hear that Kyle Busch is sending a driver and a team up here, it obviously means something,” Kyle Treadwell of Auburn said. “They’re not just going to come up for no reason.”

How much the race means is in the eye of the beholder.

The Oxford 250 had no competition as the biggest sporting event in Maine when then-speedway owner Bob Bahre introduced it as a 200-lap “national championship” race in 1974.

Bahre’s vision predated the TD Beach to Beacon road race, the Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl high school football classic, Portland Sea Dogs baseball games that draw sellout throngs of 7,000 frequently during the summer, and multiple minor-league and junior hockey franchises.

It has outlasted numerous sponsor changes (this year’s title companies, AIM Recycling USA and Kenny U-Pull, are new). It has survived countless economic recessions. Four owners and five different promoters have overseen the proceedings, each with their own style and preference for peddling either the steak or the sizzle.

Yet the Oxford 250 endures, and most with a competitive or emotional tie to the race agree that proving itself impervious to time causes it to stand alone.

“The history, who’s won it, if you look back it’s basically a who’s-who,” Joey Doiron of Berwick, runner-up in 2013, said. “Then you look at guys who haven’t won it and it’s an even longer list. It would be really special to put your name on that short list.”

Unrivaled star power

With the notable exception of Petty, every surname associated with NASCAR fame has competed in at least one Oxford 250. And yes, “The King,” Richard Petty, did make an appearance as grand marshal in 1990.

Drivers named Allison, Waltrip, Jarrett, Pearson, Burton, Bodine, Martin, Gordon, Busch, Kenseth, Harvick, Wallace, Hamlin, Earnhardt and Keselowski all strapped themselves into a 250 ride at least once. Their presence merely put the candles on an enormous cake.

“I don’t think there is another short track race that so many NASCAR drivers have competed in,” Treadwell said.

NASCAR Grand National sanction brought a parade of present and future stars to Oxford throughout the 1980s.

In an effort to regain some of that star power, Bill Ryan lured Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series marquee names to the race every year from 2004 to 2012.

“We have pictures up at the house that still make me laugh when I see them,” Rowe said. “The first time I won it I 2003, there were a couple of media guys, maybe 10 people around the car. The next year I won it again, and Matt Kenseth was here. He finished third, and there were 300 people, great big TV cameras. What he brought, the Cup guys coming in, was huge.”

Ryan also gambled on a switch from “pro stock” or “super late model” cars to American-Canadian Tour late model style cars as the legal form of transportation for the 250 in 2007. He cited a general downward trend in the number of super late models, believing that the more sleek and exotic cars would be unable to sustain the car counts 250 enthusiasts have come to expect and love.

Fans and drivers were reluctant to embrace the change. Many New England racing standouts, all with a sizable fan following, either competed sporadically in the event or not at all for the next six years.

PASS promoter Tom Mayberry of Naples purchased the track and restored the 250 as a super late model showcase in 2013. It’s a move the racers believe has restored the past glory of the race, perhaps even saving it from extinction.

“The cars we run nowadays, it’s finally got across the country that we’re getting on the same plan as far as what kind of cars we run. It’s the same thing with this series and another series and another series. We’re all relatively close to each other,” Bryan Kruczak of Newmarket, N.H., said. “And the ACT thing is unique to this part of the country. You go to another part of the country, there’s no such thing. With the super late models, a guy from Oklahoma can put his car on the trailer and drive out here.”

Those long-distance commuters suggest that the 250 remains a player on the national scene.

When what was then the NASCAR Busch Series moved most of its races to tracks of a mile or longer in the early 1990s, and Oxford no longer fell under the sanctioning body’s umbrella, the flow of entries from the south dried up.

Even in its first incarnation as a super late model race from 1993 to 2006, the Oxford 250 was primarily a battleground for drivers from Maine and the Canadian Maritimes. Then-owner Michael Liberty, a Greater Portland businessman, protected the prestige by guaranteeing a $50,000 winner’s share for several years.

“I think it just took a little bit for everyone to hear about the race again,” Doiron said. “It kind of fell off everybody’s radar in other parts of the country. It seems that it’s back to being right on top of everybody’s list of races they want to win.”

Not alone, but still unique

Bahre’s brainchild wasn’t unique to short track or late model racing.

Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla., has hosted its Snowball Derby the first weekend of December each year since 1968. Similar open competition races in Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana bask in similar driver and fan loyalty.

“There’s three or four, and this is one of the top tier races in the country,” Rowe said. “Everybody wants to know who won the Oxford 250. When I won, people called me from Florida, North Carolina, all over.”

Other Maine promoters — even Mayberry, before he bought OPS — have taken liberties with the magic number, promoting 300 and 400-lap races either as direct competition or as attempts to reinvent or bottle up the flavor of the Oxford 250.

Nothing could kill the door-to-door dance with tradition on its side.

Even among the national challengers for supremacy, Oxford may stand alone in its reputation as an everyman’s race.

For every driver with the anointed future of Bell, Davis, Dippel or Fogleman on the entry list, there is a driver from Ellsworth, Jay, Buckfield, Minot or Morrill, dreaming big and eager to put his or her local knowledge to use.

“When you go to the Snowball Derby, everybody has stacker (double deck) haulers. It’s so much more money. It’s almost like you’re going to a Cup race, whereas this one has that homegrown feel where a weekly guy has a chance to win,” Doiron said. “The unique thing about this race is that you don’t have to have a multi-million dollar budget to win it. You can be a weekly guy and spend the bare minimum and still end up in victory lane. The track is such an equalizer.”

And Oxford is a one-of-a-kind place, even among the similarly configured, so-called “bullrings” where most great racers cut their teeth.

It is an almost constant left-hand turn, with a short front stretch that counterintuitively banks downward, toward the grandstand. The last complete repaving of the track took place after the 2002 season.

“I think a lot of people not from this area might not know a lot about it. But then you come here and see this track and see what it is,” Kruczek said. “You take a lap around the track and you say, ‘My God, how do you drive around this place?’ It’s its own, unique place. Other than Thunder Road (a high-banked, ¼-mile track in Barre, Vt.), I think is the other difficult one for me. This place is its own beast.”

Eyes of the world

Racing enthusiasts from around the world have the opportunity, even if they couldn’t make it to Maine, to buy a ticket and experience the 250 for the first time.

Speed51.com is producing a live, pay-per-view broadcast on the internet, for $30, the same price as a general admission seat.

“That’s stuff we’ve never had,” Rowe said. “That’s what builds this thing up.”

“It’s definitely a huge deal. It’s a race that everybody in Maine, New England, grew up knowing about, but now we get to showcase our Snowball Derby to everybody else in the country,” Doiron said. “I think it’s pretty special. Oxford is a quirky little track that’s not like a lot of other places out there, so I think people are going to be in for an awakening. They’re going to look at the picture of the track and say, ‘They’re going to do what, here?’”

They’re going to race — all day, in an exhausting series of heat races, consolations and a two-hour marathon main event — the way they have one Sunday afternoon and evening every summer since 1974.

This is the first time the race has been held later than July, a decision that received mixed reviews when announced but appears to have been the right one.

Driver participation is up more than 30 percent. The pre-race buzz, harder to measure, is louder than it has been since the appearance of NASCAR champions Kenseth and Kurt Busch in 2004.

And as the Oxford 250 has proven time after time after unforgettable time, it’s not the when, or who’s on the track, or who’s in charge, but what.

“This is the biggest thing most of us will ever do,” Tim Brackett of Buckfield said.

“You win and you’re recognized for life,” Glen Luce of Turner added. “This is on the bucket list for most of us.”

Rowe said two second-place finishes to Ralph Nason and running out of gas while leading in 1996 still irk him more than his two wins gratify him. It’s another sign of the magic in this never-say-die spectacle.

“I remember being a kid, 1984, when my dad (Mike) won it, and it was huge,” Rowe said. “He was the first guy from Maine (to win). People went nuts. I was always like, ‘I want to be part of that.’ When I lost it, it was like a fire you had to put out.”

And nobody can.

koakes@sunjournal.com

#Oxford250

Catch all the action on the track and in the stands Sunday by following us on:

Advertisement
SHARE