The South harbors everything I expected it would when I moved here 15 months ago. Winters are milder. There’s a joint that sells chicken and/or barbecue on every corner. People have accents much more delightful than my own.
And most of the stuff people told me I’d miss, I don’t. Never really developed a crush on Italian sandwiches or red hot dogs. But the Oxford 250, yeah, that’s been a tough one.
America’s best short track race (I don’t feel the need to put a qualifier within that statement) never went on without me from 1984 to 2015. Then I had to follow last year’s race on social media from my cousins’ basement. Gosh, I felt like a professional blogger.
There is a pay-per-view live stream this year, after a one-year hiatus, so I won’t feel completely disconnected from the crown jewel happening 1,100 miles away. But it’s still worth documenting all the things I miss about attending this race in person.
In honor of the anniversary in question, let’s list 44 of ’em:
1. Finding how the fickle finger of fate will poke Jeff Taylor and Tracy Gordon in the chest. Those guys would’ve/could’ve/should’ve been multi-time champions.
2. Looking at the did-not-qualify list. It was more jaw dropping when there were 85 or 90 entries, but there’s still always a stunning name or two on it.
3. Being harassed incessantly, all day long, about how I have “jinxed” my pick to win the race. That’s not fake news, but it’s old news. I’ve hit the winner plenty of times in recent years.
4. Quietly cheering in the press box for the underdog or dogs that sniff the top five late in the race. Alan Wilson (2004), anyone?
5. Interacting with hundreds as quarterback of the Sun Journal’s live blog. It was great fun, even though the up-down, up-down, up-down movement of my neck left me with a vicious Monday morning headache.
6. Cursing every caution flag during the support races and looking down at my watch.
7. Enjoying (on the flip side) the diversity of cars that were invited to participate in the weekend’s events.
8. Encountering people I only saw once a year. It was like the Maine high school basketball tournament in that way.
9. Waiting at the pit gate first thing Friday, Saturday and Sunday to see if anybody new showed up.
10. Hearing about all the foolishness I “missed” each night in the camping area.
11. Answering the inevitable question, “How old IS Mike Rowe, anyway?” (He just turned 67, according to his friends and family on social media.)
12. Running into folks who openly lamented how the 250 “isn’t what it used to be,” but never failed to shell out the $30 to $50 for fanny space in the bleachers.
13. Marveling at how the rising stars of the regional racing scene get younger all the time. Tommy Rosati’s record (19-year-old winner in 1979) will be broken someday soon.
14. Knowing that I had two or three stories to write and wouldn’t have to worry about the traffic jam.
15. Using my stopwatch to get three days worth of practice times, even though transponders made that exercise obsolete.
16. Having to identify drivers and hometowns for other members of the media who covered one race every year.
17. Wondering how a few people on the other side of the press box window have lived this long without sunblock.
18. Not getting enough sleep and running on fumes by the time the checkers flew.
19. Watching the weather forecast all week long. Then either shaking my fist in triumph or wincing accordingly.
20. Trying to calculate which driver and team made the longest haul to OPS.
21. Attending media day. The locale and menu changed over the years, but the quality of storytellers never wavered.
22. Reminiscing about the old friends we lost since the previous 250. This year, with a list that includes Bobby Walker, Bob Morris and Tom Curley, that exercise would be extremely tough.
23. Wondering if the air conditioners would hold up.
24. Turning on the mobile hotspot when the wireless connection didn’t hold up.
25. Observing the vast differences in the expense of equipment and uniforms while the qualifying teams set up pit road.
26. Asking (or responding to) the lap 180-to-200 query, “Is (name of driver who was involved in two early skirmishes) still on the lead lap? The scoreboard says he’s in third.”
27. Eating whatever baked goods Phil Whipple’s better half, Debbie Wilkinson, brought to share with the Sun Journal gang.
28. Having somebody explain why a third-place finish in the 250 is the greatest thing that happened to him since becoming a dad.
29. Listening to everyone overstate the importance of the draw before the heat races.
30. Waiting for the radio transmission from the tech shack to say that somebody’s qualifying dreams had been crushed by one-eighth of an inch.
31. Keeping track of lap-leader bonus money.
32. Gasping audibly at some of the moves the leader makes in traffic.
33. Daydreaming about what my own pit strategy would be when the yellow flag flies on or around lap 100.
34. Reading the names on the back of somebody’s T-shirt and being reminded anew what an amazing tradition Bob Bahre started in Oxford, Maine.
35. Hearing the sponsor dignitaries speak and unfairly comparing it to the years Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Rusty Wallace and Benny Parsons showed up as grand marshals.
36. Rifling back texts to dozens of friends who are just as passionate about the race as I was (OK, am).
37. Tolerating stories of past 250s that I know are embellished, because I’m charitable enough to realize this race is like an annual Woodstock to New England and Maritime short track fans.
38. Knowing that a caution-fest could break out any minute, even if the first 100 laps are tame.
39. Being able to write a post-race column that puts the winner and his achievement in his immediate historical perspective.
40. Smelling the champagne when the winner walks into the media room.
41. Observing the smiles on the faces of speedway employees (many of whom I worked with, once upon a time) and appreciating that feeling of a job well done.
42. Enjoying the satisfaction as a race fan that a sport I’ve loved all my life is the biggest deal in Maine for a day.
43. Thanking God that it’s over.
44. Picking a winner. It’s going to be Joey Polewarczyk Jr. for the second time. No guarantees or jinxes implied.
Kalle Oakes was a 27-year veteran of the Sun Journal sports department and was track publicist and announcer at OPS from 2005 to 2009. He is now sports editor of the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic.