Justin Drake (09) of Vassalboro and Wayne Helliwell Jr. (27) of Pelham, New Hampshire, jockey for position during a heat race at the Oxford 250 at Oxford Plains Speedway on Sunday. Both drivers qualified for the main event after finishing in the top four in their heat. Helliwell was the defending champion.
OXFORD — The Oxford 250 lures drivers from all-across the country. Take Kodie Conner for example, the 16-year-old from Kannapolis, North Carolina.
At his second Scott’s Recreation Oxford 250 presented by Fastway Trailer Products of his short career, Conner was ready for the challenge the Maine race brings.
“Last year, we were talking to a bunch of guys that were saying the Oxford 250 was a really good race to attend,” Conner said. “We were not too sure what to expect. Going into the race, I used all the knowledge that I’ve gotten from racing down south, but it’s a totally different ballgame. There are different racers, different driving styles, and the track is so much more different from what we have down there.”
At 5 years old, Conner was asked by his father, who also raced, if he wanted to start driving.
“I said yeah, let’s give it a try,” Conner said. “I went through a little drivers-development program like drivers ed, and I had my first race at age 5, and since then I’ve always had a passion for racing.”
Conner brought a large team with him to Oxford, including his crew chief who travels from Rhode Island every race to help Conner. Part of that team is his family, which has a deep history of racing. Conner’s father, uncle and grandfather all raced cars, helping build the passion that Conner has now for the sport. While the North Carolina driver races often down south, time is still made for the famous Oxford 250.
“It’s just a really good experience,” Conner said.
Then there are local drivers like Cassius Clark from Farmington, Maine.
The No. 13 car driver with dollar signs in place of each “s” in his name has been driving since he was 17 and said he has raced nine or 10 times at the Oxford 250.
“I grew up with this race,” Clark said. “You race for the money, but also the fans. Growing up I watched my dad race and that got me into it.”
Clark, like many drivers, travels all over the country to different races, but he also goes up north to Canada, something that highlights some similarities between crowds there and at the Oxford 250.
“In Canada,the fans love it,” Clark said. “Even in weekly races, there are big crowds. A lot of the fans up there are really passionate … This is a top-five race for me, though.”
Something that’s different with Oxford is the qualifying method, where drivers are pulled out of a hat into different race heats to qualify.
“You could have a fast car but get drawn in a heat with other fast racers and get stuck,” Clark said.
There is no shortage of confidence for Clark, however. When asked what his expectations were for the race Sunday, Clark simply said “win.”
Clark’s confidence was justified, as he claimed the pole for Sunday’s race.
Last year’s champion, Wayne Helliwell Jr., was on hiatus for most of this season due to a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. Helliwell explained that the two biggest triggers of MS are heat and stress, both of which are plentiful in an average race.
After taking a few months off, Helliwell has been making a comeback.
“It’s been baby steps,” Helliwell said. “I’m starting to feel better, but it’s just like anything, I can’t predict what’s going to happen. It could be half-way through the race where I start to feel bad and pull out, but as of right now I feel good.”
To cope with his MS, Helliwell has installed a self-contained air conditioner unit in his car to cool his helmet and the car, “similar to what the Cup series uses.”
The aura of the Oxford 250 was something that made Helliwell come back to the race track.
“I like the longevity of it,” Helliwell said. “Being 250 laps and the high-strategy of it, you go in the pits multiple times and take new tires throughout the race. I like kind of the prestige and the history of this race, where it started and where it is today.”
Two drivers that have been around for many Oxford 250s are the two No. 7s in the race, Travis Benjamin, 38, and Glen Luce, 50. Both drivers have been driving, they say, for a combined 53 years. Benjamin won the Oxford 250 in 2013 and 2014, followed by Luce’s 2015 victory.
The two racers are three points away from each other atop the Pro All-Stars Series North leaderboard, and while Benjamin may be leading, Luce outlasted Benjamin in their most recent race together.
“We joke with Travis’ crew, saying ‘this week it’s your turn to come in second,’” Luce said.
Travis also enjoys the competition.
“It’s a fun little battle,” Benjamin said. “We always race each other hard and hopefully it’ll come down to the two 7s. May the best seven win, right?”
For Luce, the Oxford 250 is what it’s all about.
“This is the like the Daytona of slow-track racing,” Luce said. “It puts people on the map and there’s a lot of money and prestige. And also, everyone wants that big trophy … I kind of wish I could watch it from the stands.”
As both drivers followed in their father’s tracks, both know that this track brings a different element than most
“It’s a tough race to win,” Benjamin said. “Everything’s gotta go your way. You just need to get a car that drives good, a lot of these guys try to race the stop watch. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time at this place.”
When it comes to competition between the two drivers, both have respect for their champion counterpart and the race itself.
“If his team needed a part, we would help them out,” Luce said. “And I think they would do the same for us.”
Cassius Clark zips down the back stretch below an American flag waving in the breeze during a heat race at the Oxford 250 at Oxford Plains Speedway on Sunday. Clark won the heat race and earned the pole position for the main event.Ben Rowe (4) spins in front of Travis Benjamin (7) during a heat race at the Oxford 250 at Oxford Plains Speedway on Sunday.