There were no less fannies in the seats, but there were lot of new faces on the 3/8-mile Oxford Plains Speedway oval Sunday night when the green flag finally dropped on the TD Banknorth 250 as the sun descended behind the grandstand.
Whether the 13,000 or so on hand to witness the dawn of a new era still got the same old-school thrills on a picture perfect day for racing probably depends on whom you ask.
If they wanted to see a shootout to the checkered flag, they got it as Roger Brown held off 59-year-old Dale Verrill by about half a car-length.
If they were here to see the boys from big brother NASCAR dominate, they were in for a wake-up call. Terry Labonte and Kevin Lepage got in through the proverbial, and provisional, back door.
If they were here to see local legends Mike and Ben Rowe, they were sorely disappointed. The Turner father and son were caught up in Nova Scotia on Sunday afternoon. They’d made plans to catch a flight following their race there and hopefully make it in time for the start of the big race, but their stand-ins, Patrick Laperle and Jeff Taylor, didn’t make it out of qualifying.
And if they were here to see the Pro Stocks battle for the coveted championship, well, they’ve just been living in a cave.
The Late Model vs. Pro Stock debate has been raging for a year all over northern New England and the Maritimes. ‘Tastes great, less filling’ never got as heated as the debate in the dusty parking lot along Route 26. Bitter drivers and fans took shots at OPS owner Bill Ryan in the week leading up to the race, though none were seen shaking a fist toward his private viewing box. Ryan stayed out of the mudslinging, confident that he’d be vindicated.
There were reasons for him to feel that way Sunday. The fans were lined up at the gate before it opened at 10 a.m. and before afternoon qualifying began four hours later. Just like last year, and the year before that and before that. There were 96 cars in the pits to start the day, the most in well over a decade. Twenty-eight of the 44 qualifiers for the nightcap earned their first ever 250 start.
“I think it’s so obvious (that the change had to be made) that it’s almost hard to feel vindicated,” Ryan said.
It was obvious, he said, that people were rejecting change for the sake of rejecting change. All he’d heard was what he called ‘circular logic’ from fans who couldn’t give him a reason to like Pro Stock over Late Models other than liking Pro Stock over Late Models. He’d tell them that Pro Stock racing was fading away in New England, and Late Models would give him a chance to attract a from a larger, more geographically diverse pool of competitors.
“Their response instead of looking at it logically was to say ‘Yeah, but I love Pro Stocks. Okay, well what do you love about them. I just love them. So, what’s different about these cars? Well, they’re Late Models.'”
The doubts about how 100-lap racers would hold up in a 250 weren’t erased. The second 100 laps were marred by yellow flags, competitors passing the pace car, and illegal pit stops.
Maybe all of that was forgotten by the time the last re-start with 17 laps to go. Brown did his best work every time the green flag dropped, taking advantage of what he called a “real racy” track to hold the lead for much of the last 100 laps.
Whether it was racy enough was for the people filing for the exits after the thrilling conclusion of the night to decide. Not that he’d tell you otherwise, but the man who stuck his neck out for the last year was getting his hand shaken and his back slapped.
“I was just standing outside and everybody enjoyed it. I didn’t hear any negative, Ryan said. “Everybody says ‘Good race’.”