PORTLAND – A year ago, Ricky Rolfe might have been just as concerned about nickles and dimes as he was the nuts and bolts of his race car.

Last year, the Albany Township driver was paying his expenses out of his own pocket. This year he is driving for Brackett Motorsports out of Jay. Mark Brackett handles the financial issues while Rolfe can focus on the racing. It is a luxury Rolfe appreciates, especially considering the state of the economy these days.

“It probably would have been a little bit tougher,” said Rolfe of operating on his own under the current economic conditions. “We still would have come up with enough money to do the race. That’s what a lot of us local guys do. If we’re serious, we’ll  come up with the finances somehow.”

With the economy in one of its worst conditions in decades, trying to finance the kind of effort to race consistently and successfully has gotten harder. Even though Rolfe has had to worry about it less this year, he has seen evidence of the strain, especially as drivers gear up for Sunday’s T.D. Banknorth 250.

“I can see other guys, local guys and even tour guys, cutting back on this race,” said Rolfe. “I’ve heard rumors of some guys not even coming that have a legitimate shot of winning this race. They’re either tour racing or points racing at their local tracks and don’t want to take away from that. 

“This race is an expensive race. There’s no way around it. You have to buy x-amount of tires and x-amount of gas. Typically, you have to have a motel room if you’re travelling. There’s no way around the financial end of it.”

Turner’s Shawn Martin says he’s seen racers feeling the pinch this year. Whether it be sponsors, travel or equipment, drivers are forced to cut back and tighten the budgets.

“You see it at all the local tracks,” said Martin. “All the car counts are down.”

Bill Ryan, the owner of Oxford Plains Speedway, says car counts this season at the track have been steady. Most of the car counts have levelled off while their up in the Strictly Stock and Mini’s. He has a long list of possible entries for Sunday’s race but won’t know how deep the roster of racers will be until the weekend.

“We’ll see,” Ryan said. “You never know. I know a lot of other tracks are in trouble. I don’t know if that actually has anything to do with the economy. It’s hard to speculate.”

Ryan says he hasn’t seen a major impact on the crowds at OPS this season and won’t know until race day about whether economic conditions may effect the 250’s turnout.

“I can’t really say until after, to be honest,” he said. “On the basis of the season, I haven’t seen an effect at all. We’re still affordable family fun. This race, by the standard of the kind of race it is and the whole show, it’s still affordable. The price hasn’t changed. So we haven’t seen anything coming this season up to now, but I won’t really know until Sunday.”

Ryan says that because of the 250’s history and interest, it’s place in Maine’s auto racing scene typically draws the crowds and the drivers.

“If you’re going to run one, this is the race to race,” said Ryan. “If you’re not going to race with the Cup guys at Loudon, this is where you’re going to race. There’s no other race that has the kind of attention in Northern New England. It’s huge.”

Ryan also noted that while the nation has been hit hard by the economic downturn, Maine has always been challenged in that regard, especially in the Oxford Hills area. It means that drivers are often dealing financial challenges and the last year is no different.

Buckfield’s Tim Brackett says his situation is somewhat similar to where he was a year ago, but being a small town racer on a small budget is still a challenge.

“You do think about what you’re spending money on,” said Brackett. “Last year, I was in a situation where I had enough but not any extra. In the Pro Stock days, you’d buy eight tires to practice on and 12 or 14 for the race. Now, we’re at a different level. You’re going with four to practice on. It’s a little tougher that way but these car’s are pretty economical. Once you get one, they’re fairly inexpensive to race. The way the economy is, it’s a pretty good fit.”

Martin says he’s had to make adjustments. He doesn’t travel as much as he did in other years, and he’s watched some of his sponsorships dwindle.

“We’ve lost a handful, which is understandable, and a lot of them said they’ll come back when things turn around,” said Martin. “We just have to deal with what we have.”

Brackett hasn’t had a sponsor for about four seasons now. He might get someone to help defray tire costs on occasion but most of the time, he’s footing the bill himself.

“All I’ve had is a tire sponsor once in a while,” said Brackett. “Everybody’s tightening up. So, if you don’t know somebody, you’re probably not going to get a sponsor locally. You’re not going to come in with a big resume and have somebody hand you a big check.”

Martin says it is a matter of racers trying to get by with less while hoping for more results.

“Racing is a business, and I’m the owner of that business,” Martin said. “I have to watch where all the dollars get spent. You make parts last a little longer. That fender you’d order a replacement for, you’ve got to patch it up and put it back on again.”

Rolfe says he’s always tried to race economically. Whether the national economy was up or down, he’s always had to be aware of doing what is best for his business.

“I’ve always raced to make as much money as I can and not ruining the race car,” said Rolfe. “I don’t take a chance for an extra $100 or wreck the race car. I’d rather finish the race and make x-amount of dollars. That’s the way I’ve always driven. Driving for Mark, it’s not coming out of my pocket, but I’m looking out for his pocket.”

Racing in Maine is always a challenge to the pocketbook. Most of the drivers race for the love of it and hope to make the money balance out. The recent economic climate hasn’t made it easier, but racers are accustomed to juggling the budgets and getting by. Most expect to be able to weather this storm, adjust and keep their motors running.

“We’ve always done that ever since day one,” said Martin. “As long as we don’t lose a car or lose a motor, we’ll be alright to finish the season.”

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