Auto racing is a funny game and unique from the others people play in one crucial area: Popularity.

The more a driver wins, the more haters he accumulates. It’s true in some endeavors (think LeBron James), but never is the relationship so directly proportional as in the go-fast, turn-left environment.

Thanks to their closely related personal dynasties, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are subject to an entire industry of window decals and t-shirts that range from mildly humorous to flagrantly homophobic.

At their peak, when local legends Mike Rowe and Jeff Taylor were keeping Oxford Plains Speedway checkered flags and championships to themselves, it was sometimes hard to hear yourself think over the cacophony of boos during driver introductions.

Win too much, and spectators will insist that you cheat or that you push your way to the top. Confront them with automotive and/or video evidence to the contrary, and they will imagine it, anyway.

On this foggy January day at the geographic center of Maine racing’s interminable offseason, as I recline in mourning and attempt to figure out where Albert Hammond fits into that equation, I’m stumped.

Cancer claimed Al this week, so quickly that most of the motorsports community barely had time to digest the diagnosis and say proper goodbyes.

Track announcers, myself among them, called him ageless every time he rolled onto the speedway because it fit. But Al was 70, a young man by the standards of a 40-is-the-new-20 world.

Two distinctions immediately come to mind about Al, and they’re almost impossible achievements if you sip more than a cup of coffee in the asphalt jungle. One, I never heard a negative word spoken about him. And two, I have never met anyone — fan, official or competitive rival — who didn’t genuinely like him.

Social media has brought this far-flung, sometimes dysfunctional but fiercely loyal racing “family” together during the months in which we traditionally suffered our spring fever in solitude. Thursday morning, upon waking to learn of the death in that family, fans and competitors paid loud tribute to one of the sport’s quiet heroes.

“Was one of the nicest guys at the track, and a helluva good driver to boot,” Joe Turner of Norway posted on Facebook. “Always took the time to talk if I had a question.”

In racing, for some reason, such universal love is reserved for middle-of-the-pack drivers who rarely rock the boat. Yet Al’s accomplishments on the track speak more loudly than the throaty roar from under the hood of a super late model.

Al won 81 features in the top division at OPS. Only Rowe and his ridiculous number of 150 surpass that.

“He was the best,” was the succinct assessment of Alison Lamond, a former OPS track photographer now living in New Mexico.

If the best among us are defined as those who consistently show up for work or play and are routinely great at it, then Al absolutely was. It’s hard to imagine the approaching racing season without Al, simply because most of us have never known one.

He raced at the historic, 3/8-mile oval in six different decades and won races in five of them. Again, only Rowe joins him on that list.

All that, and there was never a hint of the “do you know who I am?” phenomenon that can broaden the shoulders of so many. Al was unpretentious as the never-changing, black-and-gold paint scheme on his immediately recognizable No. 1 car.

“In my years as handicapper, I never really did get to know him much because he NEVER had any questions or complaints about ANYTHING,” former pit steward Kevin Farrar penned on the ‘Oxford Plains Speedway Photos and Memories’ Facebook page. “He’d always have a smile, always say hi, then he’d hang out with his family/crew and just go about his business.”

To so many race fans in isolated, snowswept Maine, merely attending an event at Daytona International Speedway is on that ubiquitous bucket list. In his abbreviated but experience-rich life, Al was one of our precious few native sons who could smile and say he competed there.

Championships are hard to come by at a track that has produced the likes of Rowe, Taylor, Leland Kangas, Tim Brackett, Tracy Gordon, Niles Gage and Wally Patrick. Al won Oxford’s top prize three times — in 1970, 1973, 1974.

Indeed, Al’s legacy was so enduring that even some of us with gray hair, achy joints and kids old enough to drive race cars themselves can only pretend to remember his glory days.

“Great driver,” Dan Charest of Lisbon chimed in on Facebook. “He didn’t need the chrome horn (bumper) to get to the front.”

To us, longevity was his calling card.

Nothing explains Al’s mystique better than his induction to the Maine Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2009 and his qualifying for the Oxford 250 through the first round of stressful heat races — two years later.

“So proud to have been a member of his crew,” Scott Avery of Casco wrote Thursday. “Lots of memories that I will cherish forever.”

That goes for all of us.

Even if your best memories of Maine racing involve another driver, Al is in them.

He was a leading man of his generation and a perennial best supporting actor in the two that followed. He is the degree of separation that connects any two drivers you can name in the history of Oxford Plains Speedway.

Al lives on in trophies by the dozen, pictures by the thousand and memories by the million.

Godspeed.

Kalle Oakes is a staff columnist and former publicist at Oxford Plains Speedway. His email is [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Oaksie72.


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