This is notoriously the lamest week of the sports calendar year.

That the Home Run Derby and ESPY Awards even exist are Exhibits A and B. Baseball’s almost forgotten All-Star Game (motto: “This time, it counts, because the year everybody was honest about the fact that it doesn’t embarrassed the crap out of us”) is just a reminder that America’s pastime essentially shuts down for three days.

Not even the good folks who scheduled the World Cup saw fit to cooperate with us. If you aren’t into hearing what Johnny Manziel drank for breakfast or which NBA free agent has no interest in relocating to the professional purgatory known as the Boston Celtics, it’s going to be a rough stretch. The British Open? I don’t wake up early enough.

Although I can pretty much guarantee you a table this week at your favorite sports bar. So there’s that.

Fortunately for those us who follow this stuff for a living in the Maine foothills, we have options. No, check that, they’re better than “options.”

Two of the most tradition-rich and time-honored sporting events in the region will unfold this weekend. And if you’re even a casual fan of the Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl or the Oxford 250, you recognize that the lead-up is a huge part of the show.

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Time and a tanking economy have taken their toll on so many attractions that are uniquely Maine, but the senior football game and the short track auto race remain two of the most widely attended sporting events in the state.

High school’s Class A basketball and football championship games might draw a few more spectators. Combined with the expansive, elite field, families and well-wishers drive the TD Beach to Beacon road race up the list. And on any given summer night, the red-hot Portland Sea Dogs could pack out Hadlock Field and throw themselves into this mix.

But if you’re a high school football or auto racing fan — or better yet, a competitor fortunate enough to qualify for either showcase — it’s tough to imagine anything better.

Being selected to the Lobster Bowl is the greatest honor a Maine high school athlete can receive, this side of a full-boat scholarship to a Division I university. Other sports have tried to replicate the experience by holding their own all-star games and awards banquets. Some of them even borrowed the model and chose a worthwhile charity for the purposes of all proceeds and publicity.

It’s a high compliment, of course, but there is no copying the Lobster Bowl. From the beginning of the process, when organizers unveil the teams by inviting them to an inspirational speech by someone who has thrived with the support of Shriners’ Hospitals, the athletes are fully engaged and invested in the cause.

Players further embrace the moment by soliciting donations and selling tickets to the game. Then they gather at Hebron Academy for a week of gridiron boot camp. Yes, it’s brutally hot. Yes, it’s time spent in isolation when friends are making memories at concerts or the beach. It’s a commitment that, to a man, past participants recall as one of the best they ever made. Rivals become forever friends.

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The game, staged at Waterhouse Field in Biddeford under the Saturday twilight, is played at a level that gets shockingly close to midseason form. More often than not, there’s a dramatic finish or second-half comeback worthy of relating to the grandkids someday.

It’s an extravaganza that breathes life into this deadest of sports seasons. And if you’re still seeking a shot of adrenaline the next afternoon and evening, Oxford Plains Speedway’s crown jewel is highly recommended. As long as you’re willing to compete for elbow room with the hardcore folks who stake out their camping site weeks in advance.

Begun by visionary Bob Bahre in 1974, the race has changed its format more often than Elton John has changed his wardrobe in the interim. What has never gone away is the ability to lure racing talent from New England, the Canadian Maritimes and beyond.

Far beyond. Name a NASCAR driver from the past five decades, and chances are good that either he has raced in the Oxford 250 or can be connected to someone who has with only one or two degrees of separation. Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch won it. Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski tried and fell short.

Maybe this year’s ringer, Steve Park, doesn’t carry that same weight. But not long ago he won a couple of NASCAR Sprint Cup races in a car owned by a guy whose name might ring a bell: Dale Earnhardt.

The big money, the gigantic trophy and the weighty prestige usually stay closer to home. Past winners Mike Rowe, Dick McCabe, Ralph Nason and Travis Benjamin all spoke of going to work bright and early the next morning. They weren’t kidding.

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This is a time of transition for OPS and the little race that made it famous. Ownership, sanctioning body and scheduling changes have taken their toll at the turnstiles in recent years. For the first since its infancy, the 250 doesn’t have a corporate sponsor in front of its name.

There’s no cheering in the press box, of course, but I’m openly rooting for the promoters and drivers to hit a collective grand slam Sunday. The Oxford 250 is indelibly linked to Western Maine summer. Our economy needs it. We need it.

Support your local high school football player. Support your local track. Support homegrown talent and tradition in all its forms.

It’s not as if they have any competition on TV right now.

Kalle Oakes is a staff columnist. His email is [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Oaksie72.


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