For 43 years dozens of racers have been battling to be the first car to the black-and-white checkered flag in the Oxford 250.

Mike Rowe has been first three times, to go along with a second and a third. He’s been competing in the prestigious race for decades and has only had that black-and-white fabric in his sights, never the black-or-red state of his wallet at the end of the weekend.

“You’re there to win the race,” Rowe, of Turner, said. “so you don’t even think about 10th place.”

Getting a top ten is still an accomplishment of sorts in the 250, but it isn’t what it used to be. Prestige and bragging rights have always been the draw of the race, but in racing money talks too.

“The pay-back after first place isn’t quite as good as it used to be,” said Scott Robbins, of Dixfield, the 2002 winner ahead of Rowe. “Your break-even point, it used to be probably if you finished 15th of 20th. Now your break-even point would be maybe fifth. Finish fifth to pay for your day.”

Robbins left Oxford Plains Speedway with a $36,900 winner’s check in 2002. Rowe collected winner’s checks of $26,475 in 1984, $39,800 in ’97, and $26,000 in 2005. Joey Kourafas won $4,500 in the inaugural race in 1974. Wayne Helliwell Jr. took home $29,500 for winning last year’s race.

The winner’s portion of the race purse steadily rose for the first two decades of the race, topping out at $52,150 for Dave Whitlock in 1995. It’s been a mixed bag ever since, due in part to bonus money for laps led.

“Just the sign of the times,” Robbins said.

Trying to get into the 250, let alone trying to win it, has always been a financial commitment. It might be even more so now, with the rising costs of, well, everything.

“I know the tires are more and the gas is a little more. Plus everything has gone up. It definitely costs a little more,” Rowe said. “Everything has gone up from what it used to be 20 years ago or better. Just like the cost of living.

“I guess if a person was in it for the money they wouldn’t be racing.”

Putting money aside has become more of the norm, according to Robbins.

“I’ll tell you a difference from years ago, there might have been 60 to 70 guys that showed up and tried to qualify. In 2002, there was probably 20 or 25 that might take that shot of ‘hey, we got a chance to do really well here. With the right circumstances we could win,'” Robbins said. “Now, there maybe be 60-plus cars there on 250 Sunday, and there’s probably 50 of them that may say ‘you know what, we got to have that one more set of tires. We just got to do it because if we can, and it makes a difference, then we’ll make a pay day out of it if we’re successful.’ I think more guys take that chance now because there’s more cars that can potentially win this race than there ever has been.”

“You got to do what it takes. Probably you’re going to go through 20 to 24 tires in a course of a weekend,” Rowe said. “That’s a lot of money right there.”

Tires are the biggest expense of the weekend, according to Robbins. Always has been. And writing that check for how many tires he decides to get at the beginning of the weekend is “just as painful” now as it was when he first started trying to qualify for the 250 back in 1999.

“I think we kind of knew, but it’s always a little bit of a shock,” Robbins added. “It’s still kind of a shock.”

With the costs rising and the payout doing the opposite, budgets have to be drafted, if not necessarily strictly followed. That’s become more true as Robbins has transitioned from an every-week racer in 2002 to a pick-and-choose scheduler this year.

“I’m sure there’s going to be some guys that might most likely buy maybe two sets of practice tires, and practice on new tires all weekend long. My budget doesn’t allow me to do that. We’re going to buy one set of practice tires and try to use it wisely,” Robbins said. “My weekend, there’s always a cost factor in the decisions you make, for sure.”

“Me personally, back (in 2002) we had a few more sponsors than we do now because we were doing it full-time,” Robbins added. “It was like ‘okay, if we need X amount of tires our sponsors would get that for us.’ Now, we have some sponsors now, but not as much as we used to, so it limits what we can buy.”

Rowe has also changed how he goes about his weekend. A former owner-driver, Rowe now is strictly the latter.

“It just costs so much to race today that you’re better off to just drive for somebody and meet them at the track and don’t spend any money,” Rowe said. “They’re paying the whole bill, so that helps me a lot.”

The competition in the 250 is so fierce that drivers don’t have time to think about the dollar signs puffing out of the tail pipe and burning off the tires. Owners do, however. So do sponsors.

Yet all three groups know what they’re getting into. And the drivers don’t want to let down their backers.

“It adds pressure. Even if it’s sponsorship money, you don’t want to let anybody down,” Robbins said. “It just adds to the whole intensity of the whole weekend.”

“Everybody’s going up there to win,” Rowe said. “Just the prestige of winning the 250 is worth all the money you’re going to win.”

In 43 years and counting of the Oxford 250 that hasn’t changed one bit.

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