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Chasin’ Racin’: Orange County STSS Hard Clay Open       

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By Mark Kane

For Capital Region Independent Media

Continuing where he left off in 2022, Matt Sheppard powered his way to the STSS Hard Clay Open win at the Famed Orange County Fair Speedway. Mark Kane/For Capital Region Independent Media

Well, race fans, here we go again for another year of Chasin’ Racin’ and I did just that heading to the historic Orange County Fair Speedway for the STSS (Short Track Super Series) Hard Clay Open.

The “House of Power,” as it is known, has been home for 104 years to some of the top drivers through the years. As a driver, when you pulled into the pits in its heyday you had drivers like Buzzie Reutimann, Will Cagle, Frankie Schneider, Bobby Malzahn, Pee Wee Griffin, Gary Balough and a host of other top contenders of their time to deal with. For the fans that packed the stands they were treated weekly to an exciting night of racing action. 

As the cars changed, so did the men who drove them. A whole new breed of talent filled the pits. There was one who stood out and went on to be one of the top wheelmen on the East Coast.  Being a threat no matter where he ran, Brett “The Jet” Hearn was a winner. Love him or hate him, as a fan you had to admit in his prime he was tough to beat.

The old Speedway, like many, has been through its ups and downs over the years, and times are different. They are working hard to bring back the glory of the historic oval and seem to be going in the right direction as far as the racing surface goes.

Making my way to Middletown on a nice sunny day with a mild wind, I was not sure what the track conditions might be for the night’s racing action on the 5/8th- mile hard clay. Any race fan knows how well wind, sun and early season racing surface can go, but I am sure everyone in attendance was more than pleased. The racing surface was smooth, multi-grooved and produced some great side-by-side racing and a very exciting 50-lap STSS event. 

Once again, a fine field of over 50 Modifieds made their way to the pits with many feature winners and track champions in the strong field. It took four heavily contested 15-lap heats that were won by Canadian Steve Bernier in dominating fashion, Max McLaughlin heavily smoking over the last few laps, Billy Decker over a charging Jimmy Horton, and Matt Sheppard. 

A true veteran of the dirt track wars, Jimmy Horton lost his power plant while leading the STSS Hard Clay Open. Mark Kane/For Capital Region Independent Media

Two consi’s were won by Peter Britten and Cory Cormer to set the field for the STSS Bob Hilbert Sportswear Fueled by SUNOCO 50-lap, $12,000-to-win Hard Clay Open. The anticipation was high, the fans and drivers were ready, it was race time!

At the drop of the green it was Capital District racer Bobby Hackel IV in 97 grabbing the early lead from his outside starting position and he stayed in command for the first 10 laps with a tough field on his rear deck.

With the young gun still leading, it was Billy Decker who was putting pressure on Hackel IV with Jimmy Phelps holding down a close third. Going into turn 2, Phelps parked his 98H between the Hackel IV 97 on the top and Decker’s 91 in the low groove, making the veteran power move to be the new leader down the back chute. 

Local driver Bobby Hackel led the early portion of the 50-lap Hard Clay Open before fading at the end. Mark Kane/For Capital Region Independent Media

Behind the great run up front, Larry Wight, Horton and Matt Sheppard were staging their own battle on a track that was holding up well. Working out front, Phelps was under heavy pressure from Wight, who would be the new leader before lap 15. 

After a great battle in the top 5, the “Sensational One,” Jimmy Horton,  was on the move and working his way to second. As a true veteran of many dirt wars, he was ready to once again do battle for yet another win as he powered his way to the top spot. 

Just after the halfway flags, Wight received the Rock Fantasy $300 Halfway Bonus. Once out front, Horton started to pull away from the field as behind the leader there was some great nerf-bar to nerf-bar racing action.

As the laps clicked away, Horton was on cruise control when it seemed as Wight and Sheppard were closing on the leader when puffs of smoke could be seen from the back of Horton’s 43 machine, finding his fine run come to an end heading to the pits.

Horton’s misfortune left the 99 of Wight with the lead and Matt Sheppard on his rear deck. Working their way from mid-pack starting spots, Mat Williamson and Jack Lehner were steadily working their way into the top 5 as Dillion Steuer was having a steady run.

Sheppard continued the pressure on Wight’s 99 and would make the winning move on lap 39. Sheppard continued on for the win and the $12,000 winner’s share of the purse. 

Following Sheppard to the line were Wight, Williamson, Steuer and Capital District racer Jack Lehner rounding out the top 5.

Capital District racer Jack Lehner had a solid run with a top 5 finish at the STSS Hard Clay Open. Mark Kane/For Capital Region Independent Media

The 50-lap event seemed like two different chapters of a book. As the track changed, some teams were able to keep up with the conditions and ran in or near the top 5 as others started to struggle about the halfway point of the race on a very good racing surface and faded to outside the top 10.

For Sheppard it was his third Hard Clay Open win and 32nd STSS Victory and his first race with the Wegner Automotive LS 427 that is in the $22,000 range.

Former Albany Saratoga champion, Marc Johnson had a great run from 28th to 11th place, picking up the Hard Charger Award and a $300 check.

Marc Johnson picked up the Hard Charger Award, coming from 28th to 11th place during the STSS Hard Clay Open. Mark Kane/For Capital Region Independent Media

If this is any indication of the racing we will see this year, we are in for a great season. Please remember to support the sponsors who support the greatest racing on dirt.

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