By Mark Kane
For Capital Region Independent Media
You can now add Utica Rome Speedway to tracks that are now open for the 2022 racing season.
What started as a nice, sunny, warm day soon changed once the sun went down. With the wind continuing to blow and the temperatures continuing to drop it was going to be a cold one, and that it was.
Warm or cold, it was great to be back at the Utica Rome Speedway. There is one thing for sure — through its rich racing history at the storied now dirt track in Vernon, New York — there has never been a lack of talent. The track has seen its highs and lows and now under its second year under the watchful eye of promoter Brett Deyo and his fine staff, the track is on an upswing.
Over the years the list of winners and champions is a list of drivers that is like a “who’s who” of the very best in the business.
The track first opened up in 1961 as a quarter-mile asphalt oval run under the NASCAR banner with the “Champ” Rene Charland winning the first championship. In 1979, the track converted to 5/8 dirt and then again to the half-mile of today.
The years Utica was asphalt and NASCAR drivers like Lou Lazzaro, Jerry Cook, Ed Flemke, Bill Wimble, Ernie Gahan and a host of others were at the top of their game. There were drivers like a young Richie Evens, who was learning his trade and would win the final championship on the asphalt at the close of the 1978 season. In 1979 it was Lou Lazzaro picking up the first win on the Utica Rome dirt with Bob Savoie, who won the championship. In 1981 the DIRT Flag was flying with Art Kiser picking up the first win with David Lape beating a fine field to win the championship.
After the 82 season where Jack Johnson would drive to eight wins and the championship, the track closed. In 1985 the track reopened as New Venture Speedway with five big races for big money scheduled and four were run, with the first falling to Mother Nature. Dave Lape was overall champion. The racing through the ‘80’s was second to none. In 1989 the track became the New Utica Rome Speedway running Outlaw rules with drivers like Donnie Wetmore, Dale Plank, Paul Jensen, Tom Kinsella and many others in the pits putting on some great races for the fans.
In 1994 the track was back to NASCAR, with the same Outlaw teams. In 1996 it again changed names, reverting back to Utica Rome Speedway and then went back to DIRTcar in 1999 until 2004, when Stewart Friesen would be the champion. After the DIRTcar era the track has mainly been an independent track and has been dominated by Friesen and Matt Sheppard in both wins and championships.
A fine field of cars made their way to the Utica Rome Speedway for opening night honoring Alex Friesen, a promoter and racer who left the world at age 33. In heat race action “Mad Max” Max McLaughlin set a new track record of 17.747.
At the drop of the green of the $6,800 to win 30-lap modified feature it was Matt Sheppard powering his way to the front with Larry Wight, Jessica Friesen, Mat Williamson and Stewart Friesen aboard the Alex Friesen Memorial No. 68 paint scheme was quickly into the top 5 from his seventh starting spot. On lap 5, Stewart Friesen worked his way around the 1Z of JZ, Jessica Friesen, and set his sights on Williamson as McLaughlin fell out of the top 5. Now McLaughlin started to work on the 1Z of Friesen and getting the spot to be back in the top 5.
Setting a fast pace out front, the leaders caught lapped traffic as the yellow was out for veteran A.J. “Slideway’s” Alan Johnson closing up the field with 10 down and 20 to go. Back to green and a clear track out front, Sheppard again was the leader as the No. 68 of Friesen was on the move on the high side of a very smooth and fast early season racing surface, working his way around Williamson to move to third and as quick as McLaughlin fell out of the top 5, he drove right back into it, also working his way around Williamson.
The race heated up between Friesen and McLaughlin with Friesen getting the worst of it, going over turn 1 and 2 berm as the caution flew for Bobby Hackle before the lap was complete. Once back to green it was still Sheppard able to hold off Wight, back in the pack Tim Fuller after starting 12th, young gun Alex Yankowski, Billy Decker and Rocky Warner were in a heated battle running 2 and 3 wide for position.
Out front Sheppard was the class of the field but within eyesight of Wight as the laps clicked away. On the move was Tim Fuller and Yankowski as Fuller was in the top 5 and Yankowski in the top 7. Using a lapped car Friesen #68 worked his way to 2nd around Wight and set his sights on the leader and coming fast when the yellow was out slowing the great run Friesen had on the leader with only a handful of laps remaining. Coming to the green it was Sheppard and Friesen as Friesen slid up and over the berm between turns 1 and 2 and this time he did not have a caution to save him and now in ninth with less than five to go.
Remaining green Sheppard continued to lead and hold on for the win with Wight, McLaughlin, Fuller and Williamson rounding out the top 5.
In other opening night action Payton Talbot was the Crate 602 Sportsman winner, Beau Ballard was the winner of the 20-lap Pro Stock feature. In the Limited Sportsman, Seth Martin picked up the win with Justin Pope winning the 4-Cylinder feature.
Saturday night at the Fonda Speedway was a busy night with a regular program along with the Mohawk Valley Vintage Dirt Modified Series (MVVDMS). The field was well represented in all their classes.
It is great to turn back time every now and then to remember the days of those old coupes and coaches racing down the back stretch, with the good old boys who drove them. Back in those days, teams would race on asphalt one night and take the same car to the dirt the following night. You wreck it you went to the junkyard and was back racing.
Over the years things have sure changed, but one thing that hasn’t is the love for the sport. There are times I would like to see racing go back to simple times, then I look into the future of what racing will be down the road and that scares the living hell out of me.
Will there even be racing? Oh, just shoot me now at that thought. I can see it now — hurry up and plug the thing in, it’s race day.
The Vintage class seems to grow and grow every time they come to the track and that is never a bad thing. Only bad thing is the weekly fields seem to be losing cars at the same rate due to what it costs to keep a competitive car at the track as what started out to be a hobby for most has turned into a second full-time job. Like they say, in one hand out the other. Well, that’s racing in its present state.
When the mighty SUNOCO Modifieds came to the track for their feature it was Jessica Friesen and JaMike Sowle leading the field of heavy competitors breathing down their neck.
At the drop of the green it was Friesen with the early lead as Rocky Warner quickly on the move taking over the runner up spot with Sowle, Jack Lehner and Matt DeLorenzo holding down the early top 5.
Quickly, DeLorenzo worked his way past the Lehner No. 85 Nelson ride to take over third. The caution was out early as Pep Corradi sat on the front stretch infield. On the restart it was Rocky Warner as the new leader taking DeLorenzo with him to second down the back stretch, leaving J.Z. and Lehner to battle for third. Dave Constantino was showing early speed and on the move, as was Stewart Friesen coming from a sixth row starting position again in the No. 68 Alex Friesen Memorial paint scheme.
Out front DeLorenzo found the bottom to his liking and started to get closer to the rear bumper of the Tadd Parks 1 of Warner as Warner was rim riding Fonda Speedway. Side by side Warner and DeLorenzo worked the famed half-mile to complete lap 12 and the 2007 track champion would be the new leader as DeLorenzo was on the move.
Behind the leaders it was heating up as Ronnie Johnson had the 2RJ moving forward as Constantino and Lehner battled with Friesen’s No. 68 for a top 5 as Jessica was holding her own in the 1Z.
The great racing surface with producing great two- and three-wide racing throughout the field, but the race in the top 5 had Stew’s 68 working past Constantino, then raced side by side with his wife Jessica and worked his way to third as now it was DeLorenzo, Warner, Friesen, Friesen and Constantino, with R.J. right there with the leaders and looking for racing room and found it working his way to fifth.
As the laps clicked away, DeLorenzo opened up a big lead on the field as Friesen worked his way to second around Warner and Johnson who was able to work his way into fourth.
As the checkers fell it was Matt DeLorenzo in for the popular win, his 38th career Modified win tying him with SUPER CD Coville for 10th on the all-time win list. This was DeLorenzo’s first win at the Track of Champions, Fonda Speedway, since the 2013 season. One of the nice guys in racing, Matt has been promoter as well as champion at Fonda Speedway.
Following the 3D to the line was the No. 68 of Stewart Friesen, Rocky Warner, Ronnie Johnson, and J.Z. held on for fifth.
Seems Stewart is into the replica paint work lately as his NASCAR truck for Darlington Throwback will have the 1992 Super DIRT Week scheme of Jumpin’ Jack Johnson and the name of Jack on the roof. Pretty cool stuff right there and Ronnie is taking the night off from racing to go along for the ride.
Other racing found Chad Edwards going 2-for-2 with a last turn last lap pass in the 602 Sportsman. Once again it was Nick Stone in for the Pro Stock win, his 61st, and on the other hand Lance Hill picked up his first-ever Fonda Speedway win in the Limited Sportsman as Ken Hollenbeck continued his 4-cyl. win total record growing.
The MVVDMS classes were won by Jimmy Fugel, John Marks, Curtis Condon, Randy Delaney and Brian Gray, and fun was had by ALL.
At Albany Saratoga, Jessey Mueller was the class of the NAPA Modifieds with Brian Gleason, Jack Lehner, Peter Britten and Adam Pierson rounding out the top 5.
In other racing at the “Great Race Place,” Andrew Buff picked up the Sportsman win, while Kim Duell picked up the Pro Stock win. In the Limited Sportsman it was Mike Arnold in for his first win after making the move from Street Stocks. In the Street Stocks it was Jeff Meltz Sr. and Dave Frame with the 4-Cyl. win.
Lebanon Valley found Andy Bachetti go 2-for-2 after winning the Modified feature by making a last lap turn 2 pass to hold off Kolby Schroder, Kenny Tremont Jr., L.J. Lombardo and Keith Flach rounding out the top 5. The Sportsman found Matt Burke with the win, while Nick Hilt was the Pro Stock winner and Dave Streibel the Street Stock winner.
At Bridgeport Super DIRTcar Series it was Ryan Godown with the win over Stewart Friesen, Billy Pauch Jr., Mat Williamson and Max McLaughlin rounded out the top 5 in the 75-lap event.
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