A visit to Lancaster Speedway
By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The wind wasn’t always blowing on summer Saturday nights when growing up in Clarence. Sometimes it was calm, and on those evenings you could hear noise in the distance – the cars at Lancaster National Speedway. It didn’t really matter where you lived in the town limits; those big engines were heard by just about everyone.
But even with that sort of advertising, I never made it to the Gunville Road facility – just down the road from my high school.
Until now. Some friends who are Lancaster regulars and I headed there on Saturday for a night of auto racing. I took notes along the way, and offer my initial impressions of the experience here – knowing that some of the observations will be hopelessly naïve or silly to the initiated.
Park anywhere: My first surprise came before I even went past the entrance gate. I pulled into the parking lot wallet in hand, wondering how much the charge would be. It turns out it was free. That fact scored points with my cheap side right away.
General admission for the night was $12, which seemed fair. There’s a lot to see on a race card, with heats and feature races for four different classes of cars.
Where to sit? That’s always a big question for a newcomer. You can always tell a veteran hockey fan when they ask to sit in a corner of the building. In this case, Bruce and Matt have a regular spot in the grandstand, which runs along the front straightaway – fairly close to the first turn, about halfway up.
I had no idea what the layout was when I entered the facility. It turned out there were two ovals – one inside the other. The drag strip, usually used on Friday nights, goes for an eighth of a mile on the front stretch.
The bleachers by the start/finish line are the classic wood model used by high school football stadiums; a cushion might not be the worst idea for some fans. There are some stands on the backstretch. Those are used by members of the pit crews for the car, who can be seen hurrying back to the pits after their driver was involved in a mishap. The inspection area also was located beyond the backstretch.
Management has put some money into the facility in recent years. It is said to have helped, but it still has some of the charm of a facility that’s been around for a while.
Before the start: A minister led the audience in a prayer at the start of the night. I’m not sure how common it is, but it surprised me a bit.
Concessions and merchandise: The biggest sellers on this particular night were coffee and hot chocolate, I think. It can get pretty cold on a September night, so I was glad I dressed warmly. The beer vendor also seemed to do rather well. A box of popcorn was $2, which is quite reasonable by almost any standard.
Noise ordinance: When I told a friend I was headed to a local race track, the first words out of his mouth were “Bring hearing protection.” I did exactly that, but we were far enough away from the cars not to need it. It was a little difficult to talk when a group of Street Stock cars went by, but otherwise it was fine. I did venture to the finish line for a photo once, and I definitely would have used ear plugs there.
Put it this way – from where I was sitting for most of the racing night, U2 at New Era Field was much louder.
Making friends: I expected to see Dave Buchanan, the track announcer who spends some of his time working on the Bandits coverage for WGR Radio, during my visit. I also thought I might see Larry Ott, who has been covering racing for The Buffalo News for decades, and I did.
But I was a little shocked to see my former County Legislator and longtime friend with her father in the stands. And I also met the man who took over my father’s office at Scott Aviation in Lancaster when Dad retired in the mid-1980s. That was almost spooky.
Money changes everything: I asked what determines the winner at this level of races, and was told economics might be the biggest factor. In other words, those who can afford a good car usually do well. Driving skill is down the list a bit, although sometimes the veterans have some tricks up their sleeve in order to win some races.
And as you might expect, short-track racing is not a place to get rich for anyone. As someone put it, “Wanna make a million dollars at racing? Start with two million.”
Trivial fact: Even I’m not old enough to remember Offermann Stadium, the home of the Buffalo Bisons baseball team through 1960. The building lives on in one sense – the poles used for the lights at that ballpark were recycled for Lancaster.
Elephant in the room: One of the criticisms of race fans a while back is that they come to see the crashes. You don’t hear that much anymore, perhaps because the sport has become more mainstream and word has spread that fans appreciate good racing. There was one good-sized crash in a Sportsman heat on this night. The car is designed to break up upon contact with the Thermal Foam barrier along the walls (that stuff lessens the impact as well), and it did so in semi-spectacular fashion. A couple of big pieces flew into the air. The driver walked away from it, thankfully.
Otherwise, there were a few bumps and spinouts, some done deliberately. It’s kind of fun to see some drivers “trade some paint” at this level as long as it doesn’t get out of hand. The street stocks had a bunch of cautions before the feature was completed. The cars would be bunched up for restarts, a mishap would take place in no time, and they’d have to try again. As someone put it, “yellow leads to yellow” – referring to the caution flags.
As for the racing, I think I preferred the Sportsman and Street Stock divisions a little more – mostly because it was on the big 5/8 of a mile track and it seemed easier to pass. It is difficult to overtake someone in the turns, and the short track (one-tenth of a mile) is mostly turns. Those who get a lead tended to keep it.
Here’s to the winners: It was Championship Night, as the season-long series winners were crowned. Let’s salute the best of 2017: Shawn Nye, Sportsman; Rich Sharpe, Street Stocks; Bobby Woch, 4-Cylinders; Kyle Hutchinson, TQ Midgets.
Would I go again? I think I understand the appeal of this level of racing a bit more now. The races move right along, and as long as the green flag was out it was entertaining. It obviously would have helped for me to know the drivers and their situations in the season-long competition going in, and a rooting interest for some of them would have made it more interesting.
It was a good night out at a fair price. Can’t ask for more than that.