ON PIT ROAD: More Unity, more safety and more ACT cheap shots

I was 12 or 13 years old, I forget which, the first time I went to a stock car race.

I didn’t come from a racing family. In fact, I didn’t even know anybody who raced cars. It wasn’t part of the lexicon of my universe, and to say that race car drivers were some kind of mythic warriors that existed on another plane somewhere wouldn’t even be fair — I didn’t even really know there was such a thing.

Then my parents, on a pure whim, loaded the us all into the back of a station wagon (without seat belts in those days, of course) on an early-July night for a trip to Unity Raceway. We were promised fireworks, but it rained before we ever got that far into the program.

All I saw were a bunch of heat races, but it was more than enough to hook me for good.

Look, it pained me to go to Unity the last few years as a card-carrying media member and have to see the place in such despair. It was at its lowest two years ago this July, when Gary Norris Jr. won a PASS Outlaw Late Model race in front of absolutely nobody in the grandstands.

I want to believe the Nason family when they say they truly are taking just a year off to feel things out and resurrect the place. I want to hope that somebody with deep pockets in a bad economy will walk in and lease the place and give it a desperate facelift. I want to believe that low-buck, high-fun racing can exist there in Unity.

Like I said, I want to believe all that. The fan in me really, truly does.

But if you press me for my opinion, and enough people have in the last few days, I’ll tell you this. I think we’ve seen our last race at Unity Raceway. That’s just the media guy in me talking.

* Michael McDowell’s crash in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying at Texas last week says two things to me, two things that are probably on the controversial side.

Not that I’ve ever shied away from that.

First, in the absence of any obvious equipment failure during the run, it speaks to the dangers of having young kids who haven’t “paid their dues” hopping into Cup cars because they can pay the steep asking price for a coveted seat behind the wheel. McDowell was all over the track in every corner before the mishap.

Second, why are we not using these cars in other NASCAR series? If it’s about safety — which, seeing McDowell walk away unscathed, it truly is — how can it not be in Nationwide and Camping World Series competiton each week? If it’s about protecting drivers, why on earth is NASCAR not doing everything it can to protect its drivers with the least amount of experience? And don’t tell me it’s about the cost. This COT thing was supposed to save teams from themselves, save them money by not forcing them to build as many cars.

Those Nationwide and Camping World teams are building new cars every off-season, some even as the season progresses. So what if they’re building a car to different specs — they’re still building race cars.

* “Deadliest Catch” returns Tuesday night. Yeah, I’m all in.

* Talked to Oxford Plains owner Bill Ryan today. He said he is “confident” that his track will open as planned on April 26, though he was wary about running an open practice a week earlier — the same day that PASS North is slated to open its campaign a few miles away at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway.

How much rain the area gets this weekend will likely have a say in whether or not there’s racing in Maine next weekend.

* Sox-Yankees, baby. But really, it’s all got a different feel now. I can’t place it.

Maybe it’s because I know we can whoop up on them when it really counts...

* And while we’re on the subject of sports, don’t expect me to write a single word about the American-Canadian Tour for the next couple of weeks, at least not until the end of the Bruins-Canadiens Stanley Cup Playoffs series.

That pencil-pushing, four-eyed, blithering blah-blah PR director for ACT — and you know who you are! — proudly wears a Canadiens ballcap around the offices over there in Vermont. I hope he gets another 2 feet of snow, in his driveway alone, sometime in the next week.


Nason Jr.: This is a re-vamping

Ralph Nason Jr., the general manager of Unity Raceway, insists that while the plans for now are to keep the track closed this season, it won't be that way for good.

In fact, he vowed that it will come back better than ever in 2009.

"It's not the end," he said Tuesday night. "We're going to take another 11 months and try to fine tune things."

Read the complete story in today's Kennebec Journal.


Reaction to Unity Raceway's closing

People's responses to the announcement today that Unity Raceway would be closing its doors in 2008 ranged from matter-of-fact to disappointment. Here's a sampling of the reactions from the central Maine racing community:

"I just feel bad. Anytime a track closes, you feel bad. That's a piece of history changing, just like in NASCAR when they got rid of The Rock and all the short tracks. That's where racing came from."
-- Doug White, Wiscasset Raceway owner

"This is a re-vamping. This is not a closing. It’s not the end."
-- Ralph Nason Jr., Unity Raceway general manager

"I’ve got to find a way to get better at (promoting a race track) in the new age, versus how I used to do it in the old age."
-- Nason Jr.

"If you look at the car counts and the people in grandstands, it’s hard. I’ve been around racing my whole life — before I was born, my father was racing. It’s hard to see the change to where there’s not as much interest in Unity as there was 10 years ago. It’s even worse when you look back to 15 years ago. It’s hard to face this, but it’s where we are today."
-- Johnny Clark, 2-time PASS North Series champion and winner of the '04 DNK 250 at Unity

"Dougie (White) and those guys, they're going to have it good down there for a while (at Wiscasset), but then it's going to fade and it will be hard for them, too. That's just what the trend is."
-- Ralph Nason, Unity Raceway owner

"That track has more grip than anywhere else. That's the thing, the track itself is great. It's bumpy, but it's really fun too race on. You'd hate to see it not be there anymore."
-- Cassius Clark, PASS North Series driver

Unity releases official statement

Here's the official statement, issued just a few minutes ago, from Unity Raceway regarding it's decision to put racing on hold for the 2008 season:

"The 2008 racing season at Unity Raceway has been suspended. The many current issues that have a direct impact on racing and on the track itself were considered and let to this difficult business decision.

The track is available for rent, lease or purchase this summer. Race teams will still be able to rent the track for testing and tuning by contacting the Nasons at 207-948-2613, M-F, 8:30am - 4pm."

Unity Raceway closed -- for now

On Monday, Unity Raceway staffers received news that they would not be needed for the 2008 season.

Track owner Ralph Nason confirmed Tuesday morning that his family was ceasing operations at the 60-year-old track for 2008. Nason also said that, while the track is closed for now, he has already received "3 or 4 phone calls from people" who are interested in leasing the facility.

Next winter, Nason said he will re-evaluate whether or not he wants to return to operating the track himself. Family commitments and declining attendance both in the pits and in the grandstands has made operating the facility -- at least for now -- impossible.

"The whole deal is just that there's no support for car racing at this point," Nason said.

Nason said he doesn't have a dollar figure in mind for a potential suitor. He also said that, while the track is unofficially for sale, he's in no rush to put a price tag on that either, considering the state of the real estate market.

The only thing he did say was that he's not so eager to pass the place off that he'll jump at the first lease offer.

"Somebody's going to have to have a few bucks," Nason said. "I'm not going to let somebody take it that's got no money. That's not going to happen.

"I want to see (the track) going, but I'm going to forewarn anybody about the pitfalls that are there. They've got to do inexpensive stuff, otherwise it won't work. The racing's got to be fun."
And, for now, there's no racing at all. And that's no fun for anybody.