Merritt must make changes at Speedway 95

Posted Sept. 14, 2010, at 7:06 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 15, 2010, at 6:47 p.m.

It was a trying year at Hermon’s Speedway 95.

A driver and a spectator were banned for life, the track was sold, then unsold, and a popular racing icon, John Phippen Jr. of Town Hill, collapsed and died of an apparent heart attack after the season’s final race.

Speedway 95 co-owners Del Merritt and Alice Baker had all but sold the track to former Wiscasset Raceway owner Dave St. Clair before Merritt realized how much the track meant to him and changed his mind.

Merritt said regaining the track has energized him and he is determined to put more people in the seats and more cars in each class next season.

His proposed moves make sense.

Scheduling Thursday night races to replace his Saturday night shows on the weeks leading up to the two Sprint Cup race weekends at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and the TD Bank 250 at Oxford Plains Speedway is a smart move.

A lot of race fans across New England look forward to the Sprint Cup races because they are the only Cup races in the region.The TD Bank 250 is the state’s most prestigious race.

Several fans leave Friday and make a weekend out of these events. They camp out, stay with friends or rent hotel rooms.

Merritt said he has to straighten out the postrace technical inspection situation. The three tech inspectors have ties to race teams and he doesn’t want to be accused of favoritism.

This is a difficult dilemma because finding someone who isn’t related to a driver or a close friend of one is virtually impossible.

Allowing the drivers to be more involved in policing their class is a step in the right direction.

He has discussed not disqualifying drivers in the postrace inspection but informing any rules violators that they must address the violation before allowing them to race the next weekend would set a dangerous precedent.

Drivers could doctor their cars in a different way every week to attain high finishes before fixing the violation on Monday.

Clarifying the rule book with driver input would be a positive development.

Then it is a matter of being consistent week in and week out in the enforcement of the rules.

Merritt simply can’t please everyone. No track owner can.

Auto racing is a volatile sport and, unfortunately, there are always people who treat it as their Sprint Cup experience.

They lose sight of the fact that it isn’t their source of income. It is a hobby. They rarely make money at it.

But some people are very competitive.

Their emotions get the best of them, especially when they get bumped by a rival and taken out of a race.

That can be partially rectified if the driver who takes out another driver is penalized by being sent to the back of the pack or being disqualified.

That goes against NASCAR’s latest mindset which encourages drivers to do whatever it takes to get to the front even if it means purposely spinning-out a rival.

NASCAR feels that’s the way to put more people in the seats and, based on the empty seats at NASCAR venues, I can understand their desperation.

But it shouldn’t be encouraged, especially at local tracks. Somebody is going to get seriously injured.

Bumping is part of the sport but purposely spinning people out can lead to all kinds of problems, especially at the local level.

Speedway 95 also needs a face-lift and Merritt will make some improvements, he said.

Merritt and Baker don’t have the deep pockets it would take to give it a significant upgrade (i.e. new bleachers, better lighting system, scoreboard, newly-paved surface). But they will do what they can to spruce it up.

The racing community in Maine won’t be the same without Phippen.

He was a delightful man with a great sense of humor. You had a smile on your face as you approached him in expectation of a witty comment, which he usually provided.

He was a fierce competitor on the track but after the race was over, he didn’t dwell on it.

It was on to the next race.

He was a class act with tremendous passion for the sport he pursued for 31 years.

My thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends.

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