OXFORD, Maine — Dan Morris looked across the Oxford Plains Speedway oval Saturday from his vantage point in the pit area and witnessed something sobering, if not startling.
He saw a sprawling main grandstand with room for more than 10,000 men, women and children, almost completely vacant.
Yes, while an actual race went on. Oxford Plains Speedway’s next-to-last race, in fact, before the interminable and sometimes intolerable Maine winter.
“To look up and see pretty much not even one filled seat, I’ll put it that way, was pretty dismal,” Morris said. “I think a lot of us were saying to each other, ‘This isn’t what it used to be.’ Whether it’s management or whether it’s the economy or the cold weather, who knows? But for the last few years, you could see it heading downhill, and that was sad to see.”
That haunting sight, that passion for the sport and those vivid memories of a bygone era were the reason Morris’ phone rang off the hook late Sunday afternoon. It was the motivation for text messages flying like October leaves from South Paris to Turner to Farmington and all pockets of local racing enthusiasts in between.
It was the mass response to the confirmation of autumn’s worst-kept secret in that fraternity. Oxford Plains Speedway had been sold.
Bill Ryan confirmed Sunday that had he reached an agreement in principle to sell the storied short track to longtime local racing personality Tom Mayberry of Naples.
Local drivers’ reaction is best described as a blend of relief, excitement and uncertainty.
“I can tell you this: Mayberry is a racing guy,” said driver Shane Green of South Paris. “If he has the financial backing, he’ll make it work.”
Mayberry, who has promoted the Pro All Stars Series and its super late model cars since 2001, said Sunday that he will return Oxford’s crown jewel event, the Oxford 250, to those specifications.
He also set a timetable of three weeks to set next year’s weekly division and rules structure. That part of the equation has some drivers on edge.
“Change sometimes is not a bad thing,” said Shawn Martin of Turner, who was recently crowned the speedway’s late model champion for the second time. “Right now, my thoughts are how it affects me personally.”
Martin has campaigned a late model at Oxford for more than 10 years. He qualified for the Oxford 250 every summer after Ryan changed the race format from pro stock (super late model) cars to a more cost-contained late model package in 2007.
Tommy Ricker of Poland only recently purchased his late model outright.
“I haven’t got a clue. Rudy and Natalie (Kyllonen) just retired, and I bought the car from them. Then when I heard these rumors. it was like, ‘Aw, (expletive), what have I done?’ I guess I could take the bars out and turn it into a street rod pretty easily,” Ricker said. “No, I guess maybe it’s age talking, but my initial reaction is I’m going to wait and see what he decides to do. Every year rumors start, and I don’t get too excited about them.”
This year’s scuttlebutt reached a fever pitch in recent weeks.
Drivers began to take the talk of a possible ownership change seriously after a drivers’ meeting at which American-Canadian Tour promoter Tom Curley alluded to an impending new direction for one of the tour’s hub tracks and flagship races.
Most in the regional racing community understood that to mean OPS and the Oxford 250.
While late model drivers worry that their division could be eliminated entirely, Martin and Green both noted that PASS recently introduced a late model series to its Southern tracks.
“He doesn’t have to go with Curley’s rules,” Green said. “I kind of hope he doesn’t. He can make late models the feeder system to the pro stocks, which is what it was designed to be in the first place. They had a great system in place.”
Ryan eliminated two of Oxford’s top three weekly divisions with the moves six seasons ago.
Potential cost savings for both the speedway and its competitors during trying economic times were a selling point. But many spectators and drivers felt alienated.
“I’ve been through this three times,” Green said. “We had a 6-cylinder Charger car that (then-OPS promoter) Curley did away with in 1994. We had a Limited Sportsman car that we had to throw out after 2006. And now this, because we don’t know what’s going to happen until we hear it from Mayberry.”
Attendance more than doubled between Ryan’s initial purchase of the speedway in 1998 and the 2004 season, when the Oxford 250 attracted NASCAR champions Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch and sold out for the first time in history.
In addition to the recently dwindling box office traffic, drivers say they had witnessed a detachment from the owner since his involvement in bringing the NBA Development League’s Maine Red Claws to Portland.
“Obviously, Bill had lost interest in the place, I think. But it’s easy for me to sit back and say you can’t let the financial situation determine everything, because I’m not the one writing the checks,” Ricker said.
“It has the potential to be a great track. It’s good to see that it’s going to be somebody with an appreciation for the deep roots and the history of the place,” added Morris, a past champion of the Mini Stock division. “I think it’s going to be a good deal.”
Morris noted that at least three of Maine’s six active tracks are likely to be under new management in 2013.
Richard Jordan of Kingfield purchased Wiscasset Speedway at auction this summer. Unity Raceway owner Ralph Nason also is fielding offers to lease his track after George Fernald stepped away.
“That’s always exciting for people,” Morris said. “But for the next month or so, there’s going to be a lot of chatter out there about, ‘What’s (Mayberry) going to do?’ Hopefully, the addition of someone with a lot of good ideas and an understanding of asphalt short track racing will be a good thing. It’s struggling everywhere right now. He’s a former racer who runs a good series. He knows how to run a show.”
Green said that he hopes to see Oxford become “fan-friendly” again, perhaps borrowing a page from Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in Scarborough.
“They have a bus take kids through the pit area. They let fans down onto the track after the races,” Green said. “That was my favorite part of the races when I was a kid, and (Ryan) did away with all that.”
Drivers believe such gimmicks might stop the exodus of cars, drivers and spectators to competing tracks.
“If I were giving (Mayberry) advice, I’d tell him he needs to do three things. Promote it. Promote it some more. And when you’re done with that, promote it again,” Ricker said.
“I think it’s the best facility in New England,” added Green. “I’ll race anywhere, but I’d just as soon have it be seven miles down the road from my house.”