When Dana Crockett asked Del Merritt to be his assistant flagman at Hermon’s Speedway 95, Merritt took him up on his invitation. It was 1968.
“I thought it was something I might like to do,” said Merritt, who had never been to the stock car track.
“Little did I know I would still be there,” said Merritt, who bought the track in 1977 with Red and Alice Baker, John Michaels and some minor investors. Merritt became the sole owner in 2011, when Alice Baker sold him her share for a reported $350,000.
“I probably would have been smarter if I had stayed the assistant flag man. I’d get less grief,” quipped Merritt, whose track opens for the season at 7 p.m. Saturday.
He said it didn’t take long for him to become enamored with the sport. He has stayed with it despite the challenges of running a race track and the passion and volatility the sport evokes from drivers and fans.
“It gets in your blood. It’s real exciting,” said the 68-year-old Merritt who was soon elevated from assistant flag man to flag man before he owned it.
Merritt and Baker almost sold the track to Dave St. Clair in 2010.
“There was a combination of things going on at the time. I had been getting a bunch of crap. I thought it was getting time to retire,” explained Merritt. “But I felt [St. Clair] might run it for four or five years and then sell it. And it might have been sold to someone who was going to turn it into something other than a track.
“I want to see whoever ends up with it [after me] to keep it a racetrack. That’s my goal,” he added.
Merritt has put a lot of money into the track over the years and said he doesn’t make much off it.
“If I could make $1,000 [in a year], there would be a grand celebration,” he said.
But he doesn’t have to rely on the track for his income because he is an accomplished businessman.
He owns two bars, Judy’s in Bangor and Cap’s in Brewer, along with 52 apartments.
He also works for Brown and Bigelow Inc., a national promotional products distributor based in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“He is, literally, a self-made man,” said Kim Baker Allen, Alice’s daughter and the head scorer and office manager at Speedway 95.
A drive to succeed
Merritt is an only child.
“My dad, [Guy], was a jack-of-all-trades, but he basically did nothing,” said the 1964 Bangor High graduate. “My mom, [Donna], raised me pretty much alone. She worked hard. She cleaned houses.
“We were always poor, but I always realized that my mom did well to put food on the table for us, keep a roof over our head and keep me in clothes. I never asked for anything exotic because we couldn’t afford it,” said Merritt, who took it upon himself at a young age to help out financially.
“When I was 12 or 13, I had two big paper routes and mowed lawns,” said Merritt. “I’ve always worked. I bought my own car when I was 15.”
He was a waiter at Buddy’s Lunch in Bangor in high school and eventually worked at several Shop ‘n Saves in the area and became a produce manager.
He bought a Table Talk Pies distributorship and would deliver 10-inch pies to establishments across the region.
He went on to buy several bars, including Del’s Place and Nan’s Tavern in Bangor, in addition to Judy’s and Cap’s.
“He has always been a hard worker,” said Alice Baker.
Baker noted that he is a “businessman first” and very much a hands-on businessman.
Merritt is frequently at Speedway 95 whether during a race night or during the week monitoring renovations.
“You can always count on him being at the track,” said Late Model driver Andrew McLaughlin from Harrington. “I’ve never been there when he hasn’t been there.”
It’s a demanding job for Merritt.
“Sometimes, it’s easier to handle 10 bars than one racetrack,” he said. “Most people don’t realize how much time you put into a racetrack.”
Finding the middle ground
Merritt has received his share of criticism.
“I let it roll off me. I’m thick-skinned,” he said.
Drivers Duane Seekins of Stockton Springs and Shawn Racila of Dover-Foxcroft insist that Merritt plays favorites. Certain drivers are allowed to get away with rules infractions that others can’t.
“I’m fed up with it,” said Seekins, who has raced at Speedway 95 for over 20 years but won’t be a regular this season.
Racila said Merritt particularly favors drivers from the Bangor-Hermon area.
Merritt denies the allegations.
“I’d disqualify my mother [if she broke the rules],” he said.
Unity Raceway owner and racing legend Ralph Nason feels Merritt is fair.
“There were times when I raced there when I didn’t think we got treated fairly. But, afterwards, I thought about it, and I realized he made a decision that he had to make. He does well. He has hung in there all of these years.”
Merritt banned Holden’s Steve Moulton from the track for his aggressive racing and volatile outbursts. But Moulton thought Merritt was justified.
“I went through some bad times, and he called me on it,” said Moulton. “I met with him for half an hour, and he suggested I take an anger management class, and if I completed it successfully, he’d let me race again [after the ban].
“I have no problem with him. He treats everybody equally. If you mess up, he comes down on you. If you don’t, he’ll be your friend,” said Moulton, who completed the anger management course and is racing again.
Moulton said he hasn’t seen as much favoritism in recent years as in the past but doesn’t blame Merritt.
“The [technical inspection] shack was the problem,” he said.
Nason pointed out that a track owner has no choice but to discipline drivers who are too aggressive or hot-tempered.
“You have to be able to maintain a friendly atmosphere. You can’t have drivers afraid of some bully. They won’t race,” said Nason.
Seekins is upset at Merritt because he was escorted by security out of the track after an incident with another driver during the last race in 2013.
“I wasn’t looking to start a fight,” insisted Seekins.
Merritt said he believes Seekins but explained that pit steward Tammy Harlow thought Seekins was going to confront the other driver, so she called security.
“She wanted to defuse it and make sure it didn’t become something it shouldn’t have. She couldn’t read his intentions. There are certain boundaries that have to be enforced,” said Merritt. “He wasn’t banned. He could have returned and raced the next day.”
“The toughest thing about being a race track owner is trying to please the majority of the drivers so they feel they’re getting treated fairly,” he said. “And you’re trying to run a business that lasts just 30 days.”
Winterport’s Ryan Deane said Merritt has done a “good job keeping the place going. He cares about the track. He wants it to survive as a racetrack.”
McLaughlin said it is a hard business, and it’s difficult to keep everyone happy, but Merritt tries.
“I feel I’ve been treated fairly, and everybody knows when they race there they’re always going to get paid,” he said.
Alice Baker said Merritt is “complicated” and can come off initially as gruff.
“But he’s a good, honest man and an awfully good guy,” she said.