Ellsworth’s Andy Saunders is somewhat of a racing gypsy. He doesn’t mind traveling to race his Toyota Camry Pro Stock car.
And he enjoys variety. This summer, he finds himself driving 154 miles — one way — to race at Oxford Plains Speedway every weekend with his team and family.
The trip home on Monday night and early Tuesday morning seemed shorter than usual because Saunders had just posted his first victory at Oxford in a 50-lap Budweiser Championship Series race.
He’s no stranger to winning.
In 2016, he was the Pro Stock points champion at Wiscasset Speedway and the previous year he won the Pro Stock points title at both Wiscasset and Unity Raceway. In 2012 and ’13, he captured the Late Model points championship at Speedway 95 in Hermon.
“For me and the guys who work on the car, we like to set goals and achieve them. You can get in a rut racing at the same place. The only way to get better is to go other places and race against other people,” said the 45-year-old Saunders.
The Ellsworth native has family living in the Oxford area so, as a teenager, he spent a lot of time watching races at Oxford Plains.
“It has always been the premier track in the state although I’m sure people would argue that Beech Ridge (Speedway in Scarborough) is at the top of the list,” said Saunders, who admitted he wouldn’t mind racing weekly at Beech Ridge some day.
He has another motive for running at Oxford Plains Speedway: Being better prepared for the 44th annual Oxford 250 on Aug. 27. He has qualified for the race before but has never cracked the top 20.
“Every year, the 250 is on our radar,” said Saunders. “I certainly don’t have expectations of winning it but if we do make it, I’d like to be (more) competitive.”
He said the 3/8-mile oval and the unpredictable weather at OPS pose unique challenges.
“Your driving style needs to change a fair amount,” said Saunders. “The things you have to do to make the car work are drastically different than the things you have to do at the tracks closer to my home.
“And the weather and temperature seems to change every hour. It’s kind of crazy,” he added. “My car was super good on Monday night but it wouldn’t surprise me if it wasn’t that good on Friday night.”
Saunders is second in points in the Pro Stock division, 54 points behind leader Alan Tardiff of Lyman.
He hadn’t expected to do well on Monday night.
There was a 100-lap, non-points race on Sunday at OPS that enabled the top three finishers — among drivers who had never won a Pro All-Stars Series Super Late Model race over the past five years — and the top two who had won a PASS race, to earn a provisional spot for the Oxford 250.
Saunders finished 17th and failed to cash in.
“It was horrible. It was the worst the car had been all season. The car got damaged and I was out of the money and out of patience,” said Saunders. “I was going to take a couple of weeks off.”
Unbeknownst to him, friend Chris Ryan, who had accompanied him to the race, texted another mutual friend, Phil Richardson, about the situation. When they finally arrived in Ellsworth around midnight, Richardson was waiting to begin repairing the car with Ryan and Saunders and get it ready for the race later that night.
“I went to bed around 4:30 and my nephew, Asa Jones, showed up to help them work on the car,” said Saunders.
It paid dividends. He started fifth and made his way to the front.
“They had changed the shocks, the springs and the swaybar. The car wasn’t real good until the feature. We had worked on it and made some adjustments. It was certainly fast during the feature,” said Saunders.
His crew includes longtime friend Alan Perkins, Donnie Coffin, Shaun Hamel and Dickie Sprague.
He expects to finish in the top five in points but feels Tardiff has a lead that will be hard to overcome.
“Andy is a great racer,” said Frenchville native Shawn Martin, a longtime racer at Oxford who has raced him at there and at the now-defunct Spud Speedway in Caribou. “He is a good to race with. He is a clean driver.”
Saunders began racing 30 years ago at Speedway 95 and was the Pro Stock champion there in 2003 and 2004 before claiming the Late Model titles in 2012 and ’13.
There was a five-year period when he parked his race car as he and some of his crew members took time off to do other things and raise families.
“You can’t do this sport without a lot of help,” said Saunders.
He missed racing and returned to it in 2010 when friend Fred Ashmore asked him to drive his car.
Saunders won the prestigious, 100-lap Long John race in 2010 and drove briefly in the PASS Modified Class before buying his current car.
The 1990 Ellsworth High School graduate said he likes everything about racing.
“The competition … the adrenaline you get when you’re out there beating the hometown hero. Or going to a new track and running with guys who have won multiple championships,” said Saunders.
He is looking forward to defending his 2016 Boss Hogg 150 title at Wiscasset Speedway on July 30.
Saunders, who is a salesman for Coastal Auto Parts, said he couldn’t race without the support of his team, wife Gayle, daughter Whitney and his mother, Roberta.
The next race is Friday.