For Maine drivers, passion for racing trumps high costs to compete

Posted May 10, 2013, at 5:13 p.m.
Last modified May 10, 2013, at 6:10 p.m.

HERMON — Dover-Foxcroft’s Shawn Racila calls it “pretty simple math.”

When he hauls his race car down to Hermon’s Speedway 95 to race on Saturday night, he said “I’m going to spend $500 [for a chance] to win $200.”

But that hasn’t stopped him from racing for the past 30 years.

Cherryfield’s Andy Santerre won four consecutive K and N Pro Series East points championships.

But he lost money every year.

Still, Santerre was also involved in auto racing for more than 20 years and still dabbles in it.

“The only teams that make money are the [Sprint] Cup teams,” said Santerre who raced in the Nationwide Series, which is one step below NASCAR’s Sprint Cup.

Those who are hired to drive and don’t own their cars can also make money, he said.

Longtime Speedway 95 racer Scott Modery of Hermon said when he subtracts the winnings from the expenses, he still spends $10,000 per season to race.

The race cars at tracks in Maine range from a $600 four-cylinder junker to a new $40,000 pro stock car.

When adding in the cost of racing fuel, transporting the race car, tires, parts and pit fees, the wallet gets thin in a hurry.

Racing fuel is $10 per gallon and tires range from $120-$150 apiece. Pit fees are $20-$25 per person. Maintaining a car has a wide range of costs.

Sponsors help defray the costs, but virtually every driver still winds up in the red.

But drivers of all ages say that the love of racing trumps the expense as they flock to one of the state’s six race tracks to pursue their passion.

Hooked on racing

Modery said there is a special ambiance that hooks people on auto racing.

“It’s the smell of the racing fuel … turning the wrench … changing tires,” he explained. “I had a passion for it in high school. You get attached to it. It takes a special kind of person to want to do it. There are more downs than ups.

“But winning a race is really gratifying. You wouldn’t think so at this level, but it is,” he added.

The competition and the camaraderie are key components in the enjoyment shared by the auto racing community, according to drivers.

The winner of a feature in the top class at Speedway 95 in Hermon and Unity Raceway, the Late Models, pocket $700 and $650, respectively. But the second-place cars earn $350 and the money continues to drop per position.

If Racila takes the checkered flag in the Strictly Street division, his wallet will be enhanced by $200.

There is also a points fund accrued over the season and a three-race series in each division that also pay out.

Unity Raceway owner Ralph Nason is one of the few drivers who claims he made money.

“There was a time when I made big money,” said Nason. “We had some fantastic years but we didn’t make money like the NASCAR guys.”

Three of those prominent years were 1998, ‘99 and 2000 when he won the state’s richest event, the TD Bank 250 at Oxford Plains Speedway. The winner is guaranteed $25,000 and drivers pocket $100 for every lap they lead.

Nason figures he pocketed more than $130,000 for those three trips to Victory Lane and said it cost him approximately $4,000 to run each 250.

But he is quick to point out that he might lose $1,500-$2,000 at each of the 10 or 15 other events he would run in a season so that cut into the profit from the 250 triumphs.

“In my best years, I made $4,000 to $5,000 and I figured I was in an elite group,” said Nason.

A family sport

Morrill’s Travis Benjamin won the Pro All-Stars Series Super Late Model North Division points championship a year ago.

The winner of a PASS North SLM race usually pockets $3,200 to $3,500, according to Benjamin.

But when he sat down and compared winnings to expenses, he came out $3,000 in the red.

However, he wouldn’t change a thing.

“Racing is a family sport,” explained Benjamin. “If I wasn’t racing, I guarantee that I wouldn’t be doing as much with my family. My father [Ron] and I are so tight because of racing and now my son [5-year-old Kaiden Benjamin] is racing go-karts.”

Several family members attend his races.

Benjamin, like Santerre and a lot of other drivers, is from a racing family.

His grandfather, Harold, and father Ron were involved in auto racing.

Modery is spending most of his time these days helping his 18-year-old son Ryan race at Speedway 95.

Racila is a second-generation racer and his son, Robert, who will be 13 next week, is showing an interest in racing.

“I’ve been around racing my whole life, ever since I was running around in diapers,” said Racila. “It has been a family hobby.”

Having your family and friends involved is also one good way to shave expenses.

Nason’s son, Ron, was his crew chief and worked on his cars along with other family members and friends.

Reducing costs

Track owners are cognizant of the high cost of auto racing and the tough economic climate, so they devise ways to help keep the costs down.

Installing rules packages is one way to reduce the cost to drivers and keep healthy car counts.

“[The rules packages] are designed to limit how much money drivers can spend on their cars,” explained Andy Cusack, owner of Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in Scarborough. “Having a rear end gear rule helps regulate speed and the overuse of motors. That can prevent the driver from blowing his engine.

“You can also limit the number of [new] tires they can buy at the track,” added Cusack.

For example, Del Merritt at Speedway 95 limits drivers to one new tire per week which they have to buy at the track. Most tracks require that the tires have to be bought at the track. The other tires on the car have to be previously used.

Some tracks impound the tires after the race to ensure that the driver doesn’t try to doctor the tires by soaking them, which makes them faster. So drivers have to put spare tires on their race cars after the race to take them home.

Nason said if there weren’t a limitation on tires, “I would buy two right-side tires one week, four new ones the next week, two right side tires the week after that.”

The economical Crate engines have saved drivers tons of money.

Nason said that a new Crate engine will cost anywhere from $1,800 to $6,500 while a non-Crate engine will cost in the vicinity of $15,000-$20,000.

Nason said track owners can also reduce the admission price; cut down on the number of laps in the heat races and the features or have two races (in each class) on a weekend to decrease the amount of travel.

“They would only have to travel to the track once,” said Nason.

But having special extended lap feature races is a “wash” said Cusack because drivers have to spend more money on gas and tires.

Seeking out sponsors

Nason said it is very important to accept any sponsorship, even if it is minimal.

”Don’t wait around just for the big money [sponsor]. You probably aren’t going to land one,” said Nason.

The Nasons used to save money by negotiating sponsorship deals.

Nason said if he needed a wheel and there were several businesses that sold wheels, he would negotiate with each of them to get the lowest price. He would also tell them he would put their logo on his race car.

He said if a driver stops at the same store every week to buy gas for his family car and provisions for the races, he might be able to talk the store owner into giving him $20 of free gas every week if he offers him a logo sponsorship on the driver’s car.

“We would stop there every week and buy sandwiches and drinks and so would our friends and family,” said Nason in explaining how it would be financially worthwhile for the store owner.

Cusack said one of the neat things about auto racing is that it’s one of the few sports that is interactive.

“I’ve been to a lot of soccer, football and baseball games, and you go and sit on the sidelines,” said Cusack. “There’s no interaction. You watch them play and go home.

“In auto racing, your family and friends can be right there in the pit with you,” said Cusack. “They can talk to you in between races and have a hamburger with you.”

Cusack and Nason also pointed out that every hobby costs money but in auto racing, a driver has the opportunity to earn some of his money back.

“If you spend $500 on a boating weekend, how much money are they going to give you when you return to the dock?,” asked Cusack. “And if you buy a new set of golf clubs and pay greens fees, you aren’t going to get money back when you return to the clubhouse [after your round].”

And then, as Modery said, there is that special thrill that comes with taking the checkered flag.


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