HERMON, Maine — Auto racing fans like to see healthy competition.
There is nothing better than two cars racing side-by-side as they come around turn four and head for the checkered flag.
And the more cars, the better the race.
The drivers vying for the win late in the race have to avoid lapped cars, finding the quickest way to maneuver around them.
Often leaders get hung up behind a lapped car, enabling a pursuer to dart around them.
But there are times there aren’t any lapped cars because there simply aren’t enough cars in the field.
The Big Enduro class, which is for six- and eight-cylinder cars with radial tires, had just one car in two different races on the Wacky Wednesday race card at Hermon’s Speedway 95 before getting four last Wednesday. The four-cylinder Bomber class on the Saturday night race program at Speedway 95 had just four cars last week.
Speedway 95 owner Del Merritt said both classes are in jeopardy of being eliminated unless the car counts improve.
But Merritt isn’t the only one seeing that trend. It is a common theme echoed by owners and managers at the state’s six tracks.
It is the entry-level classes, which give drivers their first taste of racing, that have been struggling even though they are the least expensive divisions.
“The scrapyards pay so well for junk cars these days, people are willing to cash them in,” said Ken Minott, promoter at Wiscasset Speedway.
Andy Cusack, owner of Scarborough’s Beech Ridge Motor Speedway, said the government’s Cash for Clunkers program in 2009, in which car owners could trade in their junk cars for cash rebates, took a lot of cars out of commission.
“Aunt Millie used to have an old car in her backyard. But her nephew offered to get rid of it for her so he took it in to get it crushed for $800 to $1,000 instead of trying to make a race car out of it,” said Cusack, who also noted that a struggling economy has played a role as people needed the money to put food on the table.
“The middle-aged cars all went away,” said Troy Haney, owner of Caribou’s Spud Speedway. “You don’t see any old Monte Carlos, Cutlass’ or LTDs in the backyards any more.”
Minott added, “There used to be a big abundance of them but now they’re hard to find.”
Haney also said the car counts have been hurt because a lot of drivers have a casual approach to racing these days.
“They don’t run for points [championships]. So they don’t race every weekend. They go to camp [some weekends]. They don’t take it as seriously [as they used to],” he said.
Jere Humphrey, who is leasing Unity Raceway, said one of the things he has done to improve car counts is combine the Big and Little Enduros, for four-cylinder cars, into one class.
“The eight-cylinder cars have more power but the four-cylinder cars can flatfoot it around the track,” said Humphrey, noting that the smaller cars have better grip and are less likely to get loose.
Minott said Wiscasset runs its Enduro cars once a month and is going to combine its Big and Little Enduros for its next race.
“[Former Spud Speedway owner] Greg Veinote used to have a 100-lap race open for all cars and, at the end of 100 laps, you’d see a four-cylinder car [in Victory Lane],” said Haney.
Minott said another reason the entry-level classes aren’t flourishing is “not as many fathers and sons are turning wrenches together and building entry-level cars. It’s easier to get them into a Legends car where they only have to turn the key and go.”
Minott was referring to a class of small-scale vintage cars that has a touring series.
Cusack said his entry-level Road Runner class for six-cylinder cars is the only one of Beech Ridge’s four Saturday night classes that is struggling. The track’s Sport Pro series (Super Late Models), Sport Series and the Wildcats get at least 20 cars per race while the Road Runners get fewer than 10.
“But we may have created [the problem] ourselves,” Cusack said. “We get so many cars for our entry-level series on Thursday night, that took the market away for Saturday night. Nobody wanted to build a car for Saturday night.”
Beech Ridge used to have a rule that limited drivers who ran in the same Thursday night class to a four-year stint in that class. The drivers couldn’t return to the class for 10 years after their four-year run.
Cusack said that it wasn’t fair to first-year drivers to have to race against drivers who had been in that class for four or more years.
But that may have cost Beech Ridge drivers so three years ago he broke three of his Thursday night classes into two groups: varsity and junior varsity. That meant the varsity drivers could stay in the class indefinitely because they were racing other drivers with a similar amount of experience. The JV class was for beginners.
Haney said it is important to have plenty of entry-level classes because tracks want those drivers to have a good experience so they continue racing and perhaps move up in class over time.
That is why he built a one-eighth of a mile go-kart track at Spud Speedway: so he can get youngsters started in the sport.
Three of the state’s tracks have new owners or a new leasee.
Richard and Vanessa Jordan bought Wiscasset Speedway at auction, Tom Mayberry purchased Oxford Plains Speedway from Bill Ryan, and Humphrey is leasing Unity Raceway after George Fernald Jr. had leased it from Ralph and Nancy Nason.
Wiscasset Speedway and Oxford have brought back Super Late Models, replacing Late Models, which used to be their top class.
Minott, Humphrey and Oxford track manager Mike Mayberry, Tom’s son, said their tracks are showing progress when it comes to car counts.
“We’re happy with it. All of our classes are doing pretty well and we’re building pretty well, too,” said Mayberry.
Minott and Humphrey said they are optimistic that the growth will continue as drivers get used to the new management and the way they do things.