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Opinion: Does Oxford 250 Belong in National SLM Talks? Yes, But There Are Risks

Teams make last-minute preparations prior to the 2019 Oxford 250. The race, presently sanctioned by PASS, is an event worthy of being a national crown jewel, but such a move could detract from the very character of the race. (Jeff Brown photo)

This weekend’s All-American 400, a collaborative effort between Super Late Model sanctioning organizations, has inspired talk between some of the most popular Super Late Model touring organizations about the logistics of a national championship that would unite the biggest Super Late Model races in the United States.

Missing from the brief conversation, though, was one of the biggest one-day Super Late Model shows in the country, as well as the sanctioning organization that has proctored it since 2013.

And while the Oxford 250 and its supporters deserve the honor of being part of the elite championship, that honor comes with caveats, and those caveats may make the honor worth reconsidering.

The signature event of Maine’s Oxford Plains Speedway since 1974, the Oxford 250 has long been billed as one of the Northeast’s richest single-day shows. The 250 has passed through several sanctions, running as an open-competition Pro Stock feature, a NASCAR Busch Series and Busch North Series event, a Northeast Pro Stock Association event, and even an American-Canadian Tour Pro Stock and Late Model event.

By any sanction, the format has remained the same: qualifying heats, not time trials, whittle a deep field of entrants down to a starting grid somewhere around forty cars. For 250 green-flag laps, those fortunate forty-something drivers will do battle around a mostly-flat, multi-groove oval, managing tires and tempers alike to get to the front of the pack.

The intrigue of the Oxford 250 has drawn entrants from coast to coast, and the trophy and the big cash prize have been handed to locals and visitors, to veterans and neophytes, to the rich and the frugal.

The Mayberry family, owners and promoters of the Maine-based Pro All Stars Series since 2001, purchased Oxford Plains Speedway after the 2012 season. Since 2013, the Oxford 250 has been the crown jewel of the PASS schedule.

PASS, and owner Tom Mayberry, have a complex relationship with the greater world of Super Late Model racing.

PASS has promoted itself as a Super Late Model touring organization since the term came into vogue, but Mayberry diverges as he sees fit from the rulebook crafted by the collaborative ABC Committee. PASS has favored crate engines, for one; not only are crate engines more economical, but powerful built engines are wasted on New England’s short bullrings. In 2019, PASS approved Five Star Race Car Bodies’ “Gen-6” body for competition while series bound to the ABC Committee rejected it.

Ironically, PASS has promoted its own “National Championship” since 2008, touting the title as the only national Super Late model crown in the country. Ben Rowe, Preston Peltier and Jay Fogleman are among those who have won the PASS National Championship. In recent years, the base of the National Championship has moved closer to home, with fewer drivers traveling north to earn points at Oxford or Thompson Speedway in Connecticut. And in 2020, the program was on hiatus due to travel restrictions surrounding the pandemic.

In the world of Super Late Models, PASS is its own entity.

And in its current iteration, the Oxford 250 is a largely local phenomenon.

Bubba Pollard won his Oxford 250 debut in 2018, but has struggled since then to repeat the feat. (Jeff Brown photo)

Not that PASS or the Oxford 250 are exclusive of visitors in any way. Development drivers like Daniel Hemric, Christopher Bell and Dalton Sargeant have competed in the PASS-sanctioned 250. Garrett Evans towed from the Pacific Northwest in 2016. More famously, Bubba Pollard won the 250 in his first visit in 2018, the first true outsider to win the race since NASCAR star Kyle Busch won in 2011 under the ACT’s sanction. Pollard has been back to Maine both years since.

But many hoped that Pollard’s presence would inspire other nationally-known drivers like Stephen Nasse or Ty Majeski to follow suit. So far, none have.

So the Oxford 250 remains a local phenomenon. This is hardly unique to the 250. Plenty of New England’s short track racing hallmarks earn their share of national interest and intrigue, but some aspect keeps them just out of reach of the greater racing world. The Vermont Milk Bowl is said to be one of the toughest races in North America, but few outside New England have a car that fits the ACT Late Model rulebook. The NASCAR Modified Tour and winged big-block Supermodifieds captivate imaginations coast-to-coast, but Tour-types are a rare breed in the Southeast and west of the Mississippi, and winged Supers are even rarer.

And the Oxford 250, governed by PASS’ version of the Super Late Model platform, is just different enough that configuring a car to those standards would be a one-off effort for anyone outside of the Northeast.

Should the Oxford 250 be included as part of a national Super Late Model championship?

This is, after all, a race that counts among its winners names like Butch Lindley, Junior Hanley, Mike Rowe, and Dave Dion. This is a race that still leaves decorated veterans like Oxford all-star Jeff Taylor and five-time PASS champion DJ Shaw among the hopeful. This is a race that tests the mettle of every team that enters the backstretch gates.

This is a race deserving of a place on a national Super Late Model schedule. Its drivers and teams are worthy of a place on a national stage.

But we are always cautioned to be careful what we wish for.

And the changes that would surely happen in crafting the Oxford 250 into a major national event would have a direct effect on the intrigue of the Oxford 250.

The intrigue of the Oxford 250 is that, on race day, no driver or team enters the pit gate with an advantage. Sure, there are always favorites, drivers with fast cars and years of experience and veteran teams at their backs. But at Oxford, the usual short-track advantages of deeper pockets, bigger engines, more tires and trick aerodynamics only go so far. A random pill-draw sets the grid for the heat races before the feature, so even the fastest cars risk having to drive their way into the race the hard way.

Pit strategy introduces its own wild card. With few teams experienced in hot-pitting, and Oxford’s dark infield posing its own challenges, each team has to make its own decision about the six fresh tires in its stall. Is it better to pit early when the caution flags allow, or to gamble on a later caution that may not come in time? If that stop comes later on, with lapped cars woven throughout the field, will track position trump fresh tires?

The answers to those questions have crowned Oxford 250 winners like Bubba Pollard and six-time PASS champion Johnny Clark. But they have also anointed unexpected victors, drivers like journeyman Glen Luce in 2015, or weekly warrior Curtis Gerry in 2017, or Wayne Helliwell, Jr., who drove a chassis of his own design to his 2016 victory.

And just as easily, those past champions can find themselves humbled, like Pollard has been the last two years, or when Gerry needed a last-chance qualifier win just to make the field in 2018.

In a podcast interview on the eve of this year’s Oxford 250, rising star Derek Griffith described the 250 as one of the last major Super Late Model events that a “mom-and-pop” team can win. Griffith, who finished second last year, was crashed out less than thirty laps from the finish this year.

The Oxford 250 plays no favorites. There are no guarantees.

A nationally-sanctioned Oxford 250 would have to change not only to cater to the ABC rulebook, but to be more in line with how Super Late Model majors are conducted elsewhere. All those changes might be enough to force the local contingent, the “mom-and-pop” teams, to sit this one out.

That would be tragic, as the Oxford 250 is not simply PASS’ crown jewel. It is Oxford Plains Speedway’s crown jewel, and has been since 1974. And to lose the opportunity for local stars not just to compete, but to contend for the win, would be a departure from what the Oxford 250 is meant to be.

Perhaps the better alternative for a regional SLM event that could cater to ABC-spec touring series as well as PASS would be a marquée event at Thompson Speedway in Connecticut. Thompson is a big track that would better cater to the big-horsepower Super Late Models of the Southeast and Midwest and everywhere else. The race itself would not have the same legacy as the Oxford 250. But in this case, perhaps a clean slate is the better approach.

From a fan’s standpoint, seeing Bubba Pollard deem the Oxford 250 worthy of his effort and expense to contest the last three years has been an honor. It would be equally special to see Nasse, Majeski, Casey Roderick, and the other big guns of Super Late Model racing make the trip as well. And it would be tremendous for PASS, for Oxford, and for its racers to step onto the national stage in a way they never have before.

But if the cost of that honor is a thirty-car field, devoid of local color, where this year’s or next year’s or even 1984’s Oxford Plains Speedway track champion cannot make the grid, the cost is too great to bear.

Because that race, by any name, is no longer the Oxford 250.

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Jeff Brown is a contributor to Short Track Scene. A native of New Hampshire and a long-time fan of New England racing, Brown provides a fan's perspective as he follows New England's regional Late Model touring series.

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