This season was supposed to start with an Icebreaker.
It was supposed to start with an Icebreaker, and move on to Super Late Models at Loudon, and make all sorts of stops along the way, with big season finales at NHMS and Thompson and Seekonk. It was supposed to feature trips to upstate New York and the Connecticut coast and the Canadian province of Quebec. It was supposed to stoke the fires of long-burning rivalries and maybe ignite some new ones, too.
Then a tiny virus with global implications took hold of everything, and “supposed tos” were swapped for cancellations and contingency plans.
But as this long, strange trip that is 2020 draws nearer to the end, the trip still winds through the town of Oxford, Maine, straight up Route 26 and past the casino, past the modular homes, ahead on the right.
On Sunday evening, Oxford Plains Speedway will host the 47th Annual Oxford 250.
And in the Oxford 250, what New England’s racers and fans may seek most is a sense of normalcy.
Normalcy has been in short supply this year. This rings especially true in racing. Racing, like any sport, is about catharsis, an opportunity to nudge the concerns of daily life aside even for a few short hours. But under the cloud of a global health crisis, even the refuge of racing has not been spared.
For promoters and track owners, it has meant drafting proposals and policies to appease local authorities and accommodate constantly-changing public safety guidelines. It has meant retooling schedules on the fly, a juggling act where only so many balls can be caught on the way down. For racers, it has meant flexibility, being ready to race at a moment’s notice, following the opportunities of one tour or track as they become available. Fans have hardly been spared, either, watching races from afar on Pay-Per-View broadcasts, or fighting over half-capacity grandstands sold in advance.
The racing season that has transpired in New England has been replete with oddity. An already-brief season started almost two months late, with Super Late Models racing in the shadow of empty grandstands. Tracks in New Hampshire welcomed back limited numbers of fans while tracks in other states remained closed to the public. Fans and racers waited as promoters, tasked with the impossible, tried to appease racers, fans and local authorities while still making enough money to open the gates next week.
Even the results sheets thus far have been full of surprises. Of the region’s three touring Late Model organizations, all three reigning champions have yet to win. Two have already seen their title defenses dissolve at the hands of tragedy and tribulations alike. New stars have risen to the challenge, with names like Sweet and Belsito commanding weekly respect. Weekly racers have gone touring while their home tracks sit dormant. Others have found new home tracks to conquer.
It has been an unusual year, but it goes without saying that we’re fortunate to have a season of short track racing at all.
As August draws to a close, the Pro All Stars Series schedule has been an abbreviated eight-race romp largely split between two speedways. The American-Canadian Tour has kept closer to the original plan, though with plenty of reschedulings and adjustments. The Granite State Pro Stock Series itinerary has been a work in progress as the series’ new home track has taken on a greater significance than planned. Even NASCAR’s Whelen Modified Tour has run only five races: none in Connecticut, none at Loudon, and two at a track that had not hosted a NASCAR touring event since 1994.
But as August draws to a close, the Oxford 250 looms ahead, still anchored in its original place on the schedule. Maine’s tight restrictions on fan attendance gave way to short-lived speculation that the race could be moved later in the season. Open weekends in the New England autumn are hard to come by, though, and with no guarantees that attendance limitations might be relaxed in a month or two, the original date made the most sense.
And in a season of uncertainty and unknowns, this weekend’s Oxford 250 offers a momentary return to something close to normal.
Not that this year’s Oxford 250 will be normal in every sense of the word. A glance at the frontstretch grandstands should be evidence enough. Restrictions on nonessential travel at the Canadian border have left a few potential participants in Quebec and the Maritimes. The ISMA Supermodifieds, part of the original Saturday schedule, bowed out a few weeks ago with their season’s itinerary decimated. Rain has already forced Saturday’s busy racing card onto a packed Sunday schedule, making for a hectic day for all. There will be fewer campers, fewer families, and fewer photographers to record the action.
For most fans, the richest one-day short track race in the Northeast will be experienced not from the towering bleachers on the frontstretch, but on a tablet or television not far from their living room sofa.
But for all the differences between this weekend and those of the past, it’s still the same Oxford 250.
It’s the same battle of resources between well-funded, well-prepared touring specialists and weekly warriors with laps upon laps of experience.
It’s the same battle of wits in which strategy, tire management, and fortune will clear the path for the winner.
It’s the same career milestone that helped define all-time greats like Mike Rowe and “Dynamite” Dave Dion.
It’s the same career stepping stone that put winners like Ricky Craven and Chuck Bown in the national spotlight.
It’s the same game of chance that has anointed unexpected winners and stymied seasoned veterans.
It’s the same crown jewel for which drivers would willingly trade years’ worth of trophies and accolades.
When the teams wheel their pit wagons out to the infield, when the day’s forty-two best competitors roll onto the frontstretch for driver introductions, when the track PA plays “For Those About To Rock” as the drivers and crews make their last-minute preparations, forty-six years of history and legacy and legend will be called to mind.
A couple hours later, a forty-seventh winner will be celebrated on the frontstretch of Maine’s most storied speedway, their name recorded in the Oxford 250’s rich history.
In these uncertain times, the Oxford 250 promises to be normal in all the ways that count.
In these uncertain times, that’s just what the racing world needs.