HEDGER: Reading About The Valley

Ron Hedger

THE VILLAGES, Fla. – We just finished a great book on Lebanon Valley Speedway, one of our regular haunts for decades, and learned a great deal in the process.

We recommend it highly to both fans and racers from the New York/Massachusetts/Vermont area familiar with “The Valley” and readers from afar, who will find how the track became a huge success and gain an understanding of why promoter Howie Commander is nationally recognized for both his management and financial expertise.

Written by Coastal 181 publisher Lew Boyd, who turned many a lap on the high banked half-mile back in the day, “Modifieds of The Valley” follows the speedway’s growth and top division action from the time it was built on the only flat spot between Albany, N.Y., and Pittsfield, Mass., in 1953 to the present.

The Spanier family, Austrian immigrants who farmed the land where the speedway was built, originally leased the land to a group who built the track, flat at the time and soon to be bedeviled by rocks and dust. Before two seasons were in the books, the fledgling promoters threw in the towel and Lou and Harry Spanier decided that if the track was to survive, changes were in order.

They removed the racing surface that produced billowing dust and used it to build the high banks, something unknown in the area at the time, then put down real clay they found on the property. With new bleachers and other improvements, the basis of what fans still see today was in place.

While Harry would eventually leave, Lou Spanier was there for the rest of his life, building, innovating and giving nephew Howard Commander an education in hands-on race track preparation and operation.

One of “Uncle Lou’s” biggest successes was his first Sunday of the month 100-lap open competition events paying $1,000 to win, a huge payoff in the early 1960’s that drew the big dogs from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and western New York.

Huge crowds turned out to see Frankie Schneider, Bobby Rossell, Dick Tobias, Dutch Hoag, Billy Rafter, Lou Lazzaro, Will Cagle and a host of others battle the locals for the $1,000, generally paid out in singles from the thriving concession stands.

By his mid-20’s, Commander was running the operation and remains at the helm today, some 50 years later. With the addition of an NHRA-sanctioned drag strip, a go-kart track and special events featuring monster trucks, sprint cars and Eve of Destruction crash oriented shows, the facility is one of the busiest in the nation.

Like so many long-time racing insiders, Boyd knows that while the cars are interesting, drivers and their personalities are the basis of successful racing, so the book concentrates on the names, famous and otherwise, who have made Lebanon the Valley of Speed for decades.

Old-timers will know Donnie Wayman, Stretch Van Steenburgh, D.D. Harris and Doug Garrison, replaced in later years as Valley heroes by Eddie Delmolino, Bill Wimble, Butch Jelley, Kenny Coon and Dick Larkin.

But the big three over the years have been the now retired Tommy Corellis, Brett Hearn and Kenny Tremont Jr. Their exploits and accomplishments would make a book in itself. Amazingly, the 60-year old Hearn and late 50’s Tremont continue to add wins and track titles to their resumes, with some two dozen championships between them.

Boyd has captured this progression well and deserves plaudits for pulling together some murky history from the 50’s and combining it with some great vintage photos, quotes and remembrances to produce a tome that is hard to put down.