BALLSTON SPA, N.Y. — As the calendar flips to September, race teams are busy putting the finishing touches on their special cars for October’s Super DIRT Week while trying to close out the regular season on a high note.
And fans are also getting ready for action as they consider the wide array of clothing they will need to pack, from sandals, shorts and T-shirts to rubber boots, thermal underwear and winter coats.
Since Super DIRT Week is the high point of each season in the dirt modified world, it seems like a good time to look at Syracuse through the eyes of the participants. To this end, we asked a number of insiders for their best recollections of the famed New York State Fairgrounds mile and the things that have impressed them over the years. The variety is amazing.
Bobby Varin, still far from the seasoned veteran he is, shocked the racing world by putting the Harrell Trucking No. 35, usually wheeled by Richie Tobias, on the pole one year. He was ecstatic until he thought about it, and looked like a forest fire until race time as he smoked constantly to steady his nerves.
“I was 28 years old and a little intimidated by the mile track to begin with, not to mention that all the heroes of Syracuse were there,” Varin said. “To be on the pole was a surprise at first, then I got nervous about getting the start right. Everyone knew we had a fast car, which puts a lot of weight on your shoulders. But we led at halfway to get the bonus and finished in the top five, so we went home happy.”
For Brett Hearn, the priority memory was not one of his many Syracuse wins but the time he knew he couldn’t win.
“My first thought is going to Syracuse after putting all that effort into a premium, conventional modified and finding Gary Balough’s Batmobile sitting there in the pits. Nothing could have been more discouraging.”
“My No. 1 memory forever will be the year that Jack won all the races,” declared “Jumpin’ Jack” Johnson’s longtime mechanic JoJo DeSorbo without hesitation. “We won the Fourth of July and Labor Day races, took the pole for Super DIRT Week, then grabbed the Dash for Cash and dominated the 180 lap feature. And I think the secret was the man behind the wheel, who’s the only one to ever do that.
“Another memory shows how easily things can get screwed up there. We built a car for the Harrell’s one year and the first day it was terrible. They’d bought the motor from somebody else but we went through it and there was nothing wrong. Finally I got to the brand new carburetor and took that apart and found that a bubble from a blister pack had gotten into the fuel line. I took it out and Glenn Fitzcharles turned fast time on the second day with a lap that would have put him on the pole the day before.”
Like Hearn, Billy Decker has notched a handful of wins on the treacherous mile, but he too points out something else as his prime memory.
“I’ll never forget running the first 30 laps under yellow, at night, after a delay for a big rainstorm,” Decker said. “Back then the lights were terrible and you couldn’t see at night if it was dry. We couldn’t see anything under yellow. Then it went green. You had to wipe your shield, to save your tear offs, and I remember that one car got into the wall under yellow. That wasn’t a lot of fun.”
Decker’s longtime mechanic, Scott Jeffrey, says Decker always impresses him with the way he gets around the narrow fairgrounds oval, but points to a 4th of July race as his top memory.
“We’ve won in October a bunch of times but his best drive was when we had a flat and pitted, then he passed everyone on the outside,” Jeffrey said. “I don’t even know if we won or finished second but man, he was impressive that night! It was the first race of the year, so the track was still really narrow, plus it was horribly dark in those days and you couldn’t tell where the outside wall was.
“Other big memories are the year it snowed half of the race, a big crash on July 4th when Charlie Rudolph flipped over a 15- or 20-car pile-up and the year we smoked for half the race because we’d lost a cylinder and were pushing Frank Cozze for the lead with six to go when it finally blew up. And there was the year it poured at 80 laps and we had to come back. We were in Disney, because we’d scheduled a vacation for after the season, and we had to come back for the race. We pitted under green and won that one.”
Sometimes it’s not what you saw but what you missed that sticks with you.
“I’ve seen just about everything that could possibly happen take place at Syracuse over the years, but the one thing I missed that I would have liked to see was the ride that Gary Bettenhausen took out of there in the USAC champ car race,” offered longtime car builder Walt Schwinning. “He got over the wall into a food stand, then came back onto the track, and the pictures are amazing.”
As Schwinning talks about Bettenhausen, his friend of a half-century standing, car owner Ken Tremont Sr., mentally debates his choices.
“Racing is racing, but besides running out of gas on the last lap twice while leading, I guess what sticks out in my mind is the year they had a big meeting about how they were going to do the lineup,” Tremont said. “I sent one of our crew guys, Mike Sullivan, to represent us. He’s a truck driver but sounds like a lawyer and for months after that, guys who were at the meeting kept asking me why I sent a lawyer to represent us at the pit meeting.”
Mike Perrotte is both a winning driver and a respected promoter now but in 1987 he was a rookie at Syracuse.
“I remember that they had 120 cars and didn’t even have a pit meeting before we started,” Perrotte said. “I guess they figured if you came to Syracuse, you were a good racer and knew what to do. I’ve seen a lot of impressive moves on the track since but the best is still the year Billy Pauch beat the Outlaws. The sprint cars were awesome there. That day he was the best of them all.”
Fabricator and Brett Hearn crewman Dick Hicks also identified the sprint cars as the most impressive aspect of racing at the New York State Fairgrounds mile.
“I was standing down in turn three during the Outlaw race and Jac Haudenschild and Dave Blaney came down the backstretch full tilt, side by side,” Hicks explained. “They caught a slow car going into three and moved out two and three wide and drove out of sight. I figured there’d be a big crash and I’d never see them again but 25 seconds later, here they come again, still running wide open.”
Billy Colton, owner of Troyer Engineering and designer/fabricator of some of the fastest big block cars to ever tour the mile, also skips the modifieds when he relates his strongest memory.
“It used to give me a chill when they timed the World of Outlaws sprint cars after dark,” Colton said. “You could hear them go around and not lift at all. I think the first one was Sammy Swindell but he wasn’t the last one and they all impressed me.
“Beyond that, Merv Treichler was always a thrill to work with there. He knew how he wanted it to feel and he knew if you were getting closer or if you went the wrong way. And even if he had two tenths on the field but didn’t think it was perfect, he’d have you start changing it.
“Doug Hoffman was really good there, too. One year we had to use a provisional and started 42nd in the big-block race. I remember I had to tell his owner, Billy Taylor, to shut up and get off the radio. We stopped six times, kept adjusting it and still won the race.”
Justin Haers, who has gone from up and coming newcomer to seasoned veteran, says that a simple schedule change is his choice.
“The Friday Night Under the Lights program last year impressed me the most,” Haers said. “There were more fans by far then when they ran the qualifiers in the afternoon and the atmosphere was like a Friday night football game. They had plenty of lights, so it wasn’t like the old days, and the track was racy instead of dusty.”
We figured that starter Dave Farney had seen some amazing things from the flag stand high above the super-wide frontstretch, and he says he has, but that his years in the pace car stand out even more.
“We had a yellow and Sammy Swindell was leading the sprint car race on Saturday,” Farney said. “They kept telling me to slow it down to 30 mph but Sammy’s car was stumbling and he kept pointing ahead, like go-go. I radioed Glenn Donnelly and told him that Sammy wanted me to go faster but he said that Ted Johnson told him to have me hold that speed or slower. I finally held the radio out the window towards Sammy and shook my head ‘No.’ Sammy pointed to the tower and gave me the universal salute in their honor.
“That was funny but a scary moment was the year that Richie Tobias won it in the rain. I pulled off the backstretch for a restart and Glenn is telling them to pick the speed up. But they couldn’t, because it was too wet, and all of a sudden Dickie Larkin comes flying through the air and almost lands on the hood of the pace car. I went right back out but it was scary.”
Jimmy Phelps has had his ups and downs on the Moody Mile but certainly seems destined to win the 200 one of these years.
“My buddy had a small block car and we decided to get together and go because I had a guaranteed starting spot,” said Phelps. “I didn’t time trial well so we started in the back and just rode all day. But nothing went wrong and we finished seventh. We weren’t fast but things went our way. Then three years ago with the big block, I’m leading with ten to go and a tire goes down. A year later, I come through the field and get to second behind Stewart Friesen. Nobody figures he can make it on gas, so when he runs out I’ll get the lead, but then he makes it and wins. You can’t count on anything at Syracuse.”
Phelps definitely has Super DIRT Week at Syracuse figured out.