BALLSTON SPA, N.Y. — What do the cost of racing and the weather have in common? The fact that almost everyone complains about them, but nobody can do much to change things.
This fact was reinforced Saturday night when the Lebanon Valley Speedway ran three seven-car big-block modified heats, a stark contrast to the dozen or more per heat that has been common in the past. Nationally honored promoter Howie Commander has long prided himself, and deservedly so, on his strong fields in all classes. He continues to do what he can to maintain them but the tide of economics is hard to work against.
At speedways everywhere, many teams that managed to field a car in the spring begin to struggle in mid-season as costs and reality collide. The problem is obvious, but what to do to alleviate this situation that has been an issue for many years.
“Racing is expensive and purses don’t support your team, no matter what division you’re in or what track you go to,” offered veteran modified racer Eddie Marshall. “The car and engine, obviously, are our biggest expense initially, but week to week, it’s tires and fuel. And here at Lebanon Valley with the long straights and tight turns, you go through brakes quickly as well.
“But the worst is when you wreck. If you stay out of wrecks and finish halfway decent, you can pretty much cover your week-to-week costs,” Marshall continued. “But as soon as they wreck once or twice, guys can’t get their cars back together. The money for a front end and a rear end will buy you a lot of tires. That’s why you have to have a real passion to do what we do.”
When asked what other passions he has, Marshall, who operates a fuel oil firm with his father Ernie, a great racer of past decades, smiles broadly.
“I’m not into golf like my father. For me, it’s skiing, on the water in the summer and snow in the winter,” he said. “And I often think that my tire bill for a season would cover a lot of season passes for downhill skiing.”
What, then, can we do to lower the cost of racing?
“A lot of people talk about going to spec motors, but they’d become expensive, too, as soon as they became the required piece,” offered Marshall. “I think the best avenue is to make what we do more attractive to car and event sponsors. I know as a businessman that right now, we wouldn’t get enough exposure to help our business. Most deals come because the sponsor has an interest in racing, but it still has to make sense businesswise for them to get involved. I don’t care if it’s FedEx on the national level or a local business.
“I think modified racing is still missing the ‘This Week on DIRT’ television exposure we used to get. That’s what we need to make the modifieds marketable again.”
Alex Thomson is a relatively young car owner who struggles weekly to field his modified for driver Kyle Sheldon. A recent win buoyed their finances but like all racers, the cash was quickly spent.
“The rpms you have to turn to be competitive here kill us,” Thomson offered when asked how to cut his cost of racing. “We need a gear rule that would keep our motors in the 7,200 to 7,500 rpm range, then we would be able to build a cheaper motor. At 8,000 rpm, you need a lighter valve train, which means $100 titanium valves instead of a set of steel valves at $25 each.
“I’m not a fan of spec motors, because I want to be able to take it apart and do my own work on it. Right now, I still build mine for around 20 grand while a lot of guys buy their motors for $40,000 to $50,000. We build everything except the PMC chassis — the body, the bumpers, the rub rails, everything — and I do my own transmissions and rear ends to save money. You can’t legislate that everyone has to do their own work to save money but guys who buy everything shouldn’t complain about the cost of racing.
“And don’t give us a choice of tires. Last year Brett Hearn started using a harder 500 tire instead of the 400 everyone else was using, so now I need both to be ready. Having just one set would save us money week to week.”