Nothing makes a promoter any happier than grandstands bursting with fans. So even though NASCAR star Kasey Kahne was the promoter of record for the Steel Palace Classic for USAC Silver Crown cars at Oswego Speedway, the track’s full-time promoter, Steve Gioia, was beaming as the grandstands overflowed and late arriving spectators headed for the infield.
If the Aug. 6 event wasn’t the high water mark of Gioia and partner Pat Furlong’s campaign to revitalize the famous supermodified venue, it was damned close.
“This is our sixth year,” reflected the former driving star. “We’ve got a lot of good racers who have stuck with us as we’ve changed things over the years. Our car count is up and our fan base is increasing, so it’s encouraging. And hopefully, the newcomers that came to see Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman and the USAC stars will like what they see and be back on Saturday night.”
Change is always difficult. But anyone with any sense knew that if maintaining the status quo was a winning move, Doug, Romey and George Caruso would have continued operating the famed speedway. After all, their father and their uncle had devoted their lives to the “steel palace,” so named because the family used steel from their fabrication plant where others built with wood or concrete.
Cultural changes and the deterioration of the central New York economy were the major factors in Oswego’s decline, plus many of their name drivers retired or moved to the ISMA winged circuit.
“We did some things with the rules, but you can’t really limit the cars too much and still maintain the ingenuity associated with supermodifieds,” said Gioia. “They’re known for innovation. So we made some minor changes and so far, it seems like they’re working.
“A major factor in our resurgence is that we’ve developed a number of local stars. It’s become localized racing compared to what it was a long time ago and we needed to build our new guys into heroes like the older guys were.
“And we have some really talented racers in our small-block division. If it was to happen all over again, we may have put in a limit, where you could only run a set number of years there and have to move up. Some guys have kind of settled in there.
“They put on excellent races and that division could stand on its own, they’re that good. But if a few guys had moved up, it would have helped us rebuild the A-class sooner.”
One unusual aspect of the Oswego program is that both Furlong and Gioia field supermodifieds. Has that been a problem?
“We don’t get much grief over it,” said Gioia. “My son just started, so he’s not winning yet. Pat’s son Greg has won in the past and we heard a little about that, but I think everybody is adjusted to it.
“I missed racing for a while, but now I get as dirty as I want to and go as fast as I want to through him. We won our share, probably 30 here and 10 or 12 more on the ISMA tour, but now I think I enjoy working with Stephen more than I enjoyed racing myself.”
Gioia’s father, Steve, Sr., fielded cars for others before Steve, Jr. took over, so the family tradition is into the third generation.
Oswego has always been a mix of local racers and travelers, with Michigan drivers, Canadians from the Toronto suburbs and New Englanders such as Bentley Warren as important to the speedway’s success as New Yorkers. On the grandstand side, the Canadians have been especially important.
“We still get a lot of Canadian support here and it’s very important to our business,” tips Gioia. “We take Canadian money at par and it’s worked out well for us.”
Fans from north of the border will help fill the grassy area surrounding the speedway with tents and RVs for Classic weekend, and while it may not be the spectacle it once was, Classic weekend is still a big deal in Oswego.
“That’s the race that everybody wants to win and the one that all the fans want to be at,” sums up Gioia. “It’s quite the spectacle! For us, it’s what Syracuse is to DIRT. We have some pretty successful races during the season, then the Classic hopefully gets us through the winter.”
Everything about the Classic, from the parties to the last-lap drama, is bigger than life. If you haven’t experienced it at least once, give it a try Labor Day weekend.