Pro Stocks/Super Late Models are Out, ACT-Type Late Models are In
"As our fans know, the TD Banknorth 250 is the crown jewel of our racing at Oxford. The cars have changed throughout the years, but the essence of the race remains the same," said OPS President Bill Ryan. "This decision was absolutely necessary for the good of Oxford Plains Speedway and its competitors and the TD Banknorth 250. Late Model competitors will now be able to run for the big money as the purse will remain the same in 2007. Someone will walk away with the $25,000 first prize plus all of the lap money."
Oxford is the latest addition to a list of numerous New England race facilities that have elevated Late Model cars to their top division. In making the announcement, Ryan made it clear that he expects the trend to continue as track promoters and race teams work together to keep the sport competitive and cost-effective.
"While we are excited about this new direction for Oxford, just as important to us is the fact that the decision is also good for short track racing throughout New England," said Ryan. "All track owners need to work together to ensure that there is a vibrant class of Late Model cars that drivers can utilize to compete throughout New England. We need one formula. Right now, it is too hard to try and juggle rule books to make the cars fit together."
Oxford Plains Speedway announced a major realignment Monday of its Weekly Racing Series program for 2007, resulting in a significant change for the 34th annual TD Banknorth 250.
OPS will combine the Oxford Networks Pro Stock [Super Late Model] division into its Agren Appliance Late Model class while eliminating the intermediate Limited Sportsman division. The Agren Appliance Late Models will take center stage as Oxford's featured division and will welcome competitors from all over New England and Canada to the richest short track race in the region next summer.
Oxford Pro Stock competitors, like Chris Kennison shown here, will now have to decide whether to turn their cars into Late Models and invest in a crate engine for the class, or to join the PASS North tour with their current equipment. (Norm Marx Photo)
remained stagnant or dropped precipitously in the ensuing decade, the Late Model concept has enjoyed continual growth.
Oxford has been one of the few tracks fortunate to buck the trend, primarily because the TD Banknorth 250 and its top prize approaching $50,000 provided Pro Stock teams with the proverbial carrot at the end of the stick. Even in this relatively fertile ground, however, an honest look at the long-term numbers showed the Oxford Networks Pro Stock division slowly losing its base.
"The decision to merge our Oxford Networks Pro Stocks into our Late Model class was a very difficult one," Ryan said. " I have struggled since 1998 when I purchased the Speedway to make the Pro Stock division make economic sense for both the competitors and the Speedway. It has been disappointing to me to see car counts fall as Pro Stocks become a rare breed in New England.
Driver registration at the TD Banknorth 250 dipped from approximately 100 cars in Ryan's first season to 70 in 2005. While the number rebounded slightly to the low 80s at last month's race, that total was inflated by numerous Late Model and "outlaw" Pro Stock teams who attempted to qualify for the race.
Ryan credited Tom Curley, president of the Vermont-based American-Canadian Tour, for transforming Late Model racing into the fastest growing headline division in the region.
Oxford's centerpiece event, the TD Banknorth 250, will remain an independent, open competition race, but Ryan said that OPS will work closely with ACT to lead the way in developing a sustainable class of Late Model cars that may run at virtually every major track and event in the northeast.
"This decision is a positive step in furthering the concept of a standardized New England Late Model. Much of the credit for the growth of the Late Model class must go to ACT and its pioneering introduction of crate motors to the division," Ryan said. "We hope to see our local drivers be able to run big-money events at tracks such as Thunder Road, Sanair and Lee USA as well as our own TD Banknorth 250."
The TD Banknorth 250 has undergone numerous format changes since then-OPS owner Bob Bahre founded the mid-summer classic in 1974. While "Pro Stock" cars have competed in the event since 1993, that term was relatively foreign to race fans in Maine until the late 1980s. Many speedways in the region, including OPS, changed the name of their top division from Late Model Sportsman to Pro Stock during that era to reflect the evolution of that class of cars.
Curley's ACT was the primary Pro Stock touring series in the region until the end of the 1995 season, when he disbanded the tour due to flagging driver and sponsor interest and re-introduced it as a lower-cost Late Model division. While weekly and Pro Stock car counts have
ACT-style Late Models (Top) are in for the Oxford 250, while Pro Stocks/Super Late Models (Bottom) are out after a 14-year run. (Jamie Williams Photos)
Ryan projected that fans will see even more side-by-side racing and a deeper field of potential weekly winners under the Late Model umbrella. The average Late Model car currently circles the historic, 3/8-mile Oxford oval in the low 16-second range, or several tenths of a second quicker than the average Pro Stock car toured the speedway before it was resurfaced in 2003.
Monday's announcement also ends the 30-year history of the Limited Sportsman division at Oxford. Launched as a Street Stock class in 1977, Limited Sportsman started the careers of several notable Pro Stock and Late Model stars, including Jeff Taylor, Dale Shaw, Tim Brackett, Alan Wilson and Dennis Spencer Jr.
As it strayed from those entry-level roots and evolved into something much closer to a Late Model, however, the Limited Sportsman division has struggled with a light car count over the past few years. That number hit a low ebb of 10 cars on several occasions this season.
During the same eight-year span, the average number of weekly competitors in the Oxford Networks Pro Stock divisions has dipped from 28 to 20. Again, that number rose incrementally this season due to the elimination of the class at other tracks in Maine.
"As tracks throughout New England have eliminated Pro Stocks and gone to a Late Model formula, we have had some success in picking up cars on a weekly basis, but not enough to sustain the division," Ryan said.
Ryan projected that the new format will open up Oxford's top weekly division and its lucrative race to a much larger talent pool.
"We want Oxford Plains Speedway and the TD Banknorth 250 to be viable for the next 50 years, and by making this change, we feel we will ensure this," he said. "There are Late Model cars at Thunder Road International Speedbowl, in the American Canadian Tour, at Lee USA Speedway, at the Waterford Speedbowl, at White Mountain Motorsports Park and at Seekonk Speedway that will be able to run in the TD Banknorth 250. There are also numerous tracks and series in Canada that will have cars eligible to run in the 250 next year."
While he understands the misgivings of current Pro Stock teams who have much invested in their race program, Ryan is confident that today's move will both save them money and increase their competitive opportunities in the long run.
"The most positive thing about this change is that our current competitors in the Oxford Networks Pro Stock division and the other cars that ran in the TD Banknorth 250 in 2006 can change their cars into Late Models," said Ryan, who consulted with some of the most respected car builders in the region while considering the transition. "By making a few small chassis changes and purchasing a crate motor, they will be ready to compete across New England. For the price of yearly Pro Stock maintenance, they will be ready to go Late Model racing next spring."
Ryan noted that an ACT crate motor costs approximately $7,000, compared to the $20,000 to $25,000 many Pro Stock racers currently spend on their motor. A team could buy two crate motors and save nearly $10,000 over what it would cost for one Pro Stock motor.
"We have encouraged our competitors to seriously look at the ACT crate motors over the last few years," said Ryan. "Those that have gone to the crate motor have been pleased with the results. The ACT races that we have had at Oxford have shown our competitors that the ACT formula can be competitive for less cost to the competitor."
The ACT Late Model go three-wide in their 100 lapper on the Eve of the 250 this season.
Jeremie (R) and Bill Whorff (L) swept the top two spots in this year's 250. Both drivers compete in Oxford's weekly Pro Stock division. (Leif Tillotson Photo)