BANKNORTH 250 AT OXFORD READY FOR GREEN FLAG by Mike Twist
Historic Race Has Many Storylines - Cup Invaders, Two Grooves & More
Before the New Hampshire International Speedway opened its gates in 1990, there was no doubt what the biggest racing event in northern New England was - the Oxford 250.
around. People know the Oxford 250 all across the country. Just look at the drivers who have been there - Jeff Gordon, Darrell Waltrip and on. To be part of it is awesome."
This year, the race falls on an off weekend for the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series schedule and that has attracted even more attention to the event. Roush Racing Cup drivers Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch are entered in the race. Kenseth will be behind the wheel of a car from the Whorff Racing stable and Busch will be driving a car prepared by Oxford regular Tim Brackett.
250 laps of green flag racing at Oxford can be cruel. Drivers such as
Tracy Gordon and the late Scott Fraser have dominated the event in years past, only to have circumstances take victory away from them.
"In 1996, we had all but three cars lapped and burnt an ignition wire
off," said Tracy Gordon. "That was probably the best car that I've ever
had. This car is as good as that car, we just need for everything to go right at the right time to win."
A driver who has grown up around the race can face a lot of pressure to perform. This is especially true when a driver succeeds in other
races. Ben Rowe won the race last year, but not after several years of trying.
"I won it last year, so the pressure is off me now," said Rowe. "My Dad has won two 250s, so it would be neat to win two or three, but it's hard. It's harder than hell to win one."
The effort was worth it for Rowe, whose father Mike won the race in 1984 and 1997.
"It was my biggest win ever," said Rowe. "I've won quite a few races now and that's the biggest. Growing up around Oxford, seeing my old man win and seeing what it meant to him means a lot. That's our hometrack and it's a big race."
Ben Rowe had the winning number in last season's Banknorth 250. (51 Photo)
Corporate sponsorship has renamed the event the Banknorth 250 for 2004, but the history and appeal of the event still remains today.
What has changed throughout the years has been the type of car that competes in the 250. The race started out as a Late Model Sportsman event and fifteen years ago it was a stop on the NASCAR Busch Series schedule. Since then the NASCAR Busch North Series had it as a points paying event and eventually, the race has evolved into one that showcases the best Pro Stock (deep Northeastern-based Super Late Models) drivers in the region.
The race is a big deal among fans and drivers alike.
"The Oxford 250 - man there's nothing like it," said PASS point leader Johnny Clark. "It's the biggest short track race
However, the race has not usually been kind to outsiders coming in and running well. Saturday night drivers Gary Drew and Scott Robbins have won two of the last three 250s against strong regional competition.
Many drivers familiar with the track think that the racing superstars might have their hands full this weekend.
"They are Nextel Cup drivers, but I don't think that they are any better than guys like Mike Rowe or Ben Rowe when it comes to short track racing," said Clark. "Especially not having much recent experience in cars like these, once they get up to Maine here and see what Pro Stock racing is these days, they are going to be surprised. I hope that they are anyways."
Clark's comments ring true when you look at the list of drivers who have competed, but not won, the historic race. Bobby Allison, Jean Paul Cabana, Morgan Shepherd, Ron Bouchard, Harry Gant, Bob Pressley, Robbie Crouch and Bobby Dragon are among the short track legends who have left
after the race empty handed. There's a good number of Nextel Cup winners who have raced, but not won, in the 250 as well. That list includes Terry Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte, Rusty Wallace and Jeff Burton.
Before last season's race, the track surface at Oxford was repaved. This has led to complaints of a one groove racetrack.
"The track is a single groove wide now," said Rowe. "It's hard to go on the outside and you'll have to have your car set up to go on the outside to win. It will be interesting."
Matt Kenseth has not logged any laps at Oxford Plain Speedway yet. (51 Photo)
Gary Drew (L) is a local driver who has won the 250, Johnny Clark (R) is a PASS driver who wants to win the race. (51 Photo)
Other drivers feel that with a little bit of rubber put down, the track will be quick both high and low.
"The bottom is the place to be there now, but I think that will change once we get a bunch of cars out there,' said Johnny Clark. "If guys will be forced to run up there, the groove will come in. We can't just run in a train all day long. Once we get some rubber up there, it will be better."
Some drivers are anticipating the top groove being the key to a good run and are preparing for it accordingly.
"We've decided that we are just going to practice on the outside," said 2001 PASS Rookie of the Year Richie
Richie Dearborn thinks that cones might help prepare a second groove at Oxford. (51 Photo)
Dearborn. "I think that they should put some cones up and make the drivers practice out there. Just like NASCAR has done at Richmond and some of the big tracks. That would make for a better show for the fans come racetime."
So who will win the 250 this year? Local drivers, like Gary Drew, Alan Wilson and Mike Miatta, Jr., will no doubt be strong. As will invaders from the PASS tour such as Sam Sessions and Scott Mulkern. Even NASCAR Modified driver Ted Christopher will be looking for the way to victory lane.
There are many drivers who feel that they will have what it takes this year to add their name to a list of winners that includes Dave Dion, Ricky Craven, Dick McCabe, Geoffrey Bodine and Junior Hanley.
Mike Rowe has won the 250 in two different decades. Nobody would be surprised to see him add a third decade to that list. (51 Photo)
"We're always optimistic going to the 250," said Gordon. "We should be good when we go there. We were good last year and the car isn't bent, so we should have another good run."
"This race is pretty big and it would be very neat to win it because there are so few drivers who have," said Dearborn.
Momentum is also a good thing to have on your side entering the race.
"Experience, both driverwise and as a team is everything and we've
learned a lot since last year," said Johnny Clark. "We had a really
good car there last year and should have had a top three finish. If we can go back there and repeat how well we ran, we could win this thing. Winning the DNK 250 helps out a ton - now we've got some momentum."
The 250 pays well for a short track race. There is $100 in lap leader money for each circuit led under green and a winner's purse of $25,000. That money can make a difference in a short track racing program. After Ricky Craven won in 1991, he was able to use a portion of his earning as seed money to go down south and race. However, the biggest thrill for most drivers has nothing to do with the color green.
"$25,000 is a lot of money, but just the fact that I've been trying so
long and so hard to win it is more important," said Johnny Clark. "I
started racing at Oxford in 1997 and I grew up watching races here. It would mean everything to me to win the 250."
Only Geoff(rey) Bodine and Ralph Nason have won the 250 in back to back years, Ben Rowe hopes to add his name to that list this season. (51 Photo)