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At Hagerstown Speedway, back in the bleachers

March 01, 2004|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

shappell@herald-mail

What the box seat above the dugout is to a baseball fan, the back row of the bleachers is to the racing enthusiast.

And while everyone at Hagerstown Speedway had a chance to enjoy the unseasonably warm weather Sunday, the early birds perched atop the seating area were among the few at the season opener with a full view of the entire track and a back on their seat - in the form of a wall.

More than 3,000 racing fans turned up for the season-opening, 35-lap races involving modified and late-model race cars. And although fans had to trudge through a parking lot-turned-mud swamp, thanks in part to warm temperatures melting months worth of snow, no one seemed to mind.

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"A long winter of no racing is what brings the fans out," said Paul Mellott of East Stroudsburg, Pa. "This is one of the premiere late-model tracks."

Mellott, one of the few fortunate enough to snatch up a coveted back-row seat, has attended races at the speedway since 1985. He made the trek south with his son, Daniel Mellott.

"It's the first race of the year, so you have to come out," Daniel Mellott said.

"I love dirt-track racing," he said. "I'm a big fan of the late models and modifieds."

Not all of those celebrating family racing traditions Sunday were father-son duos.

To the left of the Mellotts were Larry Jessop of Clear Spring and his 14-year-old daughter, Jenna. Jessop has been attending races for about 30 years and has been taking his daughter since she was just 5 years old.

Although Jessop said the weather helped make up his mind to come out, his daughter had other ideas.

"I just wanted to watch the racing," Jenna said.

Jessop was among many at the track who said Sunday's races were noticeably slower than usual, and that the track was a muddy mess in some spots, especially turns one and four.

"It made for a lot of rough racing, but it's been very exciting," Jessop said.

Between races, Jessop took plenty of opportunities to rib friend and bleacher neighbor Mike Hoffman, also of Clear Spring.

Hoffman said the track provides a great family atmosphere and plenty of opportunities for camaraderie among fans.

"You get to know everybody sitting around you," Hoffman said.

Speedway changes

Minutes before the first of two 35-lap feature races, Hoffman reminisced about how much Hagerstown Speedway has changed for the better.

"When I first started coming, they didn't even have rails. They used to have rubber tires," Hoffman said.

Hoffman said he has been going to the track since the days when drivers used to race street-legal Camaros and Chevelles and Buddy Armel was a track champion.

"Buddy was my favorite driver, growing up," Hoffman said. "That's why I've been following it."

Armel's niece, Cara Sheaffer, is a speedway spokeswoman.

"I grew up at this track," Sheaffer said. "My father was a flagman, and my uncle (Armel) used to race here."

Sheaffer said she hopes the enjoyable weekend weather is the rule rather than the exception in 2004 to make up for last year.

"Last year, we had 15 events canceled for weather," Sheaffer said. "It was horrible."

Sheaffer said it was a strong opening Sunday, with many visiting from out of town.

Norman Crouse of Wolfsville, Md., said he has been going to Hagerstown Speedway since 1970. Sitting with family members and visiting friends a few feet from the press box, he said he could not wait for an opportunity to see live racing again after the winter layoff.

"I was getting bored at home," Crouse said. "I come out just about every Saturday night."

New Brighton, Pa., resident Rosalie Bolland was one of the back row's most enthusiastic fans. But unlike most fans' rooting interests, Bolland was pulling for her son, Kevin Bolland, in the number 777 car.

"I follow him to all his races. He had 14 wins last year," the proud mother said.

Fans of Brett Hearn, such as Chris Wolfe and Hannah Bayush of Johnstown, Pa., went home happiest following yet another victory at the track for Hearn in the modifieds class.

Start of summer

Bayush said Sunday's race was like a really early, unofficial start of summer.

Many said the track was slower than usual and in the worst shape they had ever seen it. Speedway owner Frank Plessinger said the bad conditions could not be avoided because of the unmelted snow and ice that lingered in most areas of the property until a few days ago and forced the cancellation of last week's scheduled races.

"We didn't even know we'd get it in until last night," Plessinger said. "Snow on the ground, snow on the infield; we're lucky."

More information on Hagerstown Speedway, including the complete 2004 schedule, is available at www.hagerstownspeedway.com on the Web.

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