An air of optimism at Lebanon Valley Speedway

An air of optimism at Lebanon Valley Speedway

Driving past Lebanon Valley Speedway, you can smell summer love in the air: a swirling mix of dirt track, burning rubber and $1.50 hot dogs.

If you’ve never been to the half mile oval, it’s difficult to understand the aphrodisiac. But to those who count the days until racing season, the combination of grease and guts is enough to attract crowds even during a season that begins with gas prices surpassing $3.40 a gallon.

While many local businesses face tough times economically, Speedway owner Howard Commander said high gas prices and less disposable income among patrons mean the 2008 racing season could produce the biggest crowds and highest profits ever at the stock car track, which began its 57th season last night.

“During the last energy crisis in 1976 through 1978, we had our best years,” Commander said. “People couldn’t take big vacations, so they discovered our track. And there’s no greater event than a $10 race and $1.50 hot dogs.”

Pittsfield resident Amy Norkus, 28, discovered the affordable, one of a kind experience as a young girl, watching her father race. To her, there is nothing like rowdy fans, track level access and dirt cheap food.

“Fans are yelling and jumping up and down, fighting to get close seats,” said Norkus, who went to the track every weekend as a girl to watch her father race. “It’s unlike anything else. And you can go down on the infield and get food from the stands.

“You’d think food coming out of these wooden shacks wouldn’t be good. But it’s great, and wicked cheap. You just have to eat it on the way back to your seat so it cheap jerseys doesn’t get covered in dirt.”

A day at Lebanon Valley Speedway, which draws more than 300,000 fans annually, Commander said, provides several similar, free life lessons, including: Don’t wear white at a venue that has swirling dirt. Sunglasses can double as protective goggles. And do not, do not sit in another fan’s “usual” spot.

“This is our spot, and people get really mad if you sit in their spot,” said Stacey Dempsey, wife of pro stock driver Rick Dempsey, sitting with her three children in the family’s habitual first turn bleacher seat. “People come week after week. And tonight there are a lot of people here. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it this crowded.”

Jeff Watson, a 24 year old driver from Sheffield, said he has seen empty bleachers at Lebanon Valley, but only when it rains. He has watched the popularity of the speedway grow since he was a year old.

“People come week after week to cheer on their favorite driver,” said Watson, who has won back to back division championships in the block modified division. “And for someone who’s never seen a race before, it’s our own little world.”

With 30 to 50 racetracks operating in New England on a weekly basis, excitement for the 2008 season at Lebanon Valley was palpable yesterday. The track will feature 23 weekends of speed events and two special midweek programs, a demolition derby and a monster truck rally.

Bob Lang, Northeast division director of the National Hot Rod Association the track’s governing body said he travels to Lebanon Valley Speedway for Fourth of July events every year.

“It gets a good crowd on an average weekend, but for special events, they can fill the place up,” Lang said. “In that area of New York and Western Massachusetts, it’s one of the only (NHRA) tracks, and it’s a popular place.”

Lang said the financial success of a track is dependent upon several factors, including fan loyalty, the weather and the economy.

“I’d say (Lebanon Valley Speedway) has grown over the years, but it’s all relative to the economy,” he said. “When the money is flowing, people travel far away. When it’s not, more people stay closer to home and spend their entertainment money closer to home.”

Commander said crowds and track facilities are constantly improving. Last year, he invested in a new clay surface on the oval to make the racing pad about 6 inches thick.

Commander said he puts $250,000 in improvements into the track for each season. This year, in addition to fresh paint and the 300 to 400 bleachers that are replaced annually, new bathroom facilities will be installed at the main dragway building.

Commander said he’s looking forward to strong attendance figures, which net the track “millions of dollars” each year and depend heavily on weather patterns.

In 2006, the speedway and dragway lost 40 events because of rain.

“We didn’t make anything that year,” Commander said.

Last year, rain forced the cancellation of only nine events.

“I’m anxious this year for it to start back up again,” Commander said before opening day. “Whereas NASCAR fans fall asleep after the first 30 laps, here you’re always on the edge of your seat.”

“I wait all year for racing season to start,” Szesnat, 35, said. “It’s so exciting. And (Commander) runs a great family business here. This track, by far, is probably the most commercial in the Northeast. It’s so family oriented with kids events. And it’s cheaper than any other I’ve ever been to. You get loyalty, is what it comes down to. Everyone wants to see the racing community thrive, and I think (Lebanon Valley Speedway) will be around for a long time.”.