51 Commentary: Get Out to The Track!
Each Week is a Chance to See History
By Mike Twist
It’s a time honored tradition.  Every year, before the first race engine ever fires, plenty of hardcore fans plot out their race schedules for the year.  At one point in time, they did this by circling dates on schedules they picked up from track displays held at winter trade or race shows.  These days, they usually circle dates on printouts of schedules that they found on track and series websites.

When the season is over though, the number of races that get circled is usually far less than the number of races that the fans will actually end up walking through the gates at.  There are a number of reasons for this to happen.  Life happens.  Household projects beckon.  The ability to pick up an extra shift at work comes up.  The lure of staying at home and sitting on the couch to watch some free NASCAR racing on TV instead of paying to get into the gate of a short track might appeal to some.

But this week we were reminded of one reason against not making it out to the track - Gary Smith could win.

Probably not Gary Smith himself….the independent Bangor, Maine racer usually only runs PASS North races and a handful of New England Super Late Model shows.  But there is always someone like Gary Smith waiting in the wings to get to victory lane.  A popular racer capable of producing a popular victory.  One Tuesday night at Lee USA Speedway, Smith did just that.  He won the Bastille 200 much to the delight of the crowd assembled at the New Hampshire track.

There had been rain delays that pushed the finish of the PASS North race back to around midnight on a weeknight.  But after seeing the race and the finish that they saw, I haven’t talked to one person who was at the track who would have traded a little more sleep before work on Wednesday morning for the experience of seeing the race firsthand instead of hearing or reading about it. 

The first reason for this was the winner.  For years, Gary Smith has struggled to make it to as many PASS races as his budget would allow.  Along the way, he earned the respect of his competitors and the fans.  He’s a popular guy during PASS meet and greets and reportedly, the line of fellow racers to congratulate him after the Lee victory was a long one on Tuesday night….ur…Wednesday morning.  That is the kind of respect that it takes a long time to earn.

As a member of the media, I try hard to remain as unbiased as possible.  I try to never cheer for one driver.  However, I’m pretty sure that I just couldn’t have stopped myself from at least one small and discrete fist pump as Smith crossed the finish line on Tuesday night – if I was there.

The other reason is quite simply that it was one hell of a race.  Smith battled hard for the victory with one of the biggest powerhouses in the Super Late Model world today – Johnny Clark.  It was a true David vs. Goliath storyline and either man could have taken home the biggest trophy.  One veteran racing insider told me the next day that he personally thanked Smith and Clark after the show for making him a race fan again.

There was another lesson to be learned from the Lee event and that is to not neglect the support races.  Fans also got to see what by all accounts was a great PASS Sportsman race where Shane Tatro emerged victorious as well as a PASS Modified race where Andy Shaw accomplished the near-impossible by scoring his fifth straight victory on that tour this season.

Fans who braved the elements and a long night were rewarded by seeing that all firsthand.  Those who didn’t got to listen to their friends who did share their experiences to next morning.

I fall into the second group admittedly.  Circumstances out of my control and business commitments left me two states away in a hotel room on Tuesday night – following along on the Internet to catch the action.  It’s great to be able to do that and I enjoy things like Facebook updates or Speed51.com’s Trackside Now or Speed 51 Radio coverage from races where that is available, but there is no substitute for being there.

So the next time that a tour visits your home track or a Saturday night rolls around, get off your couch, your riding lawn mower or your barstool and get into a bleacher seat at a track near you.  You won’t regret it.  You might not see Gary Smith win, but you will almost certainly see something you will be talking about the next day….and it’s much better to be the one describing the action than that guy who missed it.

Johnny Clark (third), Winner Gary Smith, and Donnie Whitten (second) stand in victory lane. (Norm Marx Photo)
Johnny Clark was one of the first drivers to congratulate Gary Smith in victory lane. (Norm Marx Photo)