Photo Gallery | Lebanon Valley Speedway
WEST LEBANON, N.Y. — Despite some cool Saturday night temperatures, the 2016 season is off to a roaring start at Lebanon Valley Speedway.
This year marks the 64th season of stock car racing at the high-banked track, which partly because of the size of the clay oval raceway, attracts some of the fastest dirt track drivers from upstate New York, Western Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and beyond.
Track owner Howard Commander said the season got underway April 23 at the Valley of Speed with a full grandstand area and attracted nearly as many fans on April 30, despite cooling temperatures during the evening race program.
"So far this season, the car count looks good," he said, referring to the number of racers competing in the different divisions. Big block eight-cylinder modifieds continue to average more than 20 cars, Commander added, which he said is above the average for similar tracks of around 17 cars.
Small block 358 modified cars begin running this week, and Commander said that class also is strong — as is the pro stock and sportsman divisions with more than 20 cars each, and the pure stock division with more than 30 cars. The track also runs two 4-cylinder car divisions.
On hand during a sunny Saturday afternoon on April 30 were some of the biggest racing names from around the region, working with pit crews to tune rumbling motors or otherwise closely inspecting their machines.
Well-known drivers were easy to spot amid the colorful racers, massive hauler vehicles, race officials and staff, swarming pit crews, family members and friends in the track pit area. As is often the case, the veterans not only drive these days, but work alongside their up-and-coming offspring.
Paul LaRochelle, of Dalton, and his son, Steve — both racing cars in the pro stock class — were making last-minute adjustments to their side-by-side vehicles.
The elder LaRochelle said he had some health issues last year and missed quite a few race nights, but he worked with Steve, who finished 10th in championship points in his first season. "So, I was pretty proud to see him up there," Paul said.
The veteran racer added, "This is my 33rd year racing. I started when I was 14."
LaRochelle said he races most often at Lebanon Valley and sometimes on Fridays at Albany-Saratoga Speedway in Malta, N.Y., which Commander now also owns. The track owner does a good job of keeping costs reasonable, LaRochelle said.
"You come here and it's 15 bucks to get in with your [race] car," he said. "You go to a lot of tracks and it's 50-60 bucks to get in."
Also scrambling Saturday along with his crew to ready his sportsman class modified racer was Jeff Watson, of Sheffield, who has been racing at Lebanon Valley for more than a decade and is the son of longtime driver Danny Watson.
Saturday was the first night this year including sportsman races, Watson said.
"We went to the warm-ups two weeks ago, did about 10 laps, car felt good," he said. "We made sure the brakes worked, the tires, the steering, all those simple things. Everything seemed good, and here we are."
Watson ran a big block car last year and did well, but he said sponsorship funding wasn't quite there to run two cars this season. He will primarily run the more economical sportsman car at Lebanon Valley, but also plans to race at other tracks.
That is, if time allows, Watson said.
"I have a baby on the way in July," he said, grinning, "so we'll see what happens after the baby is here. We'll see what that brings."
Racing is a big commitment, Watson said, something that all drivers have to carve out time for. He adds, "Between the shop and being here Saturday night, everything we do is fun. Everything we do we have fun at it."
Wayne Jelley, of Pownal, Vt., the brother of Butch Jelley — among the top 10 on the all-time feature win list at the track — was tuning up his big block racer Saturday afternoon. Jelley said he was getting ready to test a more economical motor that has less power but will allow him to reduce the car's weight.
"Big blocks are very expensive and some are dropping off," he said. "It costs around $50,000 for a motor."
The motor in the car Saturday was "pretty much a test motor," he said. "I'm down horsepower, but I can weigh a hundred pounds less. But I'm having trouble getting a hundred pounds off the car."
The big block division looks strong this year, he said. "We had 24 cars last week," he said. "We always start out strong, but you get some crashes ."
Jelley said the small block 358s start at Lebanon Valley May 7, and he will compete again in that division.
"We run well with that, you know. We had a [points] championship two years ago, and last year we were second. We've got that now We're just trying to get a little more motor in the big block."
He also noted that tracks "are starting to get more [prize] money for the small blocks, because at the end of the day, not a lot can afford a $50,000 motor ... So when you have a lot of have-nots and a lot of haves, the have-nots will give up sooner or later.
"But we have a lot of people getting into the big blocks even though the economy is a little iffy," he said. "It's basically the cost of the motors."
Drivers will need "a good level of sponsorship," he said, "or sooner or later, if you don't produce, they kind of disappear."
Also getting ready to race Saturday were Andy Bachetti, of Sheffield, who came out roaring in a preliminary race and then won the 30-lap big block modified feature going way; all-time modified feature victory leader Kenny Tremont Jr., of West Sand Lake, N.Y., who won for the 126th time here on opening night, and many other veterans in all the divisions.
Among the numerous Berkshire County-based drivers competing are Paul Gilardi, John Virgilio, Pete Carlotto, and Brett Haas.
Olden Dwyer, of Shaftsbury, Vt., and others from Southern Vermont also regularly compete at the track.
Also coming this season at the track are a number of special races or other events — such as monster trucks, the annual Eve of Destruction demolition derby; Tony Stewart sprint car series racing, and the annual 100-lap Mr. Dirt Track USA race, which attracts drivers from around the region and beyond.
The complete list, including start times, ticket and other information can be viewed at www.lebanonvalley.com.
Commander also operates the Lebanon Valley Dragway for drag race events, and the Lebanon Valley Go-Cart Speedway, both located on the same site off Route 20, about halfway between Pittsfield and Albany.
View more photos of Lebanon Valley Speedway at http://photos.berkshireeagle.com/2016/05/05/photos-lebanon-valley-speedway/#1
Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.