Lebanon Valley community mourns Butch Jelley, and waits to see if there will be a 2020 racing season
WEST LEBANON, N.Y. — As drivers and promoters wonder when the racing season might begin, the dirt track world took time this month to remember one of its legends, Butch Jelley, who died May 1 after several years of declining health.
The region's tracks, including Lebanon Valley Speedway's high-banked oval, stand eerily quiet in mid-May because of a COVID-19-related ban on large gatherings. But that also allowed fans time to recall Jelley, who was 79 and began racing when the sport itself was in its toddler years.
The 2020 season was due to start here April 18, but several weekends have now slipped away. Lebanon Valley owner Howard Commander said he's been in contact with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office several times and is urging that the Columbia County area be reopened for public events.
"Hopefully, I can have the dates by Monday or Tuesday," he said Friday.
As for the speedway, "We are 100 percent ready to go," Commander said. "We would just have to get a truck load of food."
As for the Lebanon Valley Dragway, located near the race track, he said that might be able to open sooner on a limited basis, in part because it doesn't involve the high number of fans who come to the speedway and pack the grandstands.
Normally, he said, the race track with have 3,000 to 4,000 people in the stands for a normal Saturday night race card, more for special races or events. The track can accommodate up to 8,000 spectators.
Of dealing with restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic, Commander said, "We have got to do it safe and we will. Safety is the word."
He advised fans and race teams to keep checking the LVS website for updates.
Rookie of the year
Butch Jelley raced at smaller tracks before establishing himself at Lebanon Valley by being named the top rookie driver in 1960. The West Lebanon track had opened seven years earlier.
Usually a threat to win, and often near the front for a few laps in races, Jelley slowly moved during the '60s from cars that were very fast but broke down to his classic Martin Riiska-sponsored Yellow X car.
With 31 wins, Jelley is still ninth on the all-time list of feature winners at Lebanon Valley. From 1965-74, he always finished in the top 10 in championship points, and he was inducted into the track's Hall of Fame in 1978.
He was named to the New York State Stock Car Association Hall of Fame and to the Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame in 2005, his final year of racing.
Jelley also raced extensively at other tracks, like Devils Bowl Speedway in West Haven, Vt., where he won a points championship in 1975.
Jelley, who lived for a number of years in Pownal, Vt., where his parents and other family members lived, told The North Adams Transcript in 1979 what dirt racing was like when he broke in in the late 1950s.
"That's when we had jalopies; I mean real junks," he said.
Most of his cars when he began racing as a teenager were in fact salvaged from junkyards.
"You'd just go out and pick the one with the best spark plugs in it," he said. "And when it died, you'd get another one."
At Lebanon Valley, one of his early cars was the Y, sponsored by Ed Winn, of Williamstown, Mass. The car had the "Lil Devil" cartoon character painted on the side and "could go like hell, when it held together," Jelley said. "It was a good 10-lap car."
He also remembered a number of rollovers in the Y; hauling the car home "in a dump truck, in pieces," and one bad crash that landed him in the hospital for a week with his equilibrium knocked off kilter. After that, Jelley said he built another car.
Jelley's youngest brother — by 20 years — is Wayne Jelley, who still races at Lebanon Valley and other tracks. He now owns Jelley's Auto Repair in Pittsfield, Mass., where this season he's been forced to just admire his first "top to bottom" race car in 20 years as it sits in his shop, still shiny and undented from lack of use on a track.
"I've got to sit here and look at it," he said with a laugh.
Wayne said he knows Commander is more than anxious to start the Lebanon Valley season, and working hard to accomplish that, but he wonders if large fan gatherings will be allowed soon by the state unless a treatment or vaccine for the highly contagious virus is developed.
"I am getting bored, and a little antsy," Jelley said. "But I don't want people to get sick."
Recreating the X
In 2018, as Butch Jelley's health sunk to a low ebb, Wayne said he came up with an idea for reviving his spirits, and it worked. Wayne fabricated a car body to resemble his brother's famous Yellow X car, which he subsequently drove at Lebanon Valley that season.
"I had no idea what that would stir up," Wayne said. "I ran that car the rest of the season. I planned to just run it for a month."
But older fans would have been disappointed if he retired the car too soon, he said. They were thrilled to see the recreation, which brought back for them a bygone era of racing; so Jelley kept the yellow X for the season before returning to his own racing colors and the number 45 last year.
The effect on his brother also was positive, Wayne said, as Butch rallied after hearing about the tribute. He was able to attend a Legends Night at the speedway last August, his last appearance there.
His new car, Wayne said, has his 45 on the side, but he recently added a yellow X to the insignia, and he will run the 45X when racing resumes.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien
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