BY RYAN COBB Sports writer
PREPARING FOR THE OPENER — Rome racer Chris Mackey, left, and mechanic Steve Planck makes adjustments to the carburator prior to firing up the motor of his 3m sportsman car at the Rood Raceshop in Stockbridge. Mackey has two career wins at Utica-Rome Speedway and looks to contend for the track’s sportsman season title. The Speedway holds its season opener on Sunday. (Sentinel photo by John Clifford)
THREE-WIDE RACING — Rome driver Chris Mackey, 3m, tries to make a three-wide pass with Jack Miller, 37, and Randy Shantel, outside, during a sportsman feature race at Utica-Rome Speedway last June. Mackey will look to contend for the sportsman championship after finishing second in the 2011 standings. (Sentinel file photo by John Clifford)
VERNON — It will not be too much longer before the sounds of roaring engines come back to life at Utica-Rome Speedway as the track is scheduled to open for its 51st season on Sunday night.
The Speedway’s 2012 racing season will begin with a regular show of modifieds, sportsman, pro stocks and pure stocks scheduled. Gates will open at 3:30 p.m. with action beginning at 6 p.m.
Clear skies are expected to grace over the speedway throughout the day and into the evening as the National Weather Service forecast calls for a high temperature near 47 degrees and a low around 26 degrees. Wind speed, though, is expected to increase to between 15 and 18 miles per hour and could gust as high as 28 mph.
Stewart Friesen will aim to collect his third consecutive modified title while trying to surpass last year’s five-win season.
However, he will have to fend off last year’s runner-up Pat Ward once again and the rest of the Utica-Rome cast including Willy Decker, Todd Burley, Bobby Varin, Ronnie Johnson, Kenny Tremont, Ted Lamb, Paul Jensen, Alan Johnson and Steve Hulsizer. Joining the field this season will be 2012 Fonda Speedway Ice Jam winner Mike Mahaney and Brewerton Speedway opening night victor Ryan Phelps, as well as Rob Bellinger, who scored a win in Florida in February. Former champions Brett Hearn and Matt Sheppard will also return.
The track’s director of operations, Barb Clark, said it will be tough to surpass the Speedway’s 50th anniversary season last year, but she expects it to happen.
"It’s going to be an excellent season," she said. "We have a very aggressive schedule, everything looks good and I expect it to be bigger than last season. With everything that went on last year from having the rain delay at the beginning of the season for a month, we will start it the right way this time."
The biggest change speedway officials have made for the upcoming season is raising the modified point funds up $5,500 to a total of $34,100 with the winner receiving $10,000.
The runner-up spot will now pay $7,000, which is an increase of $1,000. Positions third, fourth and fifth will see a jump of $500 to $4,500, $3,000 and $2,500, respectively. Positions six through ten will have a $200 increase each starting at $1,700 for sixth down to $1,200 for the tenth spot.
Utica-Rome’s race director, John Tiff, said it had been eight years since there have been any changes to the fund.
He also mentioned that the "Thunder on the Thruway" Series the track has been associated with along side Fonda Speedway the past several seasons will not be a part of the 2012 schedule and that has brought in some free space to Utica-Rome’s funds.
"This season we have scaled back some, but still have some big modified shows on our schedule, without being part of the series with Fonda," he said. "Without having to pay a point fund for that series and having a contribution from the Mirabito Fuel Group, who have been a big part of our modified point fund since 2004, we decided to add it to the point fund. It gives back to the drivers who support us all year, along with making it one of the best point funds in Northeast Dirt Modified racing."
Aside from the modifieds, the sportsman, pro stocks and pure stocks division championships will also be on the line this season.
Matt Janczuk will try to repeat his 2011 performance and claim another sportsman title after holding off Rome racer Chris Mackey in the overall standings.
Despite going winless in 2011, Mackey, who will drive in the No. 3m car, collected 11 top 5s, 12 top 10 finishes and 21 laps led, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Janczuk’s seven wins, 13 top 5s, 13 top 10s and 65 laps led.
"It was Matt’s year last year," said Mackey. "He’s a good competitor and driver. He has a lot of good people behind him and that’s what it takes to win championships. Anyone out there can win on any different night."
It will be Mackey’s third straight season racing at Utica-Rome and has two wins, 17 top 5s and 24 top 10s during that span.
"We’ve been working on the car all winter long by taking everything apart back to bare frame to get everything cleaned up and replace anything needed to be replaced and make sure it’s ready to go," Mackey said.
"I had wins during my rookie season, but none last year, so I hit a little bit of a dry spell this year. I’m hoping we can get some this time and make an attempt to make it to the championship."
Ron Hawker will again try to take another pure stock title following his eight-win season, and the pro stocks title will be up for grabs with champion Rocky Warner moving on from contention.
As they did in 2011 to coincide with the Speedway’s 50th anniversary, track officials will hold another special event on Wednesday, Aug. 22 to celebrate the induction of Rome racing legend Richie Evans into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Being billed as the "Richie Evans NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Celebration," the Vernon oval will hold a 100-lap Race of Champions Modified Series race, with the winner receiving a $10,000 prize. Also on the card is a Race of Champions Sportsman Series event, plus an Old Timers night/Outlaw 200 Qualifier for modifieds. A fireworks display will conclude the night’s activities.
The 100-lap race is the second ROC modified race scheduled at the Vernon oval, with the first ROC race taking place on Monday, May 28 for the annual Victoria 200 which also contains a winning prize of $10,000. The ROC Sportsman Series will also hold another event on Sunday, June 24.
The Speedway has also secured its traditional Lucas Oil Empire Super Sprints races on the Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends.
The ESS sprints visit the track on May 27, July 1, Sept. 2 and on a special "Lucas Oil Invasion" event on July 25 featuring the ESS sprints and the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series.
The All-Star 410 Sprints Circuit of Champions race will make its third appearance on Sunday, June 10.
The night will even feature a CRSA Sprint race and a regular modified show. The CRSA sprints also have a second race scheduled for Aug. 5.
Fan Appreciation Night featuring a regular show modifieds, sportsman, pro stocks and pure stocks will be held on Thursday, July 12. General admission is $5 with a canned good donation and $7 without one. Proceeds and donations will go to support the local food pantries.
The 23rd New Yorker 200 weekend is scheduled for Sept. 7-8. The speedway will hold a 50-lap, $5,000 to win event on Friday, Sept. 7 with the winner receiving an automatic bid into Saturday’s $10,000 to win 100-lap race. Sportsman, pro stock and pure stock races will also be on display on Friday.