One of Maine’s most historic race tracks saw a chapter come to a close Sunday afternoon. With unseasonably warm temperatures and grandstands full of race fans, Unity Raceway held its final asphalt event before making the transition to a dirt racing surface in 2018.
The annual Long John event held during the final weeks of October normally serves as one last hoorah for Maine racing fans. However, on Sunday, it was a bittersweet day as asphalt Late Models made their final laps around the historic 1/3-mile oval.
Mike Hopkins of Hermon, ME took the lead from Nick Hinkley on a lap 43 restart and dominated the second half of the race to score a record third straight Long John 117 victory.
“The car was just phenomenal. I can’t thank these guys enough,” Hopkins said after the race. “We had a tire issue and Alan Perkins, I’ve got to give it to him, he made those tires came to life. We struggled yesterday in the heat race and this morning but he went to work on the tires and made it happen. My little brother, Phil Richardson, (we) just never give up on the chassis. Once I got clear of traffic, there isn’t much bottom groove here so I knew if I could get outside it was over.”
Hinkley held on to finish in the runner-up position, while Shane Clark rounded out the podium. Bobby Seger and Joey Doyon rounded out the top five, unofficially.
Multi-time Long John winner Jeff Burgess led the first 41 laps of the race before making contact with the sandbank in turn three just seconds after being passed by Hinkley for the lead. The damage forced the early leader to retire from the race.
The ensuing restart allowed Hopkins to lineup on the front row and he took full advantage by driving by Hinkley for the lead. From there, he never looked back on his way to a dominant victory.
By scoring his third straight Long John victory, Hopkins became the first driver to accomplish such a feat in the 31-year history of the race. Despite the feat, the win is still bittersweet for a driver who has spent so much time racing at the Unity, ME oval.
“It’s such an annual tradition,” Hopkins began. “You look back on the list (of winners) and you’ve got Ralph Nason, Stan Meserve, guys that have always come here. Johnny Clark, Travis Benjamin, Ben Rowe. It was a Pro Stock race, Street Stock race and just to be on that list with those guys is a feat in itself.
“[The win] means a lot to me. To be honest with you, I’m heartbroken,” Hopkins told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “[The track] has a lot of tradition; you’ve actually got to race it. The good thing is that I’ll go down in the history books as the only person to win three Long Johns in a row. But I don’t know, I’m pretty upset to see it going to dirt.”
The transition to dirt will begin immediately following the conclusion of the Long John event. Bulldozers and other construction equipment was already in place at the facility on Sunday afternoon.
Track promoter George Fernald released a statement on the track’s website prior to the event to update fans on his decision.
“I may be wrong but if I did have the money to repave, I wouldn’t,” the statement began. “I believe we need a change and do our own thing. So, I ask you all to give it a chance. If it doesn’t work in two to three years, we’ll raise the money to repave.”
Unity Raceway will become the only operating dirt track in the State of Maine when racing gets underway next season.
Full video highlights from Sunday’s final Long John 117 Late Model race will be available soon on the Speed51 Network.
-By Brandon Paul, Speed51.com Editor – Twitter: @Brandon_Paul51
-Photo credit: Speed51.com