We all know how important winning an Oxford 250 can be to any driver fortunate enough to add their name to an elite list. For asphalt short track racers around the nation, specifically the northeastern U.S. and Maritime provinces of Canada, it's their Daytona 500.
Yet for race car chassis manufacturers and car builders, having a team win the prestigious Oxford 250 in their brand can have major financial implications. That old 'win on Sunday, sell on Monday' adage from the automobile industry certainly applies here, as well. It's the battle to build a better mousetrap.
Last August, Bubba Pollard stunned the northeastern racing fraternity when he won the famed 250 in his first attempt. What is equally as impressive is the fact he did so in a Senneker Performance chassis, one of only two in the field. Two-time 250 winner Ben Rowe ran the brand last year and is fast in 2019.
“That win there last August meant a lot to our company,” company owner and second-generation racer Terry Senneker explained. “I went up to Oxford with Bubba for my first visit, and it was amazing. I had always heard about the Oxford 250, but to see the turnout of fans and the support of racing up there was pretty awesome. It is a much bigger event than I ever realized.
“It made that victory so very special for Bubba, for me, and just everybody involved. Bubba typically goes to a track with a really strong baseline setup, and doesn't stray too far from it. He makes changes for flat tracks and banked tracks, as he did for Oxford last year. That team can adapt to any track.”
While Senneker cars are high-quality pieces capable of winning big races, they aren't big in numbers.
“We don't have a lot of cars out there spread across the country compared to our competitors, but we definitely have some of the nation's premier teams running them,” Senneker added. “In the small numbers we do have, percentage wise, I think we do very well compared to the competition.”
Turns out, you don't have to be the biggest to be successful. Or produce the biggest number of cars.
“We work out of a 5,000-square-foot building, so we're a small shop of seven employees,” the proud car builder said. “Logistically, we just can't do the quick turnaround like some others can do. It puts a little more workload on us, but we're fortunate to have those top teams do our R&D to make us better.
“We're a small group of people, but we work hard and take pride in the quality of our products. We think outside the box, we don't build cookie-cutter or run-of-the-mill race cars. They are a little bit different than any of our competitor's cars. We sure hope to earn another 250 win, it would be huge.”
While companies like Senneker Performance have their eggs in a small 250 basket, local favorites like Distance Racing stand atop the mountain. Despite being temporarily displaced from that lofty spot, the number of teams (24 of the first 50 entries) and momentum of guys like Curtis Gerry are encouraging.
“We have a great deal of pride in how most of our cars are running right now,” company owner and nine-time Oxford track champion Jeff Taylor said. “We all want to be good at what we do for a living, whether it's writing a story or, in our case, building race cars. For us, our cars have to be very good.
“Fortunately, we are at a time and place right now where they are doing well. We have a lot success, but with the number of cars we have out there, we have an equal amount of failures.”
Taylor's days are filled with servicing customers in one fashion or another. It's always busy in Fairfield, Maine.
“Every week, we spend at least three days working on setups, trying to see why that particular car isn't performing as well as some of the others. There is only going to be one winner in every race, and there are always so many variables. We try to get them all the same, but that just isn't possible.”
The Oxford legend puts a major effort into consistency when it comes to building customer cars.
“We try to make everything we do here the same, to the best of our ability,” Taylor added. “There are only a few of us in the shop, which is both good and bad. We can maintain our quality control, but that small staff makes the workload pretty heavy at times. I'm lucky to have guys like Ben Ashline here.”
As cars have evolved over time, the nature of weekly work for builders has changed along with them.
“Over the last four of five years, our cars have stayed pretty much the same,” Taylor explains. “That does two things for us. For one, it makes it easier when we try to figure out why somebody's car isn't as good as, in this case, Curtis Gerry. But it can make it difficult, because everybody has the same parts.
“As we evaluate each car, we're not looking to reinvent the wheel, because we know how this wheel works. It's almost like looking for a needle in a haystack, because the missing detail can be very hard to find. There isn't a week that goes by when I'm not asked what Curtis is doing. He's got his setup right.”
While a majority of his cars are capable of winning races, Taylor admits there is much more to it.
“We are just a piece of the overall puzzle that makes that 7G team so good,” he said. “You can't deny Curtis and his team are a big part of that success. He is a good driver, his team pays attention to details and they have a working formula. Together, the Gerry team and others make our cars look very good.”
Taylor says the big success that Gerry has achieved in the past two seasons has done a lot for Distance Racing Products.
“We had a particular batch of cars we built that worked very well for a lot of different people, especially when they were new. So when average racers started winning races in them, I think a lot of other teams that could relate figured they could, as well. That does more for us than if a veteran with money and years of experience wins in our car, because those guys are expected to do well anyway.”
Gerry won the 250 in 2017 and is among the favorites this year. Founded in 1983 by Maine Motorsports Hall of Fame driver and car builder Stan Meserve, Distance Racing is an icon on the Maine racing scene. Since 1998, Taylor and his staff have maintained a tradition of excellence.
Fury Race Cars, located in Mooresville, N.C., is starting to gain traction here in the northeast. With three high-profile drivers running Fury chassis in the 250, the company with three owners and a very interesting history has its collective eyes on what happens in Maine on August 25, make no mistake.
Maine short track icon Kelly Moore, Farmington native Cassius Clark and 2018 PASS National champion Derek Griffith will be utilizing Fury built cars in the 46th annual late-summer classic.
“All three of those guys have already contributed to our win numbers this year,” company president and co-founder Darius Grala said. “They are all proven winners, as is Kelly's son Ryan who has won in our cars. Derek is the newest member of the Fury family up there, but he's been winning races for us.”
While Griffith and his LCM Motorsports squad are still refining their Oxford setup, they are close.
“Without a doubt, Derek and his team will get their car dialed in and be a factor in the 250. He has the talent and that team has the skills to perform at the highest level. I wouldn't be surprised to see any of our guys win it this year, they are all that good. Honestly, we would be thrilled to see them dominate.”
The story of Fury Race Cars has a direct connection to Maine, based on one of it's most well known and respected fabricators and chassis builders. This man's influence and knowledge is truly legendary.
“We're about to post some material on our company history as we celebrate three years in business on August 29 here at Fury,” Grala explained. “Our story really dates back to 1992, the year a man named Steve Leavitt moved from Kezar Falls, Maine, to North Carolina to work in a NASCAR shop.
“When Steve first went south in '92, he went straight to work for Hendrick Motorsports. Eventually, he started his own business, and in 2010, he built a Super Late Model chassis. He only built five of them, but they were really great cars. Then in 2014, he designed and built a Modified.”
Turns out, our beloved second-generation builder from Kezar Falls built the actual foundation for Fury.
“That Super Late Model and that Modified were the baselines for our current Fury brand model L and model M cars. Even though we are a new company, the designs of our cars, all the tooling, the jigs we build them on, all the fixtures we have at Fury, are all formerly Leavitt chassis company equipment.
“When Steve first sold his stuff and went to work with GMS Racing, it went to a company called LFR in 2014,” Grala added. “When Steve had those cars, they never won a race. It was LFR that first won in his cars. When they went out of business, we bought all of Leavitt's old stuff from them.”
An interesting story of a very high-profile car builder with surprising ties to Maine. In fact, Leavitt has also played a role in in designing a third product line at Fury, a car of a different nature.
“Even though Steve is officially retired, he still moonlights a little bit here at Fury,” Grala said. “He drew up a large portion of the design for our new road course car, as well. And while this is our newest model, it just won its first race and did so in dominant fashion with the pole and a new track record.
“So we're very proud of all of our cars, the Super Late Models, the Modifieds and now the new road course cars. The fact that Steve had a hand in that one, as well, is a neat deal. I don't want to take away anything from our own guys; they do excellent work and are the ones who build our customer's cars.”
As of early August, drivers in Fury race cars had already won 55 races around the nation. That is a pretty impressive number given the fact the season isn't much past the halfway point (down south, at least). Grala's partners at Fury include Tony Eury Jr. and Jeff Fultz, names synonymous with success.
Over in Center Conway, New Hampshire, 1994 NASCAR Busch North Series champion and respected car builder Dale Shaw has a number of strong horses entered in this year's Oxford 250. Two-time 250 winner Eddie MacDonald and three-time PASS North champion DJ Shaw are leading the charge.
Other drivers to watch piloting Dale's cars in the 250 include 2002 race winner Scott Robbins, two-time Oxford Late Model champion Shawn Martin, 2018 Oxford SLM points champion Gabe Brown, Vermonters Evan Hallstrom and Bobby Therrien, as well as former NASCAR regular John Salemi.
“I think we're in decent shape going into it this year,” Shaw said. “We are always working hard to get better, of course. I think we're a lot closer than we were previously with DJ's car, we're making a lot of big changes to it this week. We need to get Gabe (Brown) going better, he's a little off right now.”
Shaw is known for his tireless work ethic and over-the-top customer service. If you run a Shaw car and compete at Oxford, he'll be there to guide you into contention. It's what the man is all about.
“We don't even know what is wrong with his car, he's been going over it thoroughly every week. We are going to try some different things on it and go over to practice this week. We'll get it figured out.”
Of all the veteran drivers running Shaw cars in this year's 250, the master builder has his eyes on one.
“I think Scott Robbins may be the leader of the group right now if you look at the finishes,” Shaw added. “He has already won a 250 so he knows how it's done. He started deep in the field last week and still finished fourth. He has the experience and obviously a good setup, so don't count him out.”
Shaw says the finicky 3/8-mile oval has been greasy this season, and nobody can spend much time in the outside groove unless they plan to go backwards.
“There just isn't much grip out there. As for DJ, he didn't have a good car for the outside lane, and we were stuck out there on every restart. I thought we had a shot at that race, our car was pretty good on that long green run. But our stagger opened up after the bleeders went down, and we were just too loose after that. It didn't go our way, but at least we know we're making progress.”
Shaw feels once the guys that run his cars make the big show, they have a chance at going for glory.
“I tell all my guys, if you're in it, you can win it,” Shaw said. “The draw always determines how your 250 race day is going to go. Draw a good number, make the show in your heat then prepare for later. We have a provisional, and a lot of guys have a guaranteed spot. That really takes the pressure off.
“Scott proved last week it doesn't matter where you start. In a race like that, you'll have a lot of coming and going, and as long as you don't lose a lap, you should still be able to stay in contention. It's going to be a very competitive race this year, without a doubt. If one of cars wins it, it will be pretty special.”
Over at Crazy Horse Racing in South Paris, Mitch Green has plenty of reasons for optimism this year. His fine young development driver, Ray Christian III, has shown big talent each time he's raced.
The big news coming out of South Paris in recent weeks was the news that Green has formed a partnership with Crooks Racing based in North Carolina and is now a dealer for Port City Race Cars.
“We actually had some great timing with that whole thing when we ran Ray out at Jennerstown,” Green said. “Ray time trialed fastest and ran up front for a long time, yet was beaten by two Port City Cars, Todd Stone and Mike Hopkins. So our two brands made a strong showing, which really helped.”
Green says the big reason his news has gone over so well among local race teams is that they'll now have the local, track-side service for Port City cars and not have to travel to North Carolina. To a race team, that is very appealing. Port City cars are built by Gary Crooks and his staff at Crooks Racing.
“We've worked with Gary for a long time, and we have big respect for each other,” Green added. “He knows how we have certain standards of doing things up here. We are fanatical about fit and finish with all of our cars. Down the road, he'll build all of our Port City cars because he is better equipped.”
This marriage between Crazy Horse Racing and Crooks Racing/Port City has already generated quite abuzz. Enough of one in fact that eight cars have already been ordered, including one for longtime Beech Ridge Motor Speedway regular Dan McKeage. But for now, Green says his CHR cars are ready.
“We really don't have that many of our own cars in the 250 this year,” Green explained. “I think the No. 93 car of Ray Christian is our best horse. He has the talent, the car has the speed and has proven itself since Richmond.
"I also think Calvin Rose Jr. has the potential to do well, he is already in the show so his 250 Sunday won't be as stressful as it could have been. I feel he could do very well.”
Green also says there is another CHR car that bears watching on 250 weekend.
“We have another guy named Ryan Kuhn out of Massachusetts that is bringing both a ACT car and a Super Late Model. Ryan is pretty strong on the Late Model side, and we consider him our guy.”
There is another local driver with tons of experience at Oxford also in a CHR built machine. Auburn's Travis Stearns wheels the No. 16 ride and knows his way around the tricky 3/8-mile oval.
Each of these fine chassis builders has their own philosophy and ways of looking at customer service. Those are the things that separate them from each other, combined with natural geography. Yet thanks to their combined efforts, they have elevated asphalt short track racing by leaps and bounds.
Green summed it up well when discussing his own specific philosophy at Crazy Horse Racing.
“Some shops can crank out a lot of cars and have tons of customers, but if you have too many, you just can't service all of them properly. We don't have big numbers, yet we service the ones we have to the best of our ability.
"We do this to help our customers run faster and win races. That is our main goal.”
This weekend, the main goal for all car builders will be putting one of their chassis in Victory Lane at the Oxford 250.
In addition to those already mentioned, other chassis manufacturers chasing a big victory this weekend include: Clattenburg Racing Fabrication, Davis Chassis Works and Pathfinder Chassis.
If you’re unable to make it Oxford Plains Speedway to see who comes out on top, you can watch the action via a live pay-per-view broadcast on Speed51.com. Two-day video tickets for the event can be purchased at a discounted price by clicking here.
-Story by: Phil Whipple, Speed51.com Northeast SLM Correspondent
-Photo credit: Speed51.com / John A. Miller