Only two short years ago, the future of the Lancaster National Speedway and Dragway facility, which held its first season of racing in 1959 outside of Buffalo, New York, looked rather grim and uncertain. The 2014 regular season was abruptly cut short as the summer came to an end, leaving many in the area thinking that its best days were in the past.
Then in the autumn of 2014, the track was leased to continue the tradition of the 5/8-mile’s annual US Open. The fans and drivers rallied around it, making it clear that operating the land as a race track was still a viable option. The improvements have continued through today, and have accelerated with the leadership of current track president Tim Packman.
“There was a change of promoters at the time, they had the US Open, and the turnout was fantastic,” Packman told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “That showed the ownership group and this community that Lancaster Speedway wasn’t going to just let this go. Last year there was a promoter, Melissa McGowan, that was here and she did a good job keeping everything going. Car counts and the fans started to build last year, and then I inherited it in November of last year.”
The participation of teams has continuously increased since that 2014 running of the US Open, which as a result has also increased the fan and community support. The 28th edition of the US Open in 2016 featured more than 180 cars across seven classes during the two-day show, most notably featuring a count of 40 cars in their headlining weekly Sportsman division.
The 2015 Sportsman champion, Mark Pennell, has been around Lancaster for multiple decades and has seen the highs and lows throughout the years. He touched on the positives that have been witnessed most recently.
“Melissa had everything going in the right direction and the place started cleaning up really nice,” Pennell noted, regarding several capital improvements during the incredible turnaround. “When Tim came in it really changed. We started getting a ton of cars. Back when I started 30-some years ago we had cars like this, and if we keep having cars like this we’ll go back to having consolation races sooner or later just to make the feature. It’s a nice atmosphere now.”
While Pennell is one of many who enjoy racing and having success no matter the turnout, he knows that the interest increases all around with the more cars that show up.
“The competition is what it’s all about,” Pennell remarked. “If you can beat a high dollar guy and a really good racer it just makes you feel good when you go home. You know next week he’s coming after you. It’s going to keep getting better and better as it goes. Us as drivers, we just have to put on some really good races and the people will come. We’ll be there. Tim’s doing a great job.”
The Race of Champions Asphalt Modified Series held four signature events in 2016, two of which featured lap sponsor programs initiated voluntarily on top of the traditional purse. Among the familiar competitors that have increased their appearances at Lancaster is a multi-time champion in that series, Chuck Hossfeld.
“People want to race and people like this track,” Hossfeld said. “I love it because it’s close to home and I did a lot of growing up here, and on top of that (US Open) is a great weekend to come race to have all these cars and all these people.”
The commitment of the long haul racing on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour became more difficult, and in recent years Hossfeld stepped back to run mainly in the RoC Series. With the track’s weekly program flourishing, his team decided to bring out their Sportsman ride on off weekends.
“This is a way for us to still be able to race, and I think it actually has made us better just to race more often,” Hossfeld continued. “We plan on doing it again next year. As far as the track goes, I love seeing it on the upswing. I love seeing upgrades and construction and things like that. Hopefully it continues. I also like seeing sponsors involved with the track. It shows that they have a potential to touch people with either name recognition or advertising.”
The involvement in acquiring area businesses to support the track has been one major victory for Packman and staff. That additional funding coupled with a strong base of officials committed to working with the drivers has made the future look exceptionally bright.
“We made it aggressive to get corporate partnerships both on the drag and stock car side,” Packman mentioned. “We told the drivers what we’re going to do, we told them how we’re going to do it, and we stuck to our guns on that. A lot of hard work on the officials’ side, Todd Hannon and our tech director Dave Johnson, have been phenomenal with what they have done with the stock car series.”
Packman is a widely familiar personality in the sport of auto racing. An award-winning author and writer also formerly responsible for communications for Richard Childress Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc. during a span that included two Daytona 500 wins and three championships being only a couple of his credentials, after 20 years at the highest levels of the sport he decided to return home to where it all started.
“With the people I met, I learned a lot along the way and every track I went to the little promoter in me was walking around looking at everything from an apparel display to the pricing of food thinking maybe one day I might be able to do it, not knowing that I would bring it all back to my home track,” Packman said.
“I started here as a cook. My first job ever in my life was here working in the concession stands. I wanted to see this place thrive and I knew there was a core of people here. I couldn’t think of a better bunch of fans, sponsors, and drivers on both the drag and stock car side to do this. We’ve had our moments, which you are going to have, but at the end of the day the one thing we all have in common is a love of Lancaster Speedway. That’s a testament to what we’ve done here as a group.”
Packman knows that being open and fair will keep the competitors coming back and in turn the show that they put on and the experience they offer will keep the fans satisfied and returning.
“The people know they are going to come here and get a fair shake,” Packman continued. “The checkered flag doesn’t know who anybody is. Neither does the black flag or the caution flag, but it’s the people that get in the cars and the people around this track that make it go.”
In addition, the support he has received with his comeback to the speedway has been a blessing and a learning experience in which he is thankful.
“Going into next year now I’m a little smarter, and we all are a little more involved. We have to do this together. Without the drivers, we’re just a paved circle in a field.”
Another one of those drivers is Andy Jankowiak, who has done his fair share of traveling across the east coast, but to him there is no place like his home track. The resident from nearby Tonawanda, New York knows that the recent resurgence is the best thing that could happen for the local drivers when seeing the excitement from the track’s visitors.
“I love racing around, going to different places and trying new things, and running on the RoC Tour, but it’s just great to come back home and have something right in your backyard,” Jankowiak said. “It means so much to so many people. It’s just been wonderful. They’re fixing the stands, paving the pits, paving the track.”
Jankowiak continued by joking that he missed the potholes and bumps the track once featured because it gave himself an advantage, but applauded the upgrades that have resulted in the betterment of the racing product.
“Obviously you’re going to be sympathetic to your own track, but with the D-shaped radius front straightaway you can get right up on the outside,” Jankowiak added.
“There isn’t a race track like this where the fans sit that close to the front straightaway. The action is right there in front of you, and if you come here it stays with you. There’s no other track like it, so it’s always good to come back home. I’m just glad that they’re fixing her up, and there’s going to be a bright future here.”
-By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com Central NY & PA Editor – Twitter: @aaron_creed
-Photo credit: Speed51.com