Often times among weekly businesses across America, tradition and success are fortunate enough to be carried on throughout differing segments of leadership. The Santee family promoted Mahoning Valley Speedway starting in 2012, rejuvenating the popular ¼-mile asphalt circle track on the brink of several unknowns following the conclusion of a positive six-year tenure by the late Dirt Modified legend Doug Hoffman.
During the five seasons under Floyd Santee’s leadership, the facility nestled in Northeast Pennsylvania featured major events with some of the most thrilling finishes in its over 60-year history. A three-wide sprint to the line in this past autumn’s 200-lap Octoberfast Modified headliner was an incredible 2017 season sendoff.
But many adages out there state the reality of ebbs and flows in any operations, and eventually change can be inevitable.
It was announced in recent months that the Santees would be stepping away and the promotion as well as ownership had been obtained by Jack and Rebecca Carlino. The hometown residents of Lehighton, Pennsylvania have already been heavily involved in promoting and marketing the Mahoning Valley Farmers Market, which sits on the same property as the speedway.
One of the first orders of business was to set the leadership team for the track moving forward for 2018 and beyond. One of those individuals has seen it all within the motorsports realm in the region, calling races and writing press releases through various management pairings.
“What I’ve noticed over the years with any particular race track, when you see that new regime coming in, it’s fresh blood,” Dino Oberto, who is well-known as the voice over the speakers every Saturday night, told Speed51.com. “It’s like that new car smell, and I think (Jack)’s bringing that aspect to Mahoning Valley Speedway.
“We unfortunately got to a point where it became kind of lackluster. The track had lost that flair that it had because it’s such an exciting place to be. We had a decline in attendance, a decline in car counts, and what I see now with him taking over and some of the views he has on what he would like to do, because he does want to run the entire property, both the Farmer’s Market and the race track, it’s going to bring a good piece of stability there.”
Oberto, who lends his announcing skills during nearby Pocono Raceway race weekends and has previously been involved at the 1/3-mile Evergreen Raceway as well, has been named as General Manager starting in 2018. Nevertheless, he expects his own tasks and responsibilities to remain rather constant.
“In a sense, I really don’t see it as a promotion,” Oberto commented. “It’s just more so getting a more distinguished title to continue to do what I’m doing through public relations, through day-to-day operations, and through managing the race track to become and remain successful that I know it can be. I’m just having a little more hands on and it’s pretty cool to be able to have that aspect. I don’t think much is going to change as far as my duties because I’m so regimented in doing what I’ve always done in that capacity.”
Another crucial part of the puzzle was hiring a Race Director to preserve and establish fair and balanced weekly competition. On the short list of potential candidates was Hazleton’s Steve Fox, who brings a vast array of knowledge via numerous different business and racing-related ventures to the position.
“Steve and I had talked about this possibility and what I like and I think the most important aspect of what we’re looking at here is that he is a neutral individual coming in here,” Oberto indicated. “He’s not a person who has any affiliation, past or present, with the race track and I think that’s important to these drivers. He might know these guys, but he doesn’t know them from the fact that he has history with any here or there, and I think that’s very important. He’s going to do an excellent job because he has done this before and is a professional in everything he does. That’s what is very important to make this job successful.”
Fox has been a racer from motorcycles at the age of 18 to competing weekly at Evergreen Raceway in the early 1990s, and then receiving the opportunity to participate in 21 ARCA Racing Series events at versatile types of tracks such as Daytona, Pocono, New Jersey Motorsports Park road course and the high banks of Salem Speedway. He has even driven in Nevada’s Silver State Challenge Classic, in which a public highway land speed record is sought after each year.
“I’ve known Dino for 30 years and have stayed in touch with everything we’ve been through, and I admire his infectious enthusiasm,” Fox noted. “I knew the Santees were on their way out, so I was glad to jump in. I’m excited to be alongside Dino and glad to be working for the owner of the property.”
What has perhaps prepared Fox, also a Chief Instructor and General Manager at Pocono’s long-running Stockcar Racing Experience, most for his new role is his experience as Technical and Race Director at Evergreen from 1996 to 1998. Keeping the excitement within the confines of green flag racing and away from post-race and the pits is at the top of the list.
“I would like to approach this from a driver’s perspective,” Fox stated. “We must not let the inmates run the asylum, and any fighting or using cars as a weapon won’t be tolerated. These drivers expect to be treated, paid and promoted as professionals. The Santees came in, did a great job, and we’re going to continue the great thing they started and look to the future of making asphalt short track racing better. I want to give back and do the best job I can for them.”
From a driver standpoint, two-time defending Late Model track champion Mike Sweeney has supported both Mahoning Valley and Evergreen over the duration of multiple management changes.
“I think Floyd and their group did a very good job and they brought new life into the track when it was down, but they ran into some troubles throughout the years,” Sweeney recalled. “Not saying any management wouldn’t have, so I just think that everything in general kind of got stale.
“New management is sort of another breath of life back into the race track and I believe that’s what we need. I think it’s going to be a learning year for Jack and his team, but they will learn from their mistakes and will continue to improve.”
Sweeney, an eight-time feature winner at Mahoning Valley in 2017 with a career total of more than 50 victories in Eastern Pennsylvania, has unwavering confidence in Oberto’s increased collaboration.
“He’s been there through different management so he kind of has the background of knowing right from wrong,” Sweeney continued. “I think Dino himself has been involved in motorsports for long enough that he has sat back and watched this.”
Additionally, Sweeney interestingly does have some background with Fox, but away from the weekly asphalt short tracks.
“When I went to college, Steve was actually one of my motorsports professors, and I actually worked for Stock Car Racing Experience,” Sweeney indicated. “I have knowledge of Steve and he’s another guy that has been on both sides of that steering wheel. He’s been a driver for so many years, but he has also been in a management part. At Stock Car Racing Experience he was public relations and everything, so he knows how to deal with people. I think he was a very good choice.”
On the track surface recognized by some as a Bowman Gray of the north, Sweeney hopes to continue his streak of success on the track in his Port City chassis, fielding one of the very few Fords in the area.
“Hopefully we can win a lot of races and another championship or win some of the bigger races, and keep the money coming in to keep the team going,” Sweeney added. “Hopefully we can get in the double digits again in wins and just have a good year where we keep the car in one piece and have some fun with my guys. That’s what I’m looking forward to the most.”
Mahoning Valley has always excelled at being family-friendly with generations upon generations continuing the tradition. Sweeney sees this opportunity for himself and others for years to come.
“My daughter Harper turns two and my wife is very involved with my race team as all of my family is, and it’s really great to have Harper starting to come to the garage more,” Sweeney said. “She’s running around with tools so it’s a little bit neater to have her around. I’m looking forward to making some memories with her and everybody this year.”
In regards to the weekly format for 2018, the staff is mainly taking an “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” approach. American Racer will remain the tire of choice, as it was in 2017. The simplistic yet impressive agenda features six of the local divisions each week, but mostly at a standard distance, set at 35 laps for the top-billed Modifieds which occasionally run sub-10 second lap times. Additional incentives for fans and racers will be in place.
“We’re making this an easy schedule on the pocket book because we understand the logistics of the Lehighton and Palmerton area, which is where the base of our crowd comes from,” Oberto indicated. “First thing we did was we cut the grandstand gate price back to $12. I think that’s going to be a huge difference and as far as the pits go the rules are in place. I think by having a nice easy schedule, I want these people leaving wanting more.”
The only change on track will be the introduction of a Sportsman Modified class, which will alternate weeks with the Dirt Modifieds at the request of their teams. The new division to the facility will allow some flexibility for racers looking to ultimately move up the ladder.
“We need to be focused on where the future is going,” Oberto added. “It’s actually a twofold situation with the Sportsman car, because it’s still a full-blown Modified but it’s going to be scaled back to the rules. Smaller carburetor; tires are definitely going to be the big thing there. You can’t run that same car that same night with the full Modified class; however, if you felt like it the following week when they’re off the schedule you can take it out there and still run with the big boys.”
The 2018 season begins on Saturday, April 7 after a few opportunities to shake down cars at weekend test and tunes the month before. The Modifieds will have one long-distance event the final weekend of the month, while the Street Stocks have 75-lap features set for the Memorial and Labor Day weekends. Late Models, Hobby Stocks, and Pro 4s will each have a special event throughout the summer as well, all leading up to the annual Octoberfast on Saturday, October 13 in which the Modifieds headline with a 150-lap, $5,000-to-win race.
The sky could be the limit for the future, which potentially include chances at working to every extent they can with other tracks, such as Evergreen which races Fridays and Sundays less than an hour away. Fox mentioned that the two facilities are “like chocolate and vanilla; each track presents something different, but both are good and sweet.”
While it’s technically a building year out at Mahoning Valley, the positives seem to be in the favor of staff, fans, and competitors.
“Mahoning Valley Speedway, to me, is a race track that sells itself,” Oberto concluded. “It’s not about me or Steve Fox or Jack Carlino. It is; however, about having those people in place. Put the right team in place and it’s a track that lends to great racing because it’s two-wide constantly in every single class. I just think there is excitement in the air right now because there is a transition taking place. I think you’re going to see that 2018 is going to be pretty damn fun to be back at Mahoning Valley.
“There are hardcore fans at Mahoning Valley Speedway. They love that place and they will let you know it, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent. Right now they are seeing this as a good thing and we need to get back to where we were, as a vibrant race track to be watching Saturday night races.”
-By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com Regional Editor (Central NY & PA)
-Photo credit: Speed51.com