The 67th Annual Race of Champions recently culminated the sanctioning body’s second season under the direction of owner Joe Skotnicki. After a gradual start to 2017 that began with uninspiring weather conditions, steady momentum accumulated as the months continued, leading into a new opportunity that arose over the previous winter. The Race of Champions 250, the second-longest consecutive running annual auto racing event behind the Indianapolis 500, made its move to a new first-class venue, Lake Erie Speedway.
Not only did the 250-lap Modified main event feature countless passing and jockeying for positions throughout the field, each supporting race over the weekend’s festivities had its share of thrilling moments. Despite the brisk autumn weather, the efficiently-run show received a delightful reception from numerous fans in attendance. When all was said and done, Skotnicki provided his initial impression.
“If you think that when you walk in the gates in the morning at a race that you’re not going to learn something new, you are sadly mistaken,” Skotnicki told Speed51.com powered by JEGS following the event. “I learned a ton of things this weekend, so you guys are going to have to tell me how good or bad or mediocre it was, but from where I sat it was a spectacle again.”
The prestigious pre-race ceremonies were comprised of but not limited to soldiers from the United States Army escorting the legendary Al Gerber Memorial Trophy into the facility, the swearing in of new recruits on the front straightaway and military presenting the nations colors. An incredible performance of the Canadian and United States National Anthems was preceded by the induction of storied car owner Ed McGuire, longtime area announcer Joe Marotta and the late Ted Christopher into the Race of Champions Hall of Fame leading into the 250 laps of breathtaking action on the 3/8-mile surface.
Given the indication of all that went well, Skotnicki still clarified that there is always room for improvement.
“Because you guys are there so much, you know the emotion and the passion that we as a group and I put into this,” Skotnicki added. “I expect us to be perfect, but I know that we can’t because there are so many moving elements. We made mistakes all weekend and you just write them down and log them in your memory bank and you fix them.”
The 2017 RoC Asphalt Modified Series season gave prominence to seven different winners, two of which earned their first victory after multiple years of honing their skills during their young careers. With the year of racing complete and perhaps a week or so to unwind, it’s right back at it again in preparation for the next go round.
“As far as moving forward goes, anybody that thinks the wheel stops turning, when you wake up tomorrow there are going to be new challenges, people that are upset about this or that, that you’re going to have to deal with, and you can never drop the ball,” Skotnicki said. “Unfortunately, some people think you can just switch it off in the winter or after the last race. If you’re going to be successful in this business you just can’t.”
There will be some tweaks that have already been decided upon, including the at least temporary discontinuation of the RoC Dirt Modified Series. Skotnicki continued by elaborating on the special spot he is in with the Dirt Sportsman Series as well as all that is continuing on the asphalt side.
“Around here if we weren’t doing it, there are a lot of things that wouldn’t be happening right now. I don’t know if people recognize the gravity of that or not. That’s such a hard thing to explain because I’m passionate about both sides but there are so many outside influences to why that’s going to happen. The other part of it too is the Sportsman guys have really rallied and supported us on the dirt side, and we’ve found a unique niche on the asphalt side with trying that Sportsman Series out.”
During the latter summer months, a three-race mini-series was announced between Delaware Speedway in Ontario’s Canada Day Weekend, Lancaster National Speedway in New York’s U.S. Open, and Lake Erie Speedway in Pennsylvania’s Race of Champions. The end of season shows for the Asphalt Sportsman Modifieds supplied competitors with an opportunity to travel on an expanded level with the same cars they focused the earlier part of the year on accomplishing goals at their home tracks.
“Those guys are really into it because they like going different places and it’s an affordable introduction for us to go other places that will open up some venues for the Modifieds,” Skotnicki noted. “Around here they are not building race tracks so we are going to have to explore the area a little bit and be creative when it comes to maintaining and growing.”
As far as the RoC Asphalt Modified Series is concerned, the plan is to keep building upon the positives, which should be a rather feasible task given the racing product witnessed at Lake Erie and beyond.
“I’d like to think that today, from a competitive standpoint, you really saw how much the series has come along,” Skotnicki indicated. “We used to come to these races and there were three or four guys that would run up front, and everybody else. There weren’t a whole lot of cars that went a lap down today and everybody was battling and dicing. That’s a testament to what they have committed to us, in return for us being fair to them.”
Included in those plans is the intention to have the annual season-ending event stay put at the same venue; something that has not occurred since 2013-2014.
“Last year when we left Oswego, (Lake Erie Operations Manager) AJ (Moore) and I talked and we met with the gentleman that waved the green flag, (Erie Sports Commission Events Director) Mark Jeanneret,” Skotnicki explained. “When I walked in there I told everybody this isn’t just about this year. It’s about five years from now when we can really look back and go, wow, we accomplished something. I’ve never looked any differently at anything we have done. You have to deal with the day-to-day, but you always have to have a vision down the road.”
It was evident driving around the nearby Erie area that various partners were all-in for this event. Digital billboards donned the 67th Race of Champions ads on the sides of traffic-filled streets. Seven hotels offered discounted rates for visitors and teams. Nevertheless, sometimes it is those intangible assets that can be invaluable.
“The track, the Sports Commission, every one of those people has been exceptional,” Skotnicki applauded. “They gave us an intern this weekend, and if he wasn’t a sophomore in college I’d hire him full time right now and just commit as much as I could to training the kid. I can’t get over it, so when it comes to contributions like that, it’s not just money, it’s not just the hotels; it was everything. If you’re ever going to grow a sport or grow a business, that’s what you need. You need everybody behind you.
“The racers are going to get mad at you, but for the most part they need a place to race, so we can all work through it. If you tick off a community or a sponsor it’s hard to recover. I really firmly believe that the move from Oswego to Chemung back to Oswego is a glaring example of that. We would not be here without the cooperation and dedication to all those folks to make sure this event was what it was. Now we need good salesmen and I think we got a pretty good start here.”
-By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com Central NY & PA Editor – Twitter: @aaron_creed
-Photo credit: Speed51.com / MoJo Photos