After 90 Years, Sharon Speedway Races Ahead
HARTFORD, Ohio — As sprint cars rip and roar their way around the half-mile Sharon Speedway, co-owner Jim Weller reflects on how far the track has come since he and his partners – Ronald Kirila and retired Nascar driver Dave Blaney – bought it 17 years ago.
“We’ve rebuilt the whole thing – the track, the buildings. Everything is new,” Weller says. “We’ve tried to make it where people enjoy themselves and it’s much more of a family affair.”
Sharon Speedway was also rebuilt to attract new fans and to show them that Saturday night dirt-track racing can offer the same entertainment quality as any professional-sports stadium, says Dave Willoughby, track manager.
“The new clay surface seems to be paying off,” he says. “The racers really like it; so the car count is good. When the car counts are good and the racers like it, they buzz about it on social media. The fans seem to follow.”
Weller, Kirila and Blaney bought the track in 2002 for approximately $280,000 and have since invested about $3 million in the 90-year-old track in Hartford, not far from the border with Pennsylvania.
Renovations began in 2004 and have included resurfacing the track, updating office buildings, renovating the bathrooms and improving the menu.
Resurfacing the track alone was a $120,000 expenditure that included putting down red clay and installing new septic systems.
Keeping up with maintenance is a year-round job, Willoughby says. In the cooler months, draining water from all pipes and using antifreeze to ensure nothing freezes over is a part of the winterizing process so problems do not arise in the spring.
Kate Blaney, mother of Dave and Dale Blaney – Dale is a six-time Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions racer – remembers her involvement with the track like it was yesterday, whether as an employee or a fan.
During her time as an employee, 2002 to 2013, she did marketing, sold tickets and cleaned at the speedway.
“I went to Sharon Speedway when I was a little girl because it was in Hartford and something fun to do,” she says. “It [has] evolved from a dirt track to a blacktop track back to a dirt track. It’s had all different kinds of cars. It’s had very famous people race on it.”
Even though Nascar champions including Tony Stewart and Rusty Wallace have raced on the track, it still can be challenging to draw crowds. Attendance last year was about 60,000.
“The hard part right now [is that] the young people don’t know anything about racing or are not interested in it,” Blaney says. “They’re not even interested in cars. The car industry is not interesting to young people and there’s so many other things to do.”
Nonetheless, Blaney still advocates for Sharon Speedway’s potential as a family destination. For decades, Blaney and her late husband, Lou Blaney – he was part-owner of the track and raced there three nights a week until 2008 – brought their children and grandchildren.
“Lou and I and the boys went to races for 15 years and it’s a good family experience,” she says. “Your dad could be racing and you can see him do what he likes to do and you can be cheering him on. We have some new, young racers coming up and we try to get the young kids from the school to be a fan club.”
Among the people who understand the legacy of the track is up-and-coming driver Jacob Eucker, 18, who was influenced by his grandfather, Dale Johnson, who also raced his entire life.
In 2013, at age 12, Eucker became the youngest feature winner in the history of Sharon Speedway.
“My grandpa got my dad into racing, who got me into racing,” he says. “I was racing go-karts at the age of seven and a mod lite by 10 and a full-sized car by 11. I’ve been racing at Sharon Speedway since I was 12.”
Eucker currently races modifieds after he moved up from go-karts, econo mods and mod lites.
Regularly scheduled shows every Saturday night include the Super Sprint Series featuring 410 sprint cars, modifieds and stock cars. Each week, about 110 drivers race at the track.
Special programs at Sharon Speedway include the Lou Blaney Memorial, which will feature the All Star Circuit of Champions sprint cars with a $6,000 prize and Mod Tour big-block modifieds with a $2,000 prize. The winner of the mod show will receive a guaranteed starting spot for the July 30 Super DIRTcar Series show.
“We race anything with sprint cars, which have a 410-cubic-inch engine with 800-plus horsepower with a big wing on it, stock cars, big-block modifieds,” Eucker says.
Sanctioning bodies featured at Sharon Speedway include the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series, which is the premier national touring sanctioning body for dirt late models and sanctions 56 events at 36 venues across 21 states in 2017.
“We race every Saturday night and we sometimes have specials during the week. We typically start in April through October and we have a lot of big sanctioning bodies that come in: Lucas Oil late models, World of Outlaws late models, All Star sprints,” Willoughby says.
When it opened in 1929, Sharon Speedway was recognized as one of the fastest tracks in the country, hosting some of what people would say was the best open-wheel racing in front of capacity crowds.
Sharon Speedway officially opened under promoters Henry McCracken and Lee Poorbaugh, with Guy Mogel as the starter and Seth Wade, the announcer. More than 1,000 people paid 50 cents admission to witness the inaugural event.
After World War II halted racing, cars returned to the track in 1946. The speedway could not regain what it had before the war and was starting to look bleak. By the 1950s, however, racing regained popularity.
“It has evolved and changed through the years,” Blaney says. “We have old fans coming back because it’s good racing. Who knows in 10 years?” she asks. “I don’t know where racing is going to be. It’s been around forever.”
Pictured above: Sharon Speedway races every Saturday night from April to October and features sanctioning bodies, such as the Lucas Oil and World of Outlaws late models.
Copyright 2019 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
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