Sunday, December 8, 2013
By Gillian Graham firstname.lastname@example.org
Dawn Ham of Lewiston comforts her 4-year-old nephew, Orrin, of Cape Elizabeth, as stock cars zoom byat Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in Scarborough on a recent Saturday.
Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer
Perched atop a pickup truck to get an elevated view, Matt Hodgdon of Scarborough and his son Josh, 10, watch Saturday stock car racing over the fence of the Beech Ridge Motor Speedway.
NASCAR NITES AT BEECH RIDGE
THE SATURDAY races have four divisions:
PRO SERIES: This includes the fastest race cars in Maine and is part of the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. Drivers race at speeds over 90 mph.
SPORT SERIES: Younger drivers groom their skills at speeds approaching 80 mph.
WILDCATS: Features amateur drivers piloting street-style cars. Known for squealing tires and spinning cars.
ROAD RUNNERS: The entry-level division for amateurs features six-cylinder cars with minor modifications.
BEECH RIDGE MOTOR SPEEDWAY
70 Holmes Road, Scarborough
THURSDAY THUNDER: 7 to 9 p.m. every Thursday through Aug. 16
COST: $4 for adults; free for children 12 and younger
FRIDAY CAR WARS: 7 p.m. every Friday in August
COST: $6 for adults; free for children 12 and younger
SATURDAY NASCAR NITES: Qualifying begins at 6:30 p.m.; main event starts at 7:30 p.m. Races every Saturday through September.
COST: $10 for adults; free for children 12 and younger
ABOUT BEECH RIDGE
CAPACITY: 5,500 in front grandstand; 2,000 in pit area
AVERAGE attendance on Saturdays: 4,100 to 4,800
FANS: 51 percent male, 49 percent female
AVERAGE distance traveled to races: 29 miles
Source: Beech Ridge Motor Speedway
Things haven't changed much in the 64 years since Jim McConnell carved out an oval dirt track, erected a grandstand with boards he cut in his own sawmill and started a Saturday night tradition that now spans three generations.
It's a tradition that, decades later, continues to attract new fans to the Beech Ridge Motor Speedway for race nights under the lights. New generations of drivers compete on the track, longtime spectators bring their grandchildren for a night at the races and campers stay for the weekend, creating a community of race fans who say they wouldn't want to spend their Saturdays anywhere else.
At Beech Ridge it often feels like everyone has been coming to the track forever, said owner Andy Cusack.
"Most of our drivers were at one point a kid in the grandstand. They grow up and they dream about racing and they get a car built, come out and do it," he said.
Last year, the speedway drew nearly 152,000 spectators, including a growing number of young fans who are discovering the sport, according to track officials. On an average Saturday night, more than 4,000 fans fill the stands.
The increase in spectators at Beech Ridge comes as attendance at NASCAR races is on the decline across the country. From 2005 to 2010, nationwide attendance at NASCAR races declined 22 percent, from 4.6 million to 3.6 million annually.
The 1/3-mile track at Beech Ridge opened in 1949 after McConnell, an airplane mechanic who worked in Boston, decided to bring auto racing to a plot of land he owned in Scarborough. The speedway has operated continuously since then and has been owned by three families.
Cusack, whose family bought Beech Ridge in 1981, grew up at the speedway watching his father, Ralph, race his way to a record 12 track titles. The few changes made by the family include converting the track to asphalt and planting flower plots around the grounds.
Yearly attendance has grown in the past two decades, rising from about 85,000 NASCAR Nites fans in 1983 to more than 104,000 last year.
Attendance at Thursday Thunder, which is especially popular with families, has held steady, attracting about 47,000 fans each season for the past three years. The two-hour show features local amateur racers competing in seven events, and is economical for families, with $4 adult tickets and children under 12 admitted free, Cusack said.
"We've seen a great resurrection in new and young fans, which is good to see," Cusack said. "Many of our fans have been with us since the '60s and '70s. All of a sudden we're seeing a kind of rebirth of race fans."
Cusack attributes the change in part to the popularity of Thursday Thunder and the familiar faces at the track.
"I think it has a real sense of family and a real sense of connection. All of our drivers, our athletes, are local people," he said. "They're people you bump into in the local variety store, or they're delivering parts to you or they're somebody who does the plumbing on your home. They're local people you can really connect to."
LIKE A REUNION
Dan Walker of Portland clearly remembers his first trip to Beech Ridge, with his grandfather in 1971. He was 11 years old and instantly hooked. He has worked at the track in various capacities for the past 31 years and said the Beech Ridge community is a big family.
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Andy Field of Buxton settles into his car before a Saturday race at Beech Ridge.
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Bob Emery, left, and Aaron Ricker work on the suspension of Jason Ricker’s race car in the pits at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in Scarborough.
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Members of the Yankee Travelers, a chapter of the Family Motor Coach Association, gather for dinner.