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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — A revered New York short track will reconnect with NASCAR in 2014.
Utica-Rome Speedway in Vernon, N.Y., rejoins the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series next year. Gene Cole has owned and operated the 52-year-old half-mile dirt track since 2002. The announcement was made Saturday night at the track’s annual year-end awards banquet.
“We welcome Gene, Utica-Rome Speedway, its participants and fans to the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series,” said Kevin Nevalainen, NASCAR senior manager of racing operations. “NASCAR and Utica-Rome have shared chapters of history together. We look forward to sharing an exciting future.”
The combination of Utica-Rome Speedway and NASCAR has a rich heritage. Over several eras, stars of both pavement and dirt-track NASCAR Modified racing have called the track home.
“We have a pretty well-known track,” Cole said. “It’ll be even better known as a NASCAR track. In my opinion, NASCAR makes a difference.”
Established in 1982, the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series is NASCAR’s national championship program for weekly short track auto racing. More than 50 paved and dirt tracks throughout the United States and Canada participate.
Cole drove dirt Coupes when he got out of high school and is a long time dirt racing and Utica-Rome Speedway devotee. He sponsored Modifieds driven by Paul Jensen for about 15 years. Jenson won four Utica-Rome track championships in 1989, 1990, and 1992-93.
Under Cole’s leadership, the entire facility has been in constant upgrade and improvement programs.
“We’re fortunate to have tremendous employees and more equipment that most tracks,” Cole said. “We keep the track in shape. We put the fans first. We have fresh flowers and attendants in the restrooms. The first green flag falls at five minutes to six and we’re done by between 9-9:30 p.m.”
Utica-Rome Speedway operates on Sunday evenings and NASCAR Division I will be dirt Modifieds. Other weekly divisions include Sportsman, Pro Stocks, and Pure Stocks.
The relationship between NASCAR and Utica-Rome Speedway pre-dates the modern era NASCAR Whelen All-American Series that began in 1982. The track was NASCAR-sanctioned 1961-75, 1978, and 1994-98.
During the 1960s and 1970s Utica-Rome was a hotbed for pavement NASCAR racing, and home track for several NASCAR stars in the NASCAR Sportsman Division (now the NASCAR Nationwide Series) and the pre-tour NASCAR Modified Division.
The track’s 1961 inaugural season champion Rene Charland also won track titles in 1962 and 1964. In the same time frame he also won four consecutive NASCAR Sportsman Division championships 1962-65. He also placed in the top-10 in NASCAR Modified division points in 1967 and 1970. Lou Lazzaro won Utica-Rome championships in 1963 and 1970-71. During the span of his track titles Lazzaro was also a top-10 driver in national points in both the NASCAR Sportsman and Modified divisions.
Utica-Rome Speedway may be best known as the home track for NASCAR Modified division national champions Richie Evans and Jerry Cook. Both drivers were based in Rome, N.Y., about 20 minutes from the track. Their last of up to five national point race nights of the week was usually Utica-Rome’s Sunday night events.
Evans won nine national championships and four Utica-Rome track championships. Cook won six national championships and the 1969 Utica-Rome track championship.
“We were racing 90 nights a year back then and Utica-Rome was always the last race of the weekend. I could race there Sunday and be home in time to see the 11 o’clock news and sleep in my own bed,” Cook said.
“The competition was thick and Utica-Rome was a tight track,” Cook said. “If you could run outside you could go to the front. We were running four laps a minute. We ran 30 lap features so you just set sail. Whoever got to the front first was going to win.”
The track has gone through many transitions. It was originally a quarter-mile paved oval 1961-62. It was expanded to a third-mile 1963-1972. The track was repaved in June 1972 and the backstretch was pushed out an additional 15 feet to create a slightly larger third-mile. It retained that configuration through 1978. In 1979, the track was enlarged and remodeled to .625-mile dirt track and in 1989 it evolved into today’s half-mile dirt track.
For a time the track was renamed New Utica-Rome Speedway and joined the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series 1994-98. Young Dale Planck of Homer, N.Y., established himself as a star in dirt Modifieds during the period.
Planck won three consecutive NASCAR regional championships racing at Utica-Rome 1994-96. He won track championships there in 1994-95 and 1997. The other two drivers to win track NASCAR Whelen All-American Series championships were Mitch Gibbs (1996) and J.J. Michaels (1998).
In 2013, Plank competed in about 50 percent of available races at Utica-Rome. He was winless but posted two top-fives and three top-10s.
The track’s 2013 champions include Stewart Friesen, Modifieds; Matt Janczuk, Sportsman; Tom Denton, Pro Stocks; and Ron Hawker, Pure Stocks.
The track’s website is www.uticaromespeedway.com.
Historic Utica-Rome Speedway, a half-mile clay oval in Vernon, N.Y., joins the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series in 2014. Courtesy Utica-Rome Speedway.