When Ernie Saxton was 13 years old he convinced his stepfather to drive him to Reading, Pennsylvania, to watch a race at the Reading Fairgrounds Speedway.
"During the races a guy named Freddie Adams, who became a friend of mine in later years, flipped as high as a light post," Saxton said. "He did not get hurt, but I thought, ‘Man this is pretty exciting stuff. I like this.’ I’ve been going ever since."
That night, more than 60 years ago, began a life-long love for Saxton, who this summer will begin his 53rd year working at Grandview Speedway, a NASCAR-sanctioned third-mile high-banked clay oval track in Bechtelsville, Pennsylvania.
Saxton began working at the Grandview four years after it opened in 1963, and spent 45 years there announcing races. He gave up his announcing duties seven years ago, but stayed on to help with public relations and sponsor work.
"I guess I just got sort of tired of listening to my own voice," Saxton said with a laugh. "I told them about leaving as announcer and they asked me to stick around until they find somebody else. That was seven years ago and apparently they haven’t found anyone yet so I’m still doing that."
Saxton has never not been busy in his more than a half-century following racing. He started following his cousin, who worked for National Speed Sport News, and Saxton began writing for the publication himself when he was around 17 years old. From there he did PR work for various tracks, including Grandview, while working full-time in marketing for a book publishing company.
It was a chance night while covering a race at Atlantic City Speedway in New Jersey when Saxton added announcer to his résumé . The track’s regular announcer was unable to come to work that night, and officials asked Saxton if he would fill in given his knowledge of all the drivers.
"I said no," he said. "When I was in school you couldn’t even get me to stand up and do a book report so there’s no way I’m going to announce in front of a couple thousand people.
"And they said, ‘Nobody will be paying attention to you. You’ll be standing way up in the tower, no one will know you’re there.’ So finally I said O.K., I’ll give it a try."
His new career almost ended as quickly as it began, though.
"I’m up there and here they come out of the fourth turn, side by side, wheel to wheel, watching the action, and a bug crawled in my mouth," Saxton said. "I almost choked to death. And all these couple of thousands of people turn around at this guy who is coughing and choking to death and all this stuff.
"So when it was all over I said, ‘Well I guess I could do some more of this.’ "
That night in Atlantic City was the first of, Saxton estimates, more than 150 tracks across the country where he announced a race, including thousands of races at Grandview. At one time he was announcing races five nights a week while still working a full-time job. Grandview, Saxton said, was often holding races on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday nights.
"Now I look back at that and I say, ‘How the hell did I survive that?’" he said. "It’s a good thing I was young and energetic and all that."
About 30 years ago, Saxton said his wife saw all the work was starting to get to him, so she made him choose – either give up racing and commit to his marketing career, or quit his full-time job and go all-in with racing.
While he said he’s always been proud of becoming the director of marketing for a company without having a college degree, the pull towards the racetrack was too much for him to leave.
"So I took a swing at it and gave up the full-time job and I’ve done fairly well," he said. "I haven’t starved to death since then."
Saxton has continued writing about racing, producing weekly columns for different publications, and this year was his 52nd straight trip to cover the Daytona 500.
But no matter where he’s traveled, he’s always been drawn back to his home track in Pennsylvania. It’s a place where he said he and the track grew together, and he thanks Grandview’s founders, the Rogers family and the late Bruce Rogers, with giving him his first opportunity in the sport.
"I remember going to that speedway for the first time, walking up to the main gate and they were selling tickets off a kitchen table for $2 apiece and I thought, ‘What have I got myself into here?’" he said.
"I’ve been involved, helped them make some decisions, but the track, it’s a down-home atmosphere. Without the Rogers family giving me the opportunity that they did to be part of their track and their growth and everything to become, what I consider, one of the most successful weekly short track operations in the country, I don’t know if I would have gotten to the point where I am these days."
Even seven years after he technically retired, Saxton still feels the love every time he steps in the gate.
"When you’re dealing with people like those that race at Grandview, they’re down to earth, most of them are easy to get along with, they appreciate the media coverage they get," Saxton said. "Not just the people that are active in the sport. The fans in the stands. It’s a joy to walk in the track and have people walk up and say, ‘Hey Ernie, how are you doing? I read your column.’
"One of these days I’m probably just going to say, ‘Hey have you found that person to take my place yet? It’s been seven years’. … As people tell me, that’s a testament that they believe in what you do."
Grandview Speedway has postponed all races through the month of April due to the coronavirus pandemic. The next scheduled race is on May 2, with Modifieds and Sportsmen at 7:30 p.m.