Now that the holidays are officially behind us, we normally take this time to look forward to the upcoming racing season. I always like to reflect back on last season too for many reasons. While looking back I often see some signs of what to expect the new season to bring. This time around those signs make me both nervous and optimistic. The good news is that throughout the 2017 season car counts and crowds remained strong at most tracks. The fields of cars also grew more competitive with the exception of Street Stocks at Hilltop. Even with that exception, the number of Street Stocks did start to climb back up from the dismal numbers we saw midseason. With some changes being made in that division for 2018, I hope to see this class return to a show worth staying late into the night to see. At Hilltop alone the Late Models have really stepped up the game. Sure Corey Conley still seems to stand out and run out front but lately he's had plenty of company up there. It's no longer a done deal when Corey starts up front. The return of George Lee in a borrowed ride was just one of the examples of threats to win on any given night. Other guys such as Hottinger, Misel, Wolford, and Hornikle are weekly regulars that have put on great shows fighting for a win. The Modifieds have remained very strong at Hilltop for years and 2017 showed some very promising signs also. This division is well known for 3 and even 4 wide battles for the lead and in 2017 even more drivers were capable of pulling off the win. It was great to see Wardell, Kline, Lee, and others fight their way to the top of the field. George Lee even brought home a hard fought championship in the Modified owned by Tom Conley. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy!
Towards the end of the season rumors always fly, and I'm very happy to see one of them actually come true this time. Buck Smitley is always looking for ways to improve the show for racers and fans at Hilltop. Hell, he's often looking for ways to support other tracks to improve shows for all involved. That's not nearly as common as it once was, and very refreshing to see. For 2018 Buck will make a huge leap in that direction by switching to Friday nights for weekly shows. This move should help give drivers and fans the opportunity to support more than just one track every weekend. The already strong fields of cars should only improve at Hilltop and elsewhere with this change. Bigger and better fields of cars at any track means more fans in the stands of course, but more importantly it improves the health of the sport overall.
The health and future of this sport is exactly what has honestly made me a bit nervous the past couple of seasons. There's more than a couple reasons for this. In recent years we've seen some very seasoned drivers, track owners, and even track staff walk away from the weekly racing scene. Having the chance to talk to many of these folks I've seen a pattern. Every one of them has said that racing isn't what it once was and that the fun for them is all but gone. Sure, the costs and other factors played a role in their decisions but that one thing really stood out to me. That's probably because I have also had those same thoughts the past couple of years and I was somewhat surprised that so many shared that opinion. So what the hell went wrong? For me, it started with the attitudes of so many of the younger generation which slowly spread to some of the older ones too. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of young drivers with talent and just plain love the opportunity to race. There are also plenty of younger fans that understand the rules and do their best to support racing in many ways. However, dealing with the ones that feel the world revolves around them and that they should be catered to no matter what really sucks to put it bluntly. From racers wanting to fight over any call, even the right call, to the keyboard cowboys that rush to social media to bitch and whine while sitting at the track, may of us older folks aren't exactly wild about the "new normal". It's not too late to clean things up but it's gonna take some work and the right people to do it. Track owners will need to do a better job of educating racers and fans about the rules and procedures a well as what will be accepted and not accepted. You can't stop all the ugliness and I get that, but allowing things to get out of hand in the pits. grandstands, and on the track will only fuel the fires. Quick and decisive action against those involved is the only way to stop it. I'm old enough to remember when racers showed up to battle each other on the track, not to do battle with track owners and officials. Fans came to see good rivalries, not fights and crybabies. I never heard the Wirt brothers, Jim Gentry or others of that generation crying about less than perfect track conditions. They knew they would all be racing on the same surface and that they were there to try to out drive each other. Drivers and fans would actually take their concerns/complaints to the track owners or staff so they could actually be addressed. I sure miss those days.
That brings me to the "end of an era" part of the story. With more and more of the older generation either walking away from racing or at least stepping back a bit from it, I feel that a bit of what made racing in this area so great is quickly slipping away. Those folks have been around long enough to see the good times as well as the ugly times and have the wisdom to avoid making mistakes of the past. With the loss of Jeff Norris in 2017 we lost one of the few guys out there willing to risk everything to bring a track back from the dead just for the love of the sport. Jeff was probably the best track owner I've ever worked with and a very good friend. More importantly, he wasn't looking for fame or fortune by bringing Hilltop back to life. He wanted to give the racers and fans a great place to enjoy racing even knowing the sacrifices he would face. I've seen plenty of folks that thought they had the best plans to run a track but lacked the backbone to follow through. Jeff sure as hell wasn't one of those guys. Speaking of great track owners, Paul Miller brought back Deerfield Raceway years ago and turned it into the most family friendly track I've ever visited. He worked tirelessly to put on a smooth fast paced show each week that included racers of all ages. By the end of the 2017 season Paul had also decided that he'd had all the fun he could handle and sold the track. Don Sharpless is the new owner and has big plans for the future of the track. Let's hope he can have the level of success that Paul and his family have had there.
An huge loss to the racing community at the end of the 2017 season was the retirement of Ed Fredrick. Ed has been working as a flagman and/or race director for over 40 years and has served each of the local tracks at one time or another. He's the man that drug my ass onto the flag stand for the first time and it was a true pleasure to work with him. One of the highlights of each season working with him was the opportunity to share the flag stand at least a couple times with his father, Earl. Earl stretched his career on the flag stand to over 60 years. Now that's a family that has dedicated more than most to the racing community folks! Filling those shoes will be nearly impossible. Ed tells me he's looking forward to getting to a few different tracks this year just to take in the show for once. Hopefully this will return the fun in racing for him. After all that he's given to racing over the years, he certainly deserves to enjoy himself. I'll sure miss being the first one to give him the finger each night, but he has earned this retirement. So Ed, go have your fun with the grandkids and such, but I still hope to see ya at some track this year Prick! ;-)