The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

August 22, 2013

Shawn Wood's Inside Track column: Fan for life


Daily Item

---- — I recall the year was 1972 that I attended my first race at the famed Flemington Fair Speedway in Flemington, N.J.

The speedway -- like those at Reading, Nazareth, Langhorne, Penn National and Harmony -- is gone. And sadly, like Reading, it was replaced by a mall.

But the memories of that hollowed ground still live on for me.

There was an aura that hung over Flemington every Saturday night. From the charge lap to the roar of two dozen 467 c.i. engines coming to life, to the dust, I can only liken it to the first time I walked into he old Yankee Stadium: mystical, magical and breathtaking.

To this day, I can remember getting ready to leave for the track and watching my dad pack our Lebanon bologna sandwiches on white bread with ketchup.

We would park across the street from the fairgrounds and while waiting for my dad to pay our way into the track, the sounds of the cars going by was very loud, but captivating, to a 5-year-old kid from Jersey.

I remember tugging on my dad's pants leg and saying, "Come on, daddy! Let's go! They're racing!"

Little did I realize that it was just warm-ups, but that sound of the ground-pounders back then was enough to make a 5-year-old want to rush in to see the cars going around the track.

To put the year of 1972 into perspective, Ryan Godown's uncle, Stan "The Man" Ploski was the track champion; Ken Brenn Jr. won the rookie title; and it would be three more years before a driver named Billy Pauch, Sr. would win the rookie title. He won the first of many modified titles at the track in 1979.

The 1972 season was also the first year the track held its inaugural 200-lap race at the end of the year which was won by the legendary Jumpin' Jack Johnson of Duanesburg, N.Y. It was the first time Johnson had ever been to or seen the track.

There's something about the feel of the ground-pounding modifieds that gets you hooked from the first time you see them.

Back then, they were still some old Coupes and Coaches racing in the early 70s, but, for the most part, the sport was changing to the look that we know today.

The 1972 season also saw the opening of the Big Diamond Raceway in the heart of the Anthracite coal region.

Six years after it opened, they held the first Coal Cracker race, a 50-lap feature won by Bob Emerich.

In two weeks, the 37th edition of the Coal Cracker takes place, and, like the days of the then Shammy Shine 200 at Flemington, it's a must-see race for modified fans.

A total of 19 drivers have won the Coal Cracker one time, and no driver has ever won the race three years in a row.

Things are looking up at Big Diamond under the direction of Jake and Jasmine Smuklley. Despite the eight rainouts this year, the car counts have been good. The idea to do extra-distance races with more pay is paying off, and they take good care of the fan base which comes from all over the Northeast for 358 modified racing on Friday night.

The Coal Cracker race also marks the beginning of the final third of the racing season for the modifieds, with Syracuse and Middletown (N.Y.) in October, and Bridgeport Speedway (N.J.) and Delaware International racing into November.

Considering that my uncle, Thomas Wood Jr. of Lost Creek, raced at Selinsgrove back in the day in his 1937 Ford Coupe before the likes of the late Lauden Potts and Mike Valencik, drove for us, it's not too hard to understand my love for the modifieds.

Each year I look forward to the Race of Champions Icebreaker weekend at Selinsgrove Speedway for modifieds. It's not just another must-see race on calendar, rather, it's a rite of spring when all is right with the world and a now 46-year-old comes alive with fire for the first sounds of the ground-pounders to fill the air and welcome in the new season.

I guess I'll always be daddy's little boy, tugging on his pants leg, anxiously waiting for it to happen.

n Shawn Wood covers motorsports for The Daily Item. Send comments to sports@dailyitem.com