Stock car racing: Commander earns spot in Hall of Fame

In his 44 years as promoter of Lebanon Valley Speedway, Howard Commander has rubbed elbows with some

In his 44 years as promoter of Lebanon Valley Speedway, Howard Commander has rubbed elbows with some of the most influential people in dirt track racing.

And he’s watched as many of his drivers, car owners, crew chiefs and even his own officials have been inducted into various halls of fame.

In August, Commander will finally get the recognition he deserves, when he receives the Lenny H. Sammons Outstanding Service Award during the DIRTCar Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.

“It’s an honor,” said Commander Thursday.

But then he added, with his usual candor, “I feel a little slighted over it because I’ve been one of the most active promoters in the country and the powers that be out there didn’t let my name come up [for nomination.]”

Commander is synonymous with Lebanon Valley, but he said, “I’ve been involved in tracks and kept tracks going that you wouldn’t know the names of even if I told you. I was an owner of Lancaster Speedway and never set foot in the place. But that really doesn’t matter. I have helped the sport and given back to the sport.”

But promoting stock car racing wasn’t Commander’s first job. He graduated from what was then called Albany State with degrees in business and education, and went into teaching at the old Philip Schuyler High School in Albany.

“I was a school teacher for a while, but then it got a little hectic,” he said. “There was too much pressure, so I decided to be a stock car promoter.”

Commander’s uncle, Lou Spanier, was running Lebanon Valley at the time, and it was only natural for Commander to become part of the family business.

“I had been in the stock car business since I was 8 or 10 years old,” he said. “I grew up in it.”

His acute business sense, and the fact that he wasn’t afraid to take risks, made Commander one of the most successful promoters in the Northeast, if not the country.

“When Earl Baltes ran his $1 million [to win] event at Eldora [in 2000], he asked me not to outdo him,” said Commander. “He said I was the only promoter in the country who could outdo him, and I agreed not to. But who knows now?

“I make deals, and I make money,” he said simply. “I’m good at making money. I’m better at it than I was 30 years ago, but I’ve been cheated and I’ve been hoodwinked more than most human beings can imagine, and I don’t get cheated and I don’t get hoodwinked anymore.

“I’ve also diversified. I got involved in the Fun Park in East Greenbush. I look for good preferred stocks, things that have a chance to make money.”

Making money is why Commander can survive when many other promoters have opted out. He figures that with the last two Saturdays getting rained out (and the prospect for a third this weekend), he could lose in the neighborhood of $20,000.

“If you had told me 30 years ago that after three rainouts, we’d be behind $20,000 to $30,000, I’d have never believed it,” he said. “But things like taxes, electric bills, full-time help don’t stop because it rains on Saturday.

“We’ve come to another crossroad. We’ve been at a crossroad before, when motors were costing $20,000 and everyone thought the sky was falling. Now, motors cost $40,000 to $50,000. Those who come out of this black hole we’re in now will be strong.

“The bottom line is, drivers and owners can’t afford to compete anymore, and promoters can’t afford [day-to-day expenses], but we all keep doing it.”

Robin Yasinsac Gillespie, an area columnist who concentrated on Lebanon Valley and Albany-Saratoga for years, will receive one of two Gater Racing Photo News Women in Racing Awards. The drivers being inducted are Lloyd Hold, Charlie Rudolph and Mike Colsten.

The induction ceremonies will take place on Wednesday, Aug. 6.

Big win for Stone

Nick Stone has won a lot of features since he began racing in the pro stock division in 1998, when he was 16 years old.

But on Friday night, he achieved a milestone in his career, recording his first win at Albany-Saratoga Speedway.

Stone, a graduate of Schalmont High School, has had most of his success at Fonda Speedway, where he’s got 29 career wins, including one three weeks ago, when he got credit for a victory after Ivan Joslin was disqualified for having an illegal distributor.

Series Delayed

The wet weather is also taking a toll on Devil’s Bowl in Fair Haven, Vt.

Devil’s Bowl was scheduled to begin its new Kart Racing Series on Sunday, but that’s been postponed because of wet grounds.

The targeted opening date is now Sunday, June 1.

A new one-seventh-mile asphalt karting track was paved in November with final construction — including several improvements focused on safety — planned for late April. A hard winter and wet spring have left the grounds at and near the kart track saturated and unsuitable for heavy construction equipment to work without causing damage to both the karting track and the half-mile stock car track.

Around the tracks

Robbie Speed finished second to Stone last Friday at Albany-Saratoga, but was disqualified for having a drilled axle.

The Empire Lightning Sprints will be on tonight’s Kids’ Night card at Albany-Saratoga.

Weather permitting, Fonda Speedway will also be holding Kids’ Night on Saturday, and the modifieds at Lebanon Valley will be racing for $4,000 to win.

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