A new era is about to begin at Albany-Saratoga Speedway.
When the gates open Sunday for a preseason practice session, it will mark the first time since 1977 that the Richards family hasn’t been involved in the day-to-day operations of the historic track on Route 9 in Malta.
C.J. Richards, who died in February, took over the operation of Albany-Saratoga Speedway in 1977, and it’s been a family-run business ever since. But Richards, who also built Devil’s Bowl Speedway in 1966, had been in failing health for a number of years, and last summer, decided to put both speedways up for sale.
Devil’s Bowl was purchased by Mike Bruno, and Lebanon Valley promoter Howie Commander signed a two-year lease to run Albany-Saratoga.
The Richards family converted both Champlain Valley Racing Association tracks to asphalt for the 2010 season, but the first thing Commander did when he took over Albany-Saratoga was switch it back to dirt.
Lyle DeVore, who is also the general manager at Lebanon Valley, will be running the show at Albany-Saratoga, and probably running himself ragged at the same time.
Since putting the clay back down on the speedway last fall, DeVore, who turned 40 in July, has done little else but prepare Albany-Saratoga for its season opener, which will include back-to-back nights of racing on Thursday and next Friday.
“We’ve had a couple bumps in the road, but nothing catastrophic,” DeVore said this week between fielding phone calls. “I’ve been doing everything here, from hiring help to aligning sponsorships to grooming the race track.”
DeVore has actually come full circle in his career, as one of his first jobs was working on Albany-Saratoga’s Saturday morning “garbage patrol” when he was 7 years old. After graduating from Le Moyne College with a degree in business, he’s worked at Ransomville, Lancaster, Fulton, Utica-Rome, Albany-Saratoga, Devil’s Bowl and Lebanon Valley speedways.
He should know what he’s doing by now, especially when it comes to preparing a racing surface.
“I feel confident about that,” he said. “It’s not one of those I-can’t-sleep-at-night race tracks. The track seems to be solid, but we’ll know for sure on Sunday.”
Gates will open at noon on Sunday, with the track open for practice from 3-7 p.m. Grandstand admission is free, and pit admission will be $15 for any car.
The racing season will begin on Thursday, with modifieds, budget sportsman and four-cylinders on the card. Then, next Friday, the modifieds will return, running 35 laps for $2,500 to win, and the card will also include pro stocks and street stocks. Racing both nights will begin at 7.
Albany-Saratoga will be sanctioned by DIRTcar this season, the second time the track has run under the DIRT banner. The first time was 1984, the last season that big blocks ran at the track.
Although NASCAR banners were still prominent on Thursday, DeVore said they’ll be down by Sunday, and he hopes to have a VIP tent up for the Thursday opener. The 20-by-80 tent will be situated off the fourth turn, to the left of the grandstands, and will include big screen televisions for closed-circuit viewing of the races.
Other subtle changes will be in place next week. Draft beer at the concessions stands has been replaced with canned beer, and there is no longer an alcohol-free family section in the grandstands (“We have limited seating, and we’ve got to make the most of what we have,” said DeVore).
A pizza oven has been added to the main concession equipment, expanding the race-night menu.
One thing that DeVore won’t speculate on is car counts, or what drivers will be making their Friday night home at Albany-Saratoga.
“I’m positive we’ll have good fields in all divisions, but we won’t know for sure until next Friday,” he said.
One interested spectator at Sunday’s practice will Mike Romano, co-promoter of The Ridge.
“I want to see how the track holds up,” he said.
Around the tracks
• Rarely does an unheralded outsider come in and win a big race at Fonda Speedway, but Mike Mahaney broke that rule last Saturday.
The 22-year-old from King Ferry, which is located a couple of miles east of Cayuga Lake, held off Fonda veteran Matt DeLorenzo to win the 40-lap “Ice Jam” and its top prize of $4,000.
“Nobody knows who I am,” said Mahaney in victory lane. “We just came here today to try out this Finger Lakes motor. I just can’t believe it.”
Fonda will be running its first point races of the season Saturday, with all divisions in action.
• Romano admitted The Ridge was a little rough last Friday, with some of the new clay not adhering to the old surface as well as he would have liked, but he is con-fident the kinks will be worked out tonight, when racing resumes. Stewart Friesen, who won the modified opener, has made it clear that he’ll be spending the season at The Ridge, and Matt Sheppard will be in the Friday night field until Brewerton, his regular Friday night track, opens for the season.
Sheppard didn’t make the feature last week, suffering engine problems during his heat race.
Tim Hartman Jr., won the sportsman feature at The Ridge, the second straight season he’s been in victory lane on opening night. Hartman, who picked up his first career victory in the budget sportsman division at Albany-Saratoga Speedway in 2009, finished third in the sportsman point race at Leb-anon Valley last season.
• Lebanon Valley will begin its 60th season of racing Saturday, with the modifieds running for $3,000 to win.