Every once in a while, a young driver comes along who you just want to slap a “can’t miss” tag on because of his natural ability, professional demeanor and dedication to the sport.
Ronnie Johnson fit into that category when he won the sportsman championship at Albany-Saratoga Speedway during his rookie campaign in 1997, despite racing against guys like Mike Ballestero, Tim Hartman and Scott Noel.
Hunter Bates deserved the same recognition a couple of years ago when, at the age of 16, he dominated the budget sportsman division at both Albany-Saratoga and Devil’s Bowl and was named the Champlain Valley Racing Association Driver of the Year.
And now, Jeremy Wilder gets his chance to be the next “can’t miss kid.”
Wilder, a native of Fort Plain who’s majoring in business administration at SUNY-Cobleskill, has been making headlines since he won his first race at Fonda Speedway five years ago, taking the checkered flag in a RoC Tour feature at the age of 16.
But he really showed just how good he is (and how good he’s going to be for a long time to come) when he outdueled Bobby Varin and Stewart Friesen to pick up his first career modified victory at The Ridge last Friday.
Despite a late restart, and a small miscue of his own, Wilder held off two of the best dirt track drivers in the business.
“Oh, I was 100 percent nervous,” said Wilder earlier this week. “When I bobbled, I looked around and there was two-time Syracuse champion Stewart Friesen, and however-many-time Fonda and Utica-Rome champion Bobby Varin, and here I was . . . I’m not really a rookie, but I was still looking for my first win. Yeah, I was 100 percent nervous.”
But as it turned out, for no reason, and Wilder added another chapter to his success story.
“The car made it easy for me,” he said. “It was set up so well, it basically drove itself.”
Well, it wasn’t really that easy.
“He earned that one,” said The Ridge co-promoter Mike Romano with a laugh.
Romano has watched Wilder since he was 15, when he bought his first car from Romano’s brother, A.J., and got his first taste of driving when Mike Romano used to hold a driving school at Albany-Saratoga Speedway.
Wilder was obviously a quick learner. He was the Fonda Speedway Rookie of the Year in 2006, and got his first career victory at Fonda the next season. He followed the Mr. DIRT sportsman series in 2008, and was the 358 modified rookie of the year at Super DIRT Week in 2009. That year, he also followed the Mr. DIRT 358 modified series, finishing eighth in points and earning Rookie of the Year honors.
In an age when many drivers are staying close to home, Wilder credits a lot of his success to hitting the road.
“When I ran the 358 series, that was one of the things that helped me the most,” he said. “Every week, you go to a track you’ve never been to before and you’re running against guys on their home track. You have no choice but to figure things out, and a lot of those races were between 75 and 150 laps. That really helped me get the track time I needed.”
Although all wins are important, Wilder will never forget his victory at Fulton in 2009, when he won a Mr. DIRT sportsman series race on his first visit to the track.
“That was cool,” he said. “I was driving for Jeff Jones then. We qualified, but then the race rained out. There was only me, my dad and my cousin, and we had to find a hotel for the night.
“We ended up finding a hotel about 2 in the morning and when we went back the next night for the feature, we were really dragging. But for us to win that race with just me, my dad, my cousin, and one other guy who showed up for the race, that was awesome.”
Running at The Ridge this season wasn’t really in Wilder’s plans. With Albany-Saratoga going back to a dirt surface and because he always wants to face the best competition possible, Wilder planned on spending Friday nights in Malta.
But that plan didn’t pan out.
“By the time I get home from school and guys get out of their jobs, there just isn’t time to get there,” he said. “It didn’t make sense for us to drive past The Ridge, which is about 15 minutes from my house, to drive an hour to get to Malta.”
Wilder, who drives his second family-owned car at Fonda on Saturday nights, hopes his victory last week at The Ridge is a sign of things to come.
“By beating Bobby and Stewart, maybe it will set the [tone] for the rest of the season,” he said. “Maybe I can be in contention for the championship, who knows? If I can crank out a few more wins like last week, I should be right there.”
Romano wasted no time canceling tonight’s racing card at The Ridge, pulling the plug on Thursday because of a combination of wet weather and cold temperatures.
Albany-Saratoga is still scheduled to race.
Around the tracks
u Romano is rightfully concerned about his car count after losing a number of drivers to Albany-Saratoga last week, but he’s not pushing the panic button.
“Absolutely,” he answered when asked if he was worried about his modified field, which was down to 13 cars last Friday. “But we knew that was going to be a rock-bottom night, because of all of the buzz about Malta. I’ve already talked to two or three drivers who will be coming back. Hopefully, in the next month or so, things will even out.”
u Was anyone else stunned when they saw that Lebanon Valley raced last Saturday? When I was sitting in Buffalo Wild Wings, watching the Bruins game and the rain was coming down sideways in Clifton Park at 5 p.m., I would have bet any amount of money that no one would be racing. But they ran a full show, and Brett Hearn got his second straight win in the modified feature.
u Don Ronca has renumbered his car to the No. 7 in honor of his younger brother, Mike, who died during the winter.
u Hearn, who finished third in Albany-Saratoga’s season opener last Thursday, has the distinction of winning the most opening-night features — six — at the Malta track. Jack Johnson, Bob Savoie and C.D. Coville all have four, while Ken Tremont Jr. has three.
u The CRSA sprints, rained out at Fonda last weekend, are back on the schedule at the Track of Champions Saturday.