Four old sets of wooden, school gym bleachers have sat next to the track at Dodge City Speedway for more years than promoter Paul Montenaro has been here.
The bleachers, which serve as grandstands for the go-kart track Montenaro and his family have worked for the last four decades, are the type that could fold up against a gymnasium wall, if they hadn’t long ago settled into the grassy ground near the front stretch. They’re part of the land, now.
As much a part of this parcel of land, the Montenaro family has kept this one-eighth-mile track running over the last 40 summers, some of them long and lean summers, to keep the sport alive for the region’s young racers.
In the early 1970s, several of the Montenaro brothers were racing go-karts. They opened a track at their parents’ home, but that soon closed, and it was looking like Dodge City Speedway may do the same.
“We didn’t want to see the track close,” Andy Montenaro said.
“We had 12 go-karts and no place to race them,” added Paul Montenaro.
“Right, because the people who were promoting it, Gail Tyler and Jim Lighthall, they were getting ready to quit,” Andy said. “They were going to let the place go. So he [Paul] stepped in. Our track got closed at our parents’ house, and we just walked into this one.”
The official celebration of the Montenaros’ 40th year promoting go-kart racing at the track will be July 18.
Andy Montenaro is in charge of the concessions stand, and he calls the races over a public address system that broadcasts to the bleachers and into the pits.
On top of serving as promoter, Paul is involved in the weekly upkeep of the track and surrounding grounds.
Brothers John, Jim and Anthony, sister Marilyn and several of their spouses all do their part each week, too.
“Everyone chips in,” Paul Montenaro said.
He said Ed Feuz, the first promoter at Fonda Speedway, also chipped in, helping push the track out from its original small oval to its current distance. Two more sets of bleachers were added over the years, some of the fencing replaced and the lighting upgraded a few times.
Andy’s son, Josh, works on his kart alongside his uncle Anthony, who got the bug again recently and runs in the 35-and-older division. Both their karts feature a memorial photo of the Montenaros’ parents, who got the boys into racing.
Local DIRT circuit driver Ronnie Johnson cut his teeth at Dodge City Speedway in a similar setting. His uncle Jeff Johnson, youngest brother of his father, Jack Johnson, was also racing there when Ronnie started as a 10-year-old.
“It was a great, well-run facility,” Ronnie Johnson said. “I can still smell the smell of the two-cycle engines we ran at the time, and the noise of the go-karts. It brings back a lot of memories. All in all, it was a good time as a kid. My uncle Jeff was my mentor, and he was a role model for me as my racing career developed. It all started there with him.
“It’s pretty neat to hear they’re still there and running the go-kart races and teaching the young kids the grass roots of racing. Paul’s put his life into that place.”
Ronnie Johnson went on to earn Rookie of the Year in the modified division at Super Dirt Week in Syracuse in 1999. Now he races at Albany-Saratoga and Fonda speedways, and he has won at Lebanon Valley, Utica-Rome and Devils Bowl. In 2011, he was the track champ at Fonda.
He gives a lot of the credit for his success to the start he got at Dodge City.
“Driving it and racing it are just a piece of it,” he said. “The fundamentals of racing, I learned there. I learned a lot from my father, as well. I remember the nights my father would come, he would make me watch some of the older drivers race, watch their lines, how they handled the kart, how they entered the corners. That was the beginning of it. I think anyone who dreams of racing a stock car some day should start out in a go-kart. There’s a lot of fundamentals you can learn there.”
Guilderland native and Albany Academy sophomore Bryce Cherko is learning them now. The 15-year-old started driving here four years ago and said he hopes to have a future in racing.
He didn’t finish out in front in his Junior II Advanced division, but he’ll be back again to try to climb to the top of the points race.
“They’re friendly people,” Cherko said. “It’s close to my house, and the track is good. They do a really good job taking care of it; you can go pretty fast on it. Since I started here, I want to keep going here.”
The motto the Montenaros chose for the track is “Where tomorrow’s racers are born today,” and the track has lived up to that saying. From the Johnsons to Jeff Trombley to sprint car driver Jessica Zemken and many others, the track has been the launching point for some accomplished drivers.
Of course, it’s not just a training ground for tomorrow’s drivers. Andy Montenaro said it’s also a place they hope people can come just to have some fun, whether they’re drivers or spectators.
“It’s always fun when I come down and the kids say, ‘My mom said you said my name over the PA!’ ” he said. “The grandparents and parents, they say, ‘You do a great job, we love to hear our grandkids’ names or this name or that name.’ We’re just trying to keep people happy. That’s what it’s all about.”
Paul Montenaro said he doesn’t see himself stepping away from the track anytime soon. He doesn’t know what he’d do with himself if he did.
He and the family have settled into the land, just like those old bleachers where Ronnie Johnson sat with his father, Jack, more than 20 years ago. The Montenaros are part of the track, the track part of the family.
“It’s something I’ve done for 40 years,” Paul Montenaro said. “I’ve actually been around it for 50. I’d be lost if I didn’t. The summers are so long if I don’t do it. I tried to garden, and that didn’t work, because I just get so bored.”