It takes a special person to be a successful promoter.
A promoter has to be part businessman, part showman, part madman, part dirt farmer (hey, he’s got to know how to massage a clay racing surface) . . . the list goes on and on.
But there are two things all good promoters always have to be — stubborn and hard-headed.
“Yeah, that was Ralph,” chuckled Hall of Fame driver Dave Lape.
Ralph was Ralph Compani, the longtime Fonda promoter who died Sunday at age 78 in California, where he relocated many years ago with his wife, Mary. Compani didn’t have the business acumen of Lebanon Valley promoter Howard Commander, or the determination to save racers from themselves, as the late C.J. Richards did when he banned big blocks from the Champlain Valley Racing Association in 1985.
But Compani loved Fonda Speedway, and even though his stubbornness and hard-headedness came back to bite him on many occasions, he and partner Seymour Hayes took the Track of Champions through many good years.
Compani and Hayes were part of the triumvirate, with Compani’s brother Ron, that took over operation of Fonda in 1980. Several years later, when Ron Compani’s spending habits (he wasn’t afraid to offer appearance money to out-of-state drivers to get them to attend his big races) were putting the track in a financial bind, Ralph Compani and Hayes voted Ron Compani out, and the triumvirate became a duo. Fonda Speedway Inc., under the direction of Ralph Compani, would run the race track until 1997.
Ralph Compani rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. I can’t tell you the number of times he told me, “I don’t need you at my race track, Boggie.” Built like a linebacker, he didn’t walk around the facility — he strode. and if he was coming in your direction and shouting your name, your first impulse was, “Oh, xxxx, what did I do now?”
During his tenure at Fonda, it wasn’t unusual to see drivers pack up and head out to race somewhere else. And a lot of times, they were just fed up with Compani.
One of those drivers was Hall of Famer Mike Romano, who pulled the plug after getting disqualified for being light after winning the modified feature on opening night in 1994.
“To this day, no one knows if I was illegal or not,” said
Romano earlier this week. “That’s when DIRT has different weights for the different engines. I went across the scales, got the thumbs up, went to victory lane, everything. Then I went back to the pits and they were taking my name off the board and said I was light.
“No one bothered to check my engine. To this day, no one knows what motor I had in the car.
“A couple of days later, I went in to talk to Ralph. He told me I was light, and I told him, ‘You guys don’t know the rules. If you don’t do something to straighten this out, I’m going to Canada.’
“He said to me, ‘Let me draw you a map.’ I told him I didn’t need a map. I didn’t race there again for almost three years.
“But you know what? When I came back for the last couple races of his last year there, he shook my hand, and told me he was glad I was back. But if he had just straightened it out in the first place, I never would have left.”
It was probably Compani’s stubbornness that cost him the lease to Fonda Speedway. After 17 years of running the track, he was playing the loyalty card, and figured the Montgomery County Fair Board would never accept someone else’s bid. But when Ric Lucia offered a lot more than Compani was paying, and Compani refused to match the offer, Lucia was in and Compani was out.
He smacked his biggest home run in the first “Thunder Along the Mohawk” race in the mid-1990s. Fans started lining up early in the afternoon at the ticket booths, and by the time race cars were to go on the track, fans were being shuttled across the track into the infield because the grandstands were packed. Jack Johnson won the top prize of $15,000, and fans still talk about that night.
Ralph Compani loved to be around drivers and fans, and his entourage (along with his booming laugh) was a familiar sight around the watering holes in Fulton and Montgomery counties.
“He was a hard head,” said Lape. “But when they had Dave Lape Night for me a couple of years ago, he came back for it and that meant a lot to me. A bunch of us got together and had a great time.”
That was Ralph.
I read a story the other day that my old buddy, Ballston Spa Chief of Police Charlie Koenig, is going to retire.
During the late 1990s, Koenig used to blow off steam by driving a hobby stock at Albany-Saratoga Speedway. When he started, he had more ambition than talent, but he eventually got better, and won a feature on July 3, 1998. Not sure if that was the first, last and only, but I’m positive of that one.
Now that he’s got more time on his hands, maybe it’s time to get a four-cylinder and head back to Malta.
AROUND THE TRACKS
Three of the local tracks will be honoring military personnel, both active and retired, this weekend. Glen Ridge Motorsports Park and Fonda Speedway will be offering free admission to military personnel with ID, while Lebanon Valley has a half-off deal for admission. (Albany-Saratoga has a Military Night scheduled for later in the year).
In addition, the Patriot Sprint group will be running at Albany-Saratoga tonight and at Fonda Saturday.
The Patriot Sprints have never been to Fonda, but it’s likely they’ll have a familar face with them, Defending modified champion Stewart Friesen, who is now racing at Orange County Speedway on Saturday nights, has a ride in both a modified and his wife Jessica’s sprint car Saturday. He’s got an opening in his schedule because Orange County isn’t running modifieds this weekend.
The Johnson brothers pulled off a pretty cool daily double last Friday night, with Marc winning the modified feature at Albany-Saratoga, and Chris taking the checkered flag in the sportsman feature.
“This one is for my dad, for sure,” said Chris in victory lane, referring to his father Brett, who died during the winter. “I was hoping I would get one for him.”
Marc Johnson’s win was his second of the year, and came from a 19th starting position, meaning he had to pass a slew of top-notch drivers.