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Life in the fast lane: A night at Albany-Saratoga Speedway

Life in the fast lane: A night at Albany-Saratoga Speedway

The power! The passion! The pride! Race car fans at Albany-Saratoga Speedway know all three.
Life in the fast lane: A night at Albany-Saratoga Speedway
Race cars in the Sportsman Division swerve into a turn at Albany-Saratoga Speedway in Malta on a recent Friday night.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

The power! The passion! The pride!

Race car fans at Albany-Saratoga Speedway know all three. Every Friday night during the spring, summer and early autumn, drivers conduct a symphony of acceleration.

Pick your own description for the sound of a dozen cars in heavy rotation: 50 billion angry hornets in your back yard; 100 lawn mowers revving in your living room; a roaring Boeing 747 backing up your driveway.

There were about 3,000 people in the viewing stands on a recent Friday, 84 degrees and flecks of sandy dirt in the air once the DIRTcar modifieds, pro stock cars, midgets, sportsman and street stock began their nights in the fast lane.

For many, it was a night out. Adult admission is $10. Kids 6 through 11 pay $2 to get in.

It’s not hard to get hooked, for some people. Jeff Nelson, 53, of Amsterdam, has been one of those people for the past 50 years.

“It’s the dirt in the air and the smell of the exhaust, the smell of racing fuel, that’s the main deal for me,” said Nelson, dressed in blue jeans and an orange “2RJ” T-shirt that showed his allegiance to driver Ronnie Johnson. “When it comes to springtime and you get the first whiff of this, you’re hooked for the year. You wait all winter for this, and it’s usually a long winter.”

Like fans who follow baseball with the Tri-City ValleyCats in Troy or the horses at Saratoga Race Course, people at Albany-Saratoga dress casually and most visit the track’s concessions. Cans of Bud Light and Coors Light are $2.50 each; fans with more adventurous tastes can try Goose Island beer or Mike’s Hard Lemonade at $4 a pop.

There’s the usual smorgasbord of fast food. Hot dogs, cheeseburgers, fish fries, chicken sandwiches, Italian sausage and paper baskets full of french fries are on the menu. Buy something from the grill and leave a tip, and young cooks in blue tie-dyed shirts will respond with a “Speedway!” thank you, a gag inspired by the “Subway!” shout popular at Scotia’s Jumpin’ Jack’s drive-in.

Signals from fans

But people don’t really come for the food. Cars of all types speed down one straightaway on the 4/10th-mile track, swerve into the first turn, put the zooms back on for second straight and then swerve into the second turn. Some people stand outside the fences — two of them separate fans from motors — and give drivers the thumbs-up sign. Others will twirl their index fingers in the air, a silent signal for drivers to keep standing on the gas.

People all have their reasons for showing at 6 p.m. for warm-ups, then hanging around until 10:30 for last laps. And they’ve been doing it for years — Albany-Saratoga has been hosting stock car races since 1965.

“It’s something you either love or you hate. It’s something I grew up with,” said Rich Ringler, 43, of Troy. “It’s exciting; it’s the competition, really. And I guess you’re supporting local businesses.”

Dale Brockway, 67, of Cambridge, didn’t look like the racing type. But while she was on the job — chaperoning a group of developmentally disabled men who enjoy the cars — she knows the sport.

“I have ear plugs,” she said. “We follow NASCAR at home, so I’m not totally ignorant of racing. I know what the flagman is doing.”

Ear plugs are key for some people. Still others wear ear protection designed for industrial use — the tight-fitting covers look like stereo headphones.

Brad Hough, 38, of Ballston Spa, wore plugs, but not so much for the noise. They keep dirt out of his ears.

Clean ears, and bunches of friends in the stands, are two things Hough appreciates about Albany-Saratoga. He generally sits in the same spot, and knows his fellow motor enthusiasts.

“That makes it fun, too, and it cuts down on the beer runs,” he said. “You don’t miss as much action.”

Children and teenagers are also in the crowd. Kilee Kane, 9, and her brother Nathan, 7, of Myrtle Beach, watched a recent big show with grandfather Mark Kane of Ravena. “I like the ‘slingshots,’ ” Kilee said of the miniature racing cars. “I saw one one night and I just thought they were adorable. I want one for Christmas.”

New generation

Next to horsepower, Lyle DeVore appreciates people power. As the promoter of the Speedway shows, he especially likes to see young people watching the fast and furious action. And young people at the Speedway are Lyle’s favorite things. It can be hard to attract new fans.

“That is the number one problem in the United States, trying to attract new fans and new people,” DeVore said. “I think word of mouth is one of the biggest attributes but the most important thing is making your product as good as you can make it. If you’ve got a good product, people will come and support it.”

DeVore thinks his product is pretty good now. “It’s a great form of family entertainment that’s inexpensive, the food’s good and that’s relatively inexpensive and the racing is second to none. We’ve got the best of the best. The guys who race at all the different tracks race here on Friday night.”

And while baseball is fine and horse racing has its own thrills, DeVore thinks his sport leads the pack. “We don’t stop once we start racing, we don’t let up,” he said. “There’s a lot more action here then you’d find at other sporting events.”

Cheering sons

Theresa Conroy of Clifton Park and Andrea Johnson of Rotterdam go for the action. But they’re also cheering on favorites — sons Ken Conroy and Ronnie Johnson are on the circuit.

“Once you get into it, you’re hooked; it’s just a lot of fun,” said Conroy, 59. “Once you know who’s racing and who the players are.”

“This place gets a lot of people with kids,” added Johnson, 68. “It’s a cheap night out for a lot of good entertainment.”

Mothers know about the potential dangers in racing. But they also know their sons’ cars are built with safety features included. And the guys are experienced. “You always worry, but you have a certain amount of confidence in what they’re doing,” Conroy said. “It’s not like it’s the first time they’ve ever gotten into a car.”

Melinda Beachy, 7, of Milton was watching.

“It’s loud,” said. “I like cars and they go fast.”

The noise was one reason father Vernon Beachy was looking for ear wear. “That’s what we’re doing now, we’re trying to find ear plugs,” he said. “You’d think they’d have them around here someplace.”

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter. His blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/wilkin.

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