When families plan a night out in the summer, they usually think of the usual options - movies, miniature golf, concerts, sporting events.
One event they usually overlook is stock car racing.
The Capital Region is lucky to have four dirt tracks, all with unique features, located in its boundaries. Albany-Saratoga Speedway in Malta and Glen Ridge Motorsports Park, located just outside of Fultonville, run on Friday nights. Fonda Speedway, located at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in Fonda, and Lebanon Valley Speedway, on Route 20 halfway between Albany and Pittsfield, Mass., are the Saturday night venues.
If you're new to dirt track racing, each track has its own identity. At one time, Albany-Saratoga Speedway was one of the few businesses on Route 9 in Malta. It's now in one of the fastest-growing areas in the region. The 4/10ths-mile oval sits in a little depression, giving fans a view of the entire track.
Glen Ridge, the newest track in the area, is what's know as a "bullring." At just one-quarter-mile, it's small and demanding, forcing drivers to main their focus every second they're on the track. There's never a dull moment.
Fonda Speedway is steeped in history. After opening in 1953, the one-half mile "Track of Champions" has been the Saturday night home of a large number of future Hall of Famers, and families have occupied the same sections in the historic covered grandstands for over 60 years.. At one time, the track also had a dragstrip down the middle of the infield. Shirley "Cha Cha" Muldowney of Schenectady began her drag racing career on that strip of asphalt.
Lebanon Valley is known as the "House of Speed." At 5/8th of a mile and with high-banked corners, The Valley produces mild-boggling speeds and nail-biting action on a weekly basis. Lebanon Valley also has the area's highest-paying race each season, with the winner of Mr. Dirt Track USA taking home $17,500.
Admission for a regular night of racing varies from track to track, but is family-friendly, ranging from $10-12 for adults, and $2 for children (usually established at 11 and under ). Racing usually starts at 7 p.m. and a regular show runs about four hours. Each track also has its own website, which can be very helpful in planning a night out.
The tracks also offer a family section, where no alcohol is allowed.
There are a couple of things to remember before a night at a dirt track: You will get dirty, to some extent. Although the tracks are groomed to keep dust to a minimum, it's impossible to keep a track dust-free. It's a good idea not to wear white. Also, these cars, especially the "modifieds," which are the premier division at each track, are loud. Stop at a novelty stand at a track and pick up a set of cheap, foam rubber earplugs if you don't want your head to be buzzing the next morning.
If you're running a little late, don't worry about it. Every track runs qualifying "heat races" before the main events are held later in the evening. And all four tracks have fully stocked concession stands, featuring items like chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, popcorn and soft drinks, if someone in our group gets hungry.
Not only is the family atmosphere prevelant in the stands, it's also prominent on the tracks, as well. Drivers like Ronnie Johnson, who competes at Albany-Saratoga on Friday and Fonda on Saturdays, and Keith Flach, whose weekend menu features Albany-Saratoga and Lebanon Valley, are following in the footsteps of both their grandfathers and fathers in their pursuit of dirt track excellence.
So if you're looking for something a little out of the ordinary, try a night at the races. Like escargot, it's an acquired taste. But one night at the races has turned many casual spectators into lifelong fans.