VERNON, N.Y. (WKTV) - For the first time since 1998, the Utica-Rome Speedway is once again affiliated with NASCAR, as a part of the racing giant's Whelen All-American Series. The 53 year old track is also a member of NASCAR's "Home Tracks" and opened its 2014 season on April 27. The track was NASCAR-sanctioned from its opening in 1961 through 1975, then again in 1978, as well as from 1994-1998.
The "Home of Heroes" is most well-known as being the home track of NASCAR Hall of Famer Richie Evans, whose number 61 is retired at the track, along with the #38 of another racing legend, Jerry Cook.
These days Stewart Friesen is the reigning king, having won the last four Modified Series titles, as well as six overall since his first in 2004. The native of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario races at several tracks, but calls Utica-Rome home.
"It's fun, you've got the best of the best teams here," Friesen told NEWSChannel 2 during the track's second night of racing, on Mother's Day. "It's just a big fast racing track. A lot of the places we go are small, one lane and it's tough. With this place, you're here on a Sunday. It's three, four wide. If you do your work during the week, prepare a good car there's not too many excuses why you can't get to the front."
Friesen is an up and coming dirt track star and draws a big crowd to U-R, as do his competitiors, of which there are many.
"We have a rabid fan base, they look forward to it every week," says Race Director John Tiff. "We have some of the best drivers in dirt modified racing right now racing weekly, with Stewart Friesen, Matt Shepard, Pat Ward, Larry White. Mike Maheny's another up and comer, they put on great shows here week in and week out."
Since 2002, Gene Cole has been the owner of the track and has worked to constantly improve the Speedway and he says that rejoining with NASCAR was a key to its continuing evolution.
"Most tracks don't have any participant health insurance or they have $50,000-$100,000. By taking on NASCAR, they have a $1,050,000. I've been in the insurance business 52 years." Cole helped form Gates-Cole Insurance, which is a sponsor for the track. "I'm into that, but I'm into this for the drivers. This is my country club. I don't play golf."
So you could say that rejoining with NASCAR is a "hole in one" for the drivers at Utica-Rome. Not just in the coverage, but in the competition as well. Drivers at the "Home of Heroes" will not only compete with those from around the state, but all over the country.
"We're actually ranked in a regional and national point system with guys who race down south, late models and pavement stuff," says Friesen. "It's prettty cool. At the end of the year, we'll see how we all shake out. Hopefully we'll have some bonus money up for grabs."
Fans have plenty of time to check out the action at the track, with races every Sunday throughout the summer, as well as a few other special attractions on other days.
For more information on the Utica-Rome Speedway, head to the track's official website.
You can learn more about NASCAR's Whelen All-American Series here.