June 10, 2010

ARCHIVES                                         

By Brian Danko

STAFFORD, CT----Since the inception of the NASCAR modified tour, drivers, owners and fans have been able to watch their heroís on two of the nationís two best short tracks in the country, the Thompson International Speedway and the Stafford Motor Speedway.

While the Thompson Speedway just celebrated its birthday last week of the first race held at the 5/8th mile oval some 70 years ago, the Stafford Motor Speedway too has a long history associated with it.

Where the track sits now was called the Stafford Spring Agricultural Park and way back in 1870, people would flock to the little town and watch racing of a different breed, actual horsepower. Horse and Trotter racing continued at the grounds until the end of World War II.

As race tracks were springing up across the country after the Great War and small cars later known as midgets began to take the country by storm as people gathered to watch their neighbors compete in motorized cars. It wasnít long before Stafford became a weekly stop for daredevils.

The Stafford Speedway became one of the first members of NASCAR in 1959 and the dusty old dirt track was replaced by asphalt in 1967.

Mel Barlow was a collector of automobiles and owned the track but soon, a car owner of something called a jalopy or modified would buy the place and turn it, along with his family, into the showcase of NASCAR weekly and touring racing in America.

It was in June of 1969, when Arute learned from fellow racer, Wild Bill Slater, that the track was going to close unless something or someone came alongÖthe rest, as they say is history.

When Jack Arute, Sr. left turning the wrenches and began upgrading the track, what you now see at Stafford is his vision as well as his son, Mark, who now serves as President of the track and has overseen some of its most dramatic growth.

The track is still a one-half mile oval that drivers across the country insist is one of the most difficult tracks in the country to conquer. 

For as long as the modified tour has existed, for all but one year, the modified tour has been a staple at the Stafford Speedway but it is that one year that caused some hard feeling between Arute and the car owners and fans of modifieds.

Jack Arute, Sr. has been called a lot of things from stubborn and thick headed to a man so far ahead of his time that people couldnít relate to him.

Arute began to see his weekly car count for the modifieds begin to slip and he knew that car owners couldnít afford to race weekly for the purses offered by promoters so he began to look into another form of racing that he felt would give the fans the same opened wheel racing that they loved but in an less expensive form that what car owners were spending now.

Arute was one who believed that the modifieds could only exist on a touring type series and he was one who pushed for NASCAR to form what is now called the NASCAR Whelen modified tour.

When Jack Sr., replaced the weekly modifieds with his new SK series, fans stayed away in droves but Arute knew that what he was doing would not only save open wheel modified racing but also his track.

It wasnít easy for Arute or his family who poured everything into the track. They replaced the bleachers, put in a new Musco Lighting system, upgraded their public address system, as well as expanding the pit area and amenities that race fans have come to expect from a Sprint Cup track are now available at the weekly track.

Many of todayís best track announcers and TV broadcasters have started their own careers right at Stafford. Jackie Arute, Jr., known for his work at the Indianapolis 500 as well as a reporter for ABC doing college football games. Throw in FOX lead announcer Mike Joy to current ESPN NASCAR Now host, Mike Massaro, Stafford has been at the forefront for bringing out the best.

When Arute handed over the reins of the track in 1989 to his son, Mark, many wondered whether Mark could show the strength and wisdom that his father showed but much to everyoneís surprise, Mark has not only matched his father in keeping modified racing alive but making Stafford Motor Speedway, a must visit for race fans across the country.

It hasnít been easy but it certainly has been worth it, not only for the fans but the drivers and owners on the modified tour but the other weekly series competitors that call Stafford their home track.

The track has always featured some of the best drivers in modified history and all have won at Stafford. In the 70ís, it was Hall of Famers such as Eddie Flemke, Sr., Bugsy Stevens, and Fred DeSarro winning and setting up intense rivalries. In the 80ís it was the addition of Richie Evans, Jerry Cook, Maynard Troyer, Ronnie Bouchard and of course, Geoffrey Bodine.

As the 80ís turned into the 90ís and the SK modifieds were the headline division, it was drivers such as Bo Gunning and Ted Christopher, who is the all time leader in wins at Stafford that have continued to bring fans into the track that is over 140 years old but looks as new as today.

The road hasnít been easy but because of a stubborn construction company owner from New Britain, CT.  and his family, the Stafford Motor Speedway is now one of the premier showcases of NASCAR racing.