After more than 50 years as an asphalt track for stock car racing, Unity Raceway will return to its roots in 2018.

Track owner George Fernald of Benton, who purchased the track from longtime owner Ralph Nason last summer, confirmed his plans to turn the facility into a dirt track beginning next spring. Fernald estimated that it would cost a minimum of $200,000 to repave the current facility, which is badly in need of resurfacing. It would cost less than a quarter of that, he believes, to turn it into a dirt track.

“I’m going to do what I think is best for this place to pay for it,” said Fernald, who first began thinking about converting to dirt when he bought the speedway in July. “I really feel that’s the ticket. There’s no other good dirt track around here.”

Unity would become the only dirt track to hold weekly auto races in Maine, and just the second in all New England.

Bear Ridge Speedway in Bradford, Vermont and Legion Speedway in Wentworth, New Hampshire are the only weekly dirt-only tracks operating in New England, while Devil’s Bowl Speedway in West Haven, Vermont, runs events on a dirt track constructed along the infield of its half-mile asphalt track.

Unity Raceway became Maine’s first speedway when it opened as a dirt track in 1948 for auto racing, utilizing an existing harness racing track for horses at the time. It remained a dirt track until the end of the 1964 season.

Below the current asphalt is 18 inches of blue clay, Nason said. Clay is the surface dirt tracks use across the country for their racing events, and Fernald would like to have a slightly-banked one-third mile dirt track where the flat, asphalt track is now.

Nason supports Fernald’s plan.

“I’ve been an advocate of it from the beginning,” Nason said. “I hope I’m right. I think I am.”

Others in the region’s short track racing community agree with Nason. While Unity, Beech Ridge Motor Speedway and Oxford Plains Speedway started out as dirt tracks before moving to asphalt, the state has a void when it comes to dirt racing. All six tracks in Maine race on asphalt.

“I think it’s interesting,” said Mike Bruno, owner and promoter of Devil’s Bowl Speedway in Vermont. “In this day and age, same-old same-old doesn’t cut it. I think it’s a really cool thing because Maine does not have that anywhere. Anything where you can have a niche in this sport, it’s a good thing.”

NECESSARY STEP

Nason, and others, see the move as a necessity for auto racing to survive in the 21st century, as the sport increasingly contends with increasing costs and waning fan interest locally and nationally. Many tracks struggle to generate enough ticket sales to pay weekly purses.

“How’s Speedway 95 doing? How are Beech Ridge and Oxford doing?” Nason asked. “You go to Oxford, and they’ve got 30-plus Super Late Models every week, but how many people are in the grandstands? Maybe 300? That’s not very profitable.

“Every track is going through this. It’s a dying syndrome. Everything they’ve tried has not brought it back. All the power in the world to Tom Mayberry and his crew (at Oxford Plains), but they haven’t brought it back yet and they’ve spent a ton of money trying to. It’s the same for NASCAR, too. They’re having trouble bringing that back.”

Six-time Pro All Stars Series champion Johnny Clark of Hallowell launched his driving career in 2004 when he won $25,000 in a 250-lap event at Unity, the biggest single race the track ever hosted.

Clark said that he was disappointed — at least initially — in Fernald’s decision.

“Honestly, my first thought was that it’s too bad,” he said. “But this is the truth about short track racing — there’s enough tracks in the state but not enough race cars to keep them all going. If (Fernald) wants to try something new, great. I don’t want to see any race track close, not at all. If one of them is breaking free and getting out of pavement racing — and thinks that’s the way to go — good for them.”

MOVING FORWARD

Not only is there a solid clay base below the existing asphalt at Unity Raceway, but most of the property has clay, too. The parking lot to the left of the speedway is on top of a clay base.

Bruno said he would caution Fernald about a couple of the pitfalls with dirt racing that he’s experienced at his own track. For starters, dirt tracks typically hold races in the evening — not summer afternoons, as is Unity’s current asphalt schedule — because sunlight and summer heat can dry clay quickly and leave the surface unfit for racing. He also wonders if the surface might be better off in the long run if Fernald were to move clay from elsewhere on the property and build the new track on top of the asphalt.

Fernald said he plans to hold all of Unity’s scheduled races this season and begin construction of the dirt track immediately after the annual Long John weekend, Oct. 21-22, by having a bulldozer start tearing up the asphalt in one of the turns while the Long John 150 winner is completing the victory lane ceremonies on the frontstretch.

“They’re going to have a more consistent surface if they have a hard base,” Bruno said, drawing from his own learning curve with dirt. “Instead of us working with 18 inches of clay under pavement, we’re working with three feet of dirt. If they could the leave pavement in place and go over it, I think they’ll have a more consistent surface.”

And the surface itself is paramount to dirt racing, experts say. Where asphalt might be quickly swept of debris prior to a race, dirt takes nearly three full days of preparation with graders, rollers, water trucks and other heavy equipment to keep the clay compact and moist. Dry tracks break up quickly rendering them unable to hold races.

A good dirt surface could attract more attention and interest from beyond central Maine.

“If I was in his position, I wouldn’t run 18 or 19 straight weeks,” Bruno said. “I’d focus on the race track itself and running perfect events. In this business, I think he’d be smarter with a limited amount of shows.”

THE FUTURE

Fernald added that at some point he would entertain the possibility of moving under the umbrella of a DIRTcar sanction. Similar to NASCAR, DIRTcar is the largest sanctioning body of dirt racing in the United States. DIRTcar sanctions facilities from multi-million dollar tracks like Williams Grove in Pennsylvania to much less grand ones like Bear Ridge. Bear Ridge is the only DIRTcar sanctioned track in New England.

“We would have to get together and discuss some items and see if it’s feasible for (Unity) to be a DIRTcar sanctioned track,” said Mike Perrotte, the northeast series and sanctioning director for DIRTcar, noting that safety and facilities are two important factors in getting sanctioning. “I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t be. I would certainly like the idea of it and would be interested in talking to them.”

DIRTcar sanctioning could bring with it the possibility of large touring series events like the Super DIRTcar Series, a series that holds 34 races a year from Florida to Ontario, to Unity Raceway.

“We had the nicest dirt track in the state originally,” Nason said. “It started way, way back when it was dirt cheap and people were having a blast. But as things got better and better, it all got more expensive. I can’t see that (the track) can do any worse. When they swing the doors open here in two or three weeks when it’s nice and warm, they’re going to have 300-400 people.

“When they have their first dirt race, I’ll tell you right now there will be 2,000 people here.”

While the new interest might generate paying customers and more race cars in the pit area at the state’s oldest track, opening day in 2018 will mark the end of another chapter in the story of Maine’s longest standing race track.

“While it wasn’t ever anyone’s favorite track to race on, it always put on good races,” Clark said. “It was my favorite race track. It’s sentimental to me. It stinks that it’s changing, but I understand. They’ve got to try something.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

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Twitter: @TBarrettGWC