The 2002 season proves to competitive at Utica-Rome Speedway.
VERNON, NY-The 2002 season was a season of change at the Utica-Rome Speedway. Last winter, the speedway saw a change of ownership from the Kingsley family to Cole family. During the racing season, the guardrails lining the outside of turns 3 and 4 were removed, to the delight of many drivers. The 2002 racing season also proved to be one of the most competitive seasons at the speedway in recent memory, with 38 different winners in the 74 events competed.
After a stellar rookie season on the DIRT circuit in 2001, Waterloo's Matt Sheppard entered his first full season of competition in the headline DIRT 358-Modified division at Utica-Rome Speedway with high hopes. Sheppard was a model of consistency throughout the 2002 campaign in his potent Paine Motorsports/Nick's Cafe Teo-Pro numbered 28s, tallying 1 win which came late in the season while in the leader of overall points. Sheppard also had twelve top 5's, and fourteen top 10's on route to his first Utica-Rome Speedway championship.
Finishing second in overall points was former track champion Mitch Gibbs of North Norwich. The Nice n' Easy sponsored driver started the season by dominating the season opener in May, and scored his second victory in mid-July. Gibbs led more laps (82) than any other driver in the popular DIRT 358-Modified division.
Constantia's Ryan Baye finished third in overall track points despite going winless for the 2002 season. The young driver of the American Auger sponsored Bicknell finished more laps than any other competitor (462), and had eight top 5 finishes.
High flying Gordy Button of Kirkville returned to victory lane on Memorial Day weekend, on the two-year anniversary of the horrific sprint car wreck that threatened to end his driving career. It also was his first win at the speedway since the 1995 season. "Panic" Button finished fourth in the season long points battle.
Jason Barney piloted his Stadium International sponsored TEO machine to a fifth place finish in overall points without netting a victory during the 2002 season. The young pilot from Constantia finished with five top 5 and eleven top 10 finishes.
The ageless veteran Jack Johnson was a contender in the potent Sprint PCS TEO, grabbing 3 victories during the 2002 campaign. Spencerport's Todd Burley, the 2001 Utica-Rome Speedway DIRT 358-Modified champion, also won 3 times as a part-time competitor in 2002. Other DIRT 358-Modified feature winners in 2002 included first-time winner Jeff Kotary, Gus Schmidt from Liverpool, Baldwinsville's JJ Michaels, Steve Hulsizer from Brewerton, and Ted Lamb from Clay. Also, Danny Johnson won the opening event for the Turning Stone Casino Resort DIRT 358-Modified Super DIRT Series, with New Jersey's Brett Hearn taking the win in Utica-Rome Speedway's season ending Super DIRT series event. Overall, there were 12 different winners in 17 DIRT 358-Modified events run during the 2002 season.
Jamie Christian of West Winfield and Tim Clemons of Gloversville both finished the season with 5 wins a piece in the competitive DIRT Sportsman division, with Christian taking the Utica-Rome Speedway title. Clemons, the defending Utica-Rome Speedway DIRT Sportsman champion, made a late season charge, but Christian's consistent finishes were too much for Clemons to overcome. Rounding out the top 5 in overall points were Paul Carey (0 wins), Kevin Crave (1 win), and Jim Roberts (0 wins).
Other feature winners in DIRT Sportsman competition included Daryl Hagen with 2 wins, and John Christian, Tim Mayne. Bill Shantel Jr., and Mike Button all with 1 victory each. Mike Button also won the Sunoco Race Fuels Sportsman Super DIRT Series event in mid-June. In all, 8 drivers graced victory lane in a total of 18 events.
Oneida's Jason Rood proved that consistency is the key to a track championship, not feature wins. Rood failed to get a victory in 2002, but on the strength of eleven top 5's and fourteen top 10's, he still managed to win the Utica-Rome Speedway DIRT Pro Stock title. Bret Belden (2 wins), Buddy Hencke (7 wins), Joe Palmer (1 win), and Denny Smith (1 win) rounded out the top five in the ultra competitive DIRT Pro Stock points battle. Invader Dave Schulz took the win in the Empire Sports Network Super DIRT Series event for the DIRT Pro Stocks. In the 18 events completed, 9 different drivers landed in victory lane.
Dave Mannise of Fulton ended the 2002 season in familiar territory, as Utica-Rome Speedway Pure Stock champion. After winning 5 times and having late season motor problems, Mannise claimed his ninth Utica-Rome Speedway championship over a hard charging Chuck Cushman (5 wins), Art Newman (1 win), Jim Thomas (2 wins), and Rick Trexler (0 wins). Other winners included Dave Pope with 3 wins and Jeff Thorp with a lone victory. Six different drivers graced victory in the 17 races completed.
The Empire Super Sprints visited Utica-Rome Speedway on two occasions, with Dan Kaszubinski grabbing the win on Labor Day weekend, and Doug Emery taking the Super DIRT Week win.
Also visiting the speedway on two occasions were the Central New York Mini-Sprints, with Doug Norrie taking the victory in both events. A scary moment occurred during their Labor Day weekend visit, when a Mini-Sprint was launched into the flagstand on the original start, sending flaggers Matt Burdick and Tom Neddo leaping from the flagstand to the ground. Both were uninjured and continued on with their duties for the remainder of the event.
The first full year of ownership for the Cole family proved to be a success, and they would like to thank all the fans, drivers, and crews for making for their continued support and look forward to the 2003 season. For all the latest information, log on to the official speedway website at www.uticaromespeedway.com. For any questions or inquiries, you can contact the winter office at (315) 822-6336.