Utica-Rome opening day winners list review

Utica-Rome opening day winners list has some of biggest names in Modified racing. VERNON, NY -- Over the 41-year history of Utica-Rome Speedway on Route 5 in Vernon, the speedway has attracted some of the top names in all of Modified racing,...

Utica-Rome opening day winners list has some of biggest names in Modified racing.

VERNON, NY -- Over the 41-year history of Utica-Rome Speedway on Route 5 in Vernon, the speedway has attracted some of the top names in all of Modified racing, both on the asphalt and dirt surfaces. Many of those all-star drivers took home wins in the much anticipated season opener each year. With the 2002 Gates-Cole Insurance Season Opener coming up this Sunday May 5, speedway management decided to take a look at some of the opening day winners in the storied history of the speedway.

Joe Lesik built the Utica-Rome Speedway in 1961, and the first Modified Sportsman feature race run that year was on September 10. Taking home the win on the 1/4-mile asphalt oval was Western New York superstar Billy Rafter, for his only career Utica-Rome victory. The next year, opening day went to another Western New York driver, Ed Ortiz, father of current day DIRT Pro Stock driver Jipper Ortiz. In 1963, the famous Kotary family of Rome was highlighted with a huge victory for "Tiger" Tom Kotary. "The Champ" Rene Charland, a very famous Frenchman from Massachusetts, won the opener in 1964 on the way to his first career track championship. Charland, who still spectates on occasion at the speedway, will be at this year's 40th anniversary celebration set for Sunday August 19. Lou Smith was victorious in 1965, but unfortunately lost his life later on following an accident at Fonda Speedway.

In 1966, Lisbon, NY's Bill Wimble took his famous McCready Motors No. 33 to Utica-Rome victory lane in the season opener. 1967 went to Fran Kitchen, while 1968 went to Don Wayman, who passed away last year. In 1969, another Utica-Rome NASCAR superstar, Jerry Cook of Rome, took home the season opener win on the way to his only career track championship at Utica-Rome. Cook, who now today is a NASCAR official in Daytona Beach, FL, was one of the most popular drivers in speedway history. In 1970, local driver Dick Fowler won the season opener, a 100-lap special.

Jerry Cook won his second career season opener at Utica-Rome in 1971, while in 1972, popular local driver Sonny Seamon of Vernon Center scored the huge win. In 1973, the most prolific and well-known driver to come out of the Utica-Rome Speedway, Richie Evans of Rome scored a 100-lap victory to start of the new season. Evans, known as the "Rapid Roman", started his racing career at Utica-Rome in 1964 in the Hobby division, went on to be a 9-time National NASCAR Modified Champion and scored hundreds, maybe even thousands of feature wins at tracks up and down the East coast, from Utica-Rome to Daytona Beach, Florida. Dick Fowler won his second career Utica-Rome season opener victory in 1974, while in 1975, Sonny Seamon accomplished the same feat.

In 1976, the speedway sat silent for a year because of multiple rainouts and promoter Dick Waterman being burnt out. However, in 1977, the speedway reopened and Richie Evans took home a popular victory to bring the speedway back from the dead. In 1978, Evans again won the season opener to make himself the leading driver with three wins on the 1/3-mile asphalt oval as far as opening day feature wins. In addition, Evans is also the all-time winner on the asphalt, with 33 career victories, ranging from 1965-1978.

During the off-season, the speedway was sold and converted to a 5/8-mile dirt oval, bringing in a brand new set of drivers, many of them from the Albany area Fonda and Albany-Saratoga Speedways. One driver who won 28 victories on the asphalt surface at Utica-Rome but never a season opener, Lou Lazzaro of Utica, came back to run on the dirt, and scored the first ever dirt surface victory in a 60-lap special in 1979. Lazzaro, who was versatile on both surfaces, proved it and has been an important driver during the 41-year history of the speedway.

In 1980, the speedway went to a Small Block specials only affair, with Chuck Kennison taking home the first ever Small Block feature at the track. After the 1981 season, the speedway was taken over by Ron Compani of the Fonda Speedway, and the DIRT sanctioning body moved into sanction the races at the track, bringing in yet a whole new breed of some of the best DIRT Big Block Modified drivers. Art Kiser romped to his one and only Utica-Rome and DIRT feature win on opening day 1981, while in 1982, "A.J. Slideways" Alan Johnson took home his first career Utica-Rome win in the lidlifter. Because of various management troubles, the speedway fell silent for the next two seasons.

In 1985, Jim Beachy, Fred Burrows, and Jack Johnson took over the promotional reigns of the speedway, and the huge opening day win went to Alan Johnson in a special 100-lap affair. In 1986, in a year he dominated action at the speedway on the way to winning the championship, Brett Hearn romped to his first career Utica-Rome victory. Jack Johnson, another popular driver in the history of the speedway, won the 100-lap opener in 1987.

Again, because of management troubles, the speedway fell silent for the 1988 season, only running one event with Sportsman, Street Stock, and Pure Stock action. No Modified events were run that year.

However, in 1989, Bub Benway and Eric Kingsley of the nearby Fulton Speedway rescued the speedway through a lease, shortened the track to a half-mile and reopened for weekly racing in June. Donnie Wetmore, undoubtedly one of the greatest Small Block Modified drivers in the history of New York State, took home the first ever feature win on the shortened Utica-Rome oval. In 1990, Ted Lamb, Jr. took home the opening day win.

In 1991, popular local driver Gordy Button of Kirkville, won the opener, while in 1992, Canadian driver Pete Bicknell invaded the speedway and went on to his only career Utica-Rome win in the opener under new ownership of the Kingsley family. In 1993, Button won his second career season opener in dominating fashion. In 1994, the NASCAR Winston Racing Series sanctioned Utica-Rome, with the opening day winner being the popular Paul Jensen of Edmeston. Jensen ranks right up there with Donnie Wetmore as being one of the best Small Block drivers in the history of racing in the Empire State.

From 1995-1997, Dale Planck of Homer won three consecutive season openers at Utica-Rome on the way to winning the track championship each year, plus the lucrative NASCAR Winston Racing Series regional title each season from 1994-1996. In doing so, Planck gave the speedway national recognition plus put himself in a great position on the Utica-Rome all-time win list, which he currently leads with 40 victories.

From 1996-1997, promotional wonder Alex Friesen from Canada and businessman John Zemaitis of Pennsylvania owned and promoted Utica-Rome. However, during the 1996 off-season, Friesen tragically passed away following a holiday season snowmobile accident. In 1997, Friesen's father Stan, the promoter at the Buffalo area Ransomville Speedway, along with John Zemaitis ran the speedway.

In 1998, due to several legal issues, the speedway opened late, but J.J. Michaels of Baldwinsville took home a very popular victory in the season opener with the speedway back in the hands of promoter Eric Kingsley. During the off season, the speedway joined the DIRT Motorsports circuit for the third time in its history. Mike Romano, son of legendary Andy Romano, took home the victory in the season opener. The next year invader Andy Bachetti of Massachusetts blistered the speedway enroute to his first career Utica-Rome victory. Last season, J.J. Michaels dominated to win his second career Utica-Rome opener, and this year could be one of the favorites to start off the season with a win.

During the off-season, the Kingsley family sold the speedway to Tom Cole of Paris, New York, and the speedway was renamed Utica-Rome Speedway, LLC. Plans are to continue with the successful formula of weekly Sunday night DIRT Motorsports action comprising of the 358-Modifieds, Sportsman, Pro Stocks, and Pure Stocks.

In the 41-year history of the track, only seven times did the track champion that year secure a victory in the season opener. Just who will the winner be this year in the Sunday May 5, Gates-Cole Insurance Season Opener? Only time will tell, but you can bet that J.J. Michaels will be ready to defend his win last season. Veteran drivers such as Mitch Gibbs, Jack Johnson, Gus Schmidt Jr., Ted Lamb, Jim Rothwell, Ryan Baye, John Ramsey, Gordy Button, Mike Hulsizer, and young Matt Sheppard will be top contenders as well as many of the travelling DIRT stars who will be on hand in preparation for the May 12 100-lap Super DIRT Series event.

Also in race action during the 2002 Gates-Cole Insurance Season Opener on Sunday May 5 will be the Sportsman, Pro Stocks, and Pure Stocks. Race time is set for 6pm, with the gates opening at 4pm. Free parking and camping is allowed on speedway grounds.

For more information, contact the speedway office at (315) 829-4557 or log onto the new speedway website at www.uticaromespeedway.com.

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