Personal Best: Stock Car Race
Down East contributing editor Rob Sneddon reflects on the races at Oxford International Speedway.
Who, I wondered, would bring a snowplow to a NASCAR race in the middle of July?
A late-afternoon thunderstorm had swamped Oxford Plains Speedway. When I saw the pond on the front stretch, I figured the race was a washout. Then the plow came along and cleared the standing water. The track dried, and I got to see my first Oxford 250, where the improbable and the practical ran a dead heat.
It was 1988. I was living on Cape Cod, working odd jobs, and trying to be a freelance writer. I was also an auto-racing aficionado. The Oxford 250 had a reputation as [for the rest of this story, see the January 2008 issue of Down East]a race you had to see to believe. So I went to see it. And I became a believer.
Bob Bahre, best known these days as the man who built New Hampshire International Speedway, started the 250 in 1974. Oxford Plains Speedway has changed hands several times since, and its signature race has rarely had the same kind of cars or cast of characters two years in a row.
But the dynamic never varies: drivers from Maine vs. drivers from away.
The outsiders usually include at least one big-name NASCAR driver. The 1988 field was loaded with drivers from below the Mason-Dixon line. That year the 250 was part of the Busch Series, NASCAR's light-heavyweight division. But the 250 was unlike any other Busch Series race. Literally; NASCAR made concessions at Oxford that it made nowhere else. For example, NASCAR allowed local weekend warriors who knocked around the track every Saturday to enter the 250. And they could use "Oxford-legal" cars that didn't come close to meeting Busch Series rules. Imagine if Major League Baseball decreed that the Yankees and Red Sox had to play at Portland's Hadlock Field. And that each team had to add a couple of local softball players who could use aluminum bats. That was the atmosphere at the 1988 Oxford 250.
But instead of Yankees vs. Red Sox this was Yankees vs. rednecks. The Southerners' disdain for Oxford's just-this-once procedures was another 250 tradition. (A few years later, I interviewed several drivers from away about their Oxford experience. The only one who had anything good to say was a skinny kid with a bad mustache named Jeff Gordon.) But for all their grousing, outsiders had done remarkably well. In the first fourteen runnings, only one Mainer had won the Oxford 250: Turner's Mike Rowe, in 1984.
Many longtime fans say that the '84 race was the best ever. That was not only the year that a local boy finally made good, but it was also the year that the grandest villain got his comeuppance. Geoff Bodine, a rising national star who would go on to win the 1986 Daytona 500, already had two wins at the Oxford 250. He was gunning for a third when he made an aggressive move on Kennebunkport's Dick McCabe, the leader, that took both out of contention. For McCabe, a hard-nosed driver whom one racing magazine dubbed "a Down East Dale Earnhardt," it was another in a series of Oxford heartbreaks. He exacted his revenge on the last lap by stuffing Bodine into the wall. "It had to be done," he said later. If McCabe hadn't been a crowd favorite before, he was after that.
So, with all that as background, I settled into the teeming grandstand to see how things would play out at Oxford Plains Speedway in the summer of 1988. The rain delay and endless preliminary races had pushed the 250's starting time until well after dark. The announced attendance was 22,000, and the big crowd was abuzz, waiting for the command to start engines. I loved the floodlit spectacle of it all. To find that many people gathered in the Oxford Hills at that hour on a Sunday night for a NASCAR race was, as I said, improbable.
And yet the locals remained steadfastly practical. As the pre-race ballyhoo dragged on, a woman's voice pierced the heavy night air: "C'mon, boys, let's go racin'! Mumma's gotta work in the morning!"
At last the gentlemen started their engines. And to make a long race short, Dick McCabe won the Oxford 250 for the first and only time. After taking the checkered flag, McCabe brought his green Buick, number zero, back around to the front stretch, locked the brakes, threw the car into a 180-degree spin, and slid to a stop at the finish line, backward. As the roar of his engine died, the roar of the crowd reached a crescendo.
A year later I started writing for a national auto-racing magazine. Since then I've covered lots of big races in lots of famous places, including Daytona and Indianapolis. But for sheer enjoyment, the 1988 Oxford 250 was the best race I've ever seen. It was terrific theater - Shakespeare with skid marks.
Contributing editor Rob Sneddon has also visited Unity Raceway and Scarborough's Beech Ridge Motor Speedway, and he hopes to get to Spud Speedway in Caribou someday.
- By: Rob Sneddon