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by Mike Leone
Although only a handful of races were run in 1988 under Mike Rakoci and a full season in 1989 by Vern Hawley, it wasn’t until 1994 when the speedway finally developed a period of stability that carries us to today.
Mercer businessman, Howard Michaels, purchased the speedway and cleaned up the grounds amazingly from what it looked like to those who drove along Fairground Road in the early 1990s. On a sunny May 14, 1994, Mercer reopened under the name of Michaels’ Mercer Speedway to a big crowd and 90 race cars in the five divisions. Winners that night were Jimmy Hawley in the sprint cars driving the Dick Schuller #61, Les Myers in the big-block modifieds driving the Ongley #5, Jeff Schaffer in the six-cylinder modifieds in his #10, Tommy Kristyak in the limited modifieds in his #260, and Bill Hanna in the stocks in his #21. Today those five drivers are still among the best and with the exception of Schaffer, the other four have been victorious in 2001. 1994 ended with current World of Outlaw Sprint Car star, Tim Shaffer, picking up the win in the 35-lap sprint car feature that was worth $2,105.
Michaels continued to operate the speedway in 1995 and 1996 with moderate success. In 1997, Gary and Cindy Butch of Mercer became the new owners and changed the name to Mercer Raceway Park. While the Butchs only ran the facility for two years, more changes and improvements were made. The facility began to regain the prominence that disappeared over the rocky 80s and early 90s. Mercer Raceway Park even went live to the nation on TNN on a cold Friday night, February 15 for a demolition derby.
This carried over into 1999 when current owner Vicki Emig bought the facility. More improvements and upgrades were made as the professionalism continues to increase. Today the track’s stability is as high as ever and the facility itself rivals any other regional track. It’s pretty amazing when you take a look around the facility today how far it has come since some of its darkest days in the early 1990s.
The sprint cars have been the headlining division and when someone thinks about Mercer they usually equate the sprints. A total of 33 drivers have scored wins since the reopening with West Middlesex’s Jimmy Hawley leading the way at 19 wins and a title in 1999. Besides Hawley, this “era” has been pretty much dominated by six other drivers including Jamie Smith, Jim Chappel, Bob Felmlee, Tommy Burns, Jr., Jarod Larson, and Tom Quarterson. Those six drivers account for 96 of the 143 races. Smith is close behind with 18 wins and track championships in the three of the years. Chappel was a strong contender from 1994-1996 with 14 wins and two championships. Felmlee was crowned champion in 1998 with a whopping 10 of his 13 wins coming that year. Burns, Larson, and Quarterson have been strong throughout with 12, 11, and 9 wins respectively.
The All Star Sprint Cars returned for four appearances from 1997-2000 with Jeff Shepard winning two and Dean Jacobs and Mark Keegan also victorious. Because of the size of the track, Mercer has also yielded to the underdogs. Drivers like Chris Pochiro, Staple Nash, Rod Jones, Joe McEwen, Jason Jacoby, and Mark Murphy all can attest to that fact. The year 2000 was a remarkable year with 14 different drivers winning events out of 19 races.
Second to the sprints with a following is certainly the big-block modifieds. With strong car counts and rivalries that are deeply rooted in the traditions at Mercer, these mighty big blocks have been certain to keep the fans on the edge of their seats. Without a doubt, Hartford, Ohio’s Lou Blaney and Stoneboro’s Tommy Kristyak have put on some epic battles over the past seven years. Blaney has kept the upper hand with 32 wins and two championships, while Kristyak has picked up 27 wins and a track title in 1998. These two have accounted for 59 of the 140 races, which is an astounding 42%! This year has seen more parity with Blaney and Kristyak only able to score one win a piece. That leaves 25 other drivers to share in the win pie. No other driver has been yet to crack double figures, although this year’s top runner’s, Tim Doran and Les Myers, are close with 9 and 8 wins respectively. Even though he doesn’t compete at Mercer these days, Rex King has 9 wins and a track title. Myers, Guy Griffin, and Jeff Schaffer have also claimed track titles.
Like the case with the sprints, drivers such as Tommy Marshall III, Skip Deane, Chip Ritchey, and Scott Rodgers have pulled off upset big-block wins. Last year, the scheduled two-day USNA event definitely put Mercer on the map. Led by David Panasci, the new series put up $150,000 for big-block modifieds July 15-16. Although the second day’s 200-lap $30,000 to-win feature was rained out, Saturday’s event was one to remember as Blaney passed modified star Billy Decker with two laps to go to win a feature, and racing star, Billy Pauch, snared the other.
The six-cylinder modified division started off opening night in 1994 with nine cars and though some nights over the course of the years the division would attract car counts in the low 20s, most nights it was at the bottom of the spectrum with car counts in the low teens. This led to its demise and this year the division was dropped from competition. It’s now the only division that does not remain since opening night 1994. In fact, Mercer was the only track in the nation running six-cylinder modifieds on a weekly basis, now it most likely was the last.
The division was simply dominated by Kenny Hardy, Lou Gentile, and Carl Weatherby over its seven-year span. These three drivers won 110 of the 132 races and captured all seven track titles! Those percentages yield 82% of the wins and 100% of the titles. Hardy of Wampum leads the overall list of winners at the track since 1994 with 42 wins and three championships. Gentile passed Carl Weatherby in 2000 with 35 wins to Weatherby’s 33. Weatherby moved on to the big blocks in 2000 and even scored a win in his rookie year. Guy Griffin, Jerry Schaffer, Gregg McCandless, Frank Guidace, Randy Ferguson, Jim Bickel, Harold Michaels, Jeff Schaffer, and Conny Allen are the other nine winners.
The sportsman modified division was relatively a new division when Mercer reopened. It was started by the West-Penn Association a few years prior at Sportsman’s Speedway. Today it carries on with strong car counts and local ties to the community. The division offers an affordable open wheel modified option. New Castle’s Andy Priest leads the way with 22 wins and a title. Priest has done double duty, last year with the big blocks and this year in the sprints. Close behind is Gary Smoker with 19 wins. Steve Yong has picked up a ride this year in the J.R. Greer machine. His three 2001 wins bring him to 11 overall wins. Young was the 1997 champion in his own car before jumping to big blocks in 1998. Current tech inspector at the track, Randy Myers, has claimed 9 wins and two track titles. Tommy Kristyak has 8 wins and a title. Rick Hall, who does double duty driving the big blocks as well, also has 8 wins and a title. Current big-block drivers Dave Murdick and Don McKnight have 5 wins, while another big block driver, Don McKnight, has 3 wins and a title in 1999. John Buchanan has climbed the win ladder and is now tied for eighth all-time with 5 wins. Buchanan is one of the top sportsman-only racers. A total of 32 drivers have claimed victories over the 140 events.
The stock car division always puts on some of the best racing of the night. It is no surprise that they lead the list with the most different winners at 38 over the 152 races. Alan Dellinger was the dominant driver early on before moving on to other divisions. The Niles, Ohio driver still tops the list with 21 victories and two track championships. Gary Robinson has been the most consistent driver over the period as he has finished second in the points the last three years and again is sitting in runner-up through July 7. Robinson is second with 15 wins. Bill Hanna is back in the stocks in 2001 after brief stints in the sportsman and e-mod divisions. He is currently third with 14 wins and a title. Matt Lux did all of his winning in 2000 by claiming 9 of the 17 races he competed in. Lux also won the inaugural Little Guy Nationals on October 21 worth $1,000 for the biggest stock race in the history of the track. With Lux moving on to the late models in 2001, the door was left wide open and so far there has been nine different winners in nine races!
While the above five divisions have been on the weekly card since the reopening in 1994, the 360 sprints, 305 sprints, micro sprints, midget cars, 358 modifieds, e-mods, and Pittsburgh Circle Track Club Senior Series have all competed as well.
May 19’s Bill Emig Memorial drew 44 big blocks as over $21,000 was paid out to the division over the course of three exciting triple 25-lap features. This year on Memorial Day, the ATPA Grand American Spring Nationals were held at the track. A total of 53 ground-pounding machines competed in this world championship pulling event. The inaugural Northern States Midget Classic drew 33 of the top midget cars from the east-coast and the midwest to compete on June 23. This night was coupled with the only appearance by the non-winged sprints. The annual Chuck Marsh Memorial for the sprint cars always draws in an excellent field of sprints for the $5,000 top prize. Top runner, Ed Lynch, Jr. has been victorious the last two years. Last year’s inaugural Little Guy Nationals drew 157 race cars in the three divisions plus 59 demo cars. These events along with the special family events and promotions have started to take on their own new traditions as Mercer Raceway Park heads into its second 50 years