2022 Oxford 250 Weekend

Where even do I begin with the Oxford 250?

Consider first my racing background - despite my Massachusetts address, I am very much a Connecticut Modified Guy through and through. I work for a modified series, spend Friday nights at Stafford, and follow the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour religiously. Yet I've also spent many Saturday nights at Seekonk, worked for two years with the Granite State Pro Stocks, and have taken in plenty of ACT & PASS racing on my nights off from open wheels.

So little of that, though, prepares me for the impact of the 250. There's an electricity at the "World's Fastest Walmart Parking Lot" on that late August weekend. The 250 is more than a race, it is An Event. It's a party. It's a festival. It's hundreds of race cars and thousands of people gathering a worn out circle of pavement on Maine Route 26 for a days-long grind that culminates in Sunday evening's $25,000-to-win, 250-Green-Flag-Laps Pro All Stars Series super late model race. If you're even slightly interested in short track racing, you owe it to yourself to attend a 250 - it transcends whatever type of racing you consider yourself loyal to, I promise.

But that said, the 250 weekend includes nearly every type of asphalt race car you can think of: from bone-stock four cylinders, to rowdy street stocks, to sleek tour type modifieds, to 900-horsepower supermodifieds, to American-Canadian Tour (ACT) late models, and to their big brothers the Pro All Stars Series (PASS) super late models. There's something for everyone, and if you care enough to watch, you'll come away a fan of something new. It's an event that, in this New Englander's experience, rivals the Thompson World Series in that regard.

--SATURDAY-- (📸 Saturday Photos)

The morning starts with round after round of practice, clicking off without interruption. An event like this needs to be well-run, and the team at Oxford Plains has that down to a science. Late in the afternoon, qualifying begins - heat race after heat race, and before you know it, consolation races for the American-Canadian Tour late models and features for the local divisions are underway. One round after another, clicking off at a dizzying pace - more about that in a minute.

Derek Griffith made his first-ever start in a big block supermodified, driving Kenny White's #77 to a heat race win, and a flag-to-flag win in the 75-lap New England Supermodified Series race. Derek is an extremely talented race car driver but the victory likely spoke to his knowledge of the slick asphalt; a career spent feather-footing 400hp crate late models on 10" tires turned into a dominating performance of the same kind, despite more than twice the power under his foot and twice the rubber on the corners of the car. 

The Modified Racing Series tour-type modified race played out as modified races at Oxford usually do - in the early part, some drivers who don't normally spend a lot of time at the front of the field got gone in a big way while more experienced drivers laid back, conserving, and maintaining just enough speed to not fall behind the lead lap. After a lap 50 caution brought out by a spinning Ryan Doucette off the bumper of Rusty Poland, the dynamic of the race changed. Some of the then-backmarkers pitted for tires and adjustments. They tore back through the field while the early frontrunners threw the proverbial anchor. It was Jacob Perry in the white #47 car who raced the track best of all, taking a defensive line in the final laps to hold a charging Matt Swanson back to a second place finish. Despite relative inexperience in a modified, Poland brought the #44 car home in third place. 

The night changed soon after the American-Canadian Tour rolled its 32 cars onto the track. It was 9:28 pm by my watch, and I remarked aloud about the quick progression of the evening - we might even be done before all the restaurants and stores in the area close for the night! The race began smoothly enough, but around lap 14, a caution flew for an incident off turn four. As the cars rode slowly under the yellow, the lights around the track all fell dark at once, with a gasp from the crowd - many of whom immediately illuminated the stands with their cell phone flashlights. 

The cars somehow came to an immediate stop without incident. After a few minutes of uncertainty, the drivers began climbing out, and a handful of safety vehicles took to the track with their headlights on. We all waited. Drivers and crew members congregated in the dark. Somewhere near DJ Shaw's idle 04 car, I hear the unmistakable voice of his father Dale, "I think it was a Busch race at Star the lights went out" - those who had been around long enough had experienced this before. 

Some more time elapsed and a meeting was called on pit road. There had been a power pole taken out in town and it would be some time before repairs could be made. Do we finish the race tonight, estimated to resume around 11:30pm, or do we come back at 7:30 Sunday morning? Let's wait it out. Knowing that I had a hotel check-in deadline, I watched the clock closely as I walked the track, looking for what bits of light I could use for photographs. Around 10:50, I decided to call it a night. While packing my equipment up - magically! the track was half-lit again, so at 10:54 I headed back toward the racing surface - I guess this is going to happen after all. The race resumed at 11:06 and the normal Late Models At Oxford things happened. Some race cars crashed. Some broke. The infield resembled an expensive junkyard after 125 laps. As the clock rolled past midnight - official Oxford 250 Sunday! - Derek Gluchacki won convincingly, avenging a lost sure-victory from 2021.

 --SUNDAY-- (📸 Sunday Photos)

After making it to the hotel desk with only a minute to spare, dumping my memory cards, and getting a few hours of poor sleep, it was time to head back to the track for the big show. Even arriving early in the day, finding a Honda Civic-sized parking spot amongst the campers is a tall order. I slotted in at the far corner of the property next to the road. On the long walk to the pit gate, the sounds of practice echoed through the lot, the air smoky with the remnants of Saturday night's campfires; the sensory clues of a big race day.

Sunday morning begins with final rounds of practice. Sixty super late models took to the track to find the last bits of speed the track would give them. After practice concludes, the race-day drivers meeting is called on the front stretch at 12:30 pm, followed by one of the 250's signature elements - the draw for heat race starting position. The draw can be cruel or rewarding. It sets the tone for a competitor's entire day. Draw order is established based on the order in which race entries were received by PASS, so it's not entirely random. All sixty drivers pulled chips out of a bag and the qualifying race lineups were set. The drivers and crews headed back to the pit area to prepare for a grueling afternoon of racing, merely trying to make the big show.

Five heat races started twelve cars each in twenty-lap shootouts where only the top four finishers from each were guaranteed a starting spot in the feature event - 20 starters were set. There were some incidents in heat racing, one of which damaged the front of Garrett Hall's #94 car substantially. The 94 was towed back to the pit area where Hall, crew, and friends all got to work tearing the car apart to repair it. With their spots already secured, fellow Dale Shaw Race Cars chassis-mates DJ Shaw and Joey Doiron - really, the entire Doiron clan - chipped in. The clock was ticking - Hall was due back on the track in the first of three consolation races, from which total fifteen additional starting positions were awarded. At the last minute, the 94 rolled onto the track at the tail of the field. He drove as fast as the cobbled-together car would allow, advancing to within one position of making the show. 

In another consolation race, former 250 winner Jeremie Whorff exited turn three over the top of Dave Farrington's car. Whorff's was too damaged to continue on with the day; Farrington scavenged parts from other damaged race cars in the pit area to continue onward. 

So what happens when you're not one of the lucky thirty-five drivers who qualify through the heats or the consoliations? There's one more opportunity to make the field - a 50-lap last chance qualifier which awards exactly one (1) final starting position. The LCQ is often a no-holds barred affair, with damaged race cars and hurt feelings all that some drivers have to show for their effort. Garrett Hall cruised to the victory in the LCQ, rewarding the hard work his patchwork team had put in to repairing the car.

Other Oxford racing divisions took to the track, but on 250 Sunday, my personal focus is on the super late models alone. I broke off to the parking lot to have dinner, change clothes, and regroup for the evening. When I arrived back in the pit area, the cars and crews were beginning to assemble in the lineup area as the Oxford Limiteds raced around the track. Local favorite and podcaster Charlie Sanborn III won for the second night in a row, and his screams of joy echoed through the property over the track PA. Quickly, my focus shifted back to the PASS competitors.

It's at this point in the day that the air becomes electric. The excitement is palpable, the tension thick. This is it. Forty-two cars prepare for 250 laps around a tricky 3/8 mile oval in pursuit of $25,000+ and a place in history. You're either in the show or you're watching the show. When the track is clear, the crews and cars roll onto the speedway, the cars lining up along the grandstands at a 45 degree angle, the drivers' helmets placed on the roofs. Driver introductions begin. One by one, the competitors are introduced to varying levels of cheers, jeers, and silence from the capacity crowd. The drivers take their places at the right front corner of their cars. All the while, my own energy is buzzing; I'm running from place to place, trying to capture as many angles of this moment as I can. These are the moments I live for as a photographer, capturing those feelings. I'm documenting the show, the circumstance. It's more than just cars driving in circles. It's the people and all of the effort it took to get here. These final few moments before the drivers strap in - the nerves, the confidence, the questions. I snap off a few portraits, a few crowd shots, some general setting shots. The Canadian and American national anthems play, and as the drivers make their final preparations, a septet of small planes fly in a V formation over the speedway. A flyover! At a short track race! You don't see that everywhere.

This brings us to what I feel is the Single Most Electric Moment In Sports also happens. Over the track PA, which broadcasts a choice soundtrack throughout the day, plays AC/DC's "For Those About To Rock" as the drivers strap in. And in that moment, I could run through a brick wall. It's the perfect hype moment for what's about to unfold.

I hurry back behind pit wall and document the pit crews in their final moments of preparation, and then take my place inside turn one for the start of the race. The light is beautiful. Cars roll slowly right to the starting line, as per series and track owner Tom Mayberry's wishes. The race is on. Everything that happens from here becomes a blur to me personally. The early parts of the race are rough - slowed by caution after caution for spun and wrecked race cars. Oxford had become a notably single-lane race track in recent history, so it was a constant fight for the bottom lane, which resulted in lots of on-track contact. Under each yellow flag period, the damaged cars head to the infield pit road - unique at Oxford as a two-sided, m-shaped strip of pavement with no wall separating crews from cars. Cars pit on both sides of the road. Other cars pit on the very inside of the frontstretch itself, all meeting at a single point inside turn one to rejoin the race track. Somehow, they all sort themselves out without incident every time. As the sunlight dims, the unlit infield pits become impossibly dark. Some teams work by headlamp, others even rely on cell phone flashlights. I find myself triple-checking for oncoming traffic - the cars don't have headlights after all - before sprinting across the pit road to find a new vantage point. The infield is so dimly lit that shooting candid photos is a challenge - I have to wait to find slivers of highlight, or slow my shutter speed down and introduce motion blur.

The Oxford 250 is a race seldom won by the "best" driver or the "fastest" car that day. Joe Pastore set the pace early, leading lap after lap; he was eventually sidelined before the finish. The lengthy nature of the race means that race teams are working on different strategies - when to pit for tires and fuel, which adjustments to make as the track conditions change. Circumstances also dictate their actions, so they have to think on their feet. After Pastore relinquished the lead, others had their turn at the front: rookie Max Cookson, with an incredibly impressive drive; Eddie MacDonald, who eventually finished second; and 2020 winner Johnny Clark. Clark inherited the lead late in the race. On lap 242, as he was working through lapped traffic, he came upon the slower car of Jimmy Hebert. With Oxford's current single-lane nature, slower and faster cars found themselves glued to the inside curb. Clark slowed abruptly and then-second place driver Cole Butcher in his bright red #53 car made heavy contact with Clark's rear bumper. Clark was sent spinning out of the lead and rejoined the field in fourth position. An additional couple of yellow flags flew - a total of 18 on the day - in the final eight laps, but Butcher crossed the line first and brought the Oxford 250 trophy back to Canada for the first time since 1995. In the moments after the race, Clark, who finished fourth, demonstrated his frustration with the incident by nosing under Butcher's car and shoving it down the track. Clark exited his own #54 car dejected. Butcher was grinning, even in a victory lane that felt spartan compared to years previous. Photos were taken, interviews were conducted, and the thirty-nine teams who didn't finish on the podium packed up and headed home, surely already thinking about their approach for next year.

Through my two days at Oxford, I walked 23 miles and took between 3 - 4,000 photographs. I still don't feel like I've ever done the 250 justice in now five years of covering it behind my camera. And that's why I'm writing this now - to put my experience to print and to implore anyone who hasn't ever been to make the trip. It's an absolutely epic weekend, and one worth experiencing year after year.

Thank you for your time.

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