Tuesday March 16, 2004

New Owners Plan to Offer More Entertainment at Oswego Speedway

Go-cart, fly-over events and concerts are some of the new fun things being considered for the race track.
By Chris Motola

    For 52 years, the Oswego Speedway's five-eighths of a mile track has served as one of the City of Oswego's greatest attractions, drawing fans from out of state and Canada during lazy summer days. Now in its 53rd year, "one of the premiershort tracks in the country" will be undergoing some changes, not the least of which is a change in ownership.

    Former racer Steve Gioia Jr. and racing enthusiast Pat Furlong Sr. have purchased the Speedway, the legacy the Caruso brothers - Harry, Bill, and George - started in 1951. The final deal will have closed by the time of this article's printing.

    Under the new ownership, the Speedway will undergo a philosophical transformation from a racing-only establishment to a versatile entertainment-oriented center.

    "In today's day and age, we have to look at this more as an entertainment facility. We're not discounting the importance of racing, but people come here because they like to be entertained for three or four hours," says Gioia. "It just so happens that in the past racing was the medium for their entertainment - it's still going to be our main concern - but we're going to try to focus on keeping people entertained."

    The new owners' focus on entertainment will manifest in a number of ways. One of the concerns, when it comes to the racing itself, is the "dead time" involved in events that might leave an audience, particularly a young one, bored. With faster, more streamlined events, races can fit more easily into a schedule rather than dominating a fan's entire day.

    "We have to run a quick and efficient show," he says. "We don't want to keep the fans here until midnight. We'd like to have the races done by 10:30, give them time to meet the drivers and still give them plenty of time to get home."

    Gioia says by making sure the cars are all in line when it's time to race and by sticking closely to schedules, a good deal of the excessive time can be trimmed from the events.

    Broadening the track's horizons, however, also means bringing in new events and activities to better underscore the new focus on entertainment.

    A greater variety of events will be held at the Speedway in an effort to draw a more diverse audience. A monster truck show will be held at the Speedway for the first time in 2004, for example. Coordinating specialty races with car shows may also become part of the strategy.

    "We may have some makeshift drag racing on certain nights," he says.

    "We have coordinated an effort with the Disney Channel - we're having the Central New York Pinewood Derby championships here," says Gioia, referring to a gravity-powered event in which children "race" small wooden cars they've created.

    A greater range of racing enthusiasts will have access to the track via a new exhibition program.

    "We have a sub-compact and mini-truck exhibition on Friday nights in conjunction with a program at the New York State Fairgrounds," says Gioia. Racers in this program "soup up" their streetcars for enhanced performance. The program also carries with it a social agenda of giving young "motorheads" a legal outlet for their racing passions.

    "We're trying to keep some of the kids off the streets and bring them here to race their cars around makeshift courses," Gioia explains. "That's what we need to do, we need to attract the youth and make it a friendly place."

    "One other big thing we're doing is having go-cart racing here on Sundays, that's never been done before," he says. "It's a professional division, but there'll be other avenues for people to get started in the racing."

    Talks are also in the works between the Speedway and other organizations to bring non-racing entertainment to the track. According to Gioia, Fort Drum has been "very supportive" of the idea of performing fly-overs during special events. Gioia and Furlong have also been negotiating with Galaxy Communications, which owns Syracuse-based radio station K-Rock, to bring a concert to the Speedway.

    While there will be plenty of new events for the warm weather, Oswego's harsh winters aren't ideal for racing. The Speedway, however, will not be entering hibernation completely.

    "We had planned on having a snowmobile race, but we had to cancel it. I think we'll be having two of those next year, though," says Gioia. "They had one here about 30 years ago, but they haven't had one since. There aren't enough things to do here in the winter."

    Gioia and Furlong don't plan to make any major physical changes to the track this year, but do plan to repaint and remodel areas that require it and are asking fans to bear with them during the transitional period. Eventually, they'd like to replace the venerable 24-position scoreboard.

    "We'd just like to make the place a more spectator-friendly area," says Gioia.

    Gioia's father, Steve Sr., started his collection of racing cars in 1962, originally hiring drivers to race for him. Gioia began driving for his father in 1974, eventually buying his team. He retired from racing in 1996, having seen his team attain track championship and Classic winner status. Furlong's son currently races at the Speedway.

    "I'd been around the track many years through my racing and Pat had been here through his son's racing, so we had kind of known the track would be for sale for awhile," says Gioia. "The previous owners who had it for 52 years were hinting that they'd like to do something different and sell it."

    While owning a track might be the dream of many racing fans, the decision to purchase the Speedway was the subject of some ambivalence for the new owners.

    "Pat and I talked about it, and of course we were kind of hesitant because some racetracks haven't done as well lately. You can actually see the attendance declining a bit from where it had been 10 or 15 years ago," explains Gioia. "We decided that if we did the right thing, we could bring it back and hopefully make it profitable again."

    At its peak during the 60s, the track drew thousands of fans from as far away as Michigan and Canada. The early 90s, due to unfavorable currency exchange rates, the Speedway's weekly supermodified races - featuring custom-built cars modified for power and speed - saw fewer Canadian fans and an average of 6,000 fans from local regions. By 2000, the number had fallen to an average of 4,000. While major racing events like the Budweiser Classic still draw a sizeable crowd from abroad, the weekly races were becoming less profitable.

    "I think the interest (in racing) is still there, we just need to convince fans to come back and see what it's like today," says Gioia. "We all know the economy's bad - it's hurt entertainment everywhere to a certain extent."

    Gioia says he's working closely with Canadian contacts to try to attract former fans from north of the border back to the Speedway. The new owners also plan to continue the Caruso brothers' policy of accepting Canadian currency as American currency for ticket purchases. In the short term, the currently weak value of the American dollar may make the trip more affordable to Canadians.

    Surprisingly, the Speedway's events may be a harder sell to out-of-state American fans.

    "It's difficult; there were different reasons why they came," explains Gioia. "At one time, this track was one of the hubs of short track racing so many competitors from all over came here. There are more race tracks out there now."

    Nevertheless, Gioia believes that many of those tracks still don't have what Oswego's has to offer.

    "One thing we have going here is that our track has national prominence and we hope to keep it or make it better than it is," he says.