SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) Wesley Moody really doesn’t want to think about it. He knows he will shed a tear or two when he bids farewell to an old friend.
That will come Sunday when the final race is staged at the historic mile-long dirt racetrack at the New York State Fairgrounds, the so-called Moody Mile where the gritty stock car racer from the Adirondack Mountains left a lasting impression more than four decades ago.
”I’m really disappointed. It’s a shame,” said the 75-year-old Moody, who operates a landscaping business in Saranac Lake and still fields a race team. ”All the mile tracks are gone for us guys.”
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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a car guy at heart, announced in September that the state will spend $50 million to transform the fair into a year-round destination. The idea is to rebrand the fairgrounds as a New York-themed park, and that means the racetrack and its time-worn grandstand will be replaced by an equestrian park, indoor ice arena and more.
Moody staked his claim to local fame in 1970 when he became the first driver to average 100 mph for one lap on the track’s often unforgiving clay surface (the current track record is an impressive 144.950 mph, set by Billy Pauch in a sprint car in 1994).
”We’d been racing three or four nights prior to that lap. We were exhausted,” Moody recalled. ”We just threw a setup at it, and for some reason the car just was unbelievably fast. We broke the track record by 2 full seconds.”
The lap that brought Moody’s name into local lore came in a 1936 Chevy coupe with a 454 cubic-inch engine, and he’ll be bringing that car back for old time’s sake to show it off before the Syracuse 200 on Sunday, a fitting cap to Super DIRT Week, the Northeast’s annual October dirt-racing extravaganza.
”I’ve always loved that place,” Moody said. ”A lot of guys hate it. It’s dangerous coming out of turn 2. The back wall moves in from what it should be. You’re going like 150 mph and that wall comes right at yah. And when you wreck there, you wreck really good.”
The Syracuse Mile, which was built as a horse track in 1826, staged its first auto race in 1903, the same year the Milwaukee Mile opened and three years after Timothy Woodruff, lieutenant governor to Theodore Roosevelt, wrote a letter urging the state ”to get up an automobile race for the State Fair.”
When the checkered flag waves for the final time, it will be goodbye to one of only six mile-long dirt tracks remaining in the United States, according to local race historian Gary Spaid.
”It’s 112 years of history of auto racing history,” Spaid said.
The Moody Mile leaves quite a legacy, and it’s tinged with gruesome reminders of the dangers of auto racing:
– In 1911, Lee Oldfield’s car caromed into the crowd standing in the infield, killing 11 spectators in one of the worst disasters in American auto racing history.
– In 1924, San Francisco-born Jimmy Murphy, who won the 1921 French Grand Prix at Le Mans and the 1922 Indianapolis 500, hit the inside rail during a race and was killed.
– In the 1930s, only Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Syracuse held championship races in open wheel.
– In 1954, a crash on the backstretch involved more than 50 cars. The track installed warning lights to alert drivers of trouble ahead and an updated version of the system remains in place.
– In 1960, Bobby Grim held off Tony Bettenhausen to capture the 100-mile ”big car classic” at the state fair. The race was decided by about 10 feet, costing Bettenhausen a fourth win at the track. A.J. Foyt finished third.
– In 1972, Buzzie Reutimann beat NASCAR Hall of Famer Jerry Cook to win the first big-block modified championship.
Other drivers who tackled the tricky mile also include Mario Andretti, Al Unser, and Rodger Ward in open wheel; stock car stars Tim Flock, Lee Petty, Buck Baker, Junior Johnson, Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts and Joe Weatherly; and sprint car’s Steve Kinser, a winner of 20 championships in the World of Outlaws.
Super DIRT Week was born in the 1970s (it will continue for at least another decade at a track to be built in nearby Oswego), and winning the big-block modified finale at the Moody Mile was a big deal with a $100,000 payday – the Daytona 500 of dirt racing in the Northeast.
Small wonder that legions of fans like Greg Moore have been fixtures at the dusty old place.
”It’s the biggest race of the year,” said Moore, who runs an auto repair shop in suburban Albany, New York and has been making the 150-mile trek west for most of the past four decades. ”You see some good races.”
AP auto racing site: www.racing.ap.org
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