By T.J. Buffenbarger
Two weeks ago Friday night rolled around and I ended up getting out of work quite a bit later than I had originally planned. After figuring out how much time I had vs. how much time it would take to drive to my original destination, I called my Dad and told him I was going to Ionia Raceway Park this week. This trip was not for a sprint car race, but mainly to check out what is going on at the track I call home.
For the better part of about 13 years I watched every big show come through town and make a stop at Ionia. I cut my teeth writing about races and the people behind them as my first break was writing race reports and doing the live web casts from “the clubhouse” at the track. When the doors closed in the middle of 2000, I knew there would be no more weekly sprint car racing at Ionia, and I only hoped then that the track could be reopened and remain dirt. It was tough going out there and seeing the weeds growing as tall as the grandstands as the track sat.
Thankfully Jeff Chapko from Ionia Honda purchased the track in the beginning of 2002. He immediately began work on the facility, and kept the track dirt. Granted he would feature weekly late model racing, but Jeff has booked two sprint car dates so his late models can venture to some of Michigan’s biggest races.
The track conditions are awesome. The new clay on the surface seems to hold water very well. New infield tire markers buried in the ground do not move, but seem to be more popular than the old tractor tires or berm. The tree that once cost a sprint car driver his arm located off turn two is now gone (Sorry Nelligan, your photo op is gone). The improvements are nice, but the best part seeing race cars going around my home track again. Even if it was modifieds and stock cars I wrote about many of those same drivers for years, and the familiar sounds was very comforting.
The other great part about Friday was walking in and feeling as if I had went into a time warp. Basically all the same people that worked at the Speedway before are still there. I received a very warm welcome, and everyone seems glad (and rather surprised) I was there.
One other surprise was two Ionia sprint car connections on hand. Barry Roscoe on hand to shake down some new engine parts on his sprint car. Roscoe went out for two sessions that made my trip even more worthwhile. Seeing a sprint car going around the track just made me really excited for the two races later this year.
Spike LaCombe was also on hand with his son Travis, who is now driving an IMCA Modified. Travis used to sit up in the stands with us every week with Joe Bares (who now races with SOD) and his siblings. We saw Spike win, and we sure did see Spike crash the night he went into the turn one wall and had to be air lifted to Grand Rapids. Even Spike brought up the topic while talking about loaning one of his top wings to Bares last year saying “Yeah, you saw one of those get crunched here in turn one”, amazingly with a smile. Even though rain ended the night prematurely, it was great knowing that whenever I want to get my racing fix I once again can go home, have fun, and enjoy the evening.