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As Jeff Abold turned into his final few laps, Dave Shullick Jr, the current leader, started to run out of gas. It was the Oswego Speedway’s 2016 Budweiser Classic — an annual Labor Day tradition then in its 60th year — and Abold, driving a maroon non-wing, big-block supermodified car, immediately started to gain ground.
On lap 200, the Classic’s final four turns, Shullick’s car slowed to a limp and Abold took the lead, cruising past the waving checkered flag for the win. Abold’s father, who built him his first ever race car, lifted the Baldwinsville native out of his car after a medal was put around his neck and a Budweiser cap was thrust on his head. Abold stood up and pumped both fists high in the air.
The Budweiser Classic has been the ⅝-mile asphalt track hallmark event since 1956. But this year on Labor Day, with COVID-19, “The Steel Palace” will be quiet. The drivers and Syracuse-area racing community have been left to grapple with what could have been.
Oswego Speedway officially announced on Aug. 22 that the featured Novelis Supermodified season was canceled, including the Classic’s 64th race. It’s the first time since the event’s conception that the prestigious event will not be run. The main roadblock was New York executive order 202.32, which prohibits race tracks from holding events with fans, according to Camden Proud, the PR manager for the track and a driver himself in the supermodified series.
“It’s a unique race. It’s a wonderful atmosphere,” Abold said of the Classic. “The energy of the crowd and just the different teams and the cars that are there is unmatched with that race or anything else we have at our level. It’s tough to not have that.”
The featured supermodified series completes 12-13 races, all at Oswego, during the summer. Oswego Speedway also hosts many national touring series, including the NASCAR Whelen Modified series and NAPA Super DIRT Week, the latter of which was held at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse until 2016. All of these events have been postponed until 2021.
“Our track owners really prefer to have our fans in the seats to hold the events not only from a financial standpoint but just for the fans themselves,” Proud said. “That’s just how we prefer to do things here.”
Without fans, it’s hard for the track to pay the winning purse for events, as well as employees’ salaries and all other associated costs with running the track. Even if it was more feasible, it’s a situation most racers would not enjoy.
“It really wouldn’t be right,” Abold said. “It’s something we could do for the sake of racing but we’re able to race and do what we do because of the fans. And I felt it’d be a little selfish where we’d be able to run and do that and they wouldn’t be able to take part in that in some way, shape or form.”
For driver Alison Sload, 29, who finished fifth in the standings last season, this is not her first prolonged break from racing, despite starting at the age of 7. When she got sick of watching from the grandstands as her brother raced quarter midget go-karts, she told her dad she needed a car. While it took a few years for things to click, she didn’t look back.
But in a 2017 race at Waterford Speedbowl in Connecticut, Sload suffered a bad accident that she said was “100%” her fault. She didn’t give enough room to the driver on the outside and the result was a multi-car pileup.
If you’re having any problems, everybody’s there to help you get through it. So it’s really like a family. Going to Oswego Speedway is like hanging out with your family.
Alison Sload, race car driver
“My head wasn’t really in it, I had a lot of other things going on with work,” Sload, still a business analyst by day for her family’s bus company, said. “And I had been doing it for twenty-something years. It was kind of just a good time to take a step back and take a break.”
In 2019, she found an opportunity at Oswego Speedway driving for Nicotra Racing. And in the second-leg of the two races on opening weekend, Sload won the Shampine Memorial 50, becoming the first woman at Oswego to ever win a featured event in the supermodified series. Sload was also the first woman at Oswego to win a featured event in a three-quarter midget go-karts in 2011.
The accomplishments still don’t feel real, Sload said. But while the break after 2017 proved to be much needed, the COVID-19 break has been intrusive, she said. To get back to supermodified racing, Sload plans on partaking in the ISMA Star Classic in New Hampshire with her Oswego teammate, and 2019 points champion, Otto Sitterly.
Sload has also been to local dirt tracks where she lives in Pennsylvania, about 30 miles west of Philadelphia. There, they’ve been able to race almost the entire time with masks and social distancing measures in place, she said. Many events have held fans in some capacity.
“It’s been pretty easy to do all that and keep yourself out of trouble,” Sload said. “It’s just weird that in New York you can’t do the same. It’s kind of odd.”
New York has been notably strict with respect to motorsports during the pandemic. Even the NASCAR Cup Series, which runs an annual August race at Watkins Glen, pulled out of New York in favor of a brand new event at the Daytona Road Course in Florida. NASCAR, which has run several races this season without any fans, cited “New York state health and safety regulations” as the reason for the swap, per a press release.
The community of drivers also miss being at the track together. Sload said she’s tried to keep up with everyone on social media, but it’s just not the same.
“If you’re having any problems, everybody’s there to help you get through it,” Sload said. “So it’s really like a family. Going to Oswego Speedway is like hanging out with your family. And I really miss that this year.”
A couple of weeks before the Classic, Bridge Street, the main street in Oswego, is usually lined with checkered flags and signs that commemorate the names of past Classic winners. This year was no different — the town went ahead with the tribute despite cancellations.
In 2016, the pole in front of A&P Automotive, the Abold’s family business, was designated as the chronological spot for the next winner’s name to be displayed. Because Abold himself went on to win the race, he now gets to pull up to work each day during Classic season and glance up at the sign. Abold still feels great pride seeing his name, he said.
It’s one tradition the pandemic — and the racing pause — hasn’t taken away. It’s the Oswego racing community’s one sense of normalcy as they eagerly wait for the day that engines can roar in front of thousands of screaming fans once more.
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