Buffalo driver David Russell had never raced at Jennerstown Speedway prior to Saturday night.
After winning the 40-lap Late Model Division feature in the grand reopening of the .522-mile asphalt oval, Russell found it difficult to believe that not so long ago, the once-idle track was in disrepair following five seasons without racing.
“I would have never known this track was in any kind of bad condition because this track is smooth,” said Russell, who overtook Matt Sever on Turn 3 in Lap 23 and held off Sever and former track champion Barry Awtey the remainder of the race. “The facility is very nice, very clean. I can’t thank the owners enough for putting their heads out, sticking it out there to bring late models back.
“I know it’s going to take a little time to build some cars and get the fan base back to where it needs to be, but good things take time and I think this facility can draw cars.”
The season opener briefly was delayed by a rain shower during the heat races.
A week ago, rain postponed the event.
Cool and wet forecasts probably impacted Saturday’s racing as neither the car count nor the attendance met the expectations of new owners Rob Beck, John Taylor and Bryan Smith of Altoona.
The overall car count was more than 30 after an afternoon crash took out one vehicle and two others were lost during heats.
“We do have a lot of drivers we have talked to between our race director and us, and there is a good possibility the car counts are going to increase,” said Taylor, part of the ownership group that undertook massive renovations and repairs on a track that hadn’t been used for competition since the 2008 season. “I think the weather held it back today.”
Several drivers at other tracks were among the crowd estimated at 1,500.
“It’s great, awesome. It’s wonderful to see this back up again,” Beck said when asked how it felt to see the first action on the track in years. “We’ve worked really hard for this and it’s nice to see this all come into place tonight.”
Russell’s No. 93 car was ready from the outset, as he won the late-model heat race.
In the feature, Sever led for the first 22 laps. Awtey held the second spot until Russell made an aggressive move to pass him on the 19th lap. Sever finished second, with Awtey third and Cody Quarrick in fourth. Seven late models started the day, and six cars made it to the feature race, with two of those encountering mechanical issues.
“The car was just awesome,” Russell said. “I have never had a race car that handled like it did today. This car was just on rails.”
Paul Koffler Jr. won the 20-lap Hobby Stocks feature, with Matt Welch, Gene Zerfoss, Dale Kimberly and Aaron Von Fleet rounding out the top-five.
“This is definitely the fastest track I’ve run on in a long time,” Koffler said. “This feels great.”
Former track champion Steve Long of Rockwood won the Chargers feature, as Stephen Shelpman was third, and Jon Scott, second.
Street Stock rookie Anthony Aiello won the 25-lap street stock feature, holding off Ted Gibala. Aiello also was leading the Charger feature until a mechanical issue took him out of that race.
“New owners, ‘Thank you,’ ” Aiello said. “I always wanted to race this place.”
Steve Settle led all six laps of the hobby stock division heat race to claim the first official heat win of the new Jennerstown era.
North Huntingdon’s Aiello claimed the six-lap Chargers heat race, taking the lead on the final lap.
Winners of the two eight-lap street stock heats were Gibala and Dink Colarusso, a former Jennerstown and Motordrome division champion. The same two drivers were involved in a collision during the feature, which Colarusso was leading through eight laps.
Matt Smith and Mike Opalinsky participated in a Modified Division exhibition. Opalinsky finished the eight lap run.
“I love coming up here and I hope we get a car count here,” Smith said. “It was hard because there were only two of us here and I break down.”
The new owners, who purchased the Speedway from Dave Wheeler, encountered many obstacles in bringing the track back to life.
“The weather was the biggest challenge,” Beck said. “Lately and, in fact, the whole way down the path, the weather has been a problem.”
Taylor backed that assessment.
“Between the winter – the snow that was here – we couldn’t do anything to the track or the facilities except for the stuff that needed to be done on the inside,” Taylor said. “The sheer mass of snow and ice created problems. Then when it was done snowing, we had rain. It’s been an uphill battle.”
But when Jennerstown Mayor Joyce Ginter shouted, “Drivers, start your engines,” over the public address system to officially kick off the features, the bad weather became a memory.
“I have a bunch of feelings,” Taylor said. “ ‘Thank God.’ I’m glad that it’s underway. There is happiness seeing fans here and the cars that showed up.
“We didn’t have the turnout we expected from the fans or the drivers, however, considering the weather the last couple days and what we were calling for today, we still had a pretty decent turnout.”
Jennerstown Speedway will hold a number of events to keep the track active beyond the racing.
A carnival was set up outside the oval, and a fireworks display followed Saturday’s racing.
On Friday, the first Jennerstown Speedway drive-in movie will be shown on a portable screen in the pits.
Next weekend, a three-day car show will be held. Saturday’s racing will be Military Appreciation Night. A special late model twin 30 event will be held May 31.
“The fans seemed happy and really glad to be here,” Beck said. “Everyone seems to be having a good time and that’s what we wanted.”
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.