The 4th Turn

~ By Tom Boggie

Fans who haven’t followed Joe Williams’ racing career might have been a little perplexed by his comments last Sunday after winning the opening-night sportsman feature at Albany-Saratoga Speedway.

“I killed them on the blacktop here,” he said. “I was sad when they went back to dirt.”

Wow. I didn’t think anyone was sad when the dirt went back on the racing surface at Albany-Saratoga.

But asphalt racing was just one part of the broad and successful racing career of the Scotia driver, which has gone from dirt to asphalt and back to dirt.

After a very successful run in go-karts and then IMCA modifieds (racking up nine wins at Fonda Speedway in that division), Williams moved up to sportsman in 2004 and was named the Fonda Speedway Rookie of the Year in that division. At the end of the year, he earned the Hard Charger award during Super DIRT Week in Syracuse, finishing 14th after starting 28th in the sportsman feature.

For the next three years, he was a Saturday night regular at Fulton Speedway, picking up six career wins along the way, and continuing to make a name for himself in Central New York. In 2005, he sat on the pole for the 30-lap Sportsman feature at Super DIRT Week and finished 10th. The next year, he started fifth at the Moody Mile and finished second, driving a Bicknell chassis powered by a Groski-built motor.

But nothing could compare to his 2007 campaign.

That season, he dominated the DIRTcar Sportsman Series, winning seven of 14 races, and easily won the overall Mr. DIRT Sportsman championship.

After moving up to a 358 modified, Williams never enjoyed the success he had running a sportsman, but that all changed in 2010.
That was the year that Champlain Valley Racing officials decided to switch both Albany-Saratoga and Devil’s Bowl speedways to asphalt. Williams notched his first asphalt win at Albany-Saratoga on June 18, 2010, and the next season, regained his top-dog status.

In 2011, Williams finished second to Jake Zakrzewski in the season opener at Albany-Saratoga, then rattled off a four-race winning streak. He also won the first two modified races of the year at the Bowl, giving him a six-race winning streak. A wreck on the first lap of the feature at Albany-Saratoga on June 10 and back-to-back finishes out of the top five on Aug. 12 and Aug 19 allowed Ron Proctor to overtake Williams in the battle for the track championship, even though Williams finished the year with five wins, one more than Proctor.

When Albany-Saratoga switched back to dirt prior to the 2012 season, Williams continued to run on the asphalt at the Bowl for a couple more seasons, picking up another win on Sept. 7, 2012.
Williams’ victory last Sunday, which put $1,500 into his pocket, was his first at Malta since July 1, 2011.

“This is a tough place to win,” he admitted. “We’re going to run as much as we can here, but my son races go-karts, and he takes priority.”

There were over 200 cars in the pits for opening night Sunday, the first time ever that many cars have signed in. That number included an incredible 59 sportsman.

Marc Johnson showed he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with this year, winning the 56-lap “Hell or High Water” in his first run for his new sponsor, S&S Asphalt Paving, in a new Bicknell chassis. “That’s what they want, to win,” he said of his new sponsor. “I’ve got to give them what they want.”

Sunday was a prime example of how racing luck can bite you in the butt. In his heat race, Stewart Friesen made contact with the rear end of Derrick McGrew Jr.’s car and suffered a flat left front tire. He ran the heat that way, but failed to quality. After starting 21st in the feature, he could only manage to get back to seventh after 56 laps.

On a lap six restart in the feature, Matt Sheppard appeared to wheel-hop coming out of the third turn and flew into the side of Jessey Mueller’s car, with Peter Britten and Brian Berger getting collected in the mishap. Sheppard was done for the night.

Jackie Brown Jr. finished 17th in the modified feature, which doesn’t sound like a big deal. But as he was waiting in line for warmups, the distributor cap and rotor exploded, and his crew had to scramble to get his back-up car unloaded and ready for the heat races.

After teaming up with Tommy Spencer last year, Jim Nagle is running his own team in the sportsman division again this year. His new Bicknell chassis carries sponsorship from Mickle’s Automotive, which is also Ronnie Johnson’s primary sponsor. “If not for Ronnie and Gary Mickle, I wouldn’t be here this year,” said Nagle last Sunday.

One of the sportsman drivers who failed to qualify for the feature was 15-year-old Fire Swamp of Hogansburg. With no type of racing experience at all, Swamp climbed behind the wheel of a sportsman last year and recorded seven wins at three different tracks in the North Country in the limited sportsman division.

While doing some research on Williams’ career, I stumbled across some other tidbits about sportsman racing at the Moody Mile that I had forgotten about.

My old buddy John McAuliffe was one of the most successful sportsman drivers ever at Syracuse, even though he never won the feature. He had three straight six-place finishes from 1999-2001, and then finished second twice, in 2004 and 2009.

Mike Ballestero, who sits on top of the all-time sportsman win list at Albany-Saratoga, started on the outside pole in 2004 and finished third.

Alton Palmer started on the pole in 1998, and led the first 10 laps before losing the lead to Lebanon Valley regular Chris Kokoso. Kokoso went on to get the win, with Palmer second.

One of the surprise participants at Lebanon Valley’s practice session last Saturday was Super DIRTcar Series star Mat Williamson. Williamson was helping shake down the new Kevin Starchak-owned S&S Asphalt Paving modified that asphalt racer Chase Downing will be racing on a part-time basis at the Valley this season. Downing couldn’t make the practice because of prior commitments.

The Valley will be holding a second practice this Saturday from 4-8 p.m. before opening its season on May 1.

Albany-Saratoga Speedway will return to action for what will probably be a wild night on Friday. With a lot of the top modified drivers competing in the Super DIRTcar Series race on the dirt at Bristol, Tenn., this weekend, the opportunity opens up for a new face to find his way to victory lane, and let me tell you, there are a lot of drivers who are hungry for a win. All other divisions will also be in action, and a limited number of spectators will be allowed into the grandstands, according to promoter Lyle DeVore.

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