For 56 years, cars have zipped around the 1/3-mile asphalt track knownas Wall Stadium, the lone remaining paved track in New Jersey. Wall isthe epitome of a bullring--short and fast with a rough-and-tumble pastand a tenuous future.
Thomas and Jennie Nicol got their first taste of racing in the '40s whenthey visited Long Branch Speedway, the long since defunct 1/5-mile pavedoval on the Jersey Shore. Infected by the racing bug, thehusband-and-wife team eventually decided to build their own track. Theysettled on an area in Wall Township, just 15 minutes from famouslandmarks such as Asbury Park's Convention Hall.
Even today, the location is a vacationer's paradise. What better than tospend the day at the beach and the night at the races?
Racing at Wall got underway in May 1950, and it hasn't stopped yet. For52 years, the Nicols watched over their dream. From NASCAR Modifieds toARTS Trucks, to ISMA Supermodifieds, it seems that at one time oranother everything and everyone has run at Wall.
Legendary drivers such as Maynard Troyer, Charlie Jarzombek, and RonBouchard have all tested their mettle against the quirky asphalt ofWall. Martin Truex Jr., a two-time Busch Series champion and currentNextel Cup driver, cut his teeth on the high-banked track. Even DonHawk, NASCAR's director of regional racing development, wheeled a racecar around the Jersey Shore landmark. However, no Wall alumnus hasachieved greater success on the national stage than Ray Evernham, whoseEvernham Motorsports has become one of the premier organizations in Cupracing.
...sometimes leads to spectacular crashes...
...as this Legends Car takes a midair tumble.
The Jersey native started traveling to the short tracks with his uncle.Spending weekends at Wall, Flemington, and Hightstown, it didn't takelong for the young Evernham to get hooked on racing.
Even so, asphalt racing wasn't really on Evernham's mind. "At that timeI wanted to run dirt," says the three-time Cup champion as Jeff Gordon'screw chief. "But dirt didn't have an entry-level program, and Wall had aclass called Modern Stocks. I actually started racing at Wall Stadiumbecause I could afford it."
From Modern Stocks, Evernham graduated to Sportsman cars and then to histrue love, Modifieds. He was a terror on the track and owns winners'trophies from every division he ran at Wall--from Midgets, to Modifieds,to Sportsman cars, to the Moderns.
A pair of Modifieds wage battle.
Naturally, Evernham has some favorite memories from his home track."One, obviously, would be my first Modified feature win [in 1982].Another was the first Modified race I ever ran. It ended up being TurkeyDerby," Evernham says of Wall's renowned Thanksgiving Day contest. "I'mlike 20 years old, lining up in this damn Modified Turkey Derby, andI've got Maynard Troyer, Charlie Jarzombek, Ron Bouchard . . . all thesepeople [were] in my heat race and I qualified the car. So I was prettyproud of that."
One of the allures of Wall from a driver's standpoint is the layout. TheNicol family built the track with 30-degree banking in the corners and16-degree banking in the straights, making it one of the faster tracksaround. A Modified can easily turn laps in the 12-second bracket, whichis pretty quick for a 1/3-mile track.
"Wall Stadium is different," says Evernham. "Maybe a mini Bristol. It'sfast. It's only a third. It was always pretty narrow on thestraightaways, so you could haul ass coming off the corner."
It may be vintage racing now, but Modifieds like these are a big part ofthe track's herita
Success at Wall requires nerves of steel and a truckload of finesse. "Itwas like a little dance," explains Evernham of his driving days. "Youhad to get into a rhythm to where you'd be sliding that Modified up offthat corner with the tail hung out. You almost had to over-correct itand let the tail slide back to the left by the starter's net, or you'dclip the fence. Then you'd swing it back out to the right. So it waskind of a strange line you had to run to be fast."
Walk through the pits at the speedway today and you'll find just aboutevery type of race car: Street Stocks, Bombers, Legends Cars, Trucks,and, of course, the Modifieds. Family, friends, and the driversthemselves are working on the race cars. Joyce is in the credentialbooth at the pit entrance, a spot she has occupied for the past sevenyears. Jim Smith has his cameras ready to shoot all the action. FlagmanFloyd Goff climbs into the flag stand. The smell of fuel and exhaust iseverywhere as the sun begins to set.
A Modified Sportsman crate engine class has been launched at WallStadium.
Leaning against a big red toolbox is John Blewett III. The 32-year-oldis no stranger to Wall. His family's salvage business is only fiveminutes away, and they have been coming to the track every Saturdaynight since 1971. Wall would not be Wall without a Blewett on thestarting grid.
This season, as he has in years past, Blewett will run the entire16-race NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. That series will take him to eighttracks from Virginia to New Hampshire and points in between. When heisn't traveling he will be at Wall, running the Saturday night races infront of 1,000 people, most of whom he knows.
"I could walk over there [to the grandstands] now and recognize or namejust about every face in the place," says Blewett. "I've seen them sinceI was a kid." Blewett finished second to his brother Jimmy in Wall'sopening Modified feature on May 7.
"There's a ton of second- and third-generation guys here, whether it'sModifieds, Street Stocks, or whatever," he says. "There are a lot ofpeople who have been here a long time."
Although they have their roots in the South, Legends provide entry-levelracing at the Jers
That is what Wall is like, a family of competitors and a family of fans.Conversely, there was a time when Wall had a rougher side. "When I camehere as a kid, if you wore the wrong T-shirt or the wrong jacket and satin the wrong section, well . . ." says Blewett, adding a smile foremphasis. "That's just the way it went. You made sure you didn't comearound the corner from the men's room at the wrong time."
That was then, and this is now. The pits are paved. The bathrooms,concession areas, and grandstands are all upgraded, the result of amillion-dollar investment by the new track owners four years ago. Formerracers Fred Archer, Joseph Sanzari, Tim Shinn, and the Creamer familyformed a partnership, bought Wall from the Nicol family in 2002, andimmediately began the improvements. They have big plans but, as manyshort tracks in the Northeast today can attest, things have been tough,leading to rampant speculation about the track's future.
"It's no secret that the partnership is entertaining developmentopportunities," says track operator Jack Terhune.
The reason is pure economics. Wall's core fan base numbers about 1,200to 1,300, and Terhune says he needs to consistently put 1,500 to 2,000people in the stands to make it work.
Car counts have remained strong at Wall.
The solution to Wall's problem is not simple. With eight majorprofessional sports teams, New York City, Great Adventure, the JerseyShore, and more within one hour of Wall Township Speedway, thecompetition for the entertainment dollar is fierce.
The intense competition for the entertainment dollar coupled with thesky-rocketing value of Jersey Shore property makes the future of NewJersey's lone remaining asphalt track look bleak.
Even though the track is for sale, the owners haven't ignored it and arenot giving up on it. In addition to the facility improvements, they havedeveloped new promotions and marketing opportunities. More importantly,they've gotten back to their core racing product. Gates are opening ontime and the heat races are starting on schedule. An entry-level FactoryStock division was added last year, bringing back the affordabilityfactor that got Evernham into racing.
"It seemed like when the Nicols left, everybody but the four newpartners was running the racetrack," says Blewett. "I think over thepast two years or so, they've gotten back to basics and that's whatpeople like here. They don't like flash and pizzazz. They don't care ifthey get a T-shirt thrown at them or somebody special sings 'TheStar-Spangled Banner.' They like to watch the same guys every Saturday."
Getting back to those basics can help Wall attract the new fan.Ironically, it may be NASCAR itself that can save Wall. While thesanctioning body gets blamed for ruining short-track racing byscheduling Nextel Cup races on Saturday nights, Daytona Beach realizesthe importance of tracks like Wall.
Three-wide Street Stocks.
"A lot of people don't realize that these guys [Truex Jr., Kurt and KyleBusch, Denny Hamlin] are products of our own system," says Hawk, ofNASCAR. "Honestly, I could probably get shot from the other side of thehall [at NASCAR's Daytona headquarters], but I'm going to say it anyway:I think we probably could have done a better job in the past."
Recognizing that, NASCAR is taking a proactive approach to shining thespotlight on local drivers at local tracks. They stationed six publicrelations specialists around the country. Their sole job is to developand write stories about the happenings at the local tracks. These arenot just race reports but real human interest stories designed to garnerwider media and fan attention.
In addition, the sanctioning body is involving its major sponsors, suchas Allstate and Home Depot, in marketing and support programs designedto boost the total short-track package. Hawk says there's more to come.
By utilizing NASCAR resources and implementing innovative ideas such asa big-screen TV to televise Saturday night Nextel Cup races in theinfield, Wall's ownership group can get those 2,000 people they needeach week to succeed.
John Blewett (facing camera) and his brother Jimmy (with back to camera)are regulars.
While the future of Wall Stadium Speedway may be uncertain, one thing isfor sure: They're racing in 2006. Rain dampened two out of the threescheduled preseason practices, but opening day was sunny with a coolbreeze blowing off the nearby ocean.
"There are a lot of racetracks that would love to have a crowd likethat," says Blewett as he points to the stands.
Even with a good opening night crowd, the long-term future of Wall isnot guaranteed.
"After this, where do you go? I'm fortunate that I can run the WhelenTour or build another car and run somewhere, but there's another 90 guyshere who really don't have that luxury," says Blewett.
Before he became a two-time Busch Series champion and Nextel Cup star,Martin Truex Jr. com
However, if Wall disappears from the landscape, short-track asphaltracing in Jersey may not be gone for long. Evernham is emphatic aboutthe importance of short-track racing, especially in his home state--somuch so that he has entertained the thought of following Tony Stewart,Dale Earnhardt Jr., Dave Blaney, and Ken Schrader into the world oftrack ownership.
"We've talked with some other partners about maybe building a track inNew Jersey at some point," says Evernham from his Statesville, NorthCarolina, shop. "If you lose Wall Stadium, I want there to be a place torace so that the next Martin Truex can have someplace to graduate from.It was a great place to go and learn on a Saturday night."
For now, you still can.