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One Last Time Around : Canaan Stages Its Final Show, Possibly

  • Flagger Allen Brown waves the checkered flag over a heat of modified stock cars on the final race day at the Canaan Fair Speedway as the track transfers to new ownership Saturday, October 19, 2013. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Flagger Allen Brown waves the checkered flag over a heat of modified stock cars on the final race day at the Canaan Fair Speedway as the track transfers to new ownership Saturday, October 19, 2013.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Canaan Fair Speedway General Manager Dick Therrien, right, addresses the drivers meeting before kicking off the racing events Saturday, October 19, 2013. On its final day in operation the track drew 130 drivers to compete, including Derek O'Hearn of Campton, N.H., left, the track's 2013 Super Street Champion.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Canaan Fair Speedway General Manager Dick Therrien, right, addresses the drivers meeting before kicking off the racing events Saturday, October 19, 2013. On its final day in operation the track drew 130 drivers to compete, including Derek O'Hearn of Campton, N.H., left, the track's 2013 Super Street Champion.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Robbie Williams of Plainfield ties his shoe before warming up his car on the track for the Super Streets division at the Canaan Fair Speedway Saturday, October 19, 2013. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Robbie Williams of Plainfield ties his shoe before warming up his car on the track for the Super Streets division at the Canaan Fair Speedway Saturday, October 19, 2013.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Flagger Allen Brown waves the checkered flag over a heat of modified stock cars on the final race day at the Canaan Fair Speedway as the track transfers to new ownership Saturday, October 19, 2013. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Canaan Fair Speedway General Manager Dick Therrien, right, addresses the drivers meeting before kicking off the racing events Saturday, October 19, 2013. On its final day in operation the track drew 130 drivers to compete, including Derek O'Hearn of Campton, N.H., left, the track's 2013 Super Street Champion.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Robbie Williams of Plainfield ties his shoe before warming up his car on the track for the Super Streets division at the Canaan Fair Speedway Saturday, October 19, 2013. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Canaan — Two-year-old Layla Hatch stood against the chain-link fence next to Canaan Fair Speedway’s pit entrance yesterday, marveling at the Modifieds waiting to enter the dirt oval for one final race.

“Vroom! Vroom!” Hatch said as the drivers idled and revved.

Stopping to see the race cars has become a Saturday tradition for Layla and her father. “Every time we drive by, we have to stop,” said Jeremy Hatch, 29. “She loves them.”

So do many others — but they might have to start watching them somewhere else.

Having seen the track change ownership hands over the summer, competitors and fans of Canaan’s weekly points series and feature events are faced with uncertainty regarding the future of the track. New owner Tillman Gerngross — who reached a purchase-and-sale agreement with Sandy and Chick Henry early this summer — told the Canaan Selectboard in June that he favored building a road course to race vintage cars, but later said he was still mulling over options.

Gerngross has also indicated there will be no racing series in 2014 while the facility undergoes renovations, although Canaan general manager Dick Therrien said Saturday that negotiations are in the works for a limited racing schedule next year.

Gerngross, a professor at Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering, offered a limited response when reached via email Saturday. “There are no updates at this point,” he wrote.

Canaan’s asphalt series concluded in late August, while Saturday showcased the final dirt-track feature of the year on the speedway’s quarter-mile clay oval.

Naturally, those who have grown accustomed to weekends at the track would be sorry to see operations cease. Canaan resident Allen Hammond is among the dismayed.

“I think it’s terrible,” said Hammond, who placed third among Modified drivers this season and also races at Wentworth, N.H.’s Legion Speedway. “I understand buying property and wanting to pursue your dreams. I grew up two miles from here, bought (my parents’ property) and built my own house. So I understand the process, but it would be nice if (Gengross) would show his face, talk to the racers who have been using this track for years and maybe go over some ideas about to work together. None of us have seen him.”

Therrien noted that the track’s closure would affect more than just racers.

“The reason it’s sad is not only because there are a lot of good friends and a good community who loves coming here,” he said. “The biggest (entity) that gets hurt is the town of Canaan. This facility brings in revenue to the gas stations and restaurants in the area. It employs a lot of people with part-time jobs. They might not be the highest-paying jobs, but some people need those jobs.”

Others simply love working at the track.

Former Canaan resident Gladys Davis, 69, drives several hours each way every weekend from her home in Saco, Maine, to continue her post as the gatekeeper between the stands and the pit area. She was first hired by late speedway founder Charlie Elliott in the early 1990s.

“It’s just a fever I have. I love the people, and I love the racing,” Davis said. “You get to know people, and it’s a great atmosphere here. I’m very upset (about the potential closure), and I feel bad for the racers. I heard there could be up to six races next year. That would be definitely be something to look forward to.”

Therrien acknowledged that speedway operations as they currently exist have become unprofitable. He attributes the decline to a number of factors, including low attendance and driver turnout.

“There are several race tracks in the area, and we’re all competing for the same fan dollars,” Therrien said. “A lot of race fans have a limited budget, and more and more people are only visiting one track per weekend.”

Rutland residents Robert Bryant and Tim Wisell attended as spectators Saturday in part to support friend and Modifieds racer Vince Quenneville. Frequenters of many tracks in the Twin States and New York, they’ve noticed a general attendance drop at certain tracks in recent years.

Bryant thinks many may have developed new habits after the major economic downturn of five years ago.

“There was that one really bad (economic) year, and I think a lot of fans just started being more selective, more cautious about where they’re spending their money,” Bryant said. “I know guys that used to go to 3-4 tracks per week and just aren’t doing that anymore. But things are starting to pick up again, slowly but surely.”

If there are no series at Canaan next year, it will become the second Upper Valley track in two years to stop racing. Claremont’s Twin State Speedway had no season this summer, although a message posted on the track’s website states that “a 2014 season is being planned out now with a full schedule of events being booked.”

While many Canaan regulars filled the cars and the stands, others attended as a way to say farewell to the old track. Ralph Roberts, 75, of Rochester, N.H., was a friend of Elliott’s and wanted to pay homage to the track he maintained for so long. Elliot purchased the fairgrounds in 1988 and ran the speedway until 2006, when he sold it to Sandy and Chick Henry, of West Lebanon. Elliott passed away in March at age 96.

“They had a memorial for him here in September and, unfortunately, I missed that,” said Roberts. “I wanted to come today to pay my respects.”

Jeff Huntington, of Piermont, races regularly at Legion Speedway, but made a special trip to race at Canaan yesterday for the finale.

“If this is the last race, I wanted to be here,” Huntington said. “It’s my way of paying tribute.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.