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Murto: Historic track's future in doubt

By Craig Murto - sports@nvdaily.com

Saturday night's 200-lap Late Model feature at Old Dominion Speedway was witnessed by one of the largest crowds of the year, all there to see what was probably the final race ever held on the historic oval.

The 22-car field included five former track champions and a tight point battle for the 2012 track title.

Former track champ Mike Darne set the early pace, grabbing the lead from the second row on the first lap. But Darne got caught up in an accident when a lapped car spun in front of him, handing the lead over to former champ Michael Hardin.

Hardin, driving a Bob Unczer-owned Late Model that was driven by Aric Almirola in the Denny Hamlin Foundation race at Richmond International Raceway, had to fend off challenges from Dave Moon and 2011 track champion David Polenz. Despite missing three races this season when he competed at different tracks, Polenz secured second in points from Tyler Hughes. Hughes had a good chance at the 2012 championship, but wasn't quite on his game in the 200.

Delaware racer Doug Liberman was consistent enough to hang onto his point lead and grab his first Late Model track championship, perhaps the last awarded at Old Dominion.

Questions still remain about the track's future because of zoning issues, not only of the current track's site, but also of the site in Thornburg proposed for a replacement facility. If the current property doesn't get the proper zoning, the developer interested in purchasing the land may back out or the purchase could get delayed, in which case the track may reopen in 2013. The plan, however, is for the track to be sold and a new track open in 2014.

During the driver's meeting the racers were told that as it stood, they were going to be coming back in 2013. But when asked near the end of the evening, track owner Steve Britt admitted that he plans to have the property sold.

One fan actually approached Britt during the evening and told him that he was "ruining the history" of the track. Even if competitors and fans were somewhat subdued, it was an emotional evening for all who realized that it could be the last.

Fans and competitors have been lucky that Steve Britt kept the track alive. Property values have soared in the region, and paying taxes on the property for what it earns as a racing facility makes running the track less lucrative every year. Racetracks just don't survive well in metropolitan areas, and Manassas is now part of the D.C. metropolitan area. The property is worth more to the developer. In fact, the sour economy and the housing crisis that began in 2008 may be one reason the track has survived this long.

To the fan who criticized Britt, I must remind him that the history of the track is already written. Doug Liberman joins a long list of champions who have raced at the facility, both on the oval and the drag strip.

Regional and national NASCAR champions have raced on the oval. Wes Troupe and Mark McFarland both won NASCAR titles. Current big-time racers Denny Hamlin, Elliot Sadler, and Aric Almirola spent time in the Old Dominion pits. When Late Model Sportsman cars were the weekly show, before they became a tour (now the Nationwide Series), drivers such as Darrell Waltrip competed at Manassas. The late Tiny Lund actually raced at Manassas the night before he was killed in a racing accident at Talladega.

At one time what is now the Sprint Cup Series used to race at places such as Manassas, running schedules of close to 70 races each year. Lee and Richard Petty, Buck Baker, Bobby Allison -- all the great racers from the late-'50s through the early '70s ran at Old Dominion at one time or another. Even a one-time top rookie at the Indianapolis 500, Denny Zimmerman, was a regular at Old Dominion.

It's sad to say goodbye to an old friend, one that has provided so many racing memories. But we still have local short tracks that continue to make memories of their own. Hagerstown Speedway, Shenandoah, Eastside, Potomac and Natural Bridge still run, as do Southside near Richmond, Langley in Hampton and South Boston Speedway. And don't forget our closest racing facility, Winchester Speedway, which will make history this weekend with the annual Winchester 200 on Friday and Saturday. Visit www.winchestervaspeedway.com for a complete schedule of events.

-- Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.

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