Craig Murto: The Oxford 250 met expectations

There are a number of marquee short track events known throughout the country that competitors want to win and fans want to attend.

The World 100 and The Dream for dirt Late Models at Eldora, Ohio, are well known. The Knoxville (Iowa) Nationals for Sprint Cars and the Chili Bowl for Midget cars in Tulsa, Okla., are on open-wheel fans’ and competitors’ lists.

In the world of pavement Late Models the Snowball Derby in Pensacola, Florida, is the granddaddy of them all. But only the Oxford 250 at Maine’s Oxford Plains Speedway can call itself the richest single-day short track event in the country, so I capped off a week in the state by attending the race.

More than 60 cars qualify and race in one day. The winner receives $25,000, as well as a possible extra $25,000 in lap-leader bonus money.

The 2016 running of the race was the 43rd Oxford 250 to be put in the record books. Past winners include Bob Pressley and Butch Lindley from the Carolinas. Former Cup stars Ricky Craven and Geoff Bodine won the event. Tommy Ellis, from Richmond, put $25,000 in his pocket one year. And in the past decade, NASCAR stars Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have put their name in the record books as winners of the largest sporting event annually held in the state of Maine.

Different types of Late Models have competed in the Oxford 250. It started as a Late Model Sportsman race. Then it was a combined race with what is not Xfinity and the old Busch North Series. It’s been an American-Canadian Tour (ACT) race. But most of the time it has been a Super Late Model event, now running under the Pro All Stars Series (PASS) sanction.

Thankfully for New England fans, ACT and PASS have cooperated in recent years. Since many top New England drivers run both type of Late Models, running events on the same weekends makes sense. This year’s Oxford 250 weekend featured an ACT race the Saturday night before the 250.

And it was a thriller. Vermont’s Scott Payea took the win in the 100-lap race after a fierce battle with Eddie MacDonald and Brad Babb. Payea’s third ACT win of the season featured multiple lead changes and thrilled the crowd.

There was a good crowd on Saturday, but Sunday’s crowd was even larger. It was declared a sell-out, and since the track lists its capacity as 14,000, it’s a safe guess that the crowd was at least that large. Not too bad for a third-mile local short track only 20 minutes from Auburn, Maine.

Late Models were not the only cars in action, Saturday or Sunday. Despite an aggressively booked show consisting of Street Stocks, PASS Modifieds, Mini Stocks, another four-cylinder division and Super Late Models, Sunday’s show went off without a hitch in Chamber of Commerce weather.

Six 20-lap heat races, two semi-features and a last-chance race determined the 42-car starting field for the Oxford 250. The heat races were exciting, and though there were some bent fenders, they weren’t the demolition derbies one might predict with so much on the line.

The 250 was relatively clean, but exciting. There were as many as seven drivers at one time battling for the top position. Among the 42 starters were Tate Fogleman, from North Carolina, and Garrett Evans, who towed all the way from Wenatchee, Wash.

Evans, the defending champion and current point leader of the Northwest Super Late Model Series, was happy to make the field, though he never had the car to compete for the win. He did, however, unwittingly play a major role in the outcome of the race.

In the end it came down to a battle between New Hampshire’s Wayne Helliwell Jr. and Maine’s Travis Benjamin, a two-time winner of the 250.

Though Oxford Plains is relatively flat, it’s wide enough that side-by-side racing is common. The final 40 laps, Helliwell — racing on 40-lap fresher tires — preferred the inside, as Benjamin kept his momentum up on the outside. It was an incredible battle.

With only as couple of laps remaining, the leaders came upon Evans’ car, running 23rd and trying to stay high on the track, out of the leaders’ way. Helliwell took up enough room on the bottom to force Benjamin up the track, using Evans as a pick, forcing Benjamin to concede the position and ultimately the race win.

I ate plenty of lobster and steamed clams during my week in Maine. But the entrée was the Oxford 250, and the legendary race lived up to expectations.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.