For immediate release
By Lou Long
While many consider the dirt track located minutes from the courthouse in Mercer to be a fixture on the Western PA racing scene, the reality is that the speedway has had its ups and downs over the years. However, the new owner, Edward Michaels, is committed to bringing back the glory days at the tricky oval.
The first track was cut into a fairgrounds in the 1870s. It was a half mile in length, and its size and shape can still be visualized from the tree line. Portions of the current racing surface and some old Maple trees are all that remain. Horse racing was a staple through the outbreak of hostilities in World War Two. After the war, the fairgrounds were sold and the new owner held harness races and motorcycle races under surplus floodlights purchased from a nearby military facility. Little is known about those events, except that only a few of them were staged. The track then entered into its first stage of dormancy.
Around 1950, auto racing was gaining in popularity in the region, with contests being held across the border in Ohio. An enterprising group leased the Mercer facility to conduct races sanctioned by the State Line Stock Car Racing Association. The configuration of the track was changed to 3/8 mile to make the races more entertaining. As the new track was being cut in, however, a spring was discovered in the area laid out for the new third turn. So, that corner was pulled in to avoid the water source. Even now, weeps still make their occasional appearance on the track, but a drain located on the inside of the turn helps to keep that in check. But, the first solution to the moisture problem gave the track its unusual egg shape that makes it one of the harder courses to master in the region.
The Stock Car races were first held on July 26, 1951 at Mercer Raceway, and 1310 fans were in attendance. Coincidentally, the last four digits of the track’s telephone number are the same, 1310. The inaugural season ended with a pair of Midget races. Racing continued through 1959 under various promotional regimes. However, the lease was not renewed for the 1960 season and the track sat idle again for more than three seasons.
Racing picked back up again in 1964 and continued until 1982. Through that time, Super Modifieds morphed into Sprint Cars, the Hardtops became the Modifieds, and a Stock or six-cylinder class evolved into Sportsmen. Names like Lou Blaney, Ralph Quarterson, Buddy Cochran became synonymous with the track, as they piled up victories in multiple classes, particularly the Super Modifieds/Sprints and the Hardtops/Modifieds.
However, after the 1982 season, the track closed again. With the exception of a few races put on in 1988 by Mike Rakoci and in 1989 by Vern Hawley, the track would stay dark until 1994!
At that time, Howard Micahaels entered on the scene. With a Herculean effort by Michaels and his sons, Edward and Earl, the facility was cleaned up and reopened. In May of that year, the first races were held under the Michaels banner, with Jimmy Hawley taking the Sprint win. Les Myers, who still competes in Vintage Modifieds from time to time, captured the Modified win. The Michaels regime lasted through the 1996, when the facility was sold to Gary and Cindy Butch, who conducted the races through 1998. Vicki Emig then took the reins in 1999 and held them until she sold the track to Bill Altman.
Altman owned and operated the track for several seasons, but eventually he, too, closed shop. A couple of special events were presented by Joe Bova and Eric WIlliams in 2018. The events were successful, and hopes were high that Williams, a former Sprint Car champion at the track, might continue as the promoter going forward. However, at his finale, the 19th Annual Little Guys Nationals, Williams introduced Ed Michaels as the future owner of the speedway.
Micheals rebranded the track as Michaels Mercer Raceway and weekly racing began again in the Spring of 2019. The first winner under Michaels was Rex King, Jr., who fondly recalled playing in the grandstands as a small child. Ed Michaels just concluded his first year of operations last weekend with the 20th Annual Little Guys Nationals. He expressed his thanks to his sponsors, staff, and racers who helped him through his first year as promoter of record.
Michaels would grade his first year performance as a B. “There are probably some things that I could have done better,” he said. “But, you know, some of that is the money.” Although he is a successful businessman outside of racing, Michaels noted, “I don’t have the big money that some others have, too, I tried to run it more on a family basis, not on some monster budget based thing.”
Nonetheless, he has plans for some improvements for 2020. First on the agenda is putting some new clay on the track. “The new clay should be installed in the next three weeks,” he said. That will allow it to knit with the current surface over the winter. Another track improvement is the possibility of installing some LED lighting. “We won’t do it all at once,” Michaels noted. “We want to see how they will work, and then there is the cost factor to consider.”
A go-kart track will also be cut into the pit area within the next couple of weeks as well. “It shouldn’t be too difficult, what with the equipment that we have and what else is available to me,” he explained. Plans call for the kart track to be ready for racing in the Spring of 2020. Races will probably be held on Saturday mornings or afternoons, which will make things easier to promote, given Michaels’ other business commitments and the availability of his staff. “We will also put up another light pole in the pits, which will also serve the kart track, just in case we decide to do some night racing.” Michaels explained that the kart track will help to attract youngsters into the sport and give them a stepping stone into other classes like the Junior Sprints and Modified Lites.
Down the road, Michaels may add additional grandstand seating along the backstretch. This will improve the vantage point for the pit spectators and also provide additional seating capacity in the event that he wants to book a special event or two.
Modifieds will return as the headline class for 2020. However, Michaels is considering some additional specials given the positive feedback that he received after some of the events held in 2019. He is not ready to make any announcements in that regard, however, as he wants to work with other area speedways to coordinate the schedule. There is also the possibility that the Fastrak Limited Modifieds will see an expanded schedule in 2020, with some special events being held at other venues with some participation by Michaels.
Michaels Mercer Raceway is in good hands now. Ed Michaels is emotionally invested in the promotion of the track and he was visible to and accessible by his racers and patrons on race nights. Racers and fans responded in a positive manner to the resurrection of the speedway and, hopefully, the upwards trajectory at Mercer will continue into 2020 and beyond.
Editor’s note: the author would like to acknowledge the contributions of Walt Wimer, Mike Leone, and others to the historical portion of this article.