Small-scale auto racing is still a thrill in Johnstown

Small-scale auto racing is still a thrill in Johnstown

JOHNSTOWN — Hurtling straight ahead and drifting into the high banks on a dirt oval on Sundays at Johnstown doesn’t require a driver’s license because all the drivers — aged 7 to 70 — can’t even fit in their race cars.

Welcome to dirt racing at Foxtrot RC Park on Route 30A, an outdoor dirt oval created four years ago by Ryan Holland for RC racing cars.

“I’ve been interested in dirt track racing my whole life, been with Fonda [Speedway] since I was a little kid,” Holland said. “My mate Mike Peek got me into the RC scene at Full Throttle in Watervliet. I fell in love with a dirty oval and there was nowhere near it.”

Foxtrot RC Park is adjacent to Checkers Out Speedway’s indoor go-kart race, created in partnership with owner Don Greco Sr. Now in its fourth year of existence, Foxtrot RC Park is the go-to venue for Sunday morning RC racing fans. The small dirt oval opens to racers in mid-April and will host races through the end of September.

“I worked for Donnie here for about eight years and had a little dealings with him,” Holland said. “He gave me the property and said do what you want and here we are four years later.”

Holland first created a flat oval in the corner of the property and spread the word – hoping that if he built it, racers would come.

“We were only getting 20 to 25 people a week,” Holland said. “Our track was flat, loose dirt. By the end of that first year, the racers were saying you really have to bank on it—just like Fonda [Speedway].”

He invested in a 20-ton load of earth, created a 70-foot long, 40-foot wide oval with 2 1/2-foot slopes, and interest exploded.

Last Sunday, more than 75 cars in five racing divisions – Limited Sportsman, Sportsman, Big Blocks, Late Models and Sprint Cars – with drivers of all ages took part in the Dirt Oval.

Abby Lawyer, 11, of Fonda, was picked into two divisions – limited sportsman and late model – on Sunday. Both are entry-level classes for beginners of all ages.

“I’ve seen my family do it, so I thought I could try to do better,” Lawyer said, laughing.

Last Sunday, she raced her limited-edition Sportsman – which looks like a modified division open-wheeler at Fonda Speedway, with a design that mimics local fan-favorite Jessica Friesen’s car.

“She’s my favorite racer,” Lawyer said.

Lawyer is not alone, there are several other female racers competing in the foxtrot every Sunday – uniting under the hashtag #GirlPower.

She is a quick learner on the dirt oval and has three wins in 10 weeks of racing.

“It’s more about staying out of the wrecks,” Lawyer said. “If someone breaks in front of you, you must turn around immediately or you will fall.”

The attorney’s face lit up as she spoke of skidding her limited-edition Sportsman RC into the two banked turns and throwing debris over the wooden safety walls.

“It’s cool when I end up drifting into the corner, getting up on top and then actually cornering,” Lawyer said. “I’m getting really excited.”

Don “Hank” Rivenburg of Mayfield competed in several heats in his #3 car, the racer boasting a Budweiser livery modeled after dirt car racing legend Brett Hearn’s car.

Foxtrot RC Park has resulted in the creation of new racers alongside career changes.

Holland was a commercial equipment technician and when a space opened on Comrie Avenue in Johnstown he took the leap of faith and opened Upstate RC and Hobbies in April 2021.

Just as Holland learned to care for and maintain his Dirt Oval, he learned a great deal about retail as part of his hobby/career.

“I figured my whole business would be racers and locals who needed racing stuff,” Holland said. “First people were looking for other RC stuff and I was losing money. Now I try to stock as much as possible for every possible RC.”

Holland builds a race car from a production chassis and adds the necessary adjustments for race day.

“You can buy it on Saturday, charge the battery and race out here on Sunday,” Holland said.

At 74, “Hank” Rivenburg is the speedway’s oldest rookie and leads the No. 3 around the course under the tutelage of his son Don Rivenburg, 54, of Amsterdam. The younger Rivenburg was introduced to the sport by another younger generation.

“My nephew asked for a ride to Ryan’s store for parts for his remote control car,” Don Rivenburg said. “I walked in, saw one of the racers and said, ‘Are you racing with these?'”

Don Rivenburg was addicted to racing—again.

A computer error at Upstate RC and Hobbies prevented two Don Rivenburg from entering his system. The older of the two happened to be entered into the system as “Hank” and the nickname stuck.

Both Rivenburg men spent numerous nights at Fonda Speedway as part of the pit crews for Hall of Famer drivers such as Jack Johnson, Maynard Forrette and Lou Lazzarro.

“I took this one and started running,” said the elder Rivenburg. “At home I have four or five cones and when I’m done eating dinner, I walk around them, right in my driveway. He even said I was doing better.”

Don Rivenburg was at his father’s side giving him directions.

“He’s got a bit of an eye problem, it’s hard when he has to look at the other track,” said Don Rivenburg. “I have to tell him to go higher [right] on the route. We’re trying to get him to stay upright.”

Former Fonda Speedway athlete Mike Peek joined Foxtrot RC Park as track announcer and race director.

“I’ve always liked announcing and speaking to these crowds, speaking to people,” Peek said. “You see guys ranging in age from five to 85,” Peek said. “It’s not as demanding as a big car, but you still race.”

Peek was excited for the upcoming Foxtrot 200 on September 9th and 10th with races of 200, 150 and 100 laps.

“I think it’s one of the spectacles of RC racing in upstate New York,” said Peek. “It’s incredible to see guys racing five, six, seven hours before the next race, especially on a small, small track like the one we have.”

Up until the annual highlight at the Foxtrot, Peek looks forward to calling out the lap times of the races and announcing the winners every Sunday.

“It doesn’t take much to get the adrenaline pumping while you’re out there, and it’s a lot of fun,” Peek said.

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