"NASCAR only sanctions 100 of the best racetracks in the country," explains Kevin Bonnema, co-owner and president of the speedway, which was approached three years ago by NASCAR officials looking to heighten the organization's profile in the Cleveland area. In all, 2,000 tracks across the country vie for the official nod. "It has to be a good show, it has to be a safe facility, and it has to be a really professional racetrack," Bonnema says.
Lorain County Speedway fans throughout Northeast Ohio are quick to echo his sentiments. "I live five minutes from Painesville Speedway, but I'd rather travel an hour and a half to come to Lorain," says Bill Estep. "It's got a better track, better officiating, better cars, and better competition."
The relationship with NASCAR hasn't spawned an aesthetic revolution at the 51-year-old track, where gravel parking lots still give way to rickety bleachers, and the makeshift pits are still home to stock cars with sponsors like Kelly's Suds-n-Dry. Nor does the NASCAR logo out front mean Rusty Wallace will be there to snatch the checkered flag. The Saturday night racing series is an entry-level event, drawing area amateurs for competition in four vehicle classes.
"It's grassroots racing, ground-level NASCAR," Bonnema says. "They start right here, and there's been several famous Winston Cup drivers that have gone through the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series."
NASCAR's influence in Lorain County is most noticeable in the winners' paychecks. Drivers still compete for local purses, which average about $10,000 a night -- with $600 being the most a single driver can take home. But with sanctioning comes a convoluted point system, through which a $1.7 million purse from NASCAR is paid out yearly to series winners across the country, based on points accumulated throughout the season. It also gives drivers a better chance of moving up the pro ladder.
But most competitors are there for the dash, not the cash. For Amber Garisek, mother of twins and a driver in the novice division, the speedway is still just about fast cars driven by her friends and neighbors. "I used to see a therapist, and she told me I had to do something because I was bored," she says. "So I chose to do this. It's my therapy."