BUSTI - By 4:30 p.m., just a little over an hour after the gates at Stateline Speedway were opened to the general public and some 2 hours before race cars began making their first laps around the 3/8-mile dirt oval, the three large grass parking lots surrounding the track were already nearing full capacity.
An hour later, those lots were filled, and excited race fans were left with no other option but to park their cars along Kortwright Road. Soon that row of cars along the road, numbering in the hundreds, stretched nearly a mile in both directions, and the shuttle service ferrying people to and from their vehicles was hard at work.
It was that kind of event.
"This is a really big deal," Randy Anderson, president of the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame and a local racing historian, said, "These drivers are the best of the best and (former Stateline owner Lynn "Fritz" Seamens) wanted the best of the best at his racetrack. He started the process in 2010, and its taken three years to put this together because all racetracks want these guys. So you can understand why I'm excited about it."
Three years in the making and the late Seamens' dream of having his track finally host the Lucas Oil Dirt Late Model Series was made a reality on Tuesday as people from far and wide made the trek to the event to witness some of the top drivers in the country battle for the $10,000 prize at the Empire 50.
"This is really special," Sudsy, a Pennsylvania native and fan of Late Model racing said. "They've been trying for years to get the Lucas Oil Late Models here, and finally they did it. That's why I came. We've got the best drivers in the country here tonight and I've been waiting for this for a while."
Sudsy was just one of the many excited and thrilled fans that had arrived at the track as many as five days before the event was set to be held. Together the group, which was quick to offer a soda or some food as they grilled burgers and hot dogs prior to the race, created an RV-city of sorts, parking their large vehicles side-by-side along the western treeline of the track's largest parking lot.
Sudsy had arrived for Stateline's regularly-scheduled race the previous Saturday and had been camping at the lot ever since. Other campers included Linda King, a native of Charlotte, N.C., and her husband - they made a six-hour trip from their current home in Chatham, Ontario - and Bill Peterson, who had been at the track a since Monday.
Anderson met another who had traveled a hefty distance as well, just so that he could see the Lucas Oil racers in action.
"This is like a circus, Don't you get that feeling?" Anderson said as the large crowd continued filing through the gates and tried to find a seat in the increasingly crowed bleachers. "I met a guy and he had a bit of an accent, so I said, 'Where are you from?'
"And he told me he was from Milford, Del. He said he drove 10 hours to get here. This is really a big deal, and I'm happy for (owner) Jennifer Seamans."
At 5 p.m., two hours before hot laps, a large water truck made its way around the track to wet the oval. Following behind it were a Ford Bronco and a pair of F-250s, which were quickly caked in mud as they flattened and hardened the surface. More and more people continued to file past the gates, and soon the bleachers were nearly filled as people settled in with a cooler and friends to wait for the day's first events.
Anderson, who was moving about the complex selling 50/50 tickets in support of the CSHOF (the organization sold over $4,500 worth of tickets by 7 p.m.), noted that the crowd was already nearing record numbers.
"At this time of night, and it's still early, this is probably three times the size of a regular crowd," he said. "And I could be (underestimating). This is the biggest crowd of the season, by far, and it's got the potential to be one of the biggest crowds in the history of the track."
Right on schedule, the first late model cars made their way onto the track for hot laps, and as soon as they did the crowd, which had been waiting for some time for things to get started, immediately perked up.
"The track is in excellent condition and it's going to be fast," Anderson said as the cars filtered onto the track. "These guys are so fast. These cars have over 800 horsepower, can get around the track in just 16 seconds and they're unmuffled. So if you don't have any earplugs, you might want to think about finding some."
Anderson wasn't kidding.
Seasoned fans quickly strapped on their eye goggles - to protect themselves from flying dirt and dust - and plugged their ears as the cars loudly zoomed around the track.
In addition to local racers such as Dick Barton and Dave Hess (to name a few) participating, Lucas Oil greats such as Scott Bloomquist, who is one of the series' most famous racers with more than 500 victories to his credit, Jimmy Owens, who is the series' current points leader and reigning national champion from Newport, Tenn. (he is nicknamed the "Newport Nightmare"), and Tyler Reddick, a 16-year-old from California who just won his first Lucas Oil race in February, also took part.
Best of all for local race fans, Stateline regulars Mike Knight of Ripley and Hess of Waterford, Pa., capped one of the most successful and highly-anticpated racing events in years by finishing second and third, respectively, in the Empire 50 to prove they could hang with the best.