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Local auto racing: Racing will always be in Thurston’s blood

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Bob Thurston can’t stay away from dirt-car racing. It has been in his blood for seven decades.

He tried to walk away after he sold Can-Am Speedway in 2000 to Syracuse businessman John Wight. Since then there has been two other owners of the LaFargeville track, but you will still see Thurston walking around in the pit area.

You can usually find Thurston in the pits helping his grandson, Christopher, a weekly driver at the speedway. Many of the veteran drivers, pit crews and long-retired drivers who have known Thurston for years will share a story or two and a few laughs with him over the “good old days.”

Thurston tried to recall the first race he saw and settled on the 1950s, remembering how the grandstand at the Watertown Fairgrounds was always filled to capacity. He started working at the speedway at a young age.

“I worked the back gate at the Watertown Speedway at the fairgrounds taking pit admissions,” he said. “Then I moved to the tower (the old press box on the existing roof of the fairgrounds) and did the scoring. I later bought into the speedway and have been an owner-promoter ever since.”

In the 1970s, Thurston, 76, and two other partners purchased Can-Am Speedway, later becoming sole owner.

Thurston recalled that back in the 1950s just about everyone built their own race cars and got their parts from area junk yards. He remembered helping to build his son Bob Jr.’s race cars years ago in the garage at his home in Watertown.

“Back then a case of beer at the junk yard would buy you all the parts you needed,” Thurston said. “Today you just don’t do that. You go to a speed shop as it seems they have all the parts you need.”

Running a speedway is no longer just a weekend activity either.

“With us it had always been a family thing,” Thurston said. “My wife Rose and other family members worked at the track getting it ready for race night. My son was involved in the track for years as a driver and later in the weekly operation of the track before retiring.”

Thurston managed to balance the job as owner-promoter of the speedway with his job as an account executive at the Watertown Daily Times, a position he held until he retired in 1995. After his regular job, Thurston would spend hours at the track during the week getting the facility ready for the weekend features.

There were some slow nights at the track but also some large crowds. There were problems with some drivers and pit crews, but also long lasting friends.

In July 1995, the track was heavily damaged by a microburst storm. Thurston and his family, friends and local businesses helped to get the track running in just a couple of weeks. A similar occurrence damaged the track in 2010 when current owner Tiger Chapman also received help to get the speedway open for business quickly.

Thurston said that many race tracks today have their problems staying financially steady. Even NASCAR has seen a drop in attendance, he said.

“Right in this area, a driver has to pick a track that is convenient for them,” Thurston said. “When I first started working at the fairgrounds, I believe we had only two or three classes. Now you’ve got speedways with six or seven different classes in order to just get the car count. And from what I am hearing, the car counts are low in many divisions at most tracks.”

Thurston realizes that racing will never be like it was in the 1950s or when he was running a track.

“The economy isn’t the greatest now,” Thurston said. “There are so many more other things to do for people now than there was in the past. The entertainment dollar is getting split up into many pieces.”

But Thurston doesn’t plan to give up on local racing. He still hopes the sport will make a comeback.

REMEMBERING DOXTATER

The Evans Mills racing fraternity will be joined by family and friends of the late Keith Doxtater on Saturday night at the track. Doxtater, the 2012 super stock division champion, died in January at age 27.

The super stock race honoring his memory will be divided into two 30-lap segments. The overall winner of the race will be awarded $1,500. Race time is 6 p.m.

The day-long celebration of Doxtater’s life begins Saturday at John Hoover Inn in Evans Mills at 11 a.m. The ride will conclude at the speedway.

n The DPOA Fund-Raiser tonight at Can-Am Motorsports Park will include a 30-lap enduro race. Racing is scheduled to begin at 7:30.

n The first round of Frenchie’s Ford “Go Further” sportsman series race highlights tonight’s race program at Mohawk International Raceway in Akwesasne with racing beginning at 7:30 p.m.

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