Monday, March 23, 2009

Perrotte Bringing Airborne to the Forefront

Mike Perrotte has an on-track résumé deeper than most short track racers will be fortunate enough to build. From the tiniest and most obscure dirt tracks to the grandeur of the old NASCAR North Tour and everything in between, Perrotte has driven just about everything and raced just about everywhere in the northeast. Just last year, he was a race winner and championship contender at Albany-Saratoga Speedway against the likes of Kenny Tremont, Brett Hearn, and Dave Camara, three of the biggest names in dirt modified racing.

But the Elizabethtown, N.Y. man has another side that most drivers can't relate to. On Satruday nights, the 53 year-old trades his helmet in for a set of headphones, climbs out of his 700-horsepower race car, and climbs up the stairs to the control booth. Mike Perrotte the driver isn't here tonight. No, this is Mike Perrotte, Airborne Speedway Promoter.

After winning the 1986 Airborne track championship, Perrotte had a short-lived stint as the promoter. When track owners Ken Squier and Tom Curley decided to transition what was then-known as Airborne International Raceway out of their fold of companies in 2005, car dealership mogul and Dirt Modified team owner George Huttig leased the speedway and hired his driver, Perrotte, to run the operation. When Plattsburgh construction giant Steve Fuller purchased the facility outright from Squier and Curley, he kept Perrotte on the payroll.

The results on and off the track during the last four years under Perrotte's leadership have brought increased local television coverage, a bit of national attention, and have seen the word "Airborne" back as a household name around the region. The addition of DIRTcar-sanctioned Modifieds, improved parking and pit areas, and various weekly attractions only scratch the surface of the changes made. For the upcoming season, Perrotte and Fuller have another laundry list of improvements planned, including redesigning the track itself with progressively-banked corners, similar to those found at short track showplaces like Kawartha Speedway (Ont.) and Toyota Speedway at Irwindale (Calif.), or NASCAR Sprint Cup Series tracks including Bristol Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway. The intent is to create more two- and three-wide racing, thereby adding more excitement to the racing program.

"It will change the racing completely," Perrotte said. "(Most of) our divisions seem to get around well, but primarily, divisions like the ACT Late Models and the Tigers, which are sort of similar with tires, limitations on motors, things like that, they all tend to race at the bottom of the track. With this progressive banking, I think - I know - there will be a lot more side-by-side racing."

Perrotte and Fuller have stepped up their game each year, and Airborne Speedway is on the tip of seemingly every race fan's tongue lately.

"We've just made a real commitment to bringing this place to the next level," says Perrotte. "We're putting new lights in all over the facility, we've replaced the whole catch fence all the way down the frontstretch with new poles and fence. We're making a substantial investment, probably $300,000 or $350,000, I guess, I don't know what it'll be when we get done. At a time when everyone is cutting back, it shows our commitment and our faith in what we're doing, and the support we've got from the community and from the racers. Each year the fan count gets better, our car counts are rising, and everything's just really positive. I'm concerned about the economy like everyone else is, but I was more concerned last year at this time than I am now, when gas was at $4.00-plus a gallon. I think that that (positive) change will effect us more this year than the downturn of the economy."

Perrotte is so confident, in fact, that Airborne Speedway will host more marquee events in 2009 than it has in many years, even dating back to the successful Squier/Curley era of the 1990s; the Super DIRT Series - the largest, most successful dirt Modified racing circuit in the world - will roll into Airborne for the first time in June, and Curley's American-Canadian Tour will hold a pair of events, including the return of the historic Fall Foliage 300 in September. The 300 will be the longest event ever held for the ACT Late Model Tour. Add to that list a pair of stand-alone 100-lap Modified events, a 100-lap Tiger Sportsman race, 50-lap specials for the track's support divisions, an Enduro, fireworks, chain races, and more, and Airborne Speedway has the potential to be one of the leading attractions - stock car racing or otherwise - in the northeast.

Perrotte sees recent announcements that top regional drivers including Todd Stone, Don Scarborough, and Jessica Zemken will compete on a more frequent basis at Airborne, and past special appearances by nationally-respected short track racers as a culmination of several things, not the least of which are personal relationships that he first forged as a competitor.

"A lot of that is due to the fact that I know these people and they're all friends of mine and we've all raced together for a long time, but even more importantly is guys like Timmy McCreadie and Timmy Fuller, for instance, guys that can't wait to come back," Perrotte explained. "McCreadie came and ran once last year and told everyone that it was the most fun he had all season. Timmy Fuller, he's not running the (Super DIRT) Series full-time, but he contacted me about two months ago, and he's thinking about coming here. So that says a lot, I mean, maybe our friendship got them here in the first place, but they had a good time while they were here and the racing keeps them coming back. The atmosphere, too, they way they're treated by fans and racers and officials, that's all part of the deal."

In addition to the racing and special appearances, Perrotte and Fuller have created a couple fan-friendly experiences that aren't found anywhere else - a trolley bus that tours fans and children around the speedway grounds and pit area, and a weekly post-race party held in the style of SPEED Channel's Trackside Live program. Both have proven to be very popular.

"Our trolley is huge," said Perrotte, "and that was Steve Fuller's doing. We have a team, every one of us involved in this thing, from the guys that park in the parking lot, it's all a team effort. The racers, the fans, it's not one person, it's everyone working together. The trolley is pretty neat, we've had a good time with that. And the go-karts during the week. Every year we have someone from the go-karts jump into the race cars. They get into the four-cylinders, and every year we have people jumping from one division to the next, so it's all growing."

And speaking of the four-cylinder cars, one of the items on the long list of changes is the transformation of Airborne's Warrior division into the new-look Mini-Modifieds. The cars look exotic, and are already popular among fans and race teams. The purpose is to differentiate the cars from the entry-level Bomber class.

"I've got to be honest with you, it was Tom Curley's idea," chuckled Perrotte. "I'd like to take credit for it, but he said 'Why don't you do something with those cars? You've got two divisions that are same, why don't you take the fenders off and make them different?' and I thought it was a great idea. Because we had two divisions that were the same, people in the stands didn't know one from the other, and it was a little confusing. The best part is that it gives those (Mini-Modified) guys their own identity, and it doesn't cost much to do it. We haven't allowed them to modify the suspensions or anything like that, we just said pull the front ends off the cars and make your own, or leave them off, do whatever you want to do, just make them look different. And they look pretty cool."

Perrotte says he is happy with the state of Airborne Speedway and its recent wave of success, and plans on the trend continuing for years to come.

"It'll be more of the same, bringing in bigger races, although I think in our area we can't get any bigger than the Super DIRT Series and the ACT 300, I think those will always be our two biggest events," he said. "Even if we decided to have a NASCAR race, I still think that those two races in our community and in our area would be our biggest races. We'll certainly entertain the idea of other associations. I see our weekly program going stronger, too. If the race track is a lot fun to drive then we'll have a lot of race cars and racers that want to be there and with that comes more fans, so I just see the whole thing snowballing. Our affiliation with ACT will continue to grow more and more, and with the DIRTcar Modifieds. I've talked to some people about doing a Sprint Car show.

"The sky is the limit, we just have to use our heads and move slowly."

(Photos 1 and 2 courtesy Leif Tillotson, Photo 3 by VMM)

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