RPW Column: Howard Commander Implements Significant Weekly Purse Increase At Lebanon Valley For ’23
Column By: BOBBY CHALMERS / RPW – WEST LEBANON, NY – In this world, things seem to change on nearly a daily basis.
However, one thing that’s been constant in the dirt racing world, for 70 years, is the Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, NY.
Even with something that’s been around for a while, things need to be altered at times. Over the off-season, speedway officials have been working to make improvements, including to the racing surface with adjustments being made to the track’s configuration.
They’ve been working on safety improvements as well with new sections of the outside wall being added.
Now comes an improvement to the payout for racers.
Promoter Howard Commander is infusing nearly $200,000 into the weekly purse for the DIRTcar Big Block & Small Block Modifieds as well as Sportsman and DIRTcar Pro Stocks.
The headline division, the Big Block Modifieds, will see their weekly winners share increased to a minimum of $3,000-to-win. There are several higher paying races during the season, but the least the winner will take home is $3,000.
“We’ve upped the purse in the past occasionally, but now we’re REALLY adding to it,” Commander said. “Not only are we increasing it at the top, but now 20th place will pay $500.”
Commander understands that times are changing, and he’s looking to help keep teams going that support the Valley.
“Over the years, it’s been $500 for tenth but $300 for 20th,” he said. “Now-a-days, that $300 doesn’t buy much. Even if you needed just a tire and some fuel, it’s not enough. Hopefully this helps our racers.”
With the state of the economy right now, Commander understands the hurdles he faces every day running a track like Lebanon Valley. However, he believes it’s the same as many in the sport.
“I don’t know if other tracks can do things like this, on a weekly basis,” he said. “If they can, God bless them. As many promoters know, it’s very hard to run a race track right now.”
Those entering the pit area will see an increase in pricing, but this is something Howard says will be benefiting the drivers.
“We’re increasing the pit admission by $5 this season,” he said. “It’ll now be $30 for members and $35 for non-members but that money will be going right back to the weekly purse for the racers.”
Word has been circulating amongst teams about the purse increase, especially in the Modified division. That’s caught the eye of some who are intrigued by it.
“The fact we’re paying $500 for 20th has already drawn some interest,” he said. “I already heard from some drivers, including Wayne Jelley, who thinks he’s going to bring two cars each week. He feels he can get both cars to bring home at least $500.”
There’s another driver that many fans know who has expressed interest in running the High Banks, once again, this season.
“Brett Hearn said he’d like to be here if he had a competitive car to drive that he felt could win,” he said. “He’s expressed interest in coming back to Lebanon. I talked to him during the winter and he was thinking about it. He’d really like to come back.”
Hearn sits second on the all-time Lebanon Valley Big Block Modified win list, only behind newest LVS Hall of Fame inductee Kenny Tremont. How serious of a chance is it to have the Corporate Jet back in 2023?
“It’s a possibility that he could return to run at Lebanon,” he said. “I thought it was over, but I got a call a couple weeks ago from someone who simply told me, call Brett. We’re working on seeing if this is something that can happen.”
There are several new cars that are coming to the track across all divisions this season, and some current drivers are recruiting teams to the West Lebanon oval.
“Brett actually talked someone from New Jersey into driving up here to race in our 358-Modified class,” he said. “He’s actually setting the car up for the guy and LJ Lombardo got us another 358. He has a driver from Thompson (CT) that said he’s going to come race with us and isn’t afraid of speed. I told him if he’s not afraid of it, he’ll like it here.”
In addition to the Big Blocks, the Valley will increase the 358-Modified winners share to $1,000-to-win while both the Sportsman and Pro Stocks, as of press time, will race for a $700 top prize.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a 410 Sprint Car, a Dirt Modified a Super Late Model or a Street Stock,” he said. “Every race car is ungodly expensive right now. I hope a better purse will help our loyal racers get back to the track each week.”
That’s key to what Howard believes will make Lebanon Valley successful in 2023…loyalty.
“I was very sick for most of last year (2022),” he said. “When you look at the loyalty of our racers, I’m grateful for those that support this track and want to thank them for that. This is for the loyalists.”
As one of the largest tracks around, Lebanon Valley Speedway produces high speeds which Commander feels appeals to both racers and fans.
“At 135 MPH down the back chute, Lebanon’s quite exciting compared to other tracks,” he said. “You go other places, yeah, the racing can be close and wheel-to-wheel, but at 80 MPH, it’s not like the excitement and speed you can get from a race at Lebanon Valley.”
One of the biggest topics of discussion over the off-season was the fact that Lebanon was undergoing a reconfiguration of sorts. The track crew began work in late October and early November to move barriers and add new clay with designs of adding a different element to the speedway.
Now, with the 2023 season almost here, Commander is set to get the track ready for practice and opening night.
“The racers will be able to go 15-20 feet lower than they were last year, below that berm,” he said. “The new clay has to dry out though for us to get on it but I know what I need to do to prepare it.”
Drivers will be able to utilize both the banking and the lower flat portion of the track. This is something that hasn’t been done before. However, Mother Nature needs to cooperate.
“First thing I need to do is get a grader on the big track,” he said. “Then I need to decide is what I’m doing with the wider bottom and the new clay. My plan is to give the racers a really nice lane on the bottom for opening night.”
So far, so good in the area around West Lebanon, NY. The snow, for the most part, is no longer an option with a lot of it melting. Preparations around the speedway have begun.
“The snow has been removed from the surface and I’m to the point where I can start prep of the track itself,” he said. “We’ll give everyone and update about how it’s going as soon as we can.”
Could we see changes during the course of the season?
“This is going to be an ongoing project, to be honest,” he said. “You can’t take raw clay out of a clay bank, lay it down and expect to race over it instantly. I’ve also never used lime to dry clay out but I might have to this time so we can get the very bottom groove going.”
The new design of the track has drivers looking at Lebanon Valley as a Saturday night home this season.
“Chad (Jeseo) tells me he’s talked about five or six new Pro Stock teams into coming,” he said. “Those drivers are expecting to be able to go on the bottom portion of the track, the flat part. Hopefully we can give all teams a lot of options here this year.”
While there will be a slight increase in the back gate price, Lebanon Valley plans to keep things for fans in the stands in line with 2022.
“Most tracks are charging $20 to $30 general admission to see a race,” he said. “I can’t do that. We’ll remain at $12 for this season. It’s still family affordable entertainment with good food at a fair price.”
The fan experience is something Commander is proud of.
“A lot of the food prices are going to remain the same this year to go along with the same front gate,” he said. “If they want, though, they can update to a tower seat or buy a spot on one of our party decks. People are really starting to like the decks. They can bring a chair, put it on the deck and stretch out to enjoy the races.”
Even through the pandemic, Lebanon Valley has remained strong. This past season, the speedway, once again, boasted about having another six-figure point fund which was paid out recently to racers at their annual awards banquets.
“We put together some very successful banquets with about 1,200 people attending,” he said. “Each one of them was very well attended and we paid out $100,000 to all classes. That’s because we’ve got a great bunch of people who race at Lebanon Valley.”
Again, there’s that word…loyalty. That’s something Howard Commander believes keeps his Speedway going year after year.
“There are a lot of people, spectators and racers alike, who are fans of auto racing,” he said. “That’s especially true here at this race track. We’ve got do everything we can to keep Lebanon Valley alive and well.”