Every time a race car hits a soft wall and the driver walks away, it's a tribute to the late Bill Colton. The pioneer in track safety was one of the honorees at the 59th annual Friends of Auto Racing (FOAR) Fan Club Awards Banquet Saturday night in Amherst.
Tony George of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and NASCAR deserve credit for the development and deployment of the cushioning soft walls at the major league levels of the sport in the last few seasons. Before that, though, Colton and the late race promoter Alex Friesen first introduced the soft wall concept to the racing world. The pair gained national acclaim in the early 1990s when they placed foam blocks in front of the corner walls at Lancaster Raceway Park.
Though simple in its design, the foam at Lancaster marked a racing safety revolution. Colton's inspiration came after watching Modified drivers such as Tommy Druar, Tony Jankowiak and others perish after their cars struck hard concrete walls. Colton and Friesen did something about it.
"This means a lot and the fact is that my dad put a lot of heart and thought into the soft wall deal after he lost so many friends in the late 80's and early 90's," said Colton's son Billy. "It was devastating and he worked tirelessly trying to come up with an idea. Thermal Foams and Lancaster Speedway were willing to do it. It has [prevented] injuries and also most likely deaths."
The younger Colton also received a nice award of his own. He owns Troyer Engineering, which builds both asphalt and dirt track stock cars. While Troyer has had a continued string of success on the asphalt surfaces the last few seasons, the organization was struggling to find success on the dirt side. Then a devastating fire burned most of the business to the ground in October of 2005.
Colton not only has rebuilt the business but has brought newfound success from the ashes. His chassis won some big dirt track races this past season including the Eckerd 200 at Syracuse with Danny Johnson behind the wheel. Jimmy Phelps won on the Advance Auto Parts Modified Super DIRT Series. Colton's return earned him the club's Mechanical Achievement Award.
"I didn't go to college and I started racing when I was 15. My dad spent my college education money on me racing and that eventually turned into my business," Colton said. "So it worked out well for me and I thank my dad and mom for doing that for me. The fire was really bad but the whole racing community helped to get it going again. With the recent success things have turned dramatically around and we're working hard to make sure it keeps going that way."
Despite the fact that he turned 70 last spring, this area's "ageless racing wonder," Ron Baker -- who is still racing in the Super Stock division -- was understandably proud to add the FOAR Score Hall of Fame plaque to his vast array of racing hardware. His awards have been gathered in a racing career that has spanned 50 years.
"This is one heck of a good award for me after all these years," said Baker. "It's especially nice to get it when you're still here. I turn 71 this coming May 5 but I plan to still keep going. I still will be in the Super Stocks as far as I know. I ran 51 races last year and I look to do about the same. I have a lot of memories over all these years but I'm getting so old I'm starting to forget a lot of them."
Former NASCAR racer Lloyd Moore and noted racer and car builder Lee Osborne were also inducted into the Hall of Fame though neither was able to attend the banquet.
Randy Hall who won multiple championships and numerous races this past season was named the Dirt Driver of The Year. He looks to repeat his success in 2007.
"I've talked to some people about that aspect of this coming season and it is going to be tough to repeat our really good record-breaking year," said Hall. "Some people have told me to sit down and talk with drivers like Dick Barton, Bob Close and others about trying to keep winning. I plan on having conversations with them. This year I will run my Modified on a more local basis and travel with my Super Stock. Maybe I'll get a crate Late Model too."
For the second straight year, Mark Bliss won the Asphalt Driver of The Year. Bliss won both the Holland and Lake Erie NASCAR Late Model championships as well as the NASCAR Northeast Region title.
"The last two years things have really rolled along for me," said Bliss. "I thought 2005 was a good year but 2006 was a phenomenal year. I couldn't ask for anything any better. I plan on running the full Lake Erie schedule this coming season along with the MAARA series."
Other award winners were: Rick Gorhan, Dirt Rookie of The Year; Erick Rudolph, Asphalt Rookie of The Year; Tom Flannigan, Dirt Most Improved; Jim Bryant, Asphalt Most Improved; Pete Stefanski, Dirt Achievement; T.J. Potrzebowski, Asphalt Achievement; Mark Pennell, Perseverance; Rick Kluth, Sportsmanship; Steve Snowden, Promotional; Lori Overdorf, Woman In Racing; Dave Buchanan, Media; Don and Marilyn Toal, Dick Hammond Dedication To Racing; Howbill Auto Parts, Rob Micoli, J.C. Seneca, Contribution Awards; Dick Barton, Wayne Bernhard, Joe Brainard, Brian Sage, Special Recognition Awards.