Motor sports have been a way of life for the Spatorico family since the 1960s, when Ron Spatorico handled racing responsibilities before fathering an heir to the driving throne.
But the family's future in the DIRT (Drivers Independent Race Track) Series is on life support as the high cost of maintaining a strong car is outweighing the passion for competing and entertaining the thousands of folks who frequent Ransomville Speedway during the spring and summer months.
The Spatoricos aren't the only weekend racing outfit struggling to make a buck. Most teams -- even those with huge sponsorship deals like longtime Pro Stock driver Mike Williams -- rarely turn a profit because auto parts and fuel are obscenely expensive.
But unlike the multiple sponsorship clubs, the Spatorico team is a catastrophe away from reaching the end of the road. They only have so much money to pour into such a pricey venture.
"If we have any problems this year, we'll probably be washed up for the whole season," said Ron Spatorico, 61, who owns the open-wheeled car driven by his 37-year-old son, Don. "I just love the competition. I've been doing it all my life -- but it's becoming so expensive now."
It's so expensive that the team sold its 28-foot enclosed car-hauling trailer in order to raise some money for another season of open-wheeled competition in the 358 Modified Division, which officially begins points racing along with three other divisions this Friday at the all-dirt racetrack that opened for its 48th season Friday with qualifying heats.
The Spatoricos purchased a new engine for the first time in five years because they blew through two engines during a fiscally depressing 2004 campaign. They also have a refreshed engine as a spare.
"We finish in a hole almost every year," said Don Spatorico, who, in addition to working at Sherwood Selpac in Lockport, runs his own graphic sign business, Spats Graphics, to help cover racing expenses.
"It's a very expensive hobby," he said.
Engines can cost $3,000 to $24,000. Teams that possess multiple sponsors have the luxury of being able to pay more. That improves their chances of winning a points title because those teams have the wherewithal to buy the best and have a new engine handy as a backup. The 358 small block engines are a fiscal challenge to maintain because they tend to need repairs or rebuilding often, due to wear and tear caused by high RPM output.
In an attempt to help the low-budget teams stay afloat in this class, and compete better against the big bucks, DIRT has required that modified cars be equipped with rev limiters, which prevent cars from exceeding 7,600 RPMs, and may save money on future repairs.
But in the world of here and now, a rev limiter is just another $350 expense to the Spatoricos, who routinely have a top 10 car.
They admit it's now a struggle to crack the top five on a $10,000 budget because even with that kind of money, it's hard to purchase parts that are vital to keeping a car performing at its best throughout the season.
At some point, the car has to pay for itself, and that really only happens with consistent top-three finishes, Ron Spatorico said.
Teams with multiple sponsors can have a budget five times the size of the Spatoricos.
The Spatoricos borrowed the backup car of Scott George for about a month last June so they could remain in the points race. The team finished eighth and has finished as high as third in past seasons. The team hasn't won a featured race in three seasons.
All drivers get paid for starting a race. First place in the Modified Division is $1,200. Top prize in the other divisions are $400 (Sportsmen), $200 (Pro Stock) and $70 (for each of the two Street Stock feature winners).
"We probably would've retired this year if we had sold the car," said Don Spatorico, whose wife, Jill, is a member of the team's three-person pit crew, along with Ron Spatorico and cousin Tim Raymond. "This year will probably be the last year without (many) sponsors."
The team has one sponsor, Patterson's Tuscarora Trading Post.
"Some of us hold on for a while, but I think in the next couple of years you'll see more drop-off," said Don Spatorico, whose 10-year-old son, Colin, already is a champion go-kart racer on the junior circuit. "The last couple of years it's gotten out of hand, the prices of engines, tires and parts for the car."
Ron Spatorico estimates there are close to 15 low-buck teams struggling to stay afloat.
Spatorico family friend Mark Sylvies of Burt was an operator who couldn't afford to keep his car on the track after 29 seasons of racing. Though Sylvies admits he would don the racing helmet again if it becomes financially feasible, the ultimate point of competing in a race is to win. Struggling to finish in the top five each week is more exhausting than fun, he said.
"A fifth-place finish for me was like winning a race," said Sylvies, who began racing as a 16-year-old in the bomber class (now Pro Stocks) and finished out of the top 10 in the Modified standings (13th overall) in 2004 after being forced to sit out the last race of the season due to engine damage (a cracked piston). "You can go the distance and stay up there and finish the race. When you're fighting to finish 10th, after a while you realize you just don't have what it takes to be competitive. It gets discouraging."
Fun is the reason all weekend racers show up at tracks not named Daytona, Talladega or the Brickyard to compete in such an expensive sport. While weekend golfers may blow their cash to purchase the latest clubs that help produce better scores on the course, here's a sampling of what it costs just to get a car on the track for one night of racing:
Racing fuel -- $6.50 per gallon. Cars use about 15 gallons during a race.
Tires -- $155 each. Teams usually burn through at least one a race.
Weekly entry fee -- $15 to $17.
Add the cost of the car, repairs and parts, and the thrill of victory is no longer priceless.
"I'm like everyone else," said Williams, who has nine sponsors -- including a major local racing backer in Mighty Taco -- and has finished as high as third in the Pro Stock standings. "There's no profit in racing, not at the level I'm at."
Ransomville Speedway averages 2,000 to 3,000 spectators for its weekly Friday night shows, a figure that swells to 7,000 when the World of Outlaws Late Models Series' traveling road show invades the speedway for its annual extravaganza. This year's show is June 27. Reserved ticket seats already are on sale.
"We're not in a panic situation," said track co-owner Jamie Friesen, who added that the track has more sponsors this year than last. "We're doing very well here. The pits are full of reserve spots. Now they're just looking to level the playing field for the low-buck operators."
Since most of the Ransomville fan base is composed of weekly regulars, they have as much fondness for racers like Ron Spatorico, Williams and Sylvies as they do for top drivers like Pete Bicknell and Danny Johnson, according to Tana Robinson, the speedway's marketing and public relations director.
"Every car is valuable," Robinson said. "We need the guy who tends to finish in the back as much as we need the Danny Johnsons in the world. We need the whole field.
"A lot of the fans are diehard. They certainly miss these guys, whoever they are. Most racing fans don't like to see (drivers drop out) because they know they're doing it on shirt-tailed budgets. They're the low-buck guys, the guys who don't have endless money. We appreciate them, and so do the fans. They're putting on a show, each and every one of them."