The Little Valley Speedway is set to begin a milestone year when the dirt track located on the Cattaraugus County Fairgrounds opens Sunday for its 20th consecutive season of stock car competition. The question now is, will this season be its last?
John Charlesworth has been president of the Cattaraugus County Agricultural Society for the last 23 years. The society promotes and operates Little Valley Speedway under Charlesworth's direction. The society is a non-profit, privately run organization.
While Charlesworth is proud of the success that Little Valley has enjoyed for most of the last two decades, he has also stated that the track almost didn't open for this season and that the future is cloudy.
Charlesworth cited dwindling spectator numbers, fading car counts, frustration from frequent rainouts, competition from other tracks and a few other items as the culprits that could sink Little Valley's racing ship.
"It's been a lot of work," said Charlesworth. "But I don't know how long it's going to continue. In the mid-1990's the agricultural society took over the fairgrounds from the county and we had to have extra income to keep the fairgrounds going and to survive. That's when I brought up the fact of racing, so we put the track together and started. I didn't know anything about it. I wasn't even a race fan.
"It worked out all right. I've gotten quite an education."
Charlesworth says that their was serious debate following the 2016 season as to whether there would be a 2017 campaign. Ultimately, the society board decided to run again this season with a four-race, special-events-only season. Little Valley has always been a special-events-only track of between three and seven race dates a year since it re-opened in 1997.
"We definitely had thoughts about not running anymore," Charlesworth said. "I helped build the track and my company Little Valley Sand and Gravel put a lot into it. It would be a shame not to run it. That what keeps it going."
The first several seasons proved successful for Little Valley. With great crowds and plenty of cars, the track made money. It has had less prosperity the last few seasons. The fairgrounds is a multi-use facility with several other events taking place throughout the year, highlighted by the Cattaraugus County Fair.
"We have something going on just about every week all summer," Charlesworth said. "Based on our fairgrounds activity and when the other tracks are running we sort of have certain dates that are available each year. But it's got to the point where competition with other tracks and everything, it gets tougher all the time."
Charlesworth compared the early fortunes of Little Valley following the 1997 re-opening to where the track's situation rests over these last few years.
"Racing is nothing like it was then," Charlesworth said. "When we started we had a full grandstand every race, rain or shine. Now the racers don't have the cars they had. You don't have the public and the diehard race fans you once had. I think a lot of tracks are struggling.
"We have a 2,500-seat covered main grandstand and with the extra bleachers we can seat 3,500 altogether. Back when we started we didn't have the extra bleachers. When we first started we had the Sprint Cars and we filled the grandstand every time. We only had three races a year and in the first two years we made enough money to put back all the money we put in it to build the track. Then we had 10 years that were really good. Then it started going downhill.
"We have been hit with a large number of rainouts the last few years and if the weather don't look good on race day you might as well forget it.
"Part of our people in the society would rather do away with it and some want to keep it going. We decided to keep going for this year."
No matter what the future may hold, one thing is sure. By no means are Charlesworth and his staff throwing in the towel at this point. They have been working hard this offseason to help ensure the best 2017 campaign that they can. Their desire is to clearly bring better fortune, perhaps for years to come. This season will be crucial.
Charlesworth has put together a revamped schedule that should be inviting to area fans. Along with the track's signature Super Late Model class, the popular Big-Block Modifieds, 358 Modifieds, the Bellinger Electric Sportsman Series, RUSH Pro Modifieds and other competitive classes will pay a visit.
Also a big plus for Little Valley -- and perhaps its potential salvation -- is that it is an ultra-fast, one-half mile oval where high speed is the name of the game. Speed is popular with fans.
This Sunday's 6:30 p.m. card will include Super Late Models, 358 Modifieds, Crate Late Models and Street Stocks.
"I thought it was time to go back to the way it used to be with different classes," Charlesworth said. "It got to the point that we were racing the same classes that all the other tracks in this area were. So this year we kind of switched it around some. I invite all racers and fans to come see us this season."