Column By: LAURIE FALLIS / RPW – FONDA, NY – With the cost of racing reaching the expense it has become in today’s society, how hard is it for race teams or drivers to stay in the sport they love, using their own wallets?
Some drivers are lucky enough to get that ride with a special car owner that loves the sport just as much as they do. I was able to catch up to one of those car owners…a person that’s helped many drivers over the years reach their highest level. That person is 2017 Fonda Speedway Hall Of Fame car owner Tommy Spencer.
Spencer is one of those gentleman who has helped elevate drivers careers with numerous Championships and an amazing amount of victories utilizing top notch equipment. Let’s get to know more about him.
The racing fever hit Tommy when he was just 12 years of age. That’s when a friend introduced him to the sport. They had their seats in the bleachers in the first turn at Fonda.
“I was hooked instantly,” Spencer said. “The thrill of the speed, just being a young kid and the excitement of the cars going around. Steve Danish was my man. He’s who I cheered for every Saturday night.”
It wasn’t just his driving ability that drew Spencer to Danish.
“Believe it or not, what caught my eye about Danish was that they were the only race team that looked professional,” he said. The crew had the same uniform they’d wear and they lined up like they do in NASCAR when they sang the National Anthem at each race.”
Danish was his guy, both on and off the track.
“Man, he sure could drive a racecar,” he said. “Not only that, he was always a nice guy to me whenever I saw him. I loved getting his autograph.”
Tommy got the racing bug himself at one point. However, it was behind the wheel of a kart. He tinkered around with them just for fun and traveled to different tracks, one of which was in his own back yard. Being a Northville, NY-native, there was a track in the neighboring town, Plateau Kart Track in Edinburgh, NY…an asphalt road course.
There, Spencer had success, winning the New York State Championship once. He would also compete over the years at places like Argyle, Batavia, White Beach and Dodge City…some asphalt, some dirt.
Tommy played around with karts until he was 30 years old.
“Over the years, I never really got to serious,” he said. “It was about just having fun.”
Then it happened. Walking into Spencer’s business, Adirondack Leather, was a young Timmy Clemens. Clemons approached the business owner about sponsorship. Spencer figured why not, and so it began.
By the end of 1984, he was a car owner. Tom bought Clemons’ entire operation for $1,200, consisting of his truck, trailer and racecar. Tim piloted the #17 to start the 1985 season and it was game on for Spencer Racing.
The new team competed at Fonda Speedway, eventually getting to the Sportsman division. However, Spencer, being all in on the sport, wanted to have a Modified as well, so in 1986, he bought out Jake Spraker, another Fonda Hall Of Fame owner who had Ray Dalmata driving for him.
Dalmata drove for Spencer at Fonda and Albany-Saratoga from 1986-1989 with his famous #643 emblazoned on the sides. The duo didn’t win any championships but did rack up a lot of wins.
During this time. Ray maintained the Modifieds at his business, Ray’s Auto Body Shop in Dal’s Hollow while Clemons’ #17 cars were maintained at Spencer’s garage in Northville.
1990 brought a new driver, Mike Romano, come aboard the Spencer team after Tom bought out Jame Spraker, once again. What a year that season turned out to be for the Adirondack Leather teams. With Clemons in Sportsman, Romano in Modified and Adirondack Leather also sponsoring Ricky Achzet in Street Stocks, history was made for the car owner.
Each driver captured their respective track championship a Fonda…a feat, still to this day, never been matched. 1990 also saw Spencer’s ‘other’ idol, Jumpin’ Jack Johnson, get behind the wheel of a Spencer-owned machine. Driving the team’s #43. Johnson took home four wins in six races during his short stint as a Spencer driver, racing at Albany-Saratoga. Johnson also won the Mohawk Valley 100 for the car owner.
In 1992, the bug returned. Spencer climbed behind the wheel and strap himself in, giving it a whirl. One would ask, at age 48, why? One night in the race shop, Tommy told Clemons how to drive and what he should be doing. The team harassed Spencer to get in the car and show how it’s done. That’s exactly what he did for six grueling races, running the team’s back-up.
“I was mostly in the way out there,” he said. “That’s when I figured it be a good ideal to hang it up. Plus, I was up in age to start learning to drive those cars.”
Maybe Spencer showed Clemons something because he went on to win Fonda Speedway Sportsman Track Championship three years in-a-row from 1990 to 1992. During that run, in 1991, Clemons finished runner-up for the Mr. DIRT Sportsman Championship, albeit with a little controversy.
The last race of the year at Orange County Fairgrounds, five drivers were disqualified, including Clemons. for illegal brass screws in the carburetor. A protest was made by Spencer and a letter was written from CNS Carburetor stating no modifications were done. That was how the Carburetor was sent The chief tech inspector of DIRT, as well as members of the team that beat Clemons for the title, Mike Button, stated the screws were not stock. They needed to be steel from the manufacturer. The protest was denied and as a result, Spencer’s team ended up losing by only a few points.
As in life, they say, all good things come to an end. After eight years together, Clemons, the most successful and longest tenured driver in Spencer’s stables, and the car owner felt it was time to go in separate directions. They would split after winning the Sportsman Championship in 1992. One could say they were a very successful ride together since that day Clemons walked in.
Throughout the years, up to 2004, Spencer Racing has helped many drivers race for the checkered flag. Guys like AJ Romano, Jimmy Johnson Jr, Jack Farquhar, Joe Geneti, Floyd Billington, Kevin Crave and Mike Ketchum just to name a few. Even NASCAR driver Kyle Petty was able to get behind the wheel of Ray Dalmata’s backup car in the mid 80’s, racing a few times at Fonda and Malta.
At the end of 2004, Spencer decided he needed to step away. The sport was getting too expensive. He didn’t want to sacrifice his business by taking money from it.
“I just wanted to make sure my retirement would be sound,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that my personal like was situated.”
Tommy still went to the races every Saturday night during his hiatus as a car owner. That was, until 2015. With the love and passion for this sport still as strong day one, he felt he had all of his ducks in a row. He wanted to come back as a car owner once again.
I asked him why in the first place would he become a car owner?
“I wish the hell I new,” he said with a laugh.
So why come back? Why with the cost of racing to compete at a high level and extremely expensive right now?
“Lack of brains,” he said, with an even bigger laugh. “It’s an addiction. I came back this time around though to just have fun. If we win we do. If not, it’s ok. No pressure.”
So. Spencer needed a driver. After more than two decades away from the sport, Billy Gray was tapped as his driver, running in the Sportsman division. Then, it continued to grow, Spencer bought out AJ Romano’s complete operation when the veteran decided he wanted to move south.
After one year with Gray, Chad Edwards got the call to drive in 2016, stepping in and brought Spencer a Fonda Speedway Championship just two years later. This year, the pairing finished third in track points.
Now, a little fun. I wanted to give Tommy Spencer some rapid fire questions.
Q: Do you have any hobbies or interests besides racing?
NONE I don’t have any other interests. I just can’t stay away. My life is working and racing.”
What’s your favorite moment in racing?
Winning six races in a row and twelve out of fifteen with Timmy Clemens in 1992 and winning the Championship that year.
Never had one really. I enjoyed it weather we win or lose. I’m just glad nobody has ever been hurt in one of my race cars…knock on wood.
If you could change something, what would be?
The Purse! The expense of racing keeps going up, but the purse has not moved at all until this year with Brett Deyo shaking things up at Fonda.
What’s good or bad with the direction of the sport?
It keeps the kids out of trouble! It is sad to see the fact that the younger fans don’t get a chance to meet the drivers each week after the races as I did as a youngster. That excitement is what gets the kids hooked and that’s what we need for the future of this sport.
A lot of the drivers are gone before the gates are open to the pits now-a-days.”
How long do you see yourself giving so many the great opportunity to drive for you?
I have no idea. I haven’t decided. I’m 74 years old and my Grandchildren are getting older. They are wanting me to do things with me so I’m not sure.
Something ironic, after all these years involved in the sport, Tom stated that not one of his family members has had any interest in racing. That includes his son and two stepdaughters, even with all the success that’s been had. He did state his wife, Sharon, was a big part of his first go-around and was very involved. However, not since his return, but totally supports his passion to this day.
Tommy Spencer is certainly a big part of our racing history. He has truly been a special gift to many drivers over the years.. This season, the Spencer’s are thinking a little outside the box. They are sponsoring the Mohawk Valley Vintage Dirt Modified Series “Fall Grand Finale” Vintage race at Fonda Speedway.
As series promoter, I am certainly honored, but asked why?
“Vintage racing is a way of remembering our past,” he said. “We need to keep the legends that made what we have in our minds. I’m glad to be a small part of it helping out.”
Whatever Tommy Spencer decides to do in 2020 and beyond, his desire in the sport he has been so passionate. It will forever be strong and his legacy is cemented. The Hall of Fame is a great place for this car owner to be. He’s impacted so many. He deserves so much. He’s one in a million.