Industry leader turned his life's love into a
full-time vocation By Paul Schaefer, NASCAR
August 1, 2010 - 5:13pm
Ernie Saxton, behind the mike at Grandview
Speedway, is a long-time short track racing fixture.
Chris Budihas/Racerboy Marketing
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Ernie Saxton is one of short track
racing’s best known go-to guys.
A marketing expert, track announcer, souvenir program editor and
publisher, media relations, public relations, trade and daily
newspaper columnist, radio and television program host, a
presenter of “how to” sponsorship seminars for racing teams and
tracks … you get the idea. Have a question? Need advice? Bounce
an idea? Ernie’s The Man.
Saxton, 68, along with his wife and business partner Marilyn,
operates Ernie Saxton Communications. After decades of absorbing
and disseminating marketing and promotions knowledge Saxton is a
leading all-around motorsports expert. His website is
Saxton is probably best known for his Saturday night racing home
of 43 years, Grandview Speedway, a banked and action packed
.333-mile clay oval in Bechtelsville, Pa. The 48 year old
facility, operated by the Rogers family, Bruce, Teresa, Ken, and
Pat is known as “The Greatest Show On Dirt,” thanks both to its
design and to the drivers and teams who compete there in the
big-time NASCAR Whelen All-American Series dirt Modifieds and
dirt Late Models.
Saxton is the track’s publicist, souvenir program editor and
publisher, announcer, best friend and fan.
Saxton has also been out in the big American racing world, too.
He’s announced races at 174 different speedways from coast to
coast. He’s a prolific writer, columnist and electronic media
correspondent, typically championing short track racing. He can
also be a constructive critic and often concludes a written
criticism with the words “just my opinion,” to indicate an
openness to other points of view. He has the ear of other
industry leaders, the media, those in the motorsports hierarchy,
drivers, teams and fans at all levels. He was a founder of the
Eastern Motorsports Press Association and retired as its 42-year
president in January.
Yet, like most racing enthusiasts – and almost all long-timers
in the sport who never lose that enthusiasm -- the memory of
attending his first race is vivid.
“My cousin, Ben Baird, was an avid fan and wrote a column in the
old Illustrated Speedway News. He’d have racing publications at
his house and I’d go through them. Illustrated Speedway News had
a wrap around sheet and it was all pictures.
“I was probably 18 when my cousin took me to my first race at
Reading (Pa.) Fairgrounds Speedway in 1955,” Saxton said. "I
remember Freddy Adams, one of the legendary drivers of that
time, must have flipped as high as a light pole that night.”
He also remembers the first story he submitted for publication,
too. It was a dispatch from racing at John F. Kennedy Stadium in
“I wrote an article – two pages double spaced – and sent it to
Chris Economaki at National Speed Sport News,” Saxton said. “I
was so excited waiting to see if my story was in the paper. It
was there with my by-line, but my two-page story ended up being
two paragraphs. If Economaki had edited the Bible, it might have
turned out being a pamphlet."
Saxton had a first “hero” driver, too.
“I mailed pictures of my favorite drivers to those drivers
asking them to autograph them,” Saxton said. “I got very
attached to Sprint Car driver named Johnny Thomson. He was the
only one who sent back an autographed picture. I started a fan
club form him and was an ardent fan. He got injured at the
Allentown (Pa.) Fairgrounds and died from infection. I didn’t go
to races for two years after that, but my cousin convinced me to
start going again.”
Saxton lives in Langhorne, Pa., site of the former behemoth
one-mile dirt circle aptly named Langhorne Speedway. For
drivers, the track was a star maker and a star breaker.
The track and its facilities were primitive, but fans packed its
hard, dirty bare plank grandstands.
“It was not a very nice place by today’s standards,” Saxton
recalls. “The track was a maker of men. Because drivers were
always turning in a circle it was hard on their bodies. Drivers
got hurt there, or worse, pretty regularly. Drivers like Mario
Andretti, Bobby and Al Unser, A.J. Foyt and Rodger Ward – all
Indianapolis 500 winners -- dreaded going there. But you could
make a name for yourself at Langhorne, too. If you went to
Langhorne and won you were considered to be among the best
“The promoters at the time, Irving Fried and Al Gerber knew how
to promote,” Saxton said. They put up posters and passed out
flyers everywhere. When you got there, you got a hard dirty
seat, but they packed ‘em in.
“I was in there in what I laughingly refer to as their press
box. It was the top row of seats with a little table pressed
against the back of the seats in front of us with a canopy over
us. A guy came up there to deliver hot dogs and orange juice to
the press, and at the time, people got all dressed up to go to
the races. We reporters weren’t wearing jackets and ties, so he
left with the food. He gave the hot dogs and orange juice to the
restroom attendants, who were in uniform including ties.”
Such were the formalities of big time racing back then.
While Grandview Speedway will always be close to Saxton’s heart,
he really liked the former Ascot Park, a quarter-mile dirt oval
in Gardena, Calif., near Los Angeles.
“On the eve of Ontario (Calif.) Motor Speedway closing (in
1980), J.C. Agajanian offered me a job announcing at Ascot five
nights a week. I didn’t want to move to California and I didn’t
like the commute. But I got done announcing there one night and
a group of fans was waiting for me. They were Grandview fans who
had moved to California from Pennsylvania and they remembered my
voice. They thought they had gotten away from me.”
He announced his first race, three-quarter Midgets, at Atlantic
City Speedway in New Jersey in the early 1970s when the
announcer didn’t show up. The promoter drafted him for duty
because Saxton was a race-savvy publicity man who knew the cars
and drivers. He said he thinks he did OK for the most part,
except when a potato bug flew into his mouth in mid-sentence.
Short tracks and the short-track experience are much improved
today, although some of the good old days were really good.
“In the days of Langhorne, fans were not looking for fan
friendly facilities," Saxton said. "They went to see who could
win at Langhorne. If the Langhorne facility existed today, it
“You don’t have to have the fanciest place today to be
successful. Provide clean restrooms, some corporate boxes for
the sponsors and entertain the fans with a fast paced three-hour
show. Give them good food at reasonable prices
“Your die-hard fans that you see every week will be there for
you. They’re your foundation. Tracks need to attract what I call
the “fringe” fans … the fans you see five or six times a year.
They’re the ones who are going to ball games, concerts, shows
and other forms of entertainment. Do something different to keep
them coming back.
“An announcer should have some fan appeal, personality and some
knowledge of marketing and sponsorship. Every announcer has a
style. Grandview is a unique track with a unique show, and
sometimes I let the action speak for itself. I don’t yell and
jump up and down.
“A track operator has to create a whole experience to keep the
fans happy and wanting to come back.
“I give the credit for the success of Grandview Speedway to
Bruce Rogers. As a businessman, he’s always done what he said
he’d do. I give credit to the racers. On any given Saturday
night we have 50 Modifieds and at least 25 to 30 of them could
win. In the Late Models, half of them could win on any night.”
Asked to pick one of the many all-time outstanding drivers he’s
seen race at Grandview, Saxton selects Sprint Car driver Fred
“At Grandview, Fast Freddy could point his car anywhere and find
an opening. He’s a very talented guy. I’d watch him drive a car
in traffic to where there was no opening, and by the time he got
there, the opening he anticipated was there, and he made the
While Saxton never desired to own a race track or race cars, he
admits to driving in a race once.
“We had a Philadelphia television sportscaster, Don Tollefson,
come to Grandview to do a five lap match race with me. After
three laps, I was leading. Then I started thinking about the PR
from the race. If I won, we’d get 15 seconds in his sports
coverage about the race. On the last lap, I drifted high in
turns three and four and he dove low and won the race.
“The crowd booed me. Apparently they felt I could have done
better. The guy who owned the car I drove wouldn’t talk to me.
“But the story got two, two and a half minutes of TV coverage on
Don’s sports report at his TV station. Today that’s the length
of a whole local TV sports segment.”