MALTA, NY – Over the years, Albany-Saratoga Speedway has gained a reputation as being the track where all the stars come to race.
In its early days, asphalt stars from New England made the haul to the track on Route 9 to take on the big guns from New York, guys who were equally at home on the dirt at Fonda Speedway or the asphalt of Utica-Rome. When C.J. Richards converted the racing surface to dirt, Albany-Saratoga was the neutral ground where the top drivers from Lebanon Valley and Fonda could battle for bragging rights on a Friday night.
And every once in a while, an outsider would show up to test the best drivers in the Capital Region of New York.
One of those invaders was Jeff Heotzler, who was inducted into the New York State Stock Car Association Hall of Fame on Saturday, Feb. 22, along with Central New York legends Mike “Magic Shoes” McLaughlin and Johnny McArdell, and famed fabricator-mechanic-crew chief Charlie Langenstein.
Heotzler ran the entire 1997 season at Albany-Saratoga and finished the year with four wins, one behind season leader Brett Hearn.
“That was Bernie’s idea,” said Heotzler on Saturday afternoon, following induction ceremonies at the Saratoga Auto Museum in Saratoga Springs. “He wanted to race on Friday nights. Brett and Kenny (Ken Tremont Jr.) were running there, and he wanted to be part of that. I think he was mad at DIRT at the time, and wanted to be part of the CVRA.”
“Bernie” was car owner Bernie Smith, whose Reclamation-sponsored modified was one of the top cars at Albany-Saratoga in 1997.
“We were fine right out of the box that year,” said Heotzler. “I had been there in the past and even when I was only running there once or twice a year, we always did good.”
When the season began, Bob Savoie, behind the wheel of the B&H Auto No. 64, won the first two modified features of the season, with Heotzler following him across the finish line in Week 2. Hearn followed with two straight wins of his own.
But after a pair of rainouts, Heotzler hit on something and he was set for the rest of the season.
Heotzler picked up his first career win at Albany-Saratoga on May 23, and came right back with win No. 2 the next Friday night. His other wins came on June 27 and Aug. 8. At the conclusion of the season, he had 10 top-five finishes – four wins, two seconds, one third and three fourths.
“We were still on coils back then, and we just kept tuning the car,” said Heotzler. “With the team we had back then, it didn’t take long. I had Jackie Brown then, he was my car chief, and I was working fulltime in the shop. We would spend hours getting that car ready for Friday nights.”
Ironically, Jackie Brown Jr. is now a regular Friday night campaigner at Albany-Saratoga Speedway.
Heotzler has another memory from that successful 1997 campaign, which also included his first big block modified championship at Orange County Speedway in Middletown.
“I remember battling the traffic on the Northway on Friday afternoons,” he said. “We would leave the shop at noon, and get to the track about 2 o’clock. It made for a long day.”
Heotzler said he was honored to be inducted into the NYSSCA Hall of Fame.
“I never really paid attention to things like that (win totals and track championships),” he said. “But I guess other people did.”