By BILL FOLEY
John Tiff Jr. has been a fixture around Central New York speedways for over two decades. He’s served in nearly every capacity in the tower on race night. From scoring to race-directing, he’s done it all.
His dedication is recognized in this exclusive Dirt Track Digest interview for our Behind the Scenes series.
Dirt Track Digest: How did you become involved with racing?
John Tiff Jr.: “Back in the early days of the Outlaw Circuit, I was a huge Donnie Wetmore fan. That was back in the day when there were less classes running on a weekly basis, and drivers hung around the pits afterwards. I always ended up near Donnie’s car at some point, no matter which track I was at. That was really a fun era, where drivers never seemed to be in a hurry to leave and there was a lot more fan interaction as it seemed the stands would empty into the pits after the races. Eventually Marcia Wetmore, who was married to Donnie at the time, recognized that Jerry Brooks and I were around all the time. In the early years of the Victoria 200, every driver needed their own scorer to assist the track scorers and Marcia pulled me out of the stands and into action.
In 1995, I started working at Fulton and Utica-Rome Speedways as a hand scorer, then a year later I started at Brewerton. I continued working the three track until the end of 2012, when I resigned from Brewerton and Fulton. I currently work at Utica-Rome Speedway and with the Empire Super Sprints (since 2014), plus work Super DIRT Week, Outlaw 200 Weekend, and other special events.”
DTD: What are you doing at track you are at?
JT: “My role at the tracks has evolved throughout the years, going from hand score,head scorer/handicapper, race director, AMB transponder operator. For several years, I did all those duties at once three nights a week and to this day, I wonder how I did it. Without Jerry Brooks in the tower with me, it probably wouldn’t have been possible as he would help out when he could. During the last several years of Gene Cole’s ownership at Utica-Rome, I handled the public relations along with scheduling, race directing, handicapping and overseeing scoring. When I started working with the Empire Super Sprints in 2014, my duties include operating the one way radio, heat race draws, and assisting with scoring.”
DTD: Explain duties as if no one understood what you do?
JT: “Hand scoring is probably the least known and least appreciated job duty at any track. You basically write down every car, every lap, as they pass the start/finish line for every event of the night. It is a real skill, and most people can’t do it. We have had several people try, just for the fun of it, and walk away after a couple laps in a heat race and say f### that. In my opinion, Jerry Brooks is the best that I have ever seen at it and I have been to a lot of tracks. As head scorer, you assist the hand scorer by keeping track of lapped cars, car in the pits, and other things that can happen throughout an event. It is called short scoring by some, and as head scorer, all scoring decisions go through you.
As a handicapper, you are responsible for heat race, consolation races, and feature event. It is called handicapping due to the fact that, with the exception of opening night and special events, drivers are handicapped by their performance in past events. The better you do, the further back you start and vice versa. When transponders started being used, I starting operating the computer that keeps track of cars as the their transponder crosses the transponder loop at the start/finish line. This has helped short track racing immensely as it gives the race data in real time for track officials, drivers, and fans. Despite the addition of transponders, a hand scorer is still needed in case any issues arise with system, which has happened on several occasions.
As race director, you basically control the flow of the night’s action. It is your job to make sure all the officials do their jobs in concert with each other and keep the show moving. Behind the scenes, it almost like a controlled chaos while the fans see a smooth show on the track. The race director is also the point man for the on track action as they also are in communication with the drivers on the track by telling them when the green flag is coming, when the yellow is out and why, and lining the cars up during a caution. Any disciplinary action goes through the race director, and that is when you are thankful that radio communication is one way only.
When I was handling the PR duties at Utica-Rome, I wrote all the pre and post race stories, handled the advertising in the racing papers, dealt with any press requests, plus other stuff that came up.”
DTD: What is your favorite part of the job?
JT: “My favorite part of the job is being with my racing family every week, sometimes several nights a week. Racing family is a term used a lot and you may not understand until you are down. This business tends to look after it’s own when someone needs helps, even the people that you aren’t real friendly with tend to chip in. Also, just being part of some of the best racing in the region, seeing the best drivers, and working at some the best tracks with some of the best staffs. During by time in racing, I have seen drivers like Stewart Friesen, Matt Sheppard, and Tim McCreadie start their Modified careers, plus watching legends like Bob McCreadie, Billy Decker, Brett Hearn, Alan Johnson, Danny Johnson, Jack Johnson, there are too many to list.”
DTD: What is your least favorite part of the job? .
JT: “While the job can be fun, it also can be brutal and humbling. When you have 50 or 300 hundred cars in the pits, there is only a handful of drivers that go home happy while the rest look for someone to blame for their misfortune. Sometimes that is the person who is in their ear on the one way radio all night. For me, the perfect night is when you don’t have to make a single call, all the races go green to checkered, and no officials are involved in any of the stuff that happens on the track. But more often that not, a tough decision has to be made and as race director it is your call and sometimes tempers flare. Fortunately, most drivers have a short memory and you move on the next race.”
DTD: Are you a fan and how hard is it to be one in relation to what you do?
JT: “I got started in this business and still attend events as a fan. It is different for me now though because before I was an official, it was Donnie Wetmore and everyone else sucked. As an official, you deal with all the drivers and build relationships with them and realize they are all the same as they all work hard at what they do, have families, and spend an unreal amount of time and money to compete. Now when I go to the races as a fan, I go to see a good event regardless of the winner. One thing I won’t do is bash a track on social media because until you have worked on this side of the fence, you have no idea of the stuff that can go wrong and throw a whole show off. Fans and drivers only see one side of it and are pretty oblivious to the all the moving pieces.”
DTD: How many years and what tracks have you worked at?
JT: “I worked at Fulton and Utica-Rome in 1995 and Brewerton in 1996. I resigned from Brewerton and Fulton in the fall of 2013 but still help out at Fulton on Outlaw 200 Weekend and whenever else they may some assistance. I still work at Utica-Rome plus travel with the Empire Super Sprints, which I started in 2014.”
DTD: What are some of your best memories?
JT: “It is hard to point out one specific memory but their has been a ton of them. The best part has been the friendships and relationships that I have made. From the time Marcia pulled out the stands to help out at the Victoria 200, it has a whirlwind of faces that have come and gone. From working with Alex Friesen, Marcia, and Lyle DeVore in the on magical season at Fulton and Utica-Rome in 1996, it had been non-stop since then. Harvey Fink and Gene Cole have been big influences throughout my career, with Harvey and his unbridled passion for the perfect show to Gene’s sitting in the background letting his employees do their job. They are polar opposites in their approach, but both want the same result and I try to fall in between in my approach. Again, the friendships the I have gained that I hope will last a lifetime.”
DTD: What are some of your toughest ones?
JT: “Only two really come to mind. The Kevin Ward/Tony Stewart incident at Canandaigua is by far the toughest moment of my career in racing and will stay with me for the rest of my life. From seeing the incident and the backlash and circus that came with it and realizing I was probably the last voice he heard, that will haunt me forever. The media attention that came with was insane as well. When media outlets that normally don’t pay attention to what we do were suddenly interested.
Then having relive it when testifying to the grand jury and lawyers afterwards, it was a nightmare. The August swing to the Land of Legends will always make me pause for a moment and relive what happened as long as I’m involved with ESS.
The other was the unexpected death of Alex Friesen. I don’t think I have ever met a more charismatic promoter in my life, or someone who had as much fun in racing as he did. He was on the cusp of something special and unfortunately his dream was never realized.”
DTD: Why do you keep doing what you do?
JT: “I enjoy the people. When I first started, I though it was cool to just be involved in racing and get paid to do it. But now, it is the people and relationships that I have built that keep me going. When it comes to the point where I’m not having fun anymore on a weekly basis, then I will walk away.”
DTD: Was your family involved with racing?
JT: “My father raced before I was born, but was always a fan. I remember going with him as a kid, and then as a teenager I wanted nothing to do with racing believe it or not. There were many nights I fished on the river by Brewerton Speedway as they were racing. Then I got bit by the racing bug and had the fever since then. My kids, Adam and Marissa, have been involved as well as Adam started selling ESS merchandise in 2014 while Marissa would walk the stands selling programs. When my son went to college, Marissa took over the merchandise trailer until this past season when she started college. Both have been fans since they were little.”
DTD: Who influenced you in regards to racing and why?
JT: “Marcia Wetmore probably was my biggest influence as she got me started in the business, from pulling me out of the stands to score for Donnie to hiring me when she was General Manager at Fulton and Utica-Rome under Eric Kingsley. I often joke that I’m not sure if I love her or hate her for starting me on this journey. As mentioned before, Harvey Fink and Gene Cole have been huge influences on me. Gene has probably been the biggest influence on me because of the trust he had in me and just a mentor on how to carry yourself. There are many more, but those are the biggest.”
Editors Note: If you or someone you know would like to share their behind the scenes story as part of the Dirt Track Digest series send along a note to firstname.lastname@example.org or PM William Foley on Facebook.