By ROBIN YASINSAC-GILLESPIE
On Wednesday, July 20, “The Franklin Flyer,” four-time Super DIRT Week big-block winner Billy Decker, will be inducted into the Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame, joining an exclusive company of the most accomplished dirt Modified racers in history. The 30th annual induction ceremonies will be held in the Hall of Fame Museum located on the grounds of Weedsport Speedway in New York.
Having amassed a mammoth list of accomplishments over the course of 40 years, Decker knew his entrance into the Hall of Fame was coming—but, in his mind, that day got here much too quickly.
“You get out of school and you’re all cocky, and you look at guys that are 35-45 years old and you think they are older than hell,” reflected Decker. “And then you get there, and you don’t seem as old as they once did. Then the next thing you know, your kids are moving out. How did the time go by so fast? Where did the time go?”
Most would consider that Decker used that time productively, and his career win stats back that up: 309 victories in the Modified division alone, with 129 of those scores coming in high-profile long-distance events. Decker, however, finds that number unsettling.
“There should be more wins,” Decker kept repeating. “I really haven’t thought about the induction a ton—it’s a little humbling to be honored because there are some pretty impressive people in that Hall of Fame! But I’m not done trying to add to that number.”
Ironic, especially since racing wasn’t a career path the Franklin, NY native was expected to take in life.
In the early ’80s he played around at Penn Can Speedway with what was called a Tiger car. And he did pretty well, visiting victory lane seven times in his rookie year. But he was just having some fun with the guys. It was time to get serious, man up, and apply himself to full-time responsibilities at the family’s saw mill.
Fortunately for Decker, his dad Floyd became good friends with racing great Jack Johnson and his sidekick Jo-Jo DeSarbo. They would hunt together, and during one of those hunting trips the duo convinced Floyd Decker to build his son a 320 Modified.
Billy spent a few years running Albany-Saratoga and Fonda Speedway, being mentored by Johnson—priceless knowledge. He soon ended up behind the wheel of a full-blown Modified and, after running a special event at promoter Howard Commander’s Lebanon Valley Speedway, Decker liked the place so much he became a weekly sighting. And he was a crowd favorite.
A huge kick to his career came in 1988 when he took the win in Commander’s sought-after Lebanon Valley 200 event—wresting the lead away from veteran Richie Eurich.
“Rich was having a great year, I think he won the championship at Orange County and a bunch of races down there,” Decker recalled. “He was rolling really good and I just happened to catch him at the right time with the right momentum and I passed him on the outside in three and four. That was pretty exciting, especially for a bunch of rednecks like us.”
That Eurich shutdown at the Valley also got the attention of car owner Randy Ross.
“He’s a very determined driver and he was always very determined to be successful,” Ross pointed out. “He was one of those people that just never quit—he was always searching, always looking for a better line. And even if he wasn’t working on the car, he was always thinking about it and always trying to come up with something else—something better.”
It was a good time to be Billy Decker. His racing career was taking off. Over an eight-day span Decker’s team, led by his dad, were victorious in the 200 at the Valley plus 100-lap events at Fonda and Rolling Wheels Raceway. Decker was on fire.
“We got rolling pretty good,” said Decker. “And once you get on a roll like that, things seem to happen. We won some nice races. That was a pretty exciting time for us.”
But in 1994, reality hit: Quality Hardwoods broke ground on a new, expanded facility. Decker had a choice to make—race full-time or take a position in the family business. And as many credit Decker for always being steps ahead in his mind, he already had it figured out. Billy placed a call to car owner Ross.
Decker would work at the family business while racing a full-time schedule for Ross. It was a marriage made in heaven. The driver and owner combined their experienced crews, and Decker brought his national sponsorship package with Wheels Discount Auto Supply, which gained the team a lot of attention. Decker also sent a fresh-out-of-college Scott Jeffery—who later became one of the most sought-after crew chiefs on the DIRTcar scene—down to Ross’ Albany-based shop to oversee the operation.
“We hit our stride at Lebanon Valley,” claimed Decker, who sits seventh on the Valley’s all-time Modified win list. “We won some races, probably won some that we shouldn’t have won, but that success propelled us on to a lot of other things. And we were having a lot of fun.”
A disagreement with a fellow racer and a disputed call made by speedway management sent the team packing—but it was probably the best thing that could have happened to them. It pushed them out to other tracks and they pivoted their race program in another direction.
“We went from a Saturday night weekend race team to racing 100 to 120 races a year,” said Ross. “We changed our motor program around for the slippery stuff out west. We were no longer spinning our tires everywhere we went. And we were having fun! We were all out there doing what we love to do. It wasn’t any ego-driven thing—we were racers and we just enjoyed doing it.”
Many witnessed Ross’ familiar yellow toter home logging miles up and down the New York State Thruway. They spent a lot of time in Western New York, running Brewerton, Canandaigua and Weedsport.
Success spawned the unique and popular “Triple Decker” sandwich shirts, playing off Decker’s point championship sweep at all three weekend stops in 1998: Brewerton, Canandaigua and Weedsport.
“I was really hungry back then,” said Decker. “We needed to make a name for ourselves—we needed to prove ourselves. We bought a motorhome and parked it at Weedsport. We would race, do some golfing [DIRT founder, Glenn Donnelly owned a small golf course], all of our kids grew up together… It was a fun time.”
Starting in 2004, Decker also did a sizable stint with car owner John Wight. Wight’s high-dollar team got the attention of Jeffery and he took Decker with him. As expected, success followed. In their first season with Wight’s Gypsum Racing Team they added 16 more wins to Decker’s lengthy resume. Wight also helped Decker secure another Super DIRT Week big-block win.
Decker’s huge Syracuse Super DIRT Week success includes four wins in Sunday’s biggie (three for Ross, one for Wight) and six Modified pole credits. He’s won the SDW 358 Modified event on seven occasions (six at the Fairgrounds mile and one at Oswego). Decker was the overall Mr. DIRT/SDS Champion in 1998, 2008 and 2014, and earned well over a dozen individual Modified track championships: Brewerton (5), Fulton (4), Weedsport (4), Rolling Wheels (2), Lebanon Valley (2) and Canandaigua (1). He has won on 35 different ovals in nine states and two Canadian provinces.
“The win total is shy,” Decker reminded. “But to win traveling around like we did for all of those years, I’m pretty proud of that. I can’t believe how quick the time has gone by, and I’ve thought about what got us here… From the beginning, when the shop was at my parents’ house and people hung around and helped even when I wasn’t worth a shit because they just wanted to be part of it. We had so much fun and I always remember the early days.”
With a racing career like that—what stands out?
“I’m happy to have had the time in racing that I did with my dad,” said Decker, whose father Floyd passed away in 2016. “Even when I was driving for other people, just driving back and forth to the tracks with him was just awesome. That time together meant a lot.”
Decker considered the on-track moments that meant the most to him. “It’s hard to pick one thing,” he said, “but you can’t replace coming off the fourth turn at Syracuse for that first win. That feeling was so special.”
Billy also relishes the feeling he got winning his first championship in 1992, after years of “hanging around, watching other guys win, and going to the banquet and it’s not you up there. That can wear on you a little bit.”
But Decker persevered to craft a Hall of Fame career. He knows how lucky he is.
“This sport has been really good to me,” he said. “It allowed me to spend a lot of time with my family and we have met so many great people and made so many friends over the years. And it doesn’t hurt to have a good list of accomplishments, too.”
Decker and Wight’s successful run concluded at the end of the 2021 season. But Billy has no plans to call it a career anytime soon. He may slow down a little bit—next year, that is. For now, he’s planning on running the entire Super DIRTcar Series with Jeremy Smith’s team. Decker and Smith have been hanging together on Brett Deyo’s Short Track Super Series with success over the last few seasons. And Decker’s been mentoring Smith’s sons, Darren and Matt.
“I don’t know what the season holds but right now there are a lot of really nice races out there,” said Decker. “Right now is a great time to be a full-time racer so it would be a really hard time to retire.”
In late April, he was asked to drive the Slack family’s race car at Fulton Speedway for the initial start of the 2022 DIRTcar 358 Modified Series. Decker parked it in victory lane.
And we can’t forget that win list he keeps bringing up: he still doesn’t have enough.
“I still go to the track thinking I can win every race,” Decker stated. And when he can’t get it done like he used to? “That’s hurtful,” he maintained.