BUSTI, N.Y.—In the spring of 1956, five young men—Don and Jerry Frank, Lloyd Williams, Leonard Briggs and Marv Thorpe, all residents of Sugar Grove, Pa.—decided to build a race track to compete with nearby Skyline Speedway. In the dead of night they drove to New York City to meet with the owner of the land they had set their eyes and dreams on. They paid $1,200 for 77 acres, mostly covered with trees. The trees were put to good use, supplying lumber for buildings, fence posts and light poles.
After an exceptionally soggy spring delaying the start of work the track was ready to go and on July 21, 1956, Emory Mahan, of Warren, PA won the first feature event at the track, dubbed Stateline Speedway due to it's proximity to the NY/PA state line. The parking lot was so wet that the owners, with several volunteers using farm tractors, were busy pulling fans' vehicles from the parking lot until sun up the next morning.
At the time the popular belief was that the state line actually ran through the track with turns 4 and 1 in Pennsylvania and 2 and 3 in New York. The owners allowed the thought and actually encouraged it by only selling beer on the "New York" side and checking IDs of anyone seeking to enter the back stretch. Fans under 18 (the legal drinking age at that time in New York) were only allowed on the "New York" side if they were accompanied by their parents.
Only one class of cars was raced: Late Models! Since then, Late Models have been the premier class at the track and have been run every year. Some years in the early history had the 'Late Models' called 'New Cars' and limited to stock American-made production cars no more than four model years old. A bonus was paid to drivers utilizing current year cars.
No champion was named for that first year, but using the points system in effect the following season it was later determined that Joe Sauner of Jamestown, NY was the champion of the inaugural season. Thirty drivers have won the Stateline championship over it's 58 year history with Dick Barton, of Asheville, NY, accomplishing the feat ten times, the most recent being 2013 and the first in 1986. Barton, with 78 feature wins, trails Busti, NY's Bobby Schnars in the win column by only one. Schnars drove to eight titles during his 20+ year career.
In the early years Stateline hosted several events other that the Saturday night Late Model show including a NASCAR Midget race and an All-Star Circuit of Champions Sprint race. Also, a Tourist Trophy (TT) event was run for AMA motorcycles. On July 16, 1958, NASCAR conducted a Grand National (now Sprint Cup Series) event, won by Corpus Christi, Texas' Shorty Rollins. Rollins went in to win a 100-mile qualifying event for the very first Daytona 500 and the 1958 NASCAR Rookie of the Year title. Also, a series of 100-lap events was run for Jalopies (basically a 'run watcha brung' enduro for older racecars). The first event attracted 117 entrants and they were lined up three-abreast, stretching two-thirds of the way around the one-third-mile oval. Keith Lundmark of Russell, Pa., won the first event and then one a year was run as a stand-alone event until 1962.
In 1961 the four owners (Thorpe had sold his interest in the track after the inaugural season) built a second track at Hammett, Pa., near Erie, calling it Eriez Speedway after the local American-Indian nation. It opened five years to the day after Stateline on July 21, 1961, on a Friday night. Erie's Tom Dill won the opening event which was cut short due to a spectacular end-for-end flip that injured Brockway, Pa.'s popular driver Squirt Johns. Johns recovered and went on to win three Stateline championships, the 1967 Eriez championship and the Stateline-Eriez Circuit that year. The following year saw the birth of the Stateline-Eriez Circuit. Kane, Pa.'s Eddie Kisco was the first-ever Circuit Champion. Over the years the Circuit Championship became very prestigious and very lucrative, some years even involving the use of a new Car for the following year. A banquet was held every year and really was the social event to attend for racing fans.
In 1962 a class was added, made up of coupes and older sedans, using 6-cylinder and flathead Ford V8s. The class had basically evolved from the old Jalopy races. Earlier an attempt had been made to run a Novice class, using out of date Late Models but the class failed due to a lack of interest. 'Hooligans' were added as a pure stock-type class in 1958 with more classes added over the years. Hooligans eventually evolved into the current Limited Late Model class.
Following the death of owner Lloyd Williams in 1982 the remaining three owners continued to operate the tracks but the years were taking their toll and the tracks were becoming more run down as the years passed. The decision was made to sell them and in the fall of 1984 Eriez was sold to Charlie Bonta and Stateline was sold to Francis and Lynn Seamens. By this time there were four classes running at each track but Super Late Models, as always, were the main attraction. The other classes were Sportsmen (V8 winged coupes), Limited Late Models and Spectators.
Bonta altered the classes at Eriez for the '85 season, adding Big Block Modifieds. Both tracks dropped the V-8 winged sportsmen and split the 'Spectator' class into Spectators and Cadets. The four classes in 1985 were Super Late Models, Limited Late Models (Called Thunder Cars at Eriez), Cadets, and Spectators, with Modifieds also at Eriez. The Circuit championship was now a thing of the past as each track went it's own way. At the end of 1986 Bonta abandoned Eriez and the track reverted to the original owners. In the late summer of 1987, Seamens took over the payments on the track and operated the track for the remaining three weeks of the season. In 1988 the Circuit Championship was re-instituted, giving drivers an extra incentive to attend weekly at both tracks.
For the 1990 season a class was added for "Lady Spectators". The rules were the same as the stock Spectator class except that it would be limited to female drivers. A field of six to ten was common but there were times there were as many as fifteen cars. The Spectator classes ran for trophies only, no cash prizes and attracted over 100 cars a week and were split into four heats and four features plus a heat and feature for the Ladies every week at each track. With the circuit championship again important all classes had an abundance of competitors. The Cadet class, the next up from the entry-level Spectators, was attracting 35-40 cars every week and ran four heats and two features. Seamens always disliked sending anyone home without them being in a 'feature'. The Limited Late Models and Late Models always had full fields and Seamens would often start over the standard 24 cars in features, up to 32 cars at times. Seldom were there fewer than 200 cars in the pit areas. One interesting event was on a Memorial Day weekend when 29 cars started the Super Late Model feature, a 30-lap, extra money event. The race went green to checkers with no cautions!
Franny Seamens had been a driver in the old winged Sportsmen class before buying the track and always had an affinity for winged race cars. He brought the Empire Super Sprints, then the Patriot Sprint Tour to the track, usually twice a summer. Then in late 1996 he decided to develop a class of home-made racers and encouraged them to use wings. His class would be rear-engined machines using the small, carbureted Chevrolet V-6 and the Pontiac Fiero transaxels. He decided to call the class 'Super Sportsmen'. The class grew slowly, sometimes with only two cars in attendance, but eventually fifteen to twenty racers appeared each week. Eriez dropped the class after the 2012 season when the field there (a Sunday night track) dropped to an average of 6-8 competitors.
About this time the E-Mods were really beginning to experience a surge of popularity in the area so they were added to the regular card at each track and the Lady Spectators were dropped with the drivers encouraged to race with the men. One of the ladies did just that and former Lady Spectator Champion Pat Gorton became the Spectator Champion in the late nineties. In the early 2000s the Cadets and Limited Late Models, having evolved into very similar classes, were combined into one class.
The final Circuit Championship was in 2005 and was won by Wattsburg, PA's Andy Kania. Little did anyone know at that time the circuit was about to vanish.
Just prior to the start of the 2006 season Bobby Rohrer, a limited Late Model and Super Sportsman champion at both tracks and the circuit, purchased Eriez Speedway. The two tracks were separated again and the Circuit Championship again was a memory, and it appeared this time it would be permanent. Then, in August 2006 Lynn Seamens passed away unexpectedly. She and Franny had divorced but it was amicable, although not finalized at the time of her passing. Franny later married Jenifer Gustafson and became ill himself, succumbing in September, 2010 at age 64. Jenifer continued to operate the track throughout the 2011, '12, and '13 seasons but was struggling and was forced to close Stateline one week prior to the scheduled end of the 2013 season.
Eriez dropped the Sportsmen class and Stateline appeared ready to drop it. The Limited Late Model class was also suffering from a lack of cars and car counts were dropping in the other classes. It was apparent Stateline was faltering but Eriez appeared to be going well, although car counts were off there as well. In late summer of 2013 an offer was made for Stateline but Seamens' children rejected it. A court battle ensued but before the court rendered a decision the offer was withdrawn. When the decision came down, it was that the track would be sold.
Enter Bill Catania Jr.
On April 13, 2014, while on a plane home to Winston-Salem, N.C., from San Francisco with his wife, Lynne, Catania noticed on a racing message board that Stateline would be sold. He turned to Lynne and told her he really wanted to own a race track and this might be his chance. She unhesitatingly gave him her full support and encouragement. Catania competed at Stateline and Eriez in the Spectator and Limited Late Model divisions between 1993 and 1999. His father, Bill, is a two-time track and circuit champion and his grandfather, Marion, owned cars during the 1961-62 seasons with partner Carl Larson and driver Don Strain.
At that point, still on the plane, he phoned the author of this narrative asking who he should contact. The answer was Jenifer Seamens and they talked over an hour that evening. A meeting was hastily arranged, lawyers were contacted and Bill, along with Lynne and their three children, came to their hometown of Westfield, N.Y., on Saturday, May 3, drove to Stateline and walked the grounds, and then started the process of taking over the operation.
On Tuesday, May 13, only one month after the original call that got things rolling, a press conference was held at Peak 'n' Peek, a local ski and golf resort, to announce that Catania would be leasing the track this summer while the ownership transfer made it's way through the system. Several prominent drivers from the past were present, including the all-time leader in Late Model wins, Chautauqua County Sports Hall of Fame driver Bobby Schnars of Busti, Sportsman standout and Warren county Sports Hall of Fame driver Ron Blackmer, Floyd Fanale, Sammy LaMancuso, and Warren County Sports Hall of Fame driver Jim Scott. LaMancuso's restored 1974 Dodge Charger, a winner at an Eriez Speedway 150-lap race in the early 70s, and a replica of Scott's 1973 Plymouth Duster, a Petty Enterprises kit car, were on display at the front of the resort, and the majority of the local print and electronic media covered the story, with reports on the local TV and all the major internet sites in local racing.
After the press conference several media outlets were granted one-to-one interviews with Catania and the question was asked if he was interested in re-uniting Stateline and Eriez, resuming the old Circuit Championship. The answer was yes with the possibility being entertained that Catania might possibly purchase Eriez later in the summer. While that possibility is not yet reality, discussions are on-going with Eriez owner Bobby Rohrer regarding a possible purchase.
What would re-uniting the tracks and the rebirth of the Circuit Championship mean to the fans and competitors? The championship had become one of the most lucrative titles in local sports, paying out thousands to competitors who committed to both speedways. All divisions were included and it was a huge incentive for drivers to attend both tracks every week. Prior to the Circuit being split there were upwards of 200 cars in the pits at each track every week! Last season Stateline only averaged 140 and Eriez was usually between 100 and 110, keeping in mind that Sunday nights is difficult to attract everyone due to distances and work requirements for teams on Monday mornings. With the extra incentive of the circuit, it is expected that both tracks will see a return to huge car counts. The fan count was higher with both tracks running as well, with fans following a particular driver making the effort to take in both tracks more often.
Since 2012, the Stateline Kart Track has been in operation just outside the main track's turn four. The Kart Track, operated by long-time flagman Mark Matthews and his wife, Debbie, races on Saturdays with the gates opening at 8 AM and racing starting at 10:30 AM. Full concessions are available at the little track and currently 14 classes of Karts are raced each week with a minimum age for competitors set at 5 years old. Opening day saw 85 karts competing. Operations such as this are where the racing stars of tomorrow are getting their start, including the next generation of Catanias.
Work has commenced on Stateline with bleachers being replaced, a new PA system, and an ocean of red and white paint. Plans are to hold a practice session on Wednesday, June 25 starting at 7 p.m., then hold an awards ceremony to honor the 2013 top ten in each class on the front straight. After the conclusion of the awards, track lighting will be turned on and another session will be held after dark that will more closely replicate actual racing conditions. Admission to the grandstands will be free and a full line of food concessions will be available. Pit admission will be only $15 for the practice session with all classes included. Racing is scheduled to commence on Saturday, July 5 promptly at 7 p.m.
Stateline Speedway will once again be the place to be in western New York, Northwestern Pennsylvania, and Northeast Ohio on Saturdays this summer. The track has a rich history and will continue to entertain fans and racers alike for decades to come. With the possibility of the Stateline-Eriez Circuit again being a reality, fans and racers can look forward to entire weekends of enjoying their favorite sport: dirt track racing!