Many changes take place during the off-season in motor sports. New sponsors are signed, new cars are built and occasionally drivers change car owners.
It definitely wasn't a quiet winter for two of the top late model drivers in the tri-state area. Charlie Schaffer of Hampstead and Gary Stuhler of Westminster spent their time getting acquainted with their new owners and teams.
Schaffer has taken his crew to help his new car owner, Joe Westerman of Joppa, and Stuhler left his former team of eight years to join owner Dale Beitler of West Friendship. Both drivers have been track champions, Stuhler at Winchester in 1990-91 and Hagerstown in 1991 and Schaffer at Winchester three years ago.
For the 34-year-old Schaffer, who has fielded his own team since he began racing, the move was made because of economics. It was also a break he needed, especially after the worst season of his career in 1995.
"We had nothing but bad luck," said Schaffer. "The steering broke the first time out in a new car and we had to put a front clip on. Then my motor blew and that broke the crankcase,
destroyed the transmission and ended up bending the frame. After that, I totaled the car when I got hit by another car."
Despite all the bad luck, some good came out of it. Before his car was totaled, Schaffer had been talking to Westerman, who works at Mack Trucks in Linthicum. Westerman told him about the car he had sitting around.
After his terrifying crash on the front stretch at Hagerstown, Schaffer was done. Westerman made his car available and they ran a few races at the end of the year. Two weeks later, Schaffer was in Westerman's car and turned in his normal good driving in some big races at the end of the year. Westerman was impressed and over the winter the two made the decision to race the 1996 season as a team.
"I used to race the NASCAR circuit five nights a week," said Westerman. "I drove from 1968 to 1987 at Nashville, Beltsville, Southside [Va.], Manassas [Va.], all the asphalt tracks. Then I quit for a while. Then I started going to races again and felt that if I was going to go to the races I ought to be involved. So I got together with Charlie.
"It will make it a lot easier on me. I will have a new car to work with and I expect a lot better year. I doubt if I could have raced this year on my own."
Like Schaffer, Stuhler's change began toward the end of 1995. He was approached by Beitler about driving for him, but Stuhler wanted to finish out the year with owner Ron Hayes.
Stuhler had been driving for Hayes since 1986 and they had combined to become the winningest team in late model racing.
When they raced close to home, they won track championships. When they traveled on the road, Stuhler could race with any of the full-time professional drivers and beat them. Stuhler won over 100 races with Hayes and five times he had more late model wins than any other driver in the Northeast.
For the past three years, Hayes has been in poor health. Still, the team managed to race almost every week, but it did not go on the road last year like it had done in the past.
It was a difficult decision for Stuhler: to stay with a team that was not sure of racing every week and pass up a good offer from another car owner, or to switch teams and race every week and in the big national events as well.
Stuhler, like Schaffer, did not have one of his best seasons. Despite leading all drivers in wins, he missed three weeks with a broken leg and missed some big national events because of his car owner's health. The morale on the team was not the same without Hayes around and there was no one to make the important decisions.
Driving for Beitler will be a new challenge for Stuhler, but one that he is looking forward to. The team also will have a new chassis.
"We have a lot of good stuff," said Stuhler. "We have two brand-new chassis, three transmissions, new radiators, motors, everything. Dale wanted to start out with everything fresh.
"We plan on racing at Bedford Speedway on Friday nights and Hagerstown on Saturday unless there is a big show at Winchester. Then we'll go there. We plan on catching the STARS national events locally and at Pittsburgh, also the big races at Eldora [Ohio] and Pennsboro [W.Va.] speedways."
Stuhler realizes some don't agree with his decision, saying that he shouldn't be leaving Hayes under the circumstances. But it was a decision he felt he had to make.
"We are going to struggle for a while, but I think we'll be decent," he said.
The 1996 racing season began last weekend at Lincoln Speedway. Cris Eash of Woodbine finished 11th in the super sprint feature. Keith Welch of Westminster placed fifth in the thundercar main event and Allen Cullem of Hampstead was ninth.
At Hagerstown Speedway, Eash finished 14th in the super sprint feature. In the late model feature, Mike Harrison of Mount Airy was seventh, Paul Crowl of Upperco 12th and Schaffer was 14th.