– Dana R. Rowe
RACE NIGHT: In the tower overlooking Seekonk Speedway, Len Ellis, Jr. gazes out the storefront window at the top of the steel stairs, overlooking the oval. The elevation from the second story yields an unparalleled view of the action. A big monitor with live views of all parts of the track is above his right shoulder at the top of the glass. It has instant replay ability and is used to review on-track action. Cameras survey the entire track, and can reveal what happened leading up to any accident which brings out the caution flag.
He drops the phones over his head that make him look like a rock musician about to record in a studio. A microphone extends in front to communicate with other track officials, like starter Tim Bolduc, track stewards and the Handicapper’s Booth. Drivers and their spotters can hear him on a one-way link throughout the race.
He is heard, and he runs a constant dialogue, directed mostly at his drivers out on the oval. He advises them as only a veteran driver can. It wanders from warnings: “Stay off his bumper, number twelve!” to cautioning the field: “Pick it up — you’re coming to the start.” to encouragements: “That’s good, 51, keep doing it like that.” or “Ease up and keep it straight, 33.” During green-flag running, Len’s dialog with his drivers and their spotters is nearly constant.
On restarts, as the tower crew tries to sort out the field, often gone chaotic during most caution-producing incidents, he’s helping coordinate or viewing video replays to determine causes of the caution.
And when the race is over – especially if it’s been a good one the radio crackles: “Good race, good race.”
He said he’d never do it again — the job of Race Director at Seekonk Speedway. David Alburn, Seekonk Speedway’s man in charge of day-to-day operations, came courting and worked relentlessly on Ellis until he agreed to have another go at it. It’s not the easiest job in the world. You have to run the races via radio from the tower. You have to make decisions that you don’t like but you know are right. You listen to a lot of argument from those whose paths cross the decisions. There’s a lot of politicking any race director has to deal with.
But Alburn pursued his quarry like a corporate recruiter. “I’ve always thought that he’s been good for racing,” says Alburn when asked why he set out to bring him back as Race Director. Good, as in always lending a hand. As in a positive outlook. Racers make their way up the tower stairs during racing to jawbone about issues. Often politely rebuffed because racing must continue and he has to supervise it. He hears from them after racing at the handicapper’s booth.
He listens and discusses but decisions are made at midweek meetings. Still, they want to be heard in the moment, and Len patiently listens. Then tells them, “We’ll hear from everybody at the meeting and when we have everything, then we’ll decide.”
“My focus is on helping people. I want to bring Saturday night back to where it was. Make it even better.” “People,” he says. It’s no secret that Len likes people. He’s got time to talk to anybody who wants to talk to him. He thrives on conversation. Len likes the term AMBASSADOR – he even has a hat that says it. “I want to help people. I want people to help each other.”
Len works like generations of racers before him: help out – even with your competition – when things get tough on them, you lend a hand. Even though you might see them sail past you in the next feature. “Hey, you don’t give away your setup,” says Ellis, “but you help everybody out.” It’s what makes a great sport out of racing. “I want to bring Saturday night back to where it was. Make it even better.” His words breed memories of every seat full in turn four and an impenetrable crowd filling the entire space behind the turn. And stretching down into turn one.
Imagine: coming down to the pits and seeing a golf cart approaching with Len Ellis at the wheel. One of his top rivals in the Pro Stocks – multi-champ Radical Rick Martin – riding shotgun — and they are laughing and carrying on. Puts a somewhat different spin on what on-track rivalries are all about.
That is a lot of experience in one golf cart. Both are Pro Stock champions and champions in divisions that they passed through on their way to the Pros. On track, in the heat of the moment, with a chance at victory, neither would have given the other an even break. Right down to that last inch of pavement before the finish line. Exactly as it should be. Out of the cars, they have too much in common – and too much to accomplish – to hold any long-term grudges. And they’re also too busy working with others. Many a young racer receives advice and assistance .
In the pre-season lead up, he’s been prowling the pits doing everything he can to facilitate everybody from rookies to veterans. “I felt good because I helped people all day. They thanked me – families were glad I was helping.” He chuckles. “But – when racing starts, they’re gonna hate my guts when I have to send them to the back.” But speaking from pre-season, he’ll tell you that going through the pits and lending a hand has been a lot of fun. “I know it will be work once the season opens, but for now, I’m having fun.”
Two months into the season, and he’s still working at the fun while keeping things moving on track. Take a recent drivers meeting. While mentioning the free case of Castrol that winners have been receiving, he reminded them to pick up their winnings. Then he said, “If you really need some, see Dave Darling, he’s got several free cases. I’m sure he’d give you one,” in reference to Darling’s tendency to win nearly every feature he enters.
Darling didn’t escape easily. At the end of the meeting, he said he had to offer a challenge to the Pro Stock drivers. “I challenge the Pro Stock drivers to make Dave Darling pass you on the outside,” making reference to the latter’s ability to slide easily underneath his competitors on his way to the front.
You have to look at Len’s history in the sport, which begins two generations before him. His grandfather, “Pop” Ellis and his father, Len, Sr., got the family into the sport. Len Jr. got started racing in 1972 when he filled in for his brother, Dave Ellis as the latter was serving out a suspension.
He started in the B Division in 1974, landing in the top 10 (sixth overall) that year. He teamed up with Will Masse and raced with him for years. Will owned four Sunoco stations. Ellis even ran an SK Modified for a season in 1983. The only time back then that he did not race was 80 and 81, when he was buying and setting up his house.
Len migrated to the new Pro Stock division and became a mainstay. And he collected a pair of top level championships in 1997 and 2001. He has some fond memories of the 2001 quest. That year, Seekonk was a member of NASCAR and he found himself at the NASCAR postseason banquet. “I felt like I was Dale Earnhart,” he says.
He’s still at it 47 years later, even though he retired as a driver. Two seasons ago he stepped down from several years as owner, with his driver, the legendary Dick Houlihan making the same decision. He was voted onto Seekonk’s Wall of Fame as a tribute to all he’s done, going well beyond his two Pro championships. It takes a lot more to get there, and Ellis has the “more”.
There was this time he called retirement, when Ellis stopped driving competitively. Instead, he spent the summer of 1997 in his first term as the Konk’s Race Director. He came away from that, taken aback by the many difficulties the position engenders. In self defense, he went on the road the following season, following the NASCAR Trucks, with his son Tommy working the same tour.
Tom Ellis spent time at Seekonk, following his Dad and going from mini-cup competiton all the way to Pro Stocks. When he graduated from Greater New Bedford Regional Voc-Tech he headed south and ended up spending five years with Brad Keselowski, becoming his Car Chief. These days, he’s on the Penske number 12. “I’ve got four kids, though,” Len says. Daughters Kristy and Nicole were fans but didn’t work on the team. And the youngest, Jim Wordell – “He’s a great spotter. One of the best,” says Len. “He moves around a lot, spotting all over the east coast.”
What’s left? It still isn’t quite July at this point. Three months of racing is yet to come. That voice will crackle down from the tower all race long. Len Ellis is about being happy in what he does. That’s what he says. Drivers will want to keep that radio voice happy.