TOWN OF WALLKILL — The Orange County Fairgrounds is getting a new lease on life.
During the 1980s and '90s, crowds filled the bleachers at the speedway to enjoy top rock 'n roll and country bands or weekly stock car racing, but the fairgrounds had slipped in recent years. Michael Gurda, whose family has owned the fairgrounds for three generations, said he hopes improvements made to the property will fuel a revival.
“I’ve never been so excited,” Gurda said Thursday. “... It’s an absolute dream come true.”
Millions of dollars were put into renovations that include a new outdoor arena that will host a rodeo this summer and serve in the winter as an ice skating rink. The speedway features new bleachers with improved seating, and a remote-controlled vehicle dirt raceway was constructed on the fairgrounds.
These projects were part of a new investor’s goal of creating the perfect hybrid between the grounds’ rich stock car racing history and more of an entertainment focus.
Warwick native Chris Larsen, owner of Orange Motorsports and Entertainment, said he is putting his construction and real estate background to work with new structural investments at the fairgrounds. He came on board to lease the racetrack from Gurda in March 2018.
“This is an amazing location, not just for the history of the facility, but the fact that we’re right in between a new casino (in Sullivan County) and Legoland (in the Town of Goshen), and right off the two major highways," Larsen said. "This is the perfect place, maybe within the entire state of New York, to have a multipurpose entertainment venue, and that’s what we’re creating here.”
Town of Wallkill Supervisor Ed Diana, who joked that he used to sneak his way into the speedway back in the day, said Thursday he hopes the improvements to the facility will bring it back to its “thriving,” “place-to-be” heyday.
“It’s going to be on the map again,” Diana said.
Dirt-track racing legend Brett Hearn got his start at OCFS in the late '70s. This year, Hearn, of Sussex, N.J., decided to “come back home” to the track where it all began, leaving behind Lebanon Valley Speedway in Albany.
“I learned how to race here, and, often, you’re just waiting for someone like Chris to come in,” said Hearn, noting his excitement regarding his home speedway’s resurgence.
Country music star Tim McGraw will kick off a three-day racing festival to celebrate the speedway’s 100 years of operation on Aug. 14. Tickets to see McGraw will go on sale at 10 a.m. Saturday at ticketmaster.com and the OCFS box office.
The McGraw concert is a nod to the fairgrounds’ glory days, when it hosted mega groups, like The Beach Boys in August 1983, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in July 1987, Aerosmith and Guns N’ Roses in August 1988, Ozzy Osbourne in July 1989, Heart in July 1990, and the list goes on.
On Aug. 17, the speedway is offering a $100,000 prize, the largest in its history, for its centennial 160-lap race, representatives said.
The fairgrounds will kick off the summer with its first-ever bull-riding event and full rodeo July 5 and 6. The 179th Orange County Family Fair will be held July 18-28, with a milking parlor and petting zoo returning after years with little to no animal attractions.