Money supposedly can't buy happiness, but it can buy a stock-car racer's way to victory lane.

Money supposedly can't buy happiness, but it can buy a stock-car racer's way to victory lane.

That's one of the reasons the modified racing division at Southern Oregon Speedway has hitched itself to the U.S. Racing Association, a national sanctioning body that has specific requirements that will help reduce the cost to operate cars and, to a degree, level the competitive playing field.

Southern Oregon Speedway, located off Highway 140 in Central Point, is the first racetrack in Oregon to join the USRA, and it's the third venue in a new state to join the association this year.

"They establish the rules," said Tom Carnes, general manager of the speedway. "One of the problems with racing, especially short-track racing, which are usually your smaller tracks in smaller towns, is that the rules are not always uniform. You might have one set of rules for modifieds here, then in Cottage Grove have different rules with different tires and different engine sizes, then different again in Lebanon."

The economy has taken a toll on short-track racing, and owners with bigger budgets or better sponsors have an edge, he said. If other drivers can't compete, they're likely to drop out of the sport rather than continue to finance a failing operation.

"We're trying to balance the scale a little bit," said Carnes. "We're trying to stop the scenario where the guy with all the money has the fastest car and wins all the races. We'd like to have guys who don't have big sponsors and big checkbooks have an equal shot."

Drivers in the USRA modified division will compete for a points fund worth up to $1,500 at season's end to the track champion plus multiple contingency awards and a $10,000 top prize for the national champion in the American Racer USRA Weekly Racing Series.

Jacksonville's Mark Wauge is the defending track champion. He won his fifth modified championship last year. Matt Duste was runner-up.

They were among the drivers who supported the move to join the USRA, said John Skinner, who has operated the speedway since building it in 1996.

"They've been watching this USRA sanctioning thing and they really like the rules, too," said Skinner.

Most of the track rules are similar to those the USRA operates under, said Skinner.

One of the highlighted changes is that cars will have an rpm chip that prevents an engine from topping 8,000 rpm — about 1,000 lower than top-end set-ups now reach.

There will be other minor changes, but the outward appearance of the cars won't change.

The drivers particularly like the prize fund and national scope of the association, said Skinner.

The modified class is just one of a half-dozen or so that run at the speedway, and Skinner believes it requires the most driving skill because the 600-horsepower cars run on hard-compound, 8-inch tires.

"This is the one class, in my opinion, that has the highest degree of difficulty for the driver," he said. "They're so hard to drive."

It started out as a relatively inexpensive class, he said, but has since gotten out of hand.

He said if he raised a purse $100, there would be five drivers who would spend $1,000 each trying to win it.

"We're attempting to keep the cost down," said Skinner.

He also hopes a fellow track owner will join the USRA fold. Jerry Schram recently bought the track in Cottage Grove and owns tracks in Lebanon and Banks and is part-owner of one in Elma, Wash.

He has yet to take over operation of the Cottage Grove track, said Skinner, but once he does, he's likely to join the USRA.

That would give local drivers a place to race and still earn points for national standing on nights the modifieds aren't running at Southern Oregon Speedway.

Modifieds are scheduled to run 16 times this year. There are about 30 racing dates.

Lon Oelke, USRA director of growth and partnerships, said in a release the association was impressed with Skinner and his organization during a USRA contingent's first visit to Oregon.

"Many of the aspects of a dirt track are the same no matter where you go," said Oelke, "but the needs and nuances of each facility are always different. We're looking forward to getting to know the people and places around Southern Oregon Speedway and working with their staff to maintain a fun and competitive class for both racers and fans."

The racing season begins with a car show and the annual test-and-tune session April 7.

Opening night for the USRA modifieds is April 14.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune.com