50 Years Of NASCAR RACing: Larry Lopatin and American raceways (Post 24)
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor's note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin's "50 Years of NASCAR Racing", written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR's 50th Anniversary celebration that year. Matt has kindly granted me permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
As of late, a certain track owner has been acquiring many new race tracks, and has publicly gone on record as wanting, if not demanding, NASCAR to give him more race dates. With ownership of some of the crown jewels of the Winston Cup circuit, including the track closest to the city considered the heart of modern stock car racing, it would seem that gentleman is sitting in the cat bird seat. But there was a man much like him before, who came to a bad end. Here starts the story of Larry LoPatin and American Raceways Incorporated.
Before we get started, let me point out, I loathe politics, especially when it comes to racing, which is supposed to be a sport and entertainment first, not a business. But things are as they are and politics and stock car racing are as intertwined as the Biblical darnel and wheat. You can't yank one out without ruining the other.
Larry LoPatin arrived on the scene in 1967. At that point, he was already a successful businessman who had amassed a small fortune. Like most men with a small fortune he wanted only one more thing out of life, a large fortune. Though by his own admission, not a fan of auto racing, LoPatin saw in the sport the potential to make millions of dollars. As LoPatin put it, "I'm profit oriented, not just dealing in fun and games." Thus he formed American Raceways Incorporated and raised three million dollars by selling stock in the company. That money went towards building what was considered a dream speedway in those day, the track in Brooklyn, Michigan. To help deflect criticism of an interloper charging into the fray, Larry commented publicly that one thing all his facilities would have in common was that they would be "fan friendly" and a far more comfortable place to attend an event than the typical race track of the era. What he wasn't so open about is the tickets were going to be significantly more expensive than race fans were used to paying, because he had the stockholders to answer to.
Michigan opened with great fanfare, with the first race held there an Indy car event. In attendance at that race was Bill France Sr., who wanted to have a look at the place. France was impressed by the track, and more importantly by its location. At that point, NASCAR was still heavily supported by Ford and Chrysler, and staging a race right in the auto companies' backyard would be a huge plus for stock car racing. LoPatin and France sat down and made an unprecedented agreement. France not only promised ARI two dates a year for the next ten years at Michigan, but gave him the coveted season finale date on the Grand National schedule for 1969 at the new track ARI was building in College Station, Texas. Such a long term agreement appealed to investors in ARI and LoPatin was able to raise more money. His stated goal was eventually to own 12 tracks, coast to coast with two dates at each track. Towards that end he acquired a 47 % stake in the Riverside, California road course and a 19% share of the Atlanta track with an option to control up to 71 % of it . In addition to those tracks, Texas and Michigan, LoPatin announced plans to build a track in South Jersey. Let's see, Atlanta, a new superspeedway in Texas, a road course in California and plans for a track in South Jersey. That reminds me of someone on the Winston Cup scene these days, though his name escapes me right now.
LoPatin made no secret of his ambitions. He pointed out the obvious, that there were a finite number of Sundays in any given year, and went on record as saying, "Dates are a very precious commodity in the racing industry. I want all the dates I can get." But some industry analysts were beginning to think that perhaps LoPatin's ambitions went further than that. 24 dates was a lot of races even by the standards of the 49-race season that year. Some people were wondering if LoPatin didn't actually plan on starting a rival league to NASCAR. Again that sounds so familiar. Why can't I think of that guy's name?
By all accounts, Larry was a pretty shrewd businessman, but as it turned out he wasn't so great at politics, and of course he was no meteorologist. LoPatin and his plans were about to run into some problems, one of his own making and another he had no control over. At that point in NASCAR history, Bill France only owned two tracks, Daytona and his new facility, the current Talladega Speedway. You might recall, the first race at Talladega was marred by some ugliness with the sport's name drivers organizing and staging a boycott of the event over safety concerns. LoPatin sensed a chance to ingratiate himself with the drivers and exploit a perceived weakness on France's part, and went on record as saying the race should not have been run, stating had the track not been owned by NASCAR's president it would have been canceled. As Mr. LoPatin was about to find out, "You don't tug on Superman's cape…" Shortly after making his explosive statement, LoPatin forced ARI's executive vice president, Les Richter, (now with Penske, ironically enough) to resign, as Richter was a NASCAR loyalist.
It didn't take long for the other shoe to drop. Shortly after that debacle, Big Bill announced he had been looking things over and the purse ARI was posting for their season-ending event wasn't large enough. As such, he summarily dropped it off the schedule. A fuming mad Larry LoPatin agreed to up the ante to get the race back on the schedule and claimed his phone calls to France to discuss the matter were never returned.
Shortly before the Texas race, Ford held it's banquet to honor its NASCAR drivers. Both Bill France and Larry LoPatin were on the invitation list, which turned out not to be such a great idea. The two exchanged heated words and France ended up storming out of the banquet, at which point Larry should probably have just thrown the towel in and gone off to Tibet to become a monk.
The big race in Texas was another disaster and Larry couldn't blame that one on France. Heavy rains flooded that part of Texas for the three days leading up to the event. The infield and parking lot were turned into swamps. Again, is this sounding familiar? A mere 22,508 people showed up for the event, causing ARI a financial catastrophe. And it was not the first time that foul weather had rained on ARI's parade. The events at Riverside and Atlanta had both been postponed a week by rain and were poorly attended. The planned 600-miler at Michigan was cut back to 330 miles, half of them run under caution due to rain, before the race finally had to be called due to darkness. While that race had a decent number of spectators on hand, it was likely a lot of them would not return after the lousy show.
Investors in ARI were clearly shaken by the poor returns on their investment, and began wondering if a false messiah was leading them into the wasteland. Even LoPatin admitted his struggling company could not survive another year like that one.
More bad news was not long in coming. NASCAR and ABC announced in December, an agreement had been reached to broadcast parts of nine races either live or by tape in 1970 as part of the popular Wide World Of Sports program. The contract was worth close to 1.4 million dollars, with the moneys going to the track holding the event televised, the drivers who competed in those race, and a fund that would pay money to other race tracks that didn't have "major events" broadcast. Tellingly, none of the ARI events were selected as "major events". The investors were beginning to get the idea France was angry with the president of ARI.
Mother Nature wasn't cooperating either. Once again, a race at Atlanta was rained out that spring. It was moved to the following Sunday, which unfortunately happened to be Easter, and only 22,000 fans showed up. Both races at Riverside were disasters as well, with a mere 18,500 folks showing up for the second race, at a track that had drawn 74,000 plus only a few years before. The June race in Texas was canceled, supposedly due to the strike at Goodyear, but more realistically due to dismal advance ticket sales. Finally, the investors in ARI had had enough and started trying to get LoPatin fired. The company was unable to pay a loan payment, nor were they able to post the prize money for the August race at Atlanta. If ARI defaulted on the race purse, NASCAR would have been liable to pay it, so Bill France announced the race was canceled instead, four days before the event was to be run. The owner of Charlotte, Rich (not Ron as I incorrectly wrote in a previous article) Howard, stepped into the void and posted the prize money for the good of NASCAR and the fans holding tickets, who most likely would never have gotten a refund. Only 20,000 fans showed up and Howard took a financial bath, but he had done what he did for the sake if the sport, not to make money.
Shortly thereafter, LoPatin resigned under pressure. It must have been galling for him to see Les Richter appointed by the new board to the position of CEO and president. And slowly, the ARI empire was dismantled.
There's a lesson here, I suppose, for that fellow who owns all the race tracks, whose name still escapes me right now. With all due apologies to fellow Villanova alumni Jim Croce:
You don't tug on Superman's Cape,
You don't ask fate to dance,
You don't pull the mask off an old Lone Ranger
and you don't mess around with France.
AFTERMATH- Just a note to any fellow Mustang or muscle car aficionados. Late in 1969, ARI contracted with the Ford Motor Company to produce a fleet of high performance cars to use as pace cars and official vehicles at the tracks. Unfortunately, ARI was bankrupt by the time Ford had the cars ready. The 96 Mustangs, mostly fastbacks, but a few convertibles, about equally split between 351C and 428 Cobra Jet engines, were orphans. The Kansas City sales district was having a special high performance clinic for dealers in that area at the time and bought the cars from Ford as a promotion. The ARI logos were removed and special decals were added to the doors, and a decal of a cartoon tornado was added to the back of the Grabber Orange cars….. which of course are the highly sought after "Twister Special" Mustangs.
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