Is ALL Racing in Trouble?
It’s getting harder and harder not to be depressed about future prospects for our sport. We talk a lot about the struggles of NASCAR’s major touring divisions, but I want to be more global than that and talk about auto racing as a whole, starting with local racing.
Because I’m getting older and don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to maintain my current level of race attendance. I had planned for this to be a major (for me) year for attending races in general and seeing new tracks in particular. I put together a “hit list” schedule that would give me as many as a dozen new tracks on the year, and my volunteer job helping with public relations for the PA Sprint Series would get me to “old friend” tracks more often than in years past.
Clay Valley Speedway as the paved Lonesome Pine a decade ago (left) and during its brief 2019 season as dirt
Now, considerably less than a month into the prime season between Memorial Day and Labor Day, I am seeing dark clouds. The list below will combine happenings that affect me with a few that won’t (I can’t report in any depth on regions beyond my mid-Atlantic home), but all play a role in my gloom:
n I had planned a weekend trip to southwestern Virginia in July to visit Ararat (formerly Rolling Thunder) Speedway and Clay Valley (formerly Lonesome Pine) Speedway. Ararat closed last month, and Clay Valley has now joined it.
n Area Auto Racing News carried a story last week about tracks closing: LaSalle Speedway in Illinois, Swainsboro Speedway in Georgia and Friendship Motor Speedway in North Carolina. I had visited the last of those on a “new tracks” weekend just a few years ago.
n Much has been made of three tracks reopening in Pennsylvania, two after long closures. I wish Latrobe Speedway, Hidden Valley Speedway and Hesston Speedway all the best and hope to visit the two I haven’t already seen. At the same time, I note the tracks that didn’t open this year: Tri-City Speedway, McKean County Raceway and Marion Center Speedway. I’ve visited all three of those. A few other recently closed tracks dot the map as well.
n Virginia’s Eastside Speedway in Waynesboro sits idle for the second year because its longtime promoter has retired and nobody wants to buy the place.
There is some evidence that Pennsylvania’s McKean County Raceway might be the oldest operating track in the country, except that it’s not operating in 2019
Writer and track chaser Guy Smith has chronicled other closures, and it’s pretty clear that for every closed track, there’s one or more still open but in trouble. Clay Valley closed after a five-division show drew a total of 21 cars, but I’ve seen a report of another Virginia track that had only 22 for a similar program. My annual “guys’ racing weekend” with a close friend has included a stop in each of the past two years with a total car turnout of around 25. For a while, tracks thought they could survive low fan turnout by living off the “back gate” income from racers and their teams, but you won’t pay many bills from pit passes for 21 teams.
At the top of the food chain, NASCAR, we’re celebrating small victories this year – modest increases in TV viewers or actual attendance – and taking comfort that the decreases aren’t as bad as they’ve been. It says something, though, that we have to set our standards that low to declare the news good.
When a crowd like this is progress. . .
Farther down the chain, good news might be even harder to find, and I firmly believe that, if racing’s having trouble at one level, it bodes ill for all levels.
Race tracks have always come and gone, many quite quickly. I have a fascinating account of a track near Harrisburg, Pa., that opened in the late 1930s and apparently closed after just four races. Many tracks were marginal to begin with – located in lightly populated areas without adequate financial backing. But something makes me think it’s worse today.
Costs keep rising for everybody, but I suspect the “enemy” of racing today is a combination of competition from other leisure activities and the death of the car culture. They draw people away from working on cars, which in turn pushes the number of competitors down, and that eventually affects attendance, along with the already-present “enemy” combination above.
I don’t think my memory is faulty here. Years ago I remember attending tracks where the top class had a poor car turnout, but the “junker” classes at the bottom of the program packed the track. The sound of a couple dozen 4-cylinder pure stocks buzzing out onto the track for practice or a feature race has never left my mind.
For Clay Valley’s last race, there were THREE 4-cylinder pure stocks.
If nobody’s joining the entry-level classes, we’ve got a problem with interest in the sport. The son or daughter of a current or past driver will start a couple of levels up – and a good number of them continue to come through the ranks – but those entry-level classes are the “grass” in grass-roots racing.
We’re already moving toward a virtually new sport at the NASCAR level: the same cars show up every week, because there’s a steep barrier to competitors challenging them. The door is shut to new racers unless they look and talk the right way and advance through a driver development system that almost ensures they’ll reach the top level with virtually no fan base. (Indy racing follows pretty much the same model.) The cars being raced have almost nothing to do with the cars we drive.
You used to actually see scenes something like this, even when the work was on race cars. Try it with a Toyota today.
In road racing, the secret to success is the “country club” track that’s supported by people with enough wealth to provide themselves a place to run their cars (few of which look like a 4-cylinder pure stock). It in turn supports what’s left of professional road racing.
What’s the answer for weekly oval racing? I don’t know, but I know I don’t want it to follow road racing toward exclusivity or follow NASCAR toward the New Millennium IROC. Maybe we’ll just end up with far fewer tracks, but they’ll be ones that can survive. I can’t help but think that won’t be nearly as much fun.
Am I in love with racing’s past? If it would bring back racing like this – including rules, costs, openness of competition, etc., you’re damned right I am
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
Sometimes, when things look their worst, an unexpected brightener presents itself, and that happened to me shortly after the comments above were written, so I offer this postscript.
Last Saturday night I ventured out to Port Royal Speedway, a large half-mile weekly track about two hours northwest of me. The PA Sprint Series cars (for which I do volunteer PR work) were on the card, along with twin features for the 410 Super Sprints and a feature for a low-end stock car class. (The stockers only had a dozen cars on hand, but they also put on a good show.)
An old fairgrounds track, Port Royal sits on the edge of town with beautiful mountains in the background, but the racing can keep one from looking anywhere other than directly at the cars.
The sprinters drew excellent fields: 32 for the 410s and 38 for the PASS 305s. With 20 cars to be sent home without qualifying for a feature, you knew the preliminary heats would be fiercely fought, and they were. But the features were what will bring the sizeable crowd back again; all three were exciting. Two were caution-free but with constant action.
In the PASS 305 feature, recent high school grad Devin Adams took the lead from the more experienced Jonathan Jones on the second lap, then held him back, despite heavy traffic. In the final turn, Jones attempted a desperate pass, spun, did a 360, and continued on, losing only three positions.
New PA Sprint Series winner Devin Adams
In the second 410 feature, first feature winner Logan Wagner took the lead after a three-wide battle with veteran – and early leader – Lance Dewease and Ryan Smith, then held off a late charge from Danny Dietrich in a nonstop race with plenty of battling in traffic. I’m not sure anybody breathed for the last 10 laps.
Logan Wagner (#1) races against a tough competitor – his father, Mike.
That race set a new 20-lap record for this track, which is more than a century old.
Yes, it was dusty. I had worn a t-shirt, and my wife used it as a mask. I regretted leaving my goggles at home. But when the action is that exciting, I’d probably have kept watching with an alligator chewing on my leg.
Like I said, it was a good crowd, one that knew the racing was likely to be exciting. That’s what can keep this sport alive. Sprint car racing rules don’t change constantly, and anybody who can scrape up the cash can give it a shot. You make your name by winning, not having a great PR person behind you.
I wish somebody from NASCAR had been there, although too many people at the top still think they’ve already got all the answers, so it might not have helped.
It helped me, though. After the most fun I’ve had at a track this year, I’m ready to think this sport has at least a shot at a bright future.
This is Las Vegas, not Pennsylvania, because it’s harder to find photos of packed stands than ones with empty seats, but it does still happen, and maybe it’ll happen often enough to keep this grand sport around for a while longer.