Portland Speedway, once a thriving track where several NASCAR stars got their start, now s
There's little left of Portland Speedway. Even the signs are gone. The grandstands were turned into piles of rubble and trucked to a landfill. Weeds grow along the front straight where just four years ago Late Model drivers bumped and banged their way to the checkered flag.
Fans still come and poke their heads over the chain-link fence to look down on what had been the site of one of the oldest ovals in America, but not much more than memories remain.
For more than 75 years, it was the premier stock car track in the Pacific Northwest, the training ground for NASCAR legend Hershel McGriff, Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope, and series champions Greg Biffle and Mike Bliss. One year it hosted four stops on the old NASCAR Grand National circuit.
What happened to Portland Speedway is not unique. One in five of America's 1,200-plus short-track ovals will close or change hands this year as owners struggle to cope with political pressures, changing demographics, and the economic realities of fighting for a shrinking pot of disposable income.
Many operators are facing rising costs due to everything from insurance premiums to the price of hot dog buns. Some are trying to keep out of the red by trimming staff, delaying improvements, or increasing fees to competitors to make up for empty seats in the grandstands. But that's a risky move that can shrink car counts as teams look to other tracks with lower entry fees.
And the show put on by some tracks is changing. The expensive-to-run, sophisticated, big iron Late Model classes are shrinking in some places as new drivers are attracted to cheaper Mini-Stocks based on the four-cylinder street cars they grew up driving.
Strong car counts are crucial to good shows and full grandstands.
Car owners are also finding it more difficult to come up with sponsorship dollars to help cover the costs of fielding a car on Saturday night. Jeff Jefferson, who won the NASCAR Northwest Series in 2003, worked throughout the winter last year to come up with enough backers to mount a defense of his title this season.
"There's just not a lot of money out there," says the Washington state driver. "It doesn't make much difference how good you are or what kind of record you have, it is still tough."
While NASCAR has gobbled up market share of television audiences, the rise in popularity of professional stock car racing hasn't always trickled down to local tracks, which provide the feed stock for NASCAR's elite series-Nextel Cup, Busch, and Craftsman Truck.
Aside from the premier tracks run by International Speedway Corporation, a sister business to NASCAR, racing's giant doesn't have direct ties to local ovals. NASCAR doesn't sanction tracks, it sanctions racing series. So unless your local oval runs one of NASCAR's touring series such as Busch North, it gets precious little benefit from racing's profit center at Daytona Beach.
Most of the money "NASCAR tracks" do get comes through Dodge's support for weekly racing, which replaced the historically deep pockets of Winston cigarettes. Oftentimes support comes in the form of advertising on programs, billboards, and other signs around a speedway.
"Of course, there's a huge benefit to a track to be involved in the Weekly Racing Series," says Jeremy Davidson, spokesman for NASCAR's local racing program. "For one thing, it gives the drivers something to shoot for beyond a track championship." And those tracks that host one of NASCAR's touring series get the benefit of top regional drivers making at least one stop per season there.
NASCAR also works with local operators during twice-a-year meetings, one held at Daytona at the beginning of the season and another at season's end. In 2005 the sanctioning body will stage a Short Track Summit during Speedweeks, preceded by a fall summit in Las Vegas.
The operators can get together and discuss rule changes, how they operate, and common concerns. One of those concerns is that a few times each season, NASCAR actually hurts its feeder tracks.