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.
When the checkered flag falls, often it's to less-than-full grandstands.
Jerry Smith of Ohio's Mansfield Motor Speedway says that on weekends of the Nextel Cup races on Saturday nights "I could probably make more money if I just told our drivers to stay home and I set up big screens in the infield and broadcast the Cup race live. Those night races can hurt us that much."
"It's a tough business," says Stewart Doty, who publishes Race Promoters Monthly, a trade journal for track operators. "But I don't think it is any tougher than most other small businesses. Nationally, about 21 percent of small businesses fail each year, and short-track operators are holding at about that rate."
But he says that U.S. race fans continue to support about 1,000 tracks each year, and when one goes out of business, another one opens up.
"But that doesn't give much consolation to the guy with a Late Model in the garage and no place to run it," he says. "To him, that local track is the only one that matters."
Doty says the television view of stock car racing can misrepresent the sport as it plays out on local bullrings. "In some cities, the track is located in an area where you might not normally go without good reason," he says. "Folks see those beautiful Nextel Cup tracks on television, with new bleachers and modern restrooms, and are somewhat taken aback when they go to their local track and sit on wooden bleachers and have port-a-potty restrooms. In an urban area, they expect more."
To meet those needs, Mansfield Motor Speedway bulldozed everything but the track surface two years ago and began rebuilding in what is expected to be a $20 million project, turning it into one of the most fan-friendly short tracks in the nation and earning a spot on the Craftsman Truck schedule.
Track promoters face stiff competition in search of fans, with everything from high school
"But not all tracks have to do that," Doty says. "There are still lots of small tracks in the country where most of the fans spend the day working outside, and even port-a-potties are better than what they have available in the field. For them, the biggest requirements are that the action is hot and the beer is cold."
The pressure to survive apparently is greater on tracks in urban areas, where theaters, concerts, professional stick-and-ball teams, and the other attractions of living near a city compete for recreational dollars. And there, neighbors often are less willing to put up with the noise and dirt from a racetrack, where fans going to the track can cause traffic jams and where urban development means the land beneath an oval can be worth more than the income from the weekly races.
That's what happened two years ago in Portland and in Louisville, Kentucky. The Portland track was closed because the property owners wanted the site for future industrial development. Today, the land sits empty, waiting for the economy to turn around and attract an investor.
When the track was built, it was on a flood plain that couldn't be used for much else. Winter rains left the track under water until early spring. It was in a remote area on the north edge of the city.
But Portland kept creeping closer and closer. First there was a major interstate on the west; then a high-traffic truck route to the east; then came motels, a shopping center, a huge truck stop, and gradually the track found itself on land ripe for commercial or industrial development.
"In the property owner's case, they began to look at what it was worth for development, based on what they figured the land would do," says Craig Armstrong, who ran Portland Speedway for 15 years. "They saw the property as extremely valuable.
"If you look at it objectively, it probably made a lot of sense. But I think the owners also got caught up in a feeding frenzy for developable land. Because we didn't own the land, we were really at the mercy of the property owners. We owned the business, but all we did was lease the site."
Tracks in rural areas are less susceptible toproblems associated with urban growth, but mo
Armstrong says he and coinvestors tried to buy the land, but the price was too high to be supported by a racetrack. With wood grandstands and aging facilities, the track was already on the financial ropes. It was in desperate need of new paving, but when the cost was too great, Armstrong converted it to dirt.
"Because our lease was year-to-year, no bank would give us the money to make the improvements we needed to make," he says. "Finally, I walked away from a big part of my life."
Closures aren't limited to the size of the track, the breadth of the market, or even the location. Some, like Ontario Motor Speedway and Riverside Raceway in California, were storied facilities with historic reputations. Others are almost unknown but to the drivers and fans who mourn their loss.
Right now it is just a trickle, and the problems are more anecdotal than epidemic. But as economic and political pressures mount against speedways in urban areas, trouble could be brewing at almost every urban track.
And just as every track is different, the circumstances under which they go out of business are also unique. "The racetrack business is unlike any other in the world," says Armstrong, who has moved to Atlanta to run an NHRA-owned dragstrip. "You can have a racetrack in a good market area, but you really are working with an expensive, horribly under-used asset.
"It is like owning a McDonald's restaurant that you can run only one night a week, only six months out of the year. Oh, and there's no roof over the kitchen or dining area, either. So when it rains, you don't run it at all."
It can make operating a speedway an iffy business, at best. Two years ago, the buyers of Louisville Speedway shut down the track and moved its best dates to Kentucky Speedway, with hopes of getting their new track on the Nextel Cup schedule. The investors bought the Louisville track in 1998, just as construction was beginning on Kentucky Speedway.
The Louisville Speedway site is being redeveloped as an industrial park. Mark Simendinger, president of the company that owns both sites, told the Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper that the Louisville track, built in the 1950s, could no longer hold its own in the economy.
"It reached the point where the value of the track property reached the level where we couldn't afford to operate it as a racetrack," he told the newspaper.
In racing-rich North Carolina, Orange County Speedway in Rougemont was closed for the season while owners tried to find someone to buy the aging oval.
Many of NASCAR's stars such as Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin, and Jeff and Ward Burton have bumped their way to the checkered flag there. Rumors raced through the motorsports community early this year that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was considering buying the 3/8-mile paved oval. But the rumors were just wishful thinking.
Once among the premier short tracks in the Southeast, the track has fallen on hard times and was being offered at $1.8 million for the speedway and 118 acres.
It was first known as TriCo Speedway and was a dirt oval until 1983, when it was paved. But today, the pavement is in poor shape, the grandstands need work, and the fans have found other places to go.
The track has had three owners in the past 10 years.
"Track closures is not an epidemic, but it is a concern," says Stuart Gosswein of the SEMA Action Network, the political arm of the nation-wide Specialty Equipment Market Association.
With its roots in drag racing, SEMA works closely with the NHRA to battle laws that have an impact on dragstrips. It is more difficult to organize promoters with sanctions from NASCAR, ASA, USAR, and regional racing organizations, all running under separate rules.
NASCAR says it is determined to help local tracks, even those with racing series not under
"There really is no single group that works with oval tracks," Gosswein says. "Maybe there should be." Gosswein's network watches regional and state legislation that could have an impact on almost any form of motorsports, from antique car collecting to major races. "But most of the tracks get in trouble over local laws," he says.
Doty agrees. "A town council may pass some sort of noise ordinance to make kids put mufflers on their Japanese street cars, but don't realize at the time that it also may put a track out of business because it can't meet those limits," he says. The consequences are unintended, but they are consequences just the same.
Doty says some of those problems can be headed off by track operators who work within the political system and try to make their tracks conform to current rules or ensure they are "grandfathered" under older laws.
"But when you come right down to it, most track operators are pretty independent folks," he says. "They'd rather go racing than go politicking."
But sometimes it takes political muscle to stay in business. In Middletown, New York, the Wallkill Township tried in January to close the Orange County Fair Speedway by making it illegal for dust to drift off the dirt track's property. The township crafted a law that singled out only the dirt track, while ignoring similar problems from construction sites, concrete plants, or even major highways.
But the local lawmakers backed down when faced with an overflow crowd of 350 racing fans and drivers who demanded they reconsider the issue.
"If they passed it, we would have been out of business," Joanne Chadwick, track manager, says. The law also could have become a model for other local governments under taxpayer pressure to close tracks.
Ultimately, compelling action is the draw for local tracks.
The problems at Middletown were created when the city grew to surround the once remote racetrack. It is a common situation for tracks around the nation.
Accord Speedway, an easy drive from the Orange County oval, was begun 43 years ago as a dirt track in the middle of a farm. "Now we've got people in town who just want to shut us down," says Gary Palmer, who runs Accord Speedway in upstate New York with help from his wife, son, and two daughters.
Palmer is a body shop owner and former racer who says he took over the dirt track three years ago but didn't appreciate the number of problems-including outstanding tax bills-that went with it. But his biggest concern is a group of neighbors who Palmer says simply do not want the track there.
"Sometimes it is like operating under siege," he says. The track operates under a year-to-year permit from the township council, and he worries about what could happen if the make-up of the council changes.
Palmer says he is strict about meeting a 96dB sound limit and not running engines after curfew. Last summer he shut down a race program before the final event because it couldn't be finished by curfew.
Much of a track's criticism is generated by people who don't buy tickets, yet still hear the sound of engines, and long-time operators say they'll never be able to do enough to keep in their good graces.
"It's a lot like people who want to live in the country, so they buy a place surrounded by farms, and then complain about the smell of cow poop," says Chuck Welsh, marketing director for Bloomington Speedway in Indiana.
Welsh says developers just put in about 150 new homes near the track, with the closest one within 200 yards of the north turns. For him, that type of community growth simply means more problems.
"Anytime you are going to have a racetrack, you are going to have complaints," he says. "The question is what to do with them."
Welsh canvasses the neighborhood each year with free passes, and the track has strict noise rules. "If you hit 106 dB, you either fix it or go home," he says.
Entry-level racing, via a good Street Stock program, is often the lifeblood of a local tra
When Devils Bowl Speedway was built in Mesquite, Texas, outside of Dallas, it was nearly 8 miles from town, says Beverly Edwards, who runs three tracks with her husband, Lanny. "Now we have half-million-dollar homes all around us," she says.
The Edwards responded to concerns by requiring mufflers, turned-down exhausts, and running a schedule that quiets the track by 10:30 or 11 p.m. They have become involved in the community by using the track for charity benefits for things like the community food bank and running a free day for each of the surrounding communities.
"We invite everyone from one of the cities to come to the track once a year," she says. "We give them free admission and designate one night to show them a good time. It is a way for us to introduce ourselves to our neighbors and show them what goes on inside our place. Some of them come back as fans. Most of them don't. But at least we've made the effort to be good neighbors."
The outreach helped make them the National Promoters of the Year in 2003 and gave them the chance to tell their story to other folks in the business.
"We've been at this for 43 years," she says. "And when we tell people what they need to do to keep peace with their neighbors, I'm amazed at the folks who simply don't listen."
"Sometimes," agrees Armstrong, "we can be our own worst enemy."
"They are a pretty independent bunch of business people," says RPM's Doty. "I think the ones who survive are the ones who get into the business because they have a real passion for the sport, and that drives them more than the chance to make money.
"Oh sure, there is money to be made operating a track. But you can also lose money doing it, and sometimes success or failure isn't based on how good you are or how hard you work."
Which means operating a track isn't too much different from owning a race team
Tracks all across the country face mounting challenges as they struggle for survival in an increasingly difficult environment. And track operators and competitors alike are experiencing firsthand the trials and tribulations of the sport. Will the situation grow worse before it improves? Does NASCAR have the answers? Stock Car Racing examines the issues facing the sport.
Jim Hunter knows what's wrong with America's short tracks.
There aren't enough cars on the track. There aren't enough fans in the stands. Too many local ovals are in danger of closing or being bulldozed for development. NASCAR's premier series have so dominated the American motorsports scene that it is starving the very industry that spawned it.
America's small racing ovals are in trouble, and the industry is bleeding both fans and talented drivers and crew.
Hunter is the man that Brian France, NASCAR's young president, figures can change all that. The thin, 65-year-old former journalist is far from the most recognized man in motorsports. But inside the garages, boardrooms, and even the cynical media centers, Hunter has no peer. He is highly regarded for his straight-talking candor and no-nonsense approach to problem solving.
He can be as engaging as an evangelist, as charming as a politician, as persuasive as a used car salesman.
Hunter comes to the task with impressive credentials. He has for years been the man Bill France Jr. leaned on when a job required both tact and tenacity, and he knows the motorsports business from about every angle.
He was public relations director at Talladega Superspeedway from 1975 to 1981, when he moved to Daytona Beach to become NASCAR's head of public relations when stock car racing grew from a Southern form of entertainment to a national pastime. He also served as director and later vice president of administration for NASCAR's corporate headquarters. In 1993 he was public relations director at Darlington Raceway and its track president from 1993 to 2001. He's also worked as a vice president of International Speedway Corporation and regional director for ovals at Darlington, Rockingham, and Richmond.
Promoters eager to increase revenues sometimes turn to alternate forms of entertainment.
Now Brian France has given him what may be the most difficult job in his career. When he recites his marching orders, Hunter barely slows to catch a breath. It is a long-range plan, and he knows that working with 1,000 independent racetrack operators-with an emphasis on independent-makes it a formidable task.
Hunter isn't talking only about the ovals that host a NASCAR series. "We're talking all tracks," he says. "I don't care if they run only sprints and midgets on clay. Every one of them is important. Basically, he asked me to unite the short-track industry in America, whether it is NASCAR-sanctioned, or an open-wheel or sprint car, or they run midgets."
Why does France-who already holds the deed to America's motorsports money-making machine-even care?
"In moving around the country, Brian got experience with short tracks at Tucson Raceway Park," says Hunter. "It is an old fairgrounds track and it was going to go out of business, and he talked us into buying it.
"He went out there to run it for a few years, and it became a really nice facility. He never lost his passion for short-track racing, and he knows how important it is to the industry. When he took over NASCAR, he said, 'We've got to do something.'
What he accomplishes could become the legacy of the France family's third generation. "His idea is that grassroots racing is what made NASCAR and other sanctioning organizations," continues Hunter, "and without it we have no feeder system, from fans, to drivers, to crewmembers, to engine builders.
"We want to assist every track in the country and enlist their participation in all aspects of the business and share our knowledge with them in every respect."
Hunter sees NASCAR's new Research and Development Center offering guidance "on how to make tracks as safe as possible." And, he says, "We'll use all the resources we have available. We'll work to train officials and work with operators on ways to control costs. There are things that are unique to our industry, and Brian's idea is that we should share our knowledge with every grassroots track and try to make it better, and in the process that will help continue the normal progression of our sport. We've got to have people who can drive race cars and work on race cars and fans to watch them."
He's hoping the first step will be seminars at trade shows for the short-track industry "that can provide a wealth of information and interaction to everyone in the industry.
"We're not doing this because we want to sanction more weekly tracks," he stresses. "There are a lot of tracks running on such a short margin, they couldn'tafford to be a NASCAR-sanctioned facility. We don't care. And we don't care what they run. A race fan is a race fan, and a race mechanic is a race mechanic. If they are interested in racing, they are interested in almost all forms of racing."
Hunter says there are really two types of fans today. The first go to their local ovals and may attend one or two Nextel Cup races a year. The second is the fan who watches racing on television.
"We hear numbers like 75 million fans," he says. "If they are out there, we need to get them to a short track in their home town. If they are fans of racing on TV, we've got to figure out a way to get them to a local track.
"The more successful local tracks are, the more successful we are going to be. We are not going to grow by turning our heads on short tracks and the grassroots efforts that got us where we are."
Hunter hears the criticism from track operators who say they may as well turn out the lights on any Saturday night NASCAR runs a Nextel Cup race.
Dirt track racing offers one of the purest forms of competition in the sport today, but no
"I know that hurts the locals," he says. "Maybe the solution is to put up some sort of a big screen in the infield and pull down a satellite feed and show your audience the Cup race while they watch their local drivers. We've got to figure out how we can do that."
Other problems may be even more difficult to solve. Many of the short tracks that go out of business do so because the land is more valuable for other uses, or communities see them now as incompatible with newly developed surrounding neighborhoods.
"That's been an ongoing problem," Hunter says. "It is becoming difficult to find suitable sites, and many tracks-like Darlington was 10 years ago-have been there 25 or 30 years with minimal improvements."
He says the experiences of NASCAR, ISC, and Speedway Motorsports Inc. can be tapped by local operators to work with government on noise and land use issues to save existing facilities from being crushed under local regulations.
"There are probably tracks out there today with a strong fan base where we might be able to find investors to relocate a facility," Hunter says. "We know who the people are, and we can be like a broker and put them together."
It has taken years for short tracks to get into the trouble they are in, and Hunter knows he can't turn things around overnight. One of the biggest hurdles will be to get operators to work together.
"My hope is that two years from now the process will have more success stories than failures," he says, "and that the sport itself, regardless of what type of racing we are talking about, will see attendance go up and car counts go up, and as a result it will become a bigger voice as an industry.
"Hopefully we can get the message out to government at all levels-not just local but at state and national levels-that this is a sport that provides family entertainment, and that two years from now I would hope short tracks would be getting funding that mimics what goes out to basketball and football."
Hunter says communities need to recognize the value of having a short track, that it can be a good corporate neighbor and it can bring great value to the community.
"I feel that if we can get the industry working together, we can make things happen. All we need is this common goal."-Jerry F. Boone
Noise: Fans love to hear the thunder of engines as cars race down the front straight, but neighbors also like to sleep with their windows open in the summer. Noise probably generates the largest number of complaints for short-track operators. The most successful operators limit noise and adhere to reasonable curfews.
Dirt: Dust is the bane of dirt tracks, as anyone who operates one close to homes can attest. Fighting the problem requires constant work on the track surface and building good relationships with people who live downwind of the speedway.
Location: Ovals that once were a half-hour drive from the city are now surrounded by business parks and condos as communities expand. Often it makes the value of the property worth far more than the track revenue.
Competition: There's Only So Much Disposable Income In Every family's budget, and tracks have to compete for it to thrive. Some operators try to survive by increasing the fees to drivers rather than trying to attract new fans in the grandstands.
Poor Management: Not all good racers make good track operators. They alienate drivers with bad rule enforcement, overcharging on entry fees, and milking "the back gate" to counter a poor fan base. Spectators, in the meantime, won't return to an oval if the program is poorly run, there's a low car count, they end up with slivers in their butts, and the restrooms stink.