"I remember going to small tracks where there was real excitement, where racing was entertaining and the fans walked away at the end of the night figuring they got real value for the price of their ticket." -Kenny Shepherd
Condren says his company invested...
Condren says his company invested more than $2.5 million in Altamont Motorsports Park before the gates were opened in 2006. June Boone
A year ago, Altamont Speedway was a disgrace. The grandstands were rotted. The food was bad and overpriced. The track surface was in shambles. And the 300 fans who showed up on weekends suffered through the type of show that only a racing fanatic would tolerate."It was a pretty miserable place," says Ryan Philpott, a third-generation racer at the half-mile oval.If that description sounds a lot like your local track, there's help. Today, the 42-year-old speedway-renamed Altamont Motorsports Park-may be the prototype for the short track of the future.It didn't happen overnight. It didn't happen without vision and courage. And it didn't happen without investors more interested in the future of the sport than the week's bottom line.
If American short-track racing is to survive, many tracks will have to follow at least some of Altamont's example, says John Condren, one of the track's key investors and the man responsible for marketing the track."We think we have the blueprint for tomorrow," he says.Condren says the secret to survival-and it is one he's willing to share with anyone within earshot-is to look beyond the weekly show and develop ways to use valuable real estate for other forms of motorsport."You can't pay a year's worth of bills anymore by racing 20 nights a season," he says. "That's a blueprint for financial disaster."
To see where Altamont is headed, it helps to know where it has been. The track is nestled among a range of golden hills and dry-land farms about an hour's drive from San Francisco. It was cut into the desert in 1963 and began as a 31/48-mile dirt oval. It was paved in July 1966 to include 11/48-, 11/44- and 11/42-mile ovals, all with a common front straight. The original seating capacity was 4,500, Condren says. It wasn't pretty, but it was the best track around during the '60s, when fans were less fussy than they are today."A lot of it was makeshift and shantytown construction, but they made it work," he says.
The location is notorious for temperatures and winds that get into triple digits, which has helped create a new form of farming. The horizon from atop the track grandstands includes a view of giant triple-bladed windmills that generate electricity for California's power grid. Most of the hills are topped with row upon row of the wind-powered generators, their blades whirling silently in the almost ever-present breeze."Everything we build has to be able to sustain 90-mph winds," says Condren.In spite of the wind and parching weather, the track survived. The owners? That's a different story. Altamont went through at least six different sets of hands through 2005. The operators who ran it before Condren and his team were a group of investors from Australia."They bought it without putting much thought into it," says Condren. "They figured, 'How hard can it be?'"After a couple years, they decided it was harder than they thought."They really didn't seem to know what they were doing," says Philpott. "I raced dirt for years but came here because I wanted to learn asphalt. I live only 10 minutes away, but it got to the point I didn't want to visit Altamont anymore.
"Nothing had changed for years, and the track kept getting worse and worse. The pits were gravel. If you wanted to do any work on your car, you had to bring your own lights and generator."It became a place where racers came because they had to, not because they wanted to.
Management repaved and widened...
Management repaved and widened the half-mile oval to create another racing groove to allow more passing. Jerry F. Boone
To the RescueEven NASCAR walked away. Citing serious safety concerns, it punched the track's ticket three years ago, telling operators it could no longer host the Dodge Weekly Racing Series or any of NASCAR's touring shows. When the previous owners decided they had suffered enough, they contacted Condren about taking over the place.
A passionate sports car racer, Condren was already heavily invested in the creation of Riverside Motorsports Park, a 1,200-acre, multi-purpose racing center planned for nearby Merced."I didn't need another project," Condren says, "but I didn't want to see another California short track die, either. We are losing them left and right, and if someone doesn't step up, there will come a day when there are none left."Altamont sits between the other two half-mile paved ovals in California. It's a 680-mile stretch between Shasta Speedway, just below the Oregon border, and Irwindale Speedway, near Los Angeles."How could you let something like this die?" he asks. "The answer is, we couldn't."Condren is a semi-retired, high-tech engineering veteran, whose leading-edge thinking has made him wealthy yet eager for another challenge."I made a lot of money-and I lost a lot of money-by thinking outside the box," he says.
He studied the region's demographics and quickly determined the track couldn't survive without changing, so he set out to create a new Altamont on the footprint of the old track.