A school bus race on the track's Figure 8 infield course had just finished. NASCAR Camping World Series West teams were packing up to leave Colorado National Speedway (CNS), and Scott Backman, track promoter, was going through the pits thanking everyone for coming.
"I do it every night," says Backman, who was hired as track operator a mere two days before the first hot laps were turned on the 2008 season. "I ask if there's anything they need. If somebody's mad at me I want to know. I say, hey, let's talk. It helps Monday morning if things can be worked out." Backman is a 22-year racing veteran and knows what drivers need.
"The track was in kind of a downward spiral," he says. "The previous operator was making everybody mad. He was doing nothing to promote or help racers." Backman is working to change that. "A lot of the stuff we're trying I'd talked about with other drivers when I was racing. We're trying to get back to everybody having fun."
Colorado National Speedway is a paved 3/8-mile oval just off I-25 in Erie, Colorado, roughly 23 miles north of the Denver city limits. It began life as a 1/2-mile dirt track in 1965. When it was paved in 1989 it was reduced to 3/8-mile. "It's really 4/10ths on the outside," Backman says. When it was paved, it became a NASCAR track, a designation it still maintains. It is currently the only area track that's part of the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series.
Backman describes the racing surface as a tri-bank with variable banking of 4, 6, and 8 degrees. "In '91 the fastest way was around the top," he says. "Now it's the bottom two grooves. At the top you get into the marbles." Unlike some smaller tracks where passing is difficult, cars are often three wide at CNS.
The track surface sports a series of fresh patches. Jace Hansen, a 17-year-old veteran in Legends who currently campaigns a Grand American Modified as well, thinks it needs to be completely repaved. "The patches fixed dips and sink holes," he says. "They make for faster racing but they hurt us too because they eat up the tires."
Teams competing regularly at CNS pay an annual fee of $75 for a designated pit. It's an unusual policy, but racers can improve their assigned plot. Hansen, whose father races against him in Modifieds, helped his dad pour the concrete pad his car now rests on years ago.
"That was the biggest mess I inherited," Backman says. "The problem is the pit spots were double sold. Different classes don't always run every other weekend. Figuring out how to deal with that made a lot of extra work." There are plans to pave a big circle behind the tech building so that more pits will be available next year. Backman adds that redoing some of the current pit "improvements" would be difficult. "With some of them the concrete is two feet deep."
Other plans include luxury suites and new grandstands. Also, all timing and scoring will be migrating to a transponder system. "The track will pay for the equipment," Backman says. "The racers will buy their transponders. We'll have some rental units available.
The track strives to be a good neighbor as well, with a 95 decibel limit on the Super Modifieds. Spin Tech mufflers bring them down to 93. "They were really loud," says Beckman. "Next year there will be a mandatory muffler rule in all classes.
"We want to be proactive not reactive." Dacono is the nearest town, and the track hosted a Dacono Day earlier this season, with an appearance by the town's mayor, who said the track would always be welcome.
Track owners are Sue and Jim Nordhaugen. Although Jim was a 2003 NHRA National Champion, Backman says they have really gotten into oval track racing. Backman and others are very aware that times change. "At some point the land will be more valuable for other things," Backman says.
Dennis Edwards, who began racing 20 years ago at the Rocky Mountain Speedway, a dirt track in Commerce, Colorado, is also concerned about the future of the track. He moved to CNS when he could see that Rocky Mountain wouldn't be around much longer. (Rocky Mountain closed at the end of the 2005 season.) "The city's coming out here," says Edwards. Pointing to a ridge to the West, he adds, "Just beyond that ridge it's all new houses."
In a way, part of CNS's current success is the fact that it's the only show in town. The circle track nearest to CNS is the Big Country Speedway 78 miles north in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The next closest is I-25 Speedway, 126 miles South in Pueblo, Colorado.
"I miss the dirt," says Edwards. "This is sort of more yuppie stuff." But he proudly points out that he races the only Cadillac in his class. Edwards races Super Stocks, the class with the largest car count. "We have 32 in the main and usually 42 show up," he says. "In heat races there are 10 to 12 cars. We have a Last Chance race and a couple of guys can move up from that." CNS provides all kinds of excitement for the fans. Want to take your company on an outing? There's a covered chalet and a choice of two menus and a bartender. During the Camping World West race, the track hosted over 750 in its hospitality chalet. Backman estimates around 10,000 attended the event. Capacity is 13,500 but the only time Backman recalls seeing it sold out was when the Craftsman Truck Series raced there.
"There's lots of neat concepts we're trying," Backman says. Memorial Day grandstand adult tickets were $15 for the two-night program instead of $20. "We'll probably do that again Labor Day weekend," he adds.
When a sewer problem forced fans to use outhouses, Backman offered free admission the following weekend to anyone who still had their ticket stub. To the usual collection of Late Models (Big Bad Boys), Pro Trucks, Grand American Modifieds, Sportsman, Legends, Super Stocks, open-wheel Midgets, Super Modifieds, and Modified Coupes, the track has added Figure 8s, Trains, and School Bus races. Kids can win to be a trophy presenter. Adults can win a ride in a specially built two-seat Late Model. One event sells pins to raise money for NASCAR charities. The local Shriner's parade unit entertains during intermission at another race. A Memorial "Ride 911" motorcycle ride raises funds for aviation scholarships and one event features Missing Children's Week educational programs.
Drivers at the beginning of the year were given 10 free tickets to distribute to anyone they wanted. They lowered pit admission fees this year from $25 to $20 for NASCAR members.
"We try to be done racing every night by 9:30," Backman says. "It makes a big difference to the fans to be able to come over and see their favorite driver. If it gets much later than that it's too late for the little kids." Backman lets racers know that their classes will be held to the time allotted so the show will be over on time. "We hold 'em at their time," he says. "You've got to do it. They kind of clean up their driving when they know that."