interviews Andy Hillenburg (L) and gives Rockingham Speedway
a clean bill of health. (Photo
RACE TRACKS IN REHAB
“It really was an amazing day,” exclaimed MRN
commentator, Dave Moody. “It was so emotional when Andy Hillenburg
gave the call to start the engines, but it was over the top when he
tried to walk up through the stands from the straightaway to the
tower. It must have taken him 20 minutes. He was overwhelmed with
fans thanking and high-fiving him, patting him on the back.”
The occasion, of course, was the return of a national NASCAR
division – the Camping World Truck Series – to “The Rock,”
Rockingham Speedway, the once-marquee one-mile oval in North
Carolina. The track was dormant and debilitated when racer
Hillenburg, in a seriously gutsy move, purchased it in 2007 and
promptly enrolled it in five years of aggressive therapy.
Speedway once again glistened gloriously last Saturday under a
cloudless blue sky in front of an animated throng of 28,000. Said
former midget and ARCA champion Hillenburg, “If you’d put a pin in
me, I would have burst.”
This was not the first time a
nationally ranked racer has stepped up to help resuscitate our
sport. Good ol’ Kenny Schrader sure has been doing his part – with
Bob Sargent at I-55 Speedway in Pevely, Missouri; with Junior at
Paducah, Kentucky; and with buddies Kenny Wallace and Tony Stewart
at Macon, Illinois.
Meanwhile, Ray Evernham took over the
reins at North Carolina’s East Lincoln Speedway and Tony Stewart’s
Eldora Speedway gains even more altitude each season, especially
under the guidance now of Roger Slack.
Less known, but oh, so
welcome, is a cadre of regional racers around the country who are
taking stakes in local short tracks to keep them lit up. It’s an
interesting dynamic. The guys who do it seem to be accomplished
racers with success in business ventures as well as a well-honed
grasp of reality. It only makes sense. Running a speedway today is
hardly a freebie pass to a fat 401k.
Royal Jones in Las
Cruces, New Mexico, is the definition of an entrepreneur. The
trucking magnate’s holdings include an insurance company, rental
properties, a truck dealership and leasing operation, a truck
driver’s school, ownership of the $200 million Mesilla Valley
Transportation (MVT), and a garage fully stocked with race cars.
He’s also promoter and co-owner of Southern New Mexico Speedway and
El Paso Speedway Park.
www.onedirt.com that one year
“the tracks made 8,000 bucks but MTV lost a million when I was
screwing around with the tracks. I told my racetrack partner that I
can make MTV more money than you guys can lose. Hopefully the track
can make money, and any money we make, we put back into it. MTV has
always been there to offer support because we love racing so much.”
No question there’s some family passion. Royal, his daughter
Holly and son Bumper are all standout dirt trackers.
you run a sprinter or a modified, you gotta be on
your toes to keep up
with the Joneses. (Southern
New Mexico Speedway Collection)
A more typical example, though, may be Darin
Toot in Albert Lea, Minnesota. Now that he is running both his
modest trucking business and his track, Chateau Raceway in Lansing,
“there is little light at the end of the day for my own racing.
Gosh, the last one I won was the Oskaloosa (Iowa) Shootout in 2010.”
Toot figures that even with today’s down economy and with
promoters struggling to focus some of the diffused attention of the
younger generation, it is possible to “cash flow a race track. It’s
tough because we are living off the hard-core racer. Actually, I
wouldn’t mind if I had to pay some taxes because that would mean I’m
actually making a little money! But, truthfully, we are getting by –
a little better each year. And I keep telling my wife it’s when we
sell the track some day that we will get some reward.”
Probably someone who will have wait a few moons for his treasures
will be Len West down in Flippin, Arkansas. A racing character
beyond normal definition, West acquired, hastily re-energized, and
reopened a facility that was morbidly ill just last autumn.
We first ran into Lenny West at Bear Ridge Speedway, way up in the
Green Mountains of Vermont. He won an IMCA feature that cool
September evening in 2006 and unceremoniously loaded up at midnight.
Incredibly, the National Guard recruiter/instructor faced a 23-hour
tow – alone – to take on the Boone Nationals.
afterwards, West retired from the Guard and moved to Arkansas where
he ran the Texas-Arkansas circuit widely as he approached age 60.
Then, just this last March, he closed on the acquisition of North
Central Arkansas Speedway in Flippin.
It has not been an easy
month. Every bit of equipment was obsolescent and dysfunctional. The
local cars were getting rusty, too. The facility had been so
unenthusiastically operated that last fall the typical roster
counted a paltry 30 entries.
Lenny’s opener was last Friday
night – the night before the truck race at the Rock. It went well,
though a bit more understated than Hillenburg’s. Lenny says everyone
from the local banker (who fortunately is knowledgeable about
racing), to the racers, to the general community have been beyond
“Even with the rough financial conditions here
in Marion County,” Lenny reflects, “I think we will be okay. It is
incredibly beautiful here in the Ozarks and there are some other
tracks around. Some of the little ones are on the ragged edge and
some don’t even have insurance. Just a release sheet for competitors
and fans. But the ones with steady management seem to be doing OK.
Believe me, we will be steady. I’m living in a double-wide here at
the track and devoting all I have to it. I’ve even parked my race
car. By the end of the season, we are targeting 60 cars in the pits
and 80 by 2014. We seat 1,000, and I’m going to fill that up.”
season ago, it was all about fuel mixture for Lenny
West. Now it’s all about stuffin’ those seats.
(Photo left, Coastal 181; Photo right, Lenny West
And it just goes on. By
coincidence, Lenny used to race at Devil’s Bowl Speedway in
Vermont. On Friday, May 6, noted Northeast wheelman Mike
Bruno will light up the scenic half-mile asphalt oval for
the center-steer modifieds under his new ownership.
Here’s to thanking all of racing’s racy therapists. Andy,
Darin, Royal, Lenny, Mike – go for it. And may many follow.
© 2012 Lew Boyd, Coastal 181
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