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Where Have All of the Race Tracks Gone?

The racetrack is the place where careers in our business began, where networks flourished and people traded referrals

It’s up to us to save racing!

It all started with the announcement sent to me from Hemmings. Having had my alma mater close last year it was the same sinking feeling. Learned that three dragstrips were now closing. The I-64 Motorplex (Kentucky), Battlefield Dragstrip (Mississippi) and Sturgis Raceway (South Dakota). While I have attended many a drag race, my heart is with “turning left” short track style. 

Rockford Speedway closed last year. I attended races there. I worked in the pits there. I raced there. No Saturday night was the same without the racing, picking up my pitiful winnings at the pay window, picking up the pieces knowing where I would spend every night the rest of the week. Gave myself one favor. Since I towed about an hour, I would sleep until church on Sundays. So, I get the pain. Cannot say I didn’t wipe a tear or two away thinking of all those years, friends and good times.

Also spent chunks of my youth going to and helping out at Great Lakes Dragway. If I am not mistaken, it’s the oldest family owned drag strip in the country. They race there every week. Lots of special events, too. So, drag racers and related folks, I can feel your pain.

Why is all of this such a big deal you may ask? Please consider:

  • Many in the aftermarket cut their teeth racing. Many still do.
  • The racetrack was also a family. The hours spent in the pits, at the required hot dog stand, in the pit bleachers, at the pay window and the time in the “club house” that followed … those people, we often talked to them more often than many family members or other friends.
  • The racetrack is the place where careers in our business began, where networks flourished and people traded referrals. A lot of the racers were auto techs at one level or another and would look for jobs or recommend a job to others.

Companies were built there, too. Everyone looked at who was winning to see what part brands they were using. At Rockford, the hot set up was a Howe or Lefthander chassis with a Baker engine and Winter’s quick change rear end. And, a Five Star body. Drag racing has its names, too: Black, McAmis, Strange, Schmidt and many others. At least those are a few I remember. And don’t forget off road, sports cars (my brother still races a Diasio 962), sprinters, quarter midgets, motorcycles, semi-trucks (the Brits love these), F1, IRL cars, rally, you name it, it races, too. Sure some have been missed, but you get the idea. This is an industry employing thousands and making money. A lot of these companies are small businesses.

Seems since the pandemic with all of its government rules and the rest has had a real impact on race tracks of all kinds. But there a number of other factors:

  • Attitude of local governments toward noise and air quality. Just so they are aware, one of the greatest smells is racing gas exhaust. Really could explain a lot to me, but who knows. The bottom line is that if you build an entire new home development across the road from a race track there will be issues. There’s no fixing stupid. If you move into a development next to the track that already exists it may be loud. Communities have tried all types of things. Time limits, noise abatement that required mufflers and more. Like moving in next to the airport and then griping because it’s loud.
  • The generations of family operations are seeing the founders die and family members, while good intentioned, try to keep the place alive but ultimately sell out. Their land value for developers and others is often very high.
  • Inflation. The same thing that hits our pocket at the grocery store or gas station hits tracks as well. The costs to insure the facilities is going through the roof. Employee wages, track support, back office, even the cost of having security and ambulances is getting all jacked up. I did some numbers and, unless I go too far wrong, the cost to the track owner for one night’s racing could be $40,000 to $60,000. At that rate, the owner is fortunate if they see a $5,000 to $10,000 profit on a huge night. And remember, it’s seasonal. At that rate a night of racing would need about 3,000 people at $20 a ticket, plus pit passes and entry fees.
  • Along with the track owner’s costs rising quickly, taking a family of four to the races for one night is $80 — $100 plus food and drink. The family that is able to come to watch and enjoy the racing on a regular basis gets priced out pretty quickly.
  • One thing that has changed is that Millennials and Gen-Z seem to be more attracted to other forms of racing. I actually believe this results from the pandemic since many didn’t see a race yet. The schools have lost a generation due to the Covid reaction. So did racing.

Pleased to say it isn’t all bad news. As the year opens there are some new tracks and others reopening in existing facilities or new areas. One statistic I read is that in 2024 there are nearly as many facilities as there were 20 years ago. Go back to the ’70s and the number has likely dropped quite a little. But, it seems that facilities are holding their own for now.

So, look around and find a local race track. Hopefully more than one. Both drag racing and others. Compare their schedule of racing to yours. Then make a note to attend at least eight races this year. If you have employees, use race track tickets as a reward or just offer them at a reduced cost. Have a company picnic at the track. Bet they’ll announce your name and everything. Or, use them as part of a raffle or club activity. 

My friends, it is on us to save racing for our kids. Go participate or watch. And take others with you.

At a young age, industry veteran Tom Langer started detailing cars for his family’s dealerships, which then led to work in the jobber and warehouse business, along with a machine shop and auto body shop. He held a variety of positions with an auto parts manufacturer for 10 years, and remained in the industry working with shops, warehouses and manufacturers in research and more. 

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