The Perfect GPS

Editorial -- Race Tracks: How Many and What Kind

By Richard Welty

There are a lot of race track projects in the air these days, with an awful lot of money behind them. Some are better conceived than others; some would seem to involve some pretty questionable assumptions about decision making by major sanctioning bodies. The short tracks that run Modifieds, Street Stocks, Sprints, or Midgets on Friday or Saturday nights don't enter into the equation; they run on a distinctly different basis from the big ovals and the road courses. The economic assumptions in this editorial are almost completely irrelevant to the short track operator, who, if he runs his business wisely, doesn't have all that much to worry about other than new neighbors who bought homes without noticing the nearby race track.

It's the new Oval and Road course projects that worry me, for any number of reasons. Some are well founded, and will do ok. Others seem poorly thought out, sometimes even bizarre (like Donald Trump's notion of building an oval in Bridgeport, CT). The key factor in all such cases is mostly this: the calendar.

Major sanctioning bodies have a limited number of dates that they can allocate to race tracks. NASCAR and CART (the sanctioning formerly known as Indycar) have very full schedules; events cannot be added unless other dates are removed. Because of recent turmoil in Indycar racing, CART actually has been able to shift a few dates lately, but such events are rare. NASCAR can't add a Winston Cup race without taking an event from someone else, and nobody wants to give up a NASCAR event if they can avoid it.

The IRL is a somewhat different kettle of fish; they don't have that full a season to begin with, but because of the current restriction of their events to largish paved oval tracks (1 mile and greater), their ability to expand has been limited (they are going to experiment in the south, in NASCAR territory, but Indycar type racing has not been very successful in such forays in the past, so it's definitely a gamble.) The IRL has other problems to deal with, the biggest being a major creditability gap. If they don't deal with that, they may not get very far with expansion.

So we have only so many available dates; if we start looking closely, it's hard to see where all the big races are coming from for the big new track projects. Fontana is Roger Penske's baby, so Fontana will get a CART race; NASCAR is a partner, so Fontana will get a WC race. As for the redevelopment of Gateway, Chris Pook's Long Beach Grand Prix has been a stalwart on the CART schedule for years, so they're taking care of his new project.

On the other hand, we've also got the new Du Page Airport project near Chicago and the Kankakee Illinois project. Du Page can expect IRL and maybe NASCAR dates, because of the principals involved, and since Kankakee is A. J. Foyt's project, I guess he's banking on an IRL date; but this is starting to look like a major expansion from an IRL that made all its teams, lobux or otherwise, buy new cars this year. Can limited IRL team budgets take this kind of abuse? Will expanding the schedule this agressively cause failures of the weaker teams in the IRL (teams which have had to take out loans and insurance to get into the mandatory new cars for 1997)?

Moreover, the Du Page and Kankakee projects do not appear to involve provision of road courses in the facilities. Now many southern tracks that specialize in NASCAR have gotten away without them (Dover and Darlington are two examples), but other ovals (Rockingham, Charlotte, NHIS, Atlanta Motor Speedway, Homestead, Daytona, and Pocono, to name 7) have some sort of road course that uses part of the oval, which they can then rent to the Sports Car Club of America, the BMW Car Club of America, the Porsche Club of America, and various and sundry driving schools such as Skip Barber and Car Guys. A large oval without a road course is idle except for major racing dates and rentals to well funded race teams for testing. The IRL hostility towards road courses may have had a bad effect on the plans for race tracks being built under their influence. This apparent political statement may have a bad effect on profits, an indication that these may not be the sharpest of businessmen.

Of course, even if these tracks had road courses, that wouldn't necessarily translate into guaranteed success. The SCCA schedules for Road Racing events in many parts of the US are quite full; in the Northeast, many feel (myself among them) that the SCCA has too many races -- and we have several new track projects in various stages of proposal, including the Mid Atlantic Race Complex project that may go into the Grumman-Calverton facility after the FBI gets through with it and the Griffiss AFB project that may go in near Rome, New York. Since the pool of active racers isn't changing that much and the economy, while not awful, isn't really making anyone rich, the racers I know make what events they can afford; if there are too many races, then attendence suffers and the economics get tough. Right now, it's nearly impossible for an SCCA region to make money putting on a 2 day regional at Lime Rock Park; there are simply not enough entrants for the entry fees to cover the rental and other expenses. If the fees are raised high enough, people will stop entering those races with the higher fees. Some regions have gone to 1 day regionals for their solution to the Lime Rock problem.

If the SCCA doesn't take the dates, then perhaps others will; Skip Barber certainly has a lot of dates at a lot of tracks, and the BMW CCA has plenty too, but once again, the number of available tracks may be approaching the point of exceeding demand in the Northeast and Central divisions. Some projects make sense; it made sense for the San Francisco Region of the SCCA to build the Thunderhill track, due to fears of possible shutdowns of Laguna Seca or Sears Point. Likewise, the CalClub Region was well justified in building the Buttonwillow track, as they badly needed a facility near LA. But I must confess that I don't understand the people who want to put up a major complex on Stewart Field near Newburgh, NY. That one just doesn't make sense to me right now.

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