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Small tracks struggle to stay viable in current economy


Ferrous and non-ferrous metals recycling. That's Billy Martino's future now. There will always be rusty old things in need of conversion into shiny new things. There's a certain order to it. Maybe that's why this past weekend just didn't make much sense.

As president of USA International Speedway in Lakeland, Fla., Martino had overseen a track that contested races by several national minor league stock car series, served as test facility for NASCAR teams that used its unusual .750-mile configuration to ready for races at Richmond. Sprint Cup stars had raced there as unknowns -- like Kyle Busch at age 16 -- and returned to play around race weekends at Daytona International Speedway.

But a weakening appetite for local racing and a growing hunger for warehouse and industrial park space along the Interstate 4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando made the 47-acres under and around the high-banked oval more valuable than the facility itself. The land sold off to developers -- "the owners cut their losses and got out while they could," Martino said - the entire contents of the place were gaveled off on Saturday, from decorative palm trees to the track vacuum and 700 feet of grandstands. And eye-wash station was on sale to swoosh away the tears.

And so fell another endangered American short track, the places where the talent that drives NASCAR's multi-billion-dollar industry is honed. Or at least where it used to be. "We're not the first one to suffer this and we won't be the last," Martino said. "It seems like we're the next drive-in theater."

According to Allan Brown, publisher of National Speedway Director, about 1,000 active oval tracks operate in the United States, down 50 in the last four years. That attrition rate is normal, he said, but just eight new facilities were opened last year instead of the typical 30 to 50.

The problems: regulation, construction costs and the economy. The industry peaked in 1954, when there were around 1,200 ovals in the nation. "Yes, it's going the wrong direction," Brown said. "I'm afraid it is."

The last picture show is playing in Florida. Tracks in a St. Petersburg suburb, Hialeah, Jacksonville, Okeechobee, Orlando and St. Augustine have all closed, while facilities in Auburndale, Bradenton, Bronson, East Bay, Inverness, Lake City, Ocala, Orlando, Punta Gorda, Orlando and New Smyrna Beach struggle to remain viable.

Three counties to the northwest of Lakeland is Citrus County, where tourists come to swim with manatees in Crystal River and general manager Don"Critter" Cretty tries to keep afloat the tiny speedway in Inverness. "Quarter mile on the outside," he laughed, "the very outside edge."

On the edge, indeed. Purchased less than three years ago by a local banker, Citrus County Speedway barely strikes the balance between affordable local entertainment in a time when technology can bring the world into a living room, and keeping the lights on. First it was family packs: two adults, two kids, $30. Now a hamburger, hot dog or drink for each family member. There could be "Government employees night" or "health care night," Cretty said, "anything to get them in the door." "It's getting harder and harder by the day.

It's no doubt about that," Cretty said. "As far as the racers are concerned, I still have a real good count of racers and the racers have in their mind they're going to race no matter what. It's getting the fans out there to watch. When you're talking $3.50, $4 in fuel to get to the races to just watch, it's definitely hurt us."

So has NASCAR's decision to move more races from their traditional Sunday afternoon peg to Saturday nights. Martino was able to avoid certain "catastrophic" Saturday night gates -- like Bristol or Richmond -- because his speedway catered to special events such as national or regional touring series events. Local tracks, however, which rely on repeat customers at weekly series events, don't have the same option. Amenities are sparse no matter the level of service. Dinner is concession-stand food. The stands can be hot and dirty. There is no clean public restroom as welcoming as the one off the master bedroom, and there's no pause button and volume for the surround sound.

"It's hard right now," Martino said. "With technology now you can sit in your house with a plasma screen TV and ride with Dale Earnhardt Jr." As a result, Cretty estimated that his track has made money on two nights this season and will "more than likely" lose money at the end of the season.

NASCAR managing director of racing operations George Silbermann, who oversees the series' weekly program, acknowledged the conundrum and said small operators can compete with Sprint Cup by clicking on the race in the snack bar, putting it on the video board if they have them. But Cretty said no one should be fooled that NASCAR has a real interest in the survival of grass-roots short track racing. "I don't think NASCAR could care less about short tracks," he said. "If they care about them at all, they wouldn't be doing Saturday night racing."

Ultimately, though, fans will "have to decide if they want this kind of racing, and if they do, they're going to have to go out and support it," said Zephyrhills, Fla., native and Sprint Cup driver David Reutimann. "Right now, they're having to go farther and farther to get their fix."

"Everyone can say its price point issues. They can all say it may be ticket prices, it make be this, it may be that. But it's up to the fans," Martino said. "We can only speculate, but the marketplace is going to make that decision and if the fans want this type of entertainment they will support it. If they don't support it, it will go away because the land at some point in time, there will be a higher and better use for the land than for a racetrack and they will sell."

Mesa Marin Raceway in Cajon, Calif., closed when developers paid double its $1.9-million value to make way for a housing development, though a new incarnation is being constructed. But tracks in Tioga, N.Y., and Hardeeville, S.C., have been closed permanently.

And the apparent lifeline NASCAR is heaving to certain short-track operators is not meant to save everyone. The All-American Weekly Series contests races in several categories, including late models, modifieds and stock cars, at 60 asphalt and unpaved tracks and Silbermann said "judicious and manageable" growth is "possible" in the future. About a dozen tracks, on average, approach NASCAR every year, others are sought out, but "good partners" only are considered for the fold, Silbermann said. "We're pretty selective," he said. "What we're looking for are good facilities that are well-managed in important markets and then have the right business attitude and acumen."

For a $1,300 per race sanctioning fee, tracks get national sponsorship revenue, access to marketing materials and a $1-million participant insurance policy most otherwise could not afford. The downside for local racers, especially early in their careers, is the need to purchase special licenses to be eligible for a year-end point fund, contingency money, NASCAR state and national championship points.

"It's a good deal to be in their system and they come to your track, but there are fees that are included that the drivers have to pay, the track has to pay and it's just one more added expense," Cretty said. "I don't think it would benefit enough to make it worthwhile."

The upside: if they are young, industrious and talented enough, they could use the NASCAR weekly series as a route to NASCAR, like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer did. Therein lies why NASCAR wishes to manage the grass roots levels of American racing. It's investing in the raw materials of its future. "It's our lifeblood," Silbermann said.

The influx of outside national sponsorships and astute marketing serves the same purpose for member tracks. It also provides a mean to survive. "I would think the ones that are part of the program would feel that way," Silbermann said. "The real big thing we bring, we funnel national sponsor dollars to those little short tracks. Most of them can get local sponsorships, but it's unlikely they're going to get a Coca-Cola or USG or somebody like that. We channel national sponsor dollars to the local communities and those tracks. We support the local short tracks with a national awareness campaign."

Silbermann said most of the NASCAR weekly tracks have at least maintained their car counts and attendance averages "when the economy was taking a dive," and a few announced "upticks," he correlated with rising gasoline prices and their impact on Sprint Cup attendance.

But the NASCAR weekly series couldn't have saved USA International, Martino said, because it didn't support weekly racing series. The track's design earned it business as a NASCAR test site -- less after facilities where built in Sparta, Ky., and Newton, Iowa -- and a venue for the Hooters Pro Cup, ARCA and ASA series, but rendered it useless for local racers. "When you run on a track this size, there's a lot more cost to the drivers," Martino said. "This race track here is unforgiving. At the speeds they travel, when they do crash, you're basically taking the radiator cap off, pushing the car away, pushing up a new car and putting the radiator cap back on."

Now he's thinking like a metals recycler. Cretty is still thinking of ways to stay viable. But he knows only so much is within his control. "Unless this economy comes back around, it's going to go down the tubes," he said. "It really is. It's not going to be an overnight thing. You're going to see more tracks phasing out. You're going to see a lot more than Lakeland closing up."