Saturday, August 26, 2006

As racing fails, who locally will survive?

The fate of Auto Tire & Parts Racepark -- and maybe other local racetracks -- has taken another punch to the gut now that one more track in the region has fallen to economics.

Mount Vernon Speedway in Southern Illinois, a quarter-mile track that has been a big draw over the years for Southeast Missouri fans and racers, will hold just two more events in September and then shut down earlier than planned, its owner said this week. He promised that the track will reopen in 2008 while hinting that he'd be happier to lease or sell the place.

That's a bad sign for local fans waiting for the chains to come off ATPR in Scott County. The track has been quiet since the middle of 2004 when owners took the promoter to court over a lease dispute. Its asking price -- which at one time was in the $1 million range -- has plummeted to about half that amount, still a hefty check considering the worsening fate of other tracks in the region.

Promoters elsewhere are sure to take note. Local crowds at tracks in Poplar Bluff, Malden and Farmington are trickling in at best, barely covering the cost of insurance, payouts and light bills. Tracks in metro St. Louis are dealing with smaller crowds this year, too, even after a competitor in Godfrey, Ill., sold to developers and one in Brownstown, Ill., shut down over the summer. Now add Mount Vernon Speedway to the list.

Is the economy that bad? Has grassroots racing become that much of a bust?

No, and maybe. The rise in gas prices might keep casual customers from driving to their nearby track, but they're also not staying home. Gas consumption in the United States is mostly unchanged since prices began to spike, meaning that the same customers that once frequented a local track are now going elsewhere. To the mall. To a restaurant. To Wal-Mart. Someplace. They're still spending money.

As for the second question: Grassroots racing has die-hard fans, so it's not a bust ... yet. Good marketing and promotion keeps tracks like I-55 Speedway near Pevely afloat and thriving. The tried-and-true plan of opening the doors and expecting customers at ANY business is over. Show me a track that shut down early, and I'll show you a track that didn't know how to appeal to its fans.

The diehard fans are out there, and the potential customers are waiting for the invitation. Now it's up to the tracks to reach out to them.