Sunday, January 07, 2007

Local racetracks vow '07 revival, but at whose expense?

Plans are on to reopen Auto Tire & Parts Racepark near Benton. Same goes for Fredericktown Raceway. It should be good news for race fans who haven't seen either track wave a green flag since 2004.

But between talk of new ideas, new rules and new promoters, the one question that won't go away: Are fans willing to give either track another chance?

At ATPR, Sikeston business owner Billy Clayton last week said he will reopen ATPR and compete each Friday with a lineup of sprints, modified and stock cars. John "Curly" Diebold revealed his plan late last year to bring the Fredericktown track back to life with crate late models and modifieds headlining the program each Friday. ATPR last competed in June 2004, and Fredericktown closed three months later.

In the two years that both tracks have sat quietly, involvement at the area's existing tracks has leveled off and, in some cases, gotten worse. At Farmington, Malden and Poplar Bluff, promoters have seen turnouts go stagnant or drop off, while more and more local competitors have given up on a pasttime that has become increasingly cost-prohibitive because of gas prices and equipment costs.

Essentially, the message fans have sent local tracks over the past several years: We're moving on without you.

Add to that the disadvantages already entrenched for ATPR, which last made headlines in 2004 when the promoter at the time refused to pay prize money to a national touring series, then abruptly closed the track and was taken to court over a lease disagreement. At Fredericktown, track owners there are bracing for a battle with nearby St. Francois County Raceway for local fans who tend to commit to just a single night of local racing instead of two.

Marketing savvy, business management and commitment by managers will determine the fate of both tracks, and the signs could become clear within weeks of opening. But to win over fans, both are already in danger of losing a race that keeps getting harder to win.