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Posted on Sun. Jul. 20, 2014 - 12:15 am EDT

Track owners racing against time, costs

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The man had plans. They all do, don’t they?

And so on this fine May afternoon there were modernized restrooms and landscaping and, up there at the top of the place, a new press box carrying the clean smell of fresh plywood. And if you closed your eyes just so, you could see the rest of it coming: Renovated grandstands and a new scoreboard and better lighting, and bigger purses, too.

In its 50th season, Baer Field Speedway – a half-mile asphalt oval that opened in 1964 – was going to see a renaissance. New promoter Jon Raney, who once raced there and whose son still ran go-karts there, was on fire to make it happen.

“We want to get the community back involved,” Raney said on that day in May 2013. “I believe that Baer Field Speedway has the best entertainment value for the dollar of anything in Allen or any surrounding county, and it’s our job to take that message to as many people as possible.”

Fourteen months later, the place sits empty.

The old-timers, the ones who know better than anyone what’s been lost, can recite the litany like passages from the Book of the Dead.

South Anthony, Fort Wayne, Avilla. Plymouth, Columbia City, South Bend. Decatur and Bunker Hill and Muncie, on and on and on …

“There were all these tracks,” says Billy Cunningham, who ran Baer Field from 1997 to 2004. “Now you can count the ones that are still operating on one hand.”

And why is that?

Pick your poison.

Rising costs – for cars, engines, tires, fuel – that’s part of it. More Saturday night options for fans. Encroaching development that’s made the land on which some tracks sit too valuable.

“Probably the toughest thing is the competition for entertainment dollars,” says Rick Dawson, owner and promoter at Anderson Speedway, a quarter-mile bullring that features 17-degree banking. “I mean, there are so many different options out there compared to 15 or 20 years ago that you’ve just got to stay on top of your game and put out a better product so you can get the fans and competitors to come to your place.”

That means lower ticket prices and bigger purses to pull in drivers, which also means thinner profit margins in an industry where the profit margins are already so thin you can sometimes see through them. But there’s nothing else for it in an era when it costs so much more to run on Saturday nights than it once did.

“It’s gotten out of hand,” says Steve Minnich Sr., standing next to his modified car at Baer Field one summer day. “This car right here? The way it sits, it’d probably set you back $30,000, $32,000. Back in 1977, we didn’t have $3,000 in the car, trailer, motor and all.”

Cunningham will attest to that. Across 47 years in the business he’s done virtually every job there is – racing writer, flagman, promotions, general manager – and he’s seen some things. And they haven’t all been good things.

“Back in the days of three tracks in Fort Wayne, cars came out of the junkyard,” says Cunningham, 64. “Today, if you’ve got the money, you can have a race car built for you complete. And some of the engines in these cars, the late models and modifieds, cost 30 grand.”

Combine that with rising fuel costs and shrinking crowds, and car counts, always critical for short ovals, become even more so.

“It’s harder to get a good car count,” says Dawson, who draws drivers from Madison, Henry, Hamilton, Delaware and Marion counties. “Good is all relative now; what’s good today isn’t what necessarily was good 10 years ago.”

To make up for that, Dawson and other track owners offer less-expensive racing divisions, such as mini-stocks. And to attract younger fans, Dawson uses social media extensively.

“We try to take a philosophy that the fans and the competitors are our customers, and we try to take care of them the best we can,” he says.

Still, it’s a hard dollar for everyone. And so when Raney decided to enforce regulations that had been allowed to slide previously – and that were going to cost already strapped drivers – he met with open revolt. And finally threw up his hands.

“The track operators are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Cunningham says. “The drivers constantly complain they aren’t getting paid enough, but … I used to spend $10,000 just to get the track ready every year. So you were hooked for 10 grand before you even unlocked the gate for opening night.

“The other problem was, you had no guarantee, no pre-entry, nothing. If there was a forecast of rain you automatically lost 10 percent of the crowd. It there was rain in the area, you lost 25 percent of the crowd. And if it actually rained on you …”

Well. Then, people stayed home. And a hard dollar got even harder.

“There’s never been a short track around here that has ever gotten a cent of government funding. Not one red cent ever,” Cunningham says. “And so the track operators have to have deep pockets.

“The old rule of thumb was you had to break even by the Fourth of July. If you haven’t broken even by the Fourth of July, you were screwed.”

The man had plans. They all do.

“The local guys, they want that track back open,” Ed Smith said on that fine May evening. “They want somebody to promote it. They want to do 20 races a year, like it should be done."

But this was 2012 and the economy was still crawling on its belly, and so Smith, the auctioneer trying to sell Angola Motor Speedway this night, kept dropping the price. Eventually, just when it looked as if Angola would be another place that would go away, a man named Kurt Henry stepped up and bought it for $225,000.

And this summer there is racing at Angola.

And, meanwhile, an hour south, Baer Field sits empty.

It closed two days before the Fourth of July.

bensmith@jg.net


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