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A few years ago while flying to Florida on business, Baer Field Speedway Program Director Bob Koorsen noticed a pair of racing fans a few seats away dressed head-to-toe in Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., gear. They were heading to Daytona for Speed Week.
"You guys ever go to the local track?" Koorsen asked. "They didn't even know there was one. They worked at the (General Motors) plant six miles away and had no idea the track was there."
To the layman, that might seem extremely odd, but Koorsen suggests that NASCAR fans and short-track fans are not the same people any more. That might be one of many reasons why so many short-tracks in northern Indiana are struggling.
Baer Field closed July 2, and Gas City I-69 Speedway shut down last Monday. South Bend Motor Speedway is for sale, as is Angola Motor Speedway, though owner Kurt Henry will operate next year if he can't find a buyer.
"I think there is something fundamentally wrong with short-track racing that it is not connecting with the fan base," Koorsen said. "I can't put my finger on it, whether it's the personalities or the shows themselves. There's a disconnect, and I don't know where it's happening. It's harder to get the diehards coming out every week."
Maybe there are just fewer die-hard fans around. Kalamazoo Speedway Owner Gary Howe says there were around 600 fanatics who showed up for everything when he bought the track 14 years ago. Now he figures there are 150.
There are just more entertainment options competing for attention, he said, and the younger generation is not as interested in racing.
"In the 90s, it was pretty darn good," he said. "I bought in 2000 for $15,000 a month payments, and that didn't scare me. In February 2001, Dale Earnhardt got killed and it's like a lot of people were looking for an excuse to get out and that was their excuse. I've talked to thousands of people who said the same thing. Then 9/11 came along seven months later."
Howe said Kalamazoo Speedway is doing OK this year, a little better than last year with about 1,650 fans per weekend night. He makes up the difference with special midweek shows like last week's Kalamazoo Klash which drew more than 6,000 fans.
But there's part of the problem for short-track speedways. To attract more fans with something new, they might offend the diehards who are constant supporters. There aren't enough diehards to survive, but they don't necessarily want to share their sport if that means changes. That was part of the problems that hurt Baer Field, and it's part of the problem at South Bend, according to Owner Steve Brown.
"What you see is that the people who are going to races are the people who are related to the racers," Brown said. "The only other people you are getting are diehard race fans and there aren't that many of them. I hear all the time, `Back in the day, back in the day, and back in the day... I throw my hands up in the air and I say, 'Guys, kiss back in the day goodbye. That's gone.' They are a dying breed.
"Everybody right now is just down to die-hard race fans. All the big-game tracks in our general area, there are too many tracks for the general die-hard race fans in our area."
After three years trying to rebuild South Bend's audience to about 1,200 fans per night on Saturdays, Brown let people talk him into switching to Friday nights, and this year's attendance is down to about 470 per night.
He even tried a free night at the start of the season to see what would happen. He drew 520 fans the night before the event, more than 8,000 for the free night, and then 470 for his next paying night.
"That was the best racing in all six of our classes that I have seen in years," Brown said. "It was a great night of racing, and I figured a lot of those fans would come back, but what it tells you really, really bluntly is that no one has the money to lower the gate prices."
Another situation is that insurance companies are placing more restrictions on owners and promoters, and many drivers are pushing back against them, criticizing the owners for doing something they have no choice on.
"The insurance is difficult," Angola's Henry said. "It's your responsibility to carry adequate insurance, and they charge a high price for it. You can't avoid the costs because you are limited in where you are going to get it."
There are also other increased costs such as food, maintenance and manpower. Racing fuel also costs around $7.50-$8 per gallon. None of those prices are going down, but the attendance likely is. Increased racing purses aren't helping the bottom line, either.
"It used to be your purse was paid for by the attendance," Henry said. "I don't know what happened, but now tracks are competing against each other for bigger purses, and it's sort of everybody beating each other up, and nobody is making any money."
It doesn't help that the weather is so unpredictable, and a downpour can wipe out a weekend. If a race starts and gets stopped by the rain, Henry and others said they are still liable for the purse, whether there are 60 fans in the stands or 600. Baer Field got into trouble earlier this year when organizers canceled a Saturday night show at 2:30 p.m. when the forecast called for a 90 percent chance of rain. At 6 p.m. the sky was clear and beautiful.
"One of the reasons goes back to the state fair disaster (in 2011)," Koorsen said. "We have to get an entertainment permit every year, and one of the things they bring up to us each year is we have a hardened shelter for less than 100 people, and there is nowhere at our place for anyone to go. We were basically told or given a heavy suggestion that we need to cancel on any type of warning that is issued. We've got all these people out there with nowhere to go and a one-lane road that gets them out of there."
Other times fans look at the forecast and decide very early they are skipping the show. Track owners are operating on such tight budgets they can't afford any hint of bad weather, especially knowing how much criticism they'll face on social media.
Track owners, Anderson Speedway's Rick Dawson said, must have thick skin.
"I wouldn't say it's any harder, but it is a hard business," he said. "A lot of tracks have been in families for years, and they had other vocations that supported the track and there were fewer entertainment options. Now if they don't succeed, they get tired of it. We look at this as an entertainment facility as much as a race track."
Anderson has a marketing staff that treats the track just like a minor league sports team, trying to attract new sponsors, group sales and families. They realize the best way to build is from the kids up, and if the children are happy at an event, most likely their parents will be, too.
Hiring a staff like that takes money. Many tracks lack the manpower to try that form of marketing, and the ones who struggle are sticking to traditional schedules and operations.
"I go to a lot of racetracks throughout the year, and it's hard for me not to be critical," Dawson said. "They have long shows, and they don't think about the fans as much as they should. Who wants to go and pay money and then sit in a bleacher for three or four hours? You've got to vary your shows and try to expose a lot of folks who may not have seen racing before."
Since Baer Field closed, Henry said Angola's attendance has increased 400-to-500 per night to give him about a 1,600 average. He'd like to get to 2,000 per night.
"I'm just trying to think outside the box, and I think that's what a lot of tracks aren't doing," he said. "We aren't just concentrating on the racing, and hopefully we're making sense."
He's trying to attract other types of promotions and events to the track such as concerts, swap meets and gun and knife shows, anything to try and provide more uses for the venue.
Gas City couldn't get the numbers to make sense, largely because of bad luck with weather. Promoter Mel Botkin's two biggest shows were affected by cool temperatures or rain, and he could never reacquire the momentum before closing down. With a purse of over $30,000 for a USAC race in April, the temperature was 54 to start and sunk into the lower 40s for the feature race's green flag.
Another big night for midgets was rained out, but the next night the same series made $57,000 at another track. A few weeks later, Botkin spent $17,000 in purse money to make a $1,000 net. On Aug. 1, there were 327 general customers and another 247 in the pits and he lost $9,200.
"If I'd had 1,000 people that night, I'd have been thrilled to death," Botkin said. "We decided we couldn't go on any longer. If we'd have gotten good weather and gotten the midget race in and made about $25,000... we'd still be running. I love racing and I like being around people, but we couldn't get the fans, and I couldn't afford to keep it going."
Though he's been a teacher, a basketball referee and a Little League coach throughout his life, Botkin said being a race promoter was the toughest job he's ever had.
A lot of the tracks are also older and need significant upgrades to compete against other entertainment options. Several track owners mentioned minor league baseball stadiums in Fort Wayne and South Bend which were built with local government backing while they can't receive any help.
"Unless you are a millionaire, there's no way you can afford to update your facility," Brown said, "Without that, you are in trouble. We are all smart people and we know business. You can't cut your way into profitability to help this, either. You have to figure a way other than that to get out of this, and there is no one in racing right now who has figured that out."
Baer Field operators said some interested parties have talked to them about using the facilities next year but not to return to the traditional format and schedule.
"You are down to 5-to-10 percent of the racetracks in this country that are still owned by the people who built them," Koorsen said. "It's not 'Field of Dreams.' Now the promoters are all guys who bought somebody else's vision and dream, but they are not invested into it heart and soul.
"Now the tracks are being run by business people, and a lot of people lose sight that it is a business and if it doesn't make money it can be shut down. You love it or you wouldn't be involved in it, but you also have to look at the bottom line."
And still, after more than 20 years in the business, seeing all the challenges short-track racing are facing, Koorsen believes there's an audience for Baer Field. Racing people are stubborn that way.
"I know this city can support that place," he said. "There is no reason you can't draw 2,500 to 3,000 people a night. You just have to figure out how."