American short-track racing: What went wrong and how to save it

"There is no other business model like the short-track business model, nowhere in the world," says Tim Packman, president of Lancaster National Speedway in upstate New York. Courtesy of Joe Grabianowski

Race car drivers love to keep lists of the tracks where they've raced. They constantly brag about where they've won and boast even more about where all they've run. This isn't about Daytona or Indianapolis. It's about sticking pins into the locations of every little bullring in every little corner of the American map. These days that hobby feels like a race against time, as the number of dots on that map continues to shrink.

If the post-2008 economy and moving-target millennial sports audience have left NASCAR and IndyCar's top divisions with bloody noses, then they have left the American short tracks in a full body cast.

On Sunday evening, Kevin Harvick, alongside the nodding approval of friend and boss Tony Stewart, used the largest of American motorsports pulpits -- microphone placed in front a NASCAR Cup series race winner -- and passionately held court over a concern shared throughout the auto racing industry. The question put forth was pretty simple. Was he excited for his next race, a cameo appearance in the season opener for NASCAR's minor league K&N Pro Series West event, held at the Kern County Raceway in his hometown, Bakersfield, California.

The passion of his response jumped off the stage.

"I feel like it's important for our sport to keep those regional series healthy," explained the man who won the K&N West title in 1998, back when it was known as the NASCAR Winston West Series. "In my opinion, all those hard-core NASCAR fans we keep talking about losing, that starts at the grassroots level. The reason we lose a lot of those fans is because a lot of those racetracks disappear."

Among the missing is Harvick's hometown track. Yes, he grew up in Bakersfield, but his incubator wasn't Kern County Raceway. It was Mesa Marin Raceway, shuttered nine years ago after three decades of racing. The only barely visible evidence of the half-mile oval are the traces of two turns, bracketed by a youth sports complex and a CrossFit. The other two turns are covered by a housing development.

Mesa Marin now belongs to the increasingly long roster of what has become known as ghost tracks. Arizona's Manzanita Speedway, once a crown jewel of sprint car racing, is now a construction equipment storage facility. Louisville Motor Speedway, which hosted five NASCAR Truck series events, is an industrial park. Charlotte's Metrolina Speedway, once promoted by Ned Jarrett and raced on by Harry Gant and Dale Earnhardt, sits rotting behind a flea market.

The 1998 NASCAR media guide lists 98 tracks across the United States under its weekly NASCAR Winston Racing Series short track banner. Now, two decades later, the NASCAR Home Tracks roster includes 60 American facilities. There are so many ghost tracks that their existence has become a popular Google Earth scavenger hunt. Ghost tracks were even a major component of the the "Cars 3" movie that came out last year.

Harvick wants to make sure Kern County Raceway Park, located 30 miles west of his beloved Mesa Marin, never joins that of the autodrome afterlife. His strategy? Simply show up.

"I would love to go out there and have a chance to win the race, but my goal is to draw enough attention to get kids' dads and competitors excited about racing in the K&N Series," he continued. "I believe the grassroots, hard-core race fans live at those racetracks. ... In order to keep them enthused we have to build that from the bottom up."

At that bottom is a foundation made of slick red clay and rocky gray asphalt. The men and women who run those short tracks are as tough and rough as the racetrack surfaces they manage. Good thing. That foundation, the one they stand watch over, is eroding. But that erosion can be stopped, even if everyone around them continues to scream otherwise.

"Short-track racing is still fun. It's still awesome. People still want to compete and they want to watch it. Trust me on that," says Ron Barfield Jr.

Old school NASCAR fans will remember that name. At the height of the "young guns" era, Barfield was handpicked by Bill Elliott to race in the Cup series, which he did for two seasons. After his driving career ended he returned home to eastern South Carolina, bought the abandoned Dillon Motor Speedway and resurrected it after 26 years. Next week it opens up its 12th season under Barfield's watch, and he'll be doing everything from inspecting cars to checking the hot dog inventory. All with a smile on his face.

"Facebook and all of that, if you let it, it will kill you. All the negativity. But the reality is that, if you do it right, people will come out. You've just to let them know you're there. You're not out of business like everyone says you're going to be."

The solution to save American short-track racing isn't found completely in the rearview mirror, rolling back the clock in search of racing's roots. But it also isn't somewhere out there over the horizon, either, running as hard as one can to get away from those roots. It's somewhere in the middle. Somewhere between big-time stars coming back to promote the places from whence they came and those places providing the kind of stage that can best take advantage of the help.

"I look up in the grandstands and you know what I see? A lot of gray hair and gray beards," says Matt Weaver of Autoweek magazine. Weaver is arguably the most prominent proponent of short-track racing among NASCAR's national media corps. He's a hard man to find on Cup race weekends because as soon as the action stops at the big track he's already driven off to a nearby bullring. "The same thing can be said of the people I see in the pits and working on the cars. I love those people. They love what I love. But they have to start thinking about ways to get younger people in those stands and in the pits with them. They have to."

As much as race cars has evolved over the decades since World War II, the way short tracks are run has not. Many front offices are still run via cash boxes and paper tickets.

"There is no other business model like the short-track business model, nowhere in the world," says Tim Packman, president of Lancaster National Speedway in upstate New York. In 2016, he returned to the track where he earned his first paycheck, cooking concessions as a kid, after a decade and half in the NASCAR Cup series world, from NASCAR.com to Dale Earnhardt Incorporated to Richard Childress Racing. "When I returned to this business the first thing I realized was, it can't keep running like this. If it does, this is going to die."

When Packman arrived at Lancaster he immediately began simplifying. Short-track schedules can be a confusing alphabet jumble of sanctioning bodies, divisions, and heats run by those divisions. It gets confusing even for veteran fans and impossible to follow for newbies. And by the time the Stock, Street Stock, Late Model, Super Late Model, Challengers and whatever else have qualified and run multiple heats, a timetable slated to wrap up by 11 p.m. is still roaring around at 2 a.m. Each of those divisions has its own set of rules and those rules change year to year, ensuring that the competitors stay as confused as the fans while also costing them more money.

Packman kept his docket to fewer divisions and within those divisions he placed a multiyear hold on the rulebook. He also tightened up the night's schedule. The track admits kids 11 and under for free, offers family four-pack ticket packages and has a long tradition of having Big Wheel races for kids in front of a cheering grandstand. This year, the track is getting cigarettes out of those grandstands.

"The old guard, they don't want a lot of change. When we got smoking out of the grandstand, that didn't make me the most popular guy. But now we have families coming to the track. There are old, crusty guys who aren't happy about that, either. But I'm like, guys, you love racing because your parents brought you out here and you've been coming ever since. This is how it works! That old guard, they can be hardheaded, man."

That holds particularly true with many of Barfield and Packman's colleagues. For decades the modus operandi of track promoters has been to go to battle with other track promoters. When business was booming, short tracks in the same region would purposely schedule head-to-head, fighting over local stars and using negative recruiting to lure those stars away.

When Packman took over Lancaster, he reached out to his neighboring tracks so that they could figure out a way to weave their schedules together. Similar efforts are starting to take place in even the most volatile corners of the motorsports map, including Connecticut's crucible-like corridor of short tracks.

"What we have preached is that cooperation is the key to survival," says Humpy Wheeler, former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway, who cut his racing teeth on the short tracks during NASCAR's formative years of the 1960s. "OK, guys, you've tried doing this as one big boxing match. Now let's try it when we're all on the same team."

That was the driving force behind Wheeler's 2013 brainchild, Speedway Benefits. The idea was to create a place where America's 600-plus short track owners and promoters could pool resources and bounce ideas that would benefit all. More than 400 signed on. They eagerly jumped on conference calls to learn about promotions and how to deal with media. They were led down inroads to cut deals with everyone from food vendors to T-shirt manufacturers.

But that was only in the beginning. Eventually, most of the membership wandered off. Many were interlopers, those who'd invested in racing when it was booming and bailed when it was not. Most simply returned to their more comfortable older ways. Now Speedway Benefits membership is down to about 75, many mostly still in it for the reduced concession food costs.

"The rest, they kind of didn't want to be bothered, even if we were bringing them a sponsor. Here's $1,000, all you have to do you just have to hang this sign, and nope," explains Trip Wheeler, Humpy's son and the boots-on-the-ground force behind Speedway Benefits. Unfortunately, when those boots were on the ground to visit member short tracks, Wheeler would often find himself unable to locate the person he was there to visit.

"This is just sitting there, waiting to be fixed. Our research numbers are solid. It's 400-plus great tracks. It's 7,000 events. It's 17 million fans. It would take one group of leaders, 25 leaders, it could be Tony Stewart or Elon Musk, to invest the money and say, 'Guys, here's your business model. Make it like McDonald's.' Boom. It's an instant national sport. In every town, with fun and families. It's minor league baseball. But they have to be open-minded enough to do it."

"Everyone in motorsports got comfortable because everything was really easy for a long time. But they can't keep waiting on it to be like that again."

Short-track operators -- particularly those who run dirt tracks -- claim that there was rigidness on the other side as well, that the Wheelers had plenty of great ideas, but didn't listen to their clients as much as they should have. They have the same complaints about NASCAR, who hasn't seriously played in the dirt in decades.

But no one disagrees with Wheeler when he says that everyone got too comfy when cash was easier to find across the board.

Harvick hinted at those days during his Phoenix news conference when he mentioned the former series sponsor. "They're mad because you don't have a Winston who is supporting these short tracks like they used to. Winston used to infuse so much money into these short tracks around the country. That's what kept it going."

Officially, what RJ Reynolds did was provide money for signage, uniforms and championship point funds. In reality, it did way more than that.

Tim Southers is now with Motorsport.com, but before that worked at NASCAR in various roles, with a huge focus on the grassroots programs. He landed that job because of his short-track background, with the Hooters Pro Cup Series and as a young general manager of legendary Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway. When he was in that job he drove up to Winston-Salem and walked into the Winston Tower for an impromptu meeting with the kingpin behind stock car racing's tobacco funding, T. Wayne Robertson.

"That's when I learned there was so much more to what they did than signage," Southers recalls. "T. Wayne, he'd fly to short tracks all over the country all year long, seeing who needed help and he'd make sure they had it. Here's $10,000 here or $15,000 there. He said to me, his job was to make sure stock car racing stayed alive in this country. I think there are still promoters out there who are waiting for this to happen again. But it's not. That's why they have to change their ways. They have to go to work. They have to go find help."

Harvick wants to help. His boss, Stewart, has already helped for a long time. At Phoenix last weekend they promised to keep helping. They also promised that there were others among them in the Cup garage who want to do the same. People such as Packman and Barfield, those with deep major league backgrounds, who love those grassroots so much they have returned to try to help save them.

But those who literally hold the keys to the gates of America's short tracks have to be willing to accept that help. That includes listening to each other.

"I tell my old-school race fans, 'Listen, what this is will always be what it is, good-time short-track racing. No one is out to ruin that," Barfield explains. "But you can't just sit there and say, 'Well, we've always done things this way, so, that's how it has to be.' No, you gotta think about where you're going. Otherwise, your racetrack that was covered up in weeds, it's going to go right back in there again."