Published in Economic Development
US-131 Motorsports Park in Martin offers motorists a chance to run their street-legal vehicles on the dragstrip. US-131 Motorsports Park in Martin offers motorists a chance to run their street-legal vehicles on the dragstrip. COURTESY PHOTO

STUCK IN NEUTRAL: West Michigan race tracks weigh options during pandemic

BY Sunday, June 21, 2020 03:37pm

Owning and operating the Kalamazoo Speedway has always been a labor of love for Gary Howe — he’s never drawn a paycheck off of it in nearly two decades.

Lately, though, it’s been a bit more laborious.

“The race track is no different from any other small business in the country,” said Howe, who has owned the paved 3/8-mile, high-banked oval track for 19 years. “It’s not going to be an overall good year, but we accept that.”

During a normal season, the sound of revving engines starts up in April at the facility at 7656 Ravine Rd. in Kalamazoo. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting shutdown of many businesses throughout the state, life at the Speedway has been stuck in idle.

In June, Howe and his crew finally were able to open the track to test-and-tune practice sessions for drivers. Under this format, drivers pay for a pit pass and no fans are allowed into the facility.

Staffing the track with a full safety crew and ambulance costs Howe about $2,800, and the practice sessions tend to break even.

Howe said that he expects racing to start up at the facility the first week of July, meaning the crew of 65 employees that work a typical race day will have missed half of the season this year.

“This is a business that runs on 25 days a year and I’ve said to a lot of people, when you try to run any business 25 days a year — but you still have 12 months of payments and overhead — it’s a tough business,” Howe said. “We’ve lost half that now. It is what it is.”

Like many amateur sports entertainment businesses, the Kalamazoo Speedway relies almost solely on gate money to fuel its operations, which means that even if Howe and his crew are able to put cars on the tracks, they also need to put butts in the seats.

The Speedway grandstands can seat 6,400 people, but regulations from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office will almost certainly ban any sort of venue filling its seats to capacity.

“Based on the insight from the health department, outdoor entertainment venues such as race tracks may very well only be able to fill to 25 percent capacity,” Howe said. “That means about 1,600 people can get in there. We can make a show out of that. We can’t quite make a show out of 500 — 1,000 is kind of the limit. If they’re saying 500, we’re looking at losing $6,500 a night.”

“We got to make it where it’s feasible for the racers and the ownership,” he added. “It has to be a two-way street.”

Howe and his wife, Donna, make a full-time living through owning and operating Howe Patio & Windows Inc. in Plainwell. His success in that job allows him to absorb small shortfalls at the Speedway, but like many other owners of the 43 different race tracks in Michigan, he isn’t equipped to handle a major loss.

“We still need it to cover its own nut,” Howe said of the track’s $2 million in annual operations costs. “It’s no big deal if we’re down $25,000. Bottom line is, hell, you can’t go losing $100,000 or $150,000. We’re not millionaire groups. We’re blue-collar workers.”

Confusion abounds

While all race tracks across the state were late in kicking off their seasons, confusion over interpreting the various executive orders has left some tracks waiting on the sidelines. The Kalamazoo Speedway has taken a similar approach as Berlin Raceway in Marne, which also is allowing only practices. The Hartford Motor Speedway in Van Buren County in Southwest Michigan also is waiting out the season.

Management at Berlin did not respond to requests for comment, but recently posted on social media: “We have been granted permission to host these open practices and if everything goes well and we do our part by sticking to these specific guidelines, it will only help us get back to racing with spectators sooner rather than later.”

Meanwhile, surrounding tracks have begun to return to racing in various forms — everything from significant crowds to drivers and crew only. These tracks include Galesburg Speedway (Galesburg), US-131 Motorsports Park (Martin), Grattan Raceway (Belding), GingerMan Raceway (South Haven), I-96 Speedway (Lake Odessa) and Thunderbird Raceway (Muskegon).

While Howe said he certainly doesn’t blame his peers for returning to racing as quickly as possible, he is frustrated that some are able to draw significant crowds while his crew continues to wait.

“I only speak for my track — I have five concession licenses and one liquor license,” Howe said. “I can’t do anything that jeopardizes them.”

‘Moving in the right direction’

US-131 Motorsports Park in Martin is one of the tracks to return to action, doing so at the beginning of May, but its owners have not yet allowed spectators.

The drivers and crews who have shown up for local bracket racing are subjected to temperature checks at the gate and are socially distanced in their pit areas.

“There was no way we could not open,” said Stephanie Peterson, marketing and media relations director for the dragway. “We’d have to close the business if we could not open. That wasn’t really an option. Of course, if we were all on lockdown, clearly we wouldn’t do things illegally, but this is definitely moving in the right direction.”

Simply allowing cars on the dragstrip hasn’t put Peterson and her team in the clear. In fact, US-131 Motorsports Park relies significantly on the revenue generated by its high-profile events that fill the grandstands. These include: Night of Thunder (June 20), Northern Nationals (Aug. 7-8) and the 16th Annual Funny Car Nationals (Sept. 11-12).

The Night of Thunder event was cancelled recently and now Peterson is monitoring the upcoming two events in hopes they go off without a hitch.

“We know we can’t get all three of them, so then you look at the budget and think, ‘What if we get two of them?’ or ‘What if we only get one of them?’” Peterson said. “I don’t know what it looks like if we get none of them.”

Unlike its circle track counterparts, US-131 Motorsports Park is able to diversify its service offerings to create different revenue streams. Not only does the facility host local bracket racing on a weekly basis and its big marquee events, but it also welcomes the general public to run their street-legal vehicles on the track.

“We really just kind of take it day by day and are thankful for what we got,” Peterson said. “We look forward to when we can open our doors to everyone.” 

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