For the Mom and Pop Racetracks, the Checkered Flag Looms Too Close for Comfort
Island Road, the nearly mile long New Jersey highway that leads to Island Dragway, is pitted with potholes that would slow down even the most experienced racer. To the left roll acres of empty wheat fields, to the right thick brambles of forest. But even in late April it is too early for any crops to grow. The road is framed on both sides with deep ravines, another warning to drive slowly.
In fact, it is not until the end of the road, with the looming signs and announcer’s tower for Island Dragway of Great Meadows, that any thought of speed comes to mind.
But, despite its remoteness, and the humble single quarter mile dragstrip, flanked by wooden bleachers, Island Dragway is a cultural and recreational staple of the state. That was made all too clear when it was forced to close its gates for good, unable to open for the 2013 racing season, prompting community outpourings on social media and local coverage about the Dragway’s rich history.
It is a history that includes the first racer to break the 200 mile per hour speed barrier, and three generations of owners, dating back to 1960. It is the third generation, Melissa DeMarcky, that opened the racetrack again, on July 5, 2013, having bought the track from her mother, who had owned it since the mid-1990s.
The happy ending to the Island Dragway tale, at least for now, is less common than the story of its closing. Fifty years after the heyday of drag racing, everyone from local tracks to national circuits feels the pressure of changing times, an aging fanbase, and competition for entertainment dollars.
Tim Frost, publisher of the National Speedway Directory, which puts out an annual report of American racetracks, says that every year for the last ten years there has been a 5 percent status change to the estimated 1,300 racetracks in the U.S. and Canada, including opening, changing hands, and closing.
“People have so many other things that they can do other than going out to the weekly short tracks,” says Ernie Saxton, 72, a New Jersey racing announcer of over 45 years. “Unfortunately, I don’t think we, the people like myself who are involved in the industry, have done a good job in selling the good points of weekly short track racing.”
Racetracks face a series of challenges every season. During Fall 2012, the year of Hurricane Sandy, Island Dragway lost 50 – 60 percent of its viable race days because of weather conditions, one of the more obvious factors in why it shut down later that year. The unpredictability of the weather, and the often unreliable weather report, which creates days where tracks can open but many fans don’t come out, make predicting the race season all but impossible.
Then there’s the matter of money. Every level of racing today, from the short track to the NASCAR circuit, has experienced a decrease in fans. The Daytona International Speedway, located in Daytona, Florida, and more than 50-year home to the famous NASCAR Daytona 500, is in the midst of a $400 million overhaul program. It includes removing 45,000 seats from the 146,000 seat arena, and refocusing the track as more of an entertainment hub, adding jumbo television screens, stages, elevators, and private suites.
For many, it is that combination of entertainment and racing that may keep it alive. Tim Bennett, owner and general manager of Holland NASCAR Motorsports Complex, in western New York state, added a paintball facility to the complex a few years ago. In addition, the Holland Complex is also home to a pool and private suites, and hosts school field trips for kids aged 6 – 18.
“There’s so many different things as a family you can spend your entertainment dollars on,” Bennett, 44, says. “You don’t have that 20, 30 years ago. You have that now. There’s just so much out there competing for the same dollar.”
But while tracks like Daytona and Holland can afford to expand beyond racing, Island Dragway, and its local speedway counterparts, lack the resources and facilities to stray from tradition. Island’s focus has been chipping away at the nearly $200,000 debt that came along with the purchase, and which DeMarcky has almost paid off, leaving little room for extraneous, or even some necessary spending, like fixing piping problems in restrooms.
Instead, Island has expanded within, opening the track to events like diesel truck racing and more foreign car nights, a far cry from the first years of American drag racing. Two summers ago, Island hosted Don Garlits, the original 200 mph record breaker, to race on the 50th anniversary of his title win.
The presence of both nostalgia racers and foreign cars marks a radical departure, evidence of the pressures tracks now face. Across the vintage car hobby there are fewer old-time enthusiasts, as the generation of car lovers becomes increasingly homebound and less likely to travel to attend races..
But nostalgia plays a part in the business of local racetracks, and leaves many track owners wondering what they’re going to do as the older generation fades. It forces them to appeal to young Americans, a much harder task than it was in the 1960s, as cars come off the line harder to work on, and entertainment is far more diverse and accessible.
“Drag racing isn’t as popular as it was,” says Henry “Hank” Dinger, 72, long-time announcer for Island Dragway. “The folks who grew up with drag racing are starting to ease out of the program, and some of them bring their kids or grandchildren in, but there’s so many other things going on today.”
Concern over the next generation of race enthusiasts has prompted changes at every level, including National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) sanctioned programs like Junior Dragster, which allows kids aged 8 – 17 a chance to race in half scale dragsters, which can hit speeds of up to 85 mph on the quarter mile.
But while many in the industry fear for its future, there are those that feel the racetracks will thrive, both as the economy picks up, and as owners consent to changes and innovation.
“I think the future of racing is going to be transitional,” says David Napp, special events and advertising director, and part of third generational ownership of Raceway Park, the other famous racetrack from New Jersey. “I think the changes that are made will hopefully lead to a very good future for everyone involved.”
For the folks at Island Dragway that future looks sustainable, if somewhat challenging. But then, historically, they have not been ones to shrink from a challenge.
“I don’t think we’ll ever see racing disappear. I think racing has been part of the human experience since the first wheel was created,” Henry Dinger says. “A little bit of luck and some good hard work, I think Island should be around for quite some time.”
Images by Ruby Rae Scalera