by: PattyKay Lilley
The last weekend in January brought more racing than we’ve seen in quite some time, as the l-o-n-g month of January crawled to a close. The biggest event of the weekend of course, was the Rolex 24-Hours of Daytona, and congratulations to Mike Shank Racing for winning the endurance race and to A.J. Allmendinger for being the driver to bring home the win.
On Monday, along with the multitude of articles about the big race that opened Daytona International Speedway’s 2012 season, there were several accounts of young Kyle Busch, driving for his own KB Motorsports team, winning another 2-day racing event, the 2012 CRA SPEEDFEST, at the Watermelon Capital Speedway in Cordele Georgia. Nope, I’d never heard of it either, so I did some Internet snooping.
This little track with the long name is a paved 3/8-mile oval, located just off exit 104 on I-75, at 385 Farmers Market Road in Cordele and it’s not new. It’s just at the other end of a big state from where I call home in North Georgia.
What really piqued my interest though, was not Kyle winning a race over a field compiled of some very young drivers such as Chase Elliott, Ross Kenseth and John Hunter Nemechek (Can these babies really be old enough to race? My, how times flies!) and some gentlemen who are truly seasoned veterans such as Mike Garvey and Johnny Sauter. I suspect Kyle would have to be embarrassed not to win this one, but a win is a win. Congratulations Kyle!
No, it was the fact that this race was moved this year to Watermelon Capital Speedway from Lanier Speedway in Braselton Georgia. That’s a track with which I am quite familiar, and I guess it slipped my mind that there were rumors last year of trouble at Lanier. Like so many of our smaller tracks today, this 3/8-mile paved oval has become a victim of the economy, which is anything but booming in North Georgia right now, and other elusive factors that reduce interest and traffic at a speedway.
After struggling through 2011 and losing money at each race, Lanier Speedway announced that the CRA SPEEDFEST would move to Watermelon Capital Speedway for the 2012 event. At present, Lanier has only two events on its entire calendar this year, and one of them, the Ice Cold Shriner Bowl, has already been postponed from a January date to March 31. The other is an Independence Day celebration scheduled for June 30.
When interviewed by a local reporter from the Gainesville Times just before the past weekend, track owner Donnie Clack opined, “One thing’s for sure. We won’t lose any money this weekend. It’s been interesting,” he continued. “That’s a good way to put it.”
“I think disposable income is the biggest problem,” Clack said. “The uncertainty of the economy, especially when it comes to gas. But the fans understand that, from a financial standpoint, we have to be selective of our races.”
While Clack lays the blame squarely on the sagging economy, some don’t quite agree, though all express love for the old track and hope for its future to brighten.
Dwayne Buggay, a long-time driver at Lanier that made the long trip down to Watermelon Capital Speedway for the CRA SPEEDFEST last weekend shared some thoughts on the track from his point of view, stressing that the track was “one of the finest” he’d raced on and would hate to see it disappear.
“Change,” he said. “Change of ownership, change of management. I have nothing negative to say about anybody, but I think a change would rectify a lot of the situation. Change without money doesn’t fix anything, though. It’s going to take a lot of changes and a little money.”
From a fan’s point of view, Kevin Michaels, who lives less than two miles from the track wasn’t shy in sharing his thoughts on the problems at Lanier. Michaels has been attending races there since 1987. He rented track-side seats beginning in 2001, attending a race nearly every week until his seats became too expensive in 2007.
“I do think that the economy does have a large part to do with the decline in attendance,” he said. “But when you have the cost go up for racers and fans, you cannot also have a subpar product. That’s where the spiral began.”
When asked how it felt to be a fan watching the decline, he answered, “It’s extremely frustrating, I’ve done about as much as I can over the last 18 months in promoting the place via Facebook and all that.”
On the possibility that Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson might be drawing on fans that used to attend Lanier, he shared this thought. “They’ve done a great job with that facility,” he said. “They’re very professional and have their act together.”
Both the frustrated driver Buggay and the saddened fan Michaels offered suggestions for increasing the draw at Lanier.
You can do a lot of different things that don’t cost a lot of money that can bring more action to the fans,” Buggay said. “Anything to bring back the fun for the fans. The long, drawn-out races… it can get boring. People don’t have long attention spans. We’ve got to get them in and out.”
Michaels suggested hosting races every other week, with the off weeks featuring a concert or some other special event. “There are so many ways you could change the program there,” he said.
Showing some agreement with Michaels’ suggestion, owner Clack said, “We’re just going to look at the races on a case-by-case deal,” he said. “And we’ve got some things that could be looked at as special events.”
There is hope for the possibility of a buyer taking over the track and infusing fresh ideas and capital, but at this point, it is only hope, not reality. While Buggay has expressed interest in gathering a group of investors to purchase the track, he has declined to do it himself.
“The best scenario for every racer would be a company, team or group of investors to come in and purchase the track. They could put some money into the facility and get it going again. All the track needs is some management and funding. And it needs someone with a passion for racing.”
Michaels agrees, stating, “I’m in sincere hopes that someone will buy the track that actually has a vision. Somebody who is aware of the history, and can put together a real business plan. I would really hate to see such a wonderful facility with such a grand history disappear.”
Of the only two events on the schedule for 2012, The Ice Cold Shriner Bowl and the Independence Day celebration, the latter is courtesy of former General Manager, Stan Narrison, who rented the track for the occasion and says he expects a big turnout.
“We’ll have fireworks and a demolition derby,” he said. “It’s really a great event, because non-race fans can come enjoy themselves as well.”
That’s the way things stand right now at the once-proud old race track. One race and one “event” on a full year’s calendar. Owner Clack insists that the track won’t be going away.
“The track’s going to be there,” he said. “It’s going to carry on. We’re not going to shut it down.”
That sounds comforting and full of promise, but outside the all but closed speedway, and right in front of the “Lanier Speedway” sign stands a sign that carries the message that the speedway is for sale.
Photo by Tom Reed – Gainesville Times