Short Trackin

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No Sprint Cup race this weekend? No problem.

Although most every other major racing series is in action this weekend, the heavyweight Cup circuit sits idle for the third weekend this season.

In its absence, you can have your pick of national motorsports like the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series, which will be racing in a doubleheader at Gateway International Raceway outside St. Louis.

Formula One, Indy Cars, NHRA, the Outlaws, Grand Am and a host of other national racing circuits also will be on track.

Or you could seek out the backbone of the sport and visit a local short track near you.

Many of the hundreds of speedways across the country are on life support and grassroots racing is at a critical point.

While some weekly facilities flourish as do a variety of regional touring circuits, others seem to be going through the motions in a depressing death march toward extinction.

It's easy to blame things like the economy, which as we all know is in a tough state right now and certainly hurts most everything entertainment-related, which of course includes short track racing.

There's also the notion that mighty NASCAR is also to blame for short track racing's demise with so many night Sprint Cup races now dotting the schedule, taking up the sacred Saturday nights that are the lifeblood of more than 50 percent of the weekly tracks in operation.

Both are part of the equation but certainly not totally to blame.

Much of that has to be shared by the people who run this part of the racing business, the short track promoters and owners.

I'll be honest, I wouldn't trade places with any of these people. Race track promoter has to be right up there on the toughest jobs list next to the guys from "Ice Truckers" and "Deadliest Catch."

It's a very tough business to say the least.

But it is also one where common sense seems to be missing in a lot of locations.

Many of these tracks simply believe they can operate by unlocking the front and back gates and throwing the green flag at 8 p.m. every Saturday night.

That may have worked 30 years ago, although I doubt it, but in today's world there has to be promotion, advertising, marketing, public relations, media relations and good old fashioned showmanship in the equation.

The short track world has lost a generation of kids who won't sit still for a five hour program that features more plugs on the PA system for concessions than it does actual racing action.

Parents, who flock to minor league baseball stadiums and hockey rinks around the country, wouldn't be caught dead bringing their children into some of these short track facilities where a coat of paint and clean restroom is about as scarce as an edible hot dog.

The notion that NASCAR running on Saturday nights kills the sport also doesn't hold water with me. There's no doubt a segment of the racing fan population would rather sit in front of the set than go out to the local bullring on a Saturday night.

But proper promotion can put a big dent in that line of thinking.

Last weekend when the NASCAR Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series were at Chicagoland Speedway, the weekly tracks in the area tackled the problem in a different way.

Rockford Speedway, about 60 miles from Joliet, decided to hold one of its popular "Mid-Summer Night Scream" thrill shows on Saturday rather than the weekly stock car program it runs the rest of the season. That brought out a different crowd and a big house was on hand.

Illiana Speedway went with a similar themed program and another wise decision that surely was more of a success than what a regular show would have drawn up against the NASCAR event down the road in Joliet.

But neither track hooked into the large fan base in the Joliet area, which holds a popular Fan Fest prior to the annual NASCAR weekend in the area. Grundy County Speedway in nearby Morris, Illinois also chose to ignore the opportunity to tie into the Chicagoland vibe.

I point out the situation not to pick on any track but to shed light on the intense pressure this industry faces. All around the country weekly tracks are facing the same problems of lower attendance and dwindling competitor counts.

Without some out of the box thinking, more and more of these treasured facilities will fade away in favor of residential or commercial developments.

I've had to sit and watch several tracks in my area - Santa Fe Speedway, Raceway Park and Lake Geneva Raceway - fade into oblivion and quite frankly I'm afraid for the very existence of the Chicagoland racing scene.

Illiana and Grundy, at one time two of the most vital and successful short tracks in the country, have slipped into a downward spiral that is headed to potential extinction. I slipped into both tracks' weekly shows this year and was shocked to find grandstands that were sparsely populated and car counts in each division darn near abysmal. A twelve car feature in a track's top division is not a good sign at all.

As a race fan, you can do your part by supporting tracks in your area and spreading the word that some of the best racing every weekend takes place live and in person and not just on television.

I'm sentimental about the issue as it touches a part of my childhood. I grew up in short track racing and remember fondly how on every family vacation, no matter where my parents took the Pistone brood, I found a short track in the area and persuaded my dad to take us there.

Louisville, Owensboro, Flat Rock, Caraway, Myrtle Beach, New Smyrna - the vacation hit list read like a short track Hall of Fame in those days.

I'm doing my best to pass on the tradition to the current generation of Pistone kids. A few weeks ago on an off-weekend, I took a group of 30 family members with ten kids in tow to Rockford Speedway and with the gracious hospitality of the McKarns and Deery family staff had a great time.

Later this summer we'll take a group of kids to Madison International Speedway in Wisconsin and if the schedule permits Sycamore Speedway, a quaint dirt track west of Chicago.

My hope is thirty years from now there will still be short tracks around for these kids to take theirs to on a family vacation.

Right now I seriously have my doubts.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2010

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