Opinion: Save Our Short Tracks

Rockford Speedway

Pistone: "Every summer we’ve made it a tradition to get a group of nieces, nephews, and cousins along with my daughter and hit one of my local short tracks in the Chicagoland area at Rockford Speedway." (Photo: Rockford Speedway)

The calendar is just about to turn to summer and not a minute too soon.

With the advent of warm weather and the lazy, hazy crazy days of summer comes my annual plea for fans to support their local short track.

It’s interesting to note last week’s Southern 500 winner might be the poster child for what the short track backbone of the sport once meant. Matt Kenseth started his career on the weekly track level of his native Wisconsin before moving into regional and national tours, ultimately finding his way to the top level of the sport.

Kenseth’s son Ross, who was also victorious over the weekend with a win at South Boston Speedway, is trying to follow in his famous dad’s footsteps. Let’s hope he gets the chance.

The sad reality is a large number of the hundreds of speedways across the country are on life support and grassroots racing is at a very critical point.

Over the weekend I learned of four tracks planning to shutter their gates and two regional tours about to cease operation. A quick random check of five weekly tracks around the country found two with top division feature race fields under a dozen.

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 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. Racetrack promoter has to be right up there on the toughest jobs list next to fetching food for Kim Kardashian and laughing at a Jay Leno joke. Both nearly impossible.

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 process.

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 and hockey stadiums 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 completely 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 promotion and marketing efforts done the right way will get people in the grandstands and off their sofas on those nights.

All around the country many 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.

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. Every summer we’ve made it a tradition to get a group of nieces, nephews, and cousins along with my daughter and hit one of my local short tracks in the Chicagoland area at Rockford Speedway. We took the kids a couple of years ago and it has become an annual trek that is asked about in January as in “when are we going to the races this summer?”

The kids are already asking what the summer Saturday is this year and I'll be thrilled to land on a date without baseball, soccer or dance recital obligations for everyone.

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 or summer Saturday night.

Do your part, support your local short track – and bring a friend.

Be sure to join Kyle Rickey and Buddy Long each Wednesday at 1 p.m. (ET) for "NASCAR Coast to Coast" and get up to speed on all the news, race results and highlights from NASCAR Modified and K&N Pro Series races from all over the country.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Motor Racing Network.

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