Is NASCAR Buying Local Race Tracks Bad for Business?
Running a race car is one of the most expensive things anyone can do in their lives outside of owning a yacht, and while there is a healthy chunk of change waiting for you within the winner’s circle, your team’s chance of clutching that prized purse is slim to say the least. You know what else is big money: The tracks these cars race on. From maintenance to marketing, operations of this size are never cheap to own or operate, yet somehow they manage to make millions every year, with even the smallest tracks mopping-up mad amounts moolah every month.
Take the Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca for example. Here is a grassroots-style track that has been around since 1957 (way before Mazda even came into the picture), and because it was built by the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP), which is a non-profit organization, Laguna Seca came into this world courtesy of a federal land grant that categorized the course as a “safe and dedicated facility for racing.”
For the next sixty years, the aggressive straights, banks, hills, and chassis-twisting turns of the legendary “corkscrew” have turned boys into men and broken the dreams of countless drivers with its hairpin technicalities and hotter-than-hell climate. Lucky onlookers watched as racing greats like Paul Newman slid around the track in his Nissans at blistering speeds, and as the competition heated-up, so did ticket sales, with SCRAMP donating more than $250,000 to local charities and civic organizations annually.
What started-off as a single motor sports event in 1957, has morphed into a monster, and today the track sees five major events a year, and generates a staggering $200 million for the county of Monterey, California. But all of this may be about to change: Corporate powerhouses continue to procure non-profits and smaller race courses alike in a takeover that greatly resembles what is happening in the beer world, where small craft breweries are being targeted by Anheuser Busch and Miller/Coors, leaving many wondering how long the little guys can hold out.
Unbeknownst to SCRAMP, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors has been secretly conducting closed-session meetings to discuss a new concession agreement, and has purposefully been leaving the non-profit out of the loop since meetings began back in January of 2014. But everything recently came to a head when SCRAMP discovered that the Board of Supervisors had entered into a “90-day due diligence agreement” with the International Speedway Corporation (ISC) in order to take both management and operations rights away from them so that the raceway may become more of a prominent profit provider.
For those of you who are not familiar with ISC, it is worth noting that these are the big boys on the race-themed playground, and they are 100% for-profit, are publicly traded, and own and manage NASCAR tracks like Talladega and Daytona International Speedway. On the upside there definitely will be a big bump in funds for race track maintenance, event marketing, and community oriented investments, which gives local politicians a strong argument to stand behind, even when their methods are undoubtedly a hair shady to say the least.
The Monterey Herald reports that county officials say they started the search because they wanted more “financial stability” for both the track and the county itself, and while the county board of supervisors did voice a hope that “SCRAMP would be willing to cooperate with ISC under a new management agreement,” it is highly doubtful that this will happen; SCRAMP’s Board President Gregg Curry has since issued an open letter to the public, begging for support in an effort to keep the track a non-profit operation. In response, Monterey Board Supervisor, Dave Potter, says this move has pretty much blacklisted the entire non-profit, and says that “It looks like they’ve given up on their relationship with the Board of Supervisors.”
SCRAMP does not want to lose its control over something that it built from the ground up, nurtured and maintained, and kept running for nearly sixty years — but it merely requests that a “fair and open process” may be considered, so that public participation and review may help even the playing field. They also argue that their operations help keep revenue local in order to better benefit the community, even when the Monterey Herald described how the non-profit has struggled financially in recent years, and how it lost several top racing series contracts, even after investing more than $50 million in the Laguna Seca facility alone.
As lawyers gear-up for war, and race teams and fans alike wonder what this could mean for the future of one of America’s most iconic motorsports parks, a line gets drawn in the sticky-hot tarmac: On one side of the track sits a struggling non-profit, steeped in tradition and backed by an army of 300 local community members, who put in thousands of volunteer hours every year for the love of the track and all that it stands for. Over on the other side stands a multi-million dollar, NASCAR-affiliated entity, which offers Monterey County financial security and publicity like never before, but at the risk of turning the Mazda Raceway into a consumerist-fueled theme park. Meanwhile, over in pit lane rest the politicians, who claim that all they want is what is best for the community, all while rumors of ulterior motives and greed swirl amidst the smoke-filled California skies.