Racetrack owners optimistic

Posted April 02, 2009, at 8:37 p.m.

The economic struggles continue.

But the state’s auto racetrack owners are approaching the upcoming season with a sense of optimism despite the recession.

“There’s a brighter outlook this season. I think the recession was in full bloom last summer,” said Wiscasset Raceway owner Doug White. “Gas was so expensive a year ago. It was over $4 a gallon.”

Current gas prices are roughly $2.05 per gallon.

“If we can keep the oil prices stable, people can travel [to races] without feeling a major deficit in their budgets,” said White. “Last year was pretty tough.”

“I’m really encouraged,” said Oxford Plains Speedway owner Bill Ryan. “When economic times are a little turbulent, people look for more affordable entertainment.”

Ryan speculated that instead of spending hundreds of dollars going to a NASCAR Sprint Cup race, race fans will opt to spend their money at local tracks where their money will buy more.

“You’ll spend a lot less buying a season pass to Oxford than going to a Cup race,” said Ryan who charges adults $300 for a season pass if purchased on Jan. 1 or later. That includes 41 race dates and works out to $7.32 per race night. It costs juniors (ages 6-12) just $75 for a season pass.

People who bought their season passes before Jan. 1 paid just $200 ($4.88 per night) or $50 (for juniors).

The package includes the prestigious TD Banknorth Oxford 250.

The prices of attending a Sprint Cup race vary but the lowest price for a reserved seat at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for one of their two Cup races is $60.

Then there are the travel costs and parking for those events.

“I’ve talked to people who have been in the business much longer than I have and they told me when there was a recession in the early ’80s similar to this one, those were some of the most successful years they ever had,” said Ryan.

“I think it’s going to be a great year for all of us at the local tracks,” added Ryan.

Del Merritt, co-owner of Hermon’s Speedway 95, said “people aren’t going to lay down and die. They’ve got to do something [for entertainment].”

Andy Cusack, owner of Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in Scarborough, is playing the “optimism card.

“I’ve been in this game for almost 30 years and I’ve gotten to know owners before we came along in addition to the current ones and they always said racetracks tend to ride economic downturns pretty well,” said Cusack.

“It has always been an affordable ticket. People tend not to spend the big money [due to the economy] so they’ll stay here [and attend races] rather than go to places like Disney World and Niagara Falls. They realize they still need to go out and have a good time,” he added.

All of the prices at Maine’s six racetracks are $10 or less.

It is $10 (adults) for the prime race cards (weekend) at Unity Raceway, OPS, Beech Ridge and Wiscasset; $6 at Speedway 95 and $5 at Caribou’s Spud Speedway.

The entry level race cards that are run on weeknights are usually half the price of the weekend races.

George Fernald Jr., who leases Unity Raceway from Ralph and Nancy Nason, said there is already proof that fans are more willing to spend money at local tracks than going to Cup races.

“When was the last time you saw advertisements for tickets to Loudon? You never did until this year,” said Fernald who pointed out that a $10 ticket at Unity will provide fans with nine or 10 classes of racing including heat races.

Fernald also said that some of the touring series like the antique race cars, super mini-cup cars and Legends cars have booked a lot more races at Unity than in the past “because they’re looking to stay more local [and conserve costs].”

Weather is probably more of an issue than the economy.

“We had our feet kicked out from under us with the weather last year but when we had some great weather days in August, the crowds were better than they had been the previous couple of years,” said Cusack. “Even with all the doom and gloom, people still like to go out and enjoy an affordable product. It gives them a chance to escape the reality of the bigger problems out there.”

And White said when the economy starts turning around, “people will start to feel good about things” and that should help car counts and attendance.

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