Unity Raceway is in limbo.
The stock car racetrack, which was bought in 1980 by Ralph and Nancy Nason, is sitting idle while the Nasons hope someone will lease the track for the season, which usually begins in mid-May.
Jere Humphrey had a two-year lease with the Nasons but they parted ways last fall after one season over a dispute over the lease.
Ralph Nason said Humphrey did not meet his financial obligations but that it was an “open-ended deal” so Humphrey had the option of backing out after one year.
Humphry said it was a one-year deal and was supposed to pay the Nasons $25,000 per year to lease the track.
“… I don’t necessarily blame Jere. The economy is terrible and a lot of the nights, there weren’t many cars or fans,” said Nason.
Humphrey denied Nason’s allegation, saying he paid a $10,000 up-front fee and $15,000 for other track-related expenditures including a sponsorship deal with Pepsi.
“We would have continued to run the track but it wasn’t landlord-friendly,” said Humphrey, who added that he spent an extra $29,000 out of his own pocket on things like track clean-up projects and $8,000 on a postseason banquet.
“Jere did a wonderful job cleaning it up,” said longtime Unity racer Dean Fuller of Albion.
Humphrey said he and girlfriend Nancy Haggerty didn’t feel comfortable working under Nason.
“He wasn’t supportive so how are you going to survive? He kept telling us how to run it,” said Humphrey. “Ralph should have sold the track 10 years ago. They have had seven lessees over the past 15 years [for a reason].”
Nason said he had to chase Humphrey for the money and Humphrey wouldn’t return his calls in a timely manner.
“There was no communication,” Nason said.
George Fernald Jr., who leased the track the five previous years but left because he lost more than $40,000, said the Nasons helped him out “immensely” and did what they could to help him succeed.
“It cost me $25,000 a year to lease it and I had to come up with $10,000 up front for the first year,” said Fernald. “But after that, it became a weekly deal. I’d give them around $1,500 a week and then they dropped it to $1,000.
“They wanted me to get my money back but, in the end, it didn’t happen,” he added.
Nason doesn’t intend to sell the track and said there have been a few overtures but nothing substantial. Nason said he and his family are not interested in running the track although he indicated they would be willing to help out.
Fernald and longtime Unity racers Jeff Burgess of Fairfield and Fuller said the sagging economy coupled with the expense of the sport have been problematic.
“You have to be a good businessman and a good promoter who can get sponsors in order to make a go of it if you are leasing it. I wasn’t a good businessman,” Fernald said.
“Things have changed. People like me who raced in the 1980s are in their 50s now and aren’t racing any more. You’ve got younger kids racing. With [Hermon’s Speedway 95] and Wiscasset racing on Saturday nights, drivers have to decide which track they want to go to.
“I don’t believe there are enough fans and cars left out there to do that [and survive leasing a track],” added Fernald. “If you own the track, it’s a different story.”
All of the state’s other five tracks have owners who take a hands-on approach to the running of the track: Richard and Vanessa Jordan own Wiscasset Raceway, Del Merritt owns Speedway 95, Tom Mayberry is at Oxford Plains Speedway, Andy Cusack is at Scarborough’s Beech Ridge Motor Speedway and Troy Haney owns Spud Speedway in Caribou.
The Jordans bought the track in July 2012 after it had sat idle since the end of the 2010 season due to financial problems incurred by former owner Doug White.
“The biggest problem is there isn’t any money out there,” said Fuller, who has been a racer for more than 30 years and has been a track points champion. “People don’t have that extra income. I used to spend $25,000 a year to race and I certainly can’t do that any more even working six days a week. They need to find a way to make it more affordable. They have to make it a family event. And everyone has to work together in order to make it work.”
Burgess, who has 20-plus years of racing experience and has also been a points champion, said when a track is leased, the lessee is in a financial hole before the season starts.
“You can always blame it on the economy but the other tracks are doing well,” he said.
But Burgess said for a track to be successful, the owner or lessee has to have “deep pockets.”
“They will have to go into it with a five- or six-year [plan] because they are probably going to lose money the first two years before they can start making a profit,” said Burgess.
It cost Fernald more than $1,200 right off the bat to run a show for one night at Unity with $848 for insurance and $400-$600 for the light bill.
And, for the drivers, Fernald said that it costs $130 per tire and $10 for a gallon of racing fuel.
He did try to help the drivers reduce their expenses by introducing more durable tires and encouraged drivers to use the 93-octane gas at $3.50 a gallon.
Track operators have obstacles to overcome in addition to the cost.
“NASCAR is on TV all the time now,” said Fuller. “You’ve got Sprint Cup, the Nationwide Series and the Camping World Truck Series. You don’t have to leave home to watch a race.”
Nason, Fernald, Fuller and Burgess have varied opinions on what can be done to jumpstart Unity Raceway.
Fuller and Burgess said bringing a Pro All-Stars Series Super Late Model North race to the track would generate interest.
“Those races do very well. The stands will be 95 percent full,” said Fuller. “It’s not cheap. You have to spend more but people are willing to spend more if they get something out of it. You can charge people just $10 or $12 to see four-cylinder cars race but that’s not what is going to sell [many] tickets.”
Most tracks charge in the vicinity of $10-$12 for their weekly series while PASS races usually start at $20 per adult.
Other options to help racing return to Unity are:
— Having one big race a month and spending three weeks promoting it.
— Keeping the shows to three hours or less, which makes it better for those who bring their children.
— A rules package that creates parity so teams can’t spend their way to success.
— Keep racing to four classes and have newcomers race in four-cylinder cars.
Nason, Fernald, Fuller and Burgess agreed that Unity Raceway has too much to offer to sit idle.
“You can race side-by-side there. There was a 150-lap race there last year and for the first 50 laps, you had 10 rows of cars racing side-by-side until things sorted out,” Burgess said.
Nason said it will take at least two weeks for the track to get rid of the ice and snow and another four weeks to dry out. He is still hoping there will be racing there this season.