Off track: Contract dispute leaves Nobles County Speedway season in jeopardy
WORTHINGTON -- The sound of cars tearing around the race track on Sunday nights in Worthington may be a thing of the past after members of Nobles County Speedway Inc. (NCSI) and the Nobles County Fair Association couldn't reach agreement on a new contract.
Trey Davis, on the heels of his first term on the NCSI board, has been trying to get a new contract completed so he can begin signing up USRA (U.S. Racing Association) and USMTS (U.S. Modified Touring System) shows at the local speedway. On Wednesday morning, however, he said he's essentially given up hope for a 2013 racing season.
"It's a lot of personal feelings," he said of the behind-the-scenes phone calls with fair board members in recent weeks.
Davis' first contract proposal was rejected by the fair board in December, and a follow-up proposal was also rejected. Davis learned the outcome of that request on Tuesday.
Nobles County Fair Board leaders say the contract rejection is more about finances than personal feelings. Board president Lynn Darling and vice president Ron McCarvel were notified last fall that NCSI leaders were stepping away. Both NCSI president Scott Kleve and vice president Dennis Luitjens resigned at the end of 2012.
"Everybody's kind of burned out," Luitjens said Wednesday morning, and Kleve agreed. They said Davis was trying to keep the speedway going in Worthington. Just one other board member, Travis Boehnke, remains involved with NCSI, although Davis had been looking to recruit more members.
"My understanding is they sold all their assets -- speakers and track maintenance equipment," McCarvel said. "They have no necessary items for a race track, and we're a little concerned about it."
Davis, meanwhile, said the equipment was sold to cover a lien against NCSI for payment of state sales tax, and the speedway has the first right to buy the equipment back, which they'd planned to do if they had a contract for racing in 2013.
The speedway is one of dozens across Minnesota to be investigated for failure to pay sales tax. Davis said the NCSI paid its third quarter sales tax, but the 2011 sales tax is still in limbo. It is estimated NCSI owes between $60,000 and $70,000.
"It is something we are taking care of the best we can," Davis said. "Now that we don't have a track, I don't know what's going to happen."
While Darling and McCarvel said they remain open to a new proposal from NCSI, they have been in talks with two other interested parties.
"We're still pursuing options," McCarvel added. "We're still hopeful to have racing -- maybe not a full season; maybe not races every Sunday night."
For about the last decade, NCSI and the fair board have maintained a contract for use of the race track. There are typically 16 race nights during a season, and NCSI pays a per-event rent.
In 2012, low attendance at the track forced NCSI to request a reduction in rent to help get it through the season. The fair board agreed to the reduction, but thought the rent should have been bumped back up to the contracted figure toward the end of the season, when attendance picked up.
McCarvel and Darling said there were probably some misunderstandings between the fair board and NCSI regarding that rental rate. The two boards agree NCSI is still indebted to the fair board, but the total amount is disputed.
"We owed them money from last year, but what I agreed to owe them and what they thought I owed them was a $4,000 difference," Davis said. "We just got to the point where we had to make our own decision. We had pretty much exhausted all means to make it go."
Where the money goes
The race track is owned by the Nobles County Fair Association, which contracts with NCSI for use of the speedway during racing season. Still, NCSI has put a considerable amount of money -- nearly $20,000 just last year -- into improvements at the track in the last decade.
"I worked very hard to get stuff donated and fixed," said Davis, estimating the total amount of money NCSI invested in the track was "closer to a six-digit figure" with installation of new lights, redoing the track road and driveway entrance to the track, putting in a PA system, and adding new concession stands, a new beer stand, a rear concession stand, a storage garage and a new payout area.
Darling said the fair board has also invested money in improvements.
As part of its contract, NCSI covers the water and light bills, while the fair board pays for water, sewer and light bills associated with the restroom facility on the fairgrounds. The money collected from gate admissions is used to cover the weekly rental cost. Both entities pay insurance, the NCSI covering the cars and the race events, and the fair board covering the grandstand.
"Last year we didn't have a very good beginning of the year," Davis said. A wet spring, followed by high temperatures through mid- to late summer, either meant the races were cancelled or the crowds didn't come.
That isn't the fault of the fair board, however, and Darling said there are financial obligations to meet. The board is still paying off the restroom facility on the grounds to the tune of $6,000 to $7,000 a year.
"We just haven't been able to make enough money," Darling said. "It's a struggle."
"There's been quite a bit of maintenance the last few years," added McCarvel, saying that the board wants to add new display cabinets in the Fine Arts building, and the roof over the grandstand will need to be replaced in the near future.
While fair board members may see dollar signs when they see the crowds at the races, Davis said NCSI also has its obligations to cover.
"People don't understand the back money that goes on in a racing association to just put a show on," Davis said. "I was blown away about the amount of dollars after seeing the financials."
The bottom line
Both Davis and the fair board officials agree car racing has changed over the last several years. Davis raced stocks in 1993, 1994 and 1995 at the local track, and he wants to see the tradition continue.
"The racing as we knew it 10 years ago is going to the wayside," he said. "It's a change in market with the fuel prices. I do feel bad for the guys that are racing still."
Race car drivers have endured high fuel costs for the past few years -- not just for the special fuel required for racing, which is about double the cost of pump gas, but for the fuel it takes to haul their race cars to tracks throughout the region.
Ending the Sunday night races at the track will not only be a disappointment to the drivers who race in Worthington and their fans, but also to local businesses, Davis contends.
"How many are getting gas on their way out of town?" he asked, adding that local fast-food restaurants and Wal-Mart also benefit from the people who come to Worthington to watch the races.
"We're lucky we've still got tracks in a 100-mile radius that still have races on Sunday night," Davis said. In the region, three tracks operate on Friday night, one on Saturday night and one on Sunday night.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.