WORTHINGTON -- When promoters Glen Van Eck and Adam Ecker re-established weekend racing at the Nobles County Speedway two years ago, they say they did it for one primary reason -- because they love the sport.
But love sometimes isn’t enough. The 2019 season has fallen seriously short of expectations, and it’s uncertain that racing will return to Worthington for the summer of 2020.
Issues are many. And answers are few.
“Our crowds are way down. We’ve had free admission last week Saturday night, and we couldn’t even get a good crowd then. I don’t know what to do next. Our crowd count is down, our car count is down,” Van Eck said.
Advertising is down, too, in part, Van Eck believes, due to a dip in the farm economy. Some of the sponsors remain loyal, and a few of them outside the Worthington area are showing an interest. But several billboards have been lost. The Speedway didn’t attract one new billboard this year, and “a lot” of bike sponsorships went away.
Van Eck and Ecker do a lot to make Saturday race nights entertaining for children, giving away two free bicycles (one for a boy and one for a girl) at every event. Free freeze pops are distributed when the weather is hot, and sometimes there are candy tosses.
The main attraction, however, is the racing. The promoters say that the actual racing has been good, and drivers are happy with the track. In spite of that, it’s been a struggle. They increased the purse money for stock cars by $300 one Saturday night recently, but that only gained one more entry.
In 2018, the Speedway attracted an average of between 70 and 75 cars, and a couple of nights it totaled as many as 94. Between 450 to 650 fans showed up.
“We had a good year,” said Van Eck.
In 2019, there were 65 drivers on the best night. The average count has been around 45. There were fewer than 200 fans on some nights.
Ecker said this week that he and his partner sincerely appreciate the drivers, the fans and the sponsors who remain loyal. But:
“If things don’t turn around here, it doesn’t make sense (to continue). It’s tough to put all this time and effort into it and not get any return. We’re not doing it for the money, but we gotta make ends meet, too,” he said.
Caught in the middle
Competition appears to be a major reason numbers are down. Over the past two years, the track in Hartford, S.D., didn’t offer Saturday night racing, and the drivers who could have raced in Hartford turned to Worthington. Now Hartford is back, and Van Eck said about 20 of the Sioux Falls area drivers have spurned Worthington and chosen Hartford instead.
There is also Saturday night racing in Fairmont. The Nobles County Speedway, situated in the middle, is being squeezed.
Auto racing is an expensive sport, and for some drivers it’s a difficult sport to maintain.
“Almost all the tracks are losing cars. People can’t afford to fix ‘em anymore,” Van Eck said.
Several of last year’s Worthington area drivers have disappeared from the Speedway, an obvious disappointment for the promoters.
But the Hartford challenge feels particularly painful. The Sioux Falls drivers liked the Worthington track and were grateful that it opened up again, said Van Eck, adding, “And they said they would not go back to Hartford.”
But they did anyway.
Van Eck said he and Ecker spoke with several drivers before the season began, and they were told they’d be returning to Worthington. But they didn’t.
Disappointing? You bet.
“You have all these people here and you know them personally, and they tell us how they really like the track. And then Hartford opens up and they fly the coop. It’s a pretty good slap in the face,” Ecker said.
A couple of Saturdays ago, the Speedway put on a free night of racing, allowing all patrons in free. That resulted in about 300 fans. The promoters had hoped for 600 to 700.
“It very much surprised me. Me and Adam thought, if we can’t get ‘em here on free night, how are we gonna get ‘em here on general admission nights?” said Van Eck. “With this kind of a car count and crowd, this can’t continue. This doesn’t pay the bills.”
There are seven races remaining on the 2019 schedule. Van Eck and Ecker are considering the possibility of running sprint cars in the future, which would be a new thing.
They’ve been told that they should consider running on Sunday nights. But there aren’t many drivers who like to compete on Sunday nights. It was tried once last year, but the car count was poor.
Racing enthusiasts have another issue to be concerned about at the Nobles County Speedway, and that is the condition of the facilities themselves. Most importantly, the wood grandstand is badly in need of repair. Some of the planks are bordering on rotten, others are curling, and some of them are so thin that they feel ready to give way entirely.
Notwithstanding the seating, however, the difficulties facing Van Eck and Ecker appear much more pressing. They are on one-year contracts to promote racing at the Speedway, and they are not yet committed to next year.
They’ve got a lot of thinking to do before the 2020 season.