Five years after its much-anticipated opening, one of the nicest short-track racing facilities west of the Rocky Mountains could be in a transition phase.
News broke Wednesday that Kern County Raceway, billed as a $40-million facility, has the For Sale sign out for a bargain-basement price of $15 million.
What does this mean to the racing community?
Not much, according to a track press release on Wednesday, which stated it will be business as usual in 2018 at the multifaceted 120-acre facility, which includes a third-mile dirt track and a motocross track.
Big events — think Winter Showdown (Feb. 1-3), a pair of NASCAR K&N Pro Series West events, and a couple of Spears SRL Southwest Tour races — are already set for the paved half-mile oval. Two NARC Sprint Car Series races have been announced for the third-mile dirt track and full schedules are being formulated for both tracks.
One of the big events next year will be the return of the October Classic event that was a staple at Mesa Marin Raceway from its opening in 1977 to its closing in 2005. It will feature a K&N West race as well as a Southwest Tour race.
So it certainly appears that all will be well in 2018.
But the For Sale sign does, no matter how it is spun, bring about questions and uncertainty. If not for 2018, then for beyond.
The complex has a lot going for it, starting with the centerpiece — the big paved oval with smaller ovals inside, a grandstand seating more than 4,000, and the four-story tower with 22 suites. It is an impressive sight for those traveling up or down Interstate 5.
The dirt track is an added bonus and is a good size and configuration since a reworking of turns one and two early this year.
And the motocross track is an asset to area riders.
None of that, however, has added up to a home run.
Quite frankly, the pavement facility has struggled with car counts for weekly shows since the much ballyhooed opening of the long-delayed project in May of 2013. And crowds for regular events have not been overwhelming.
One could debate the reasons for hours and there would probably be as many opinions as the number of people doing the debating.
From this vantage point there appears to be three factors working against luring big fields (and crowds) to the half mile for what the industry considers weekly shows, such as Late Models, Super Stocks and Spec Mods.
When ground broke on the track in 2007, less than 18 months after Mesa Marin closed, anticipation was high and local racers could barely contain their excitement.
But the housing bubble burst, and the partially-finished track fell into bankruptcy and then foreclosure in 2010. The facility was purchased in 2012 but by the time the first race was held the local racing climate had changed.
Any of the old cars from 2005 were obsolete and many of the locals involved in racing found other outlets for their expendable income and did not come back to the sport.
Essentially, there was no carry over. It was starting from ground zero once again and there was not a mad dash to the starting line.
Another factor is the economy of Kern County.
A good number of racers fuel their habit through oil and when the oilpatch is down, as it has been for several years, not only do sponsorships dry up but so do well-paying jobs.
Then there is the track itself. It may just be too big for weekly shows.
There. I said it.
It is a big half mile, likely closer to .533 miles if measured 10 feet off the bottom. It was designed to be fast and it is.
But while big and fast worked for Mesa Marin decades ago, this is a different era. Larry Collins, whose family built and ran Mesa Marin, took over as general manager at KCRP this past season and worked at increasing car counts, with some success.
The Late Model division, the top weekly show, saw 37 different drivers compete (many just for a race or two) with fields often around 18 cars, the best ever and a solid car count in this day and age.
The Super Stock division was also up, featuring 15 or more cars early in the season but fewer as the year wore on.
Somewhat stagnant was the Spec Mod division, which generally had eight to 11 cars.
There is also a quarter-mile (Legends, Bandoleros and MIni Stocks) and eighth-mile track (Mini Dwarfs) but most of those fields have been slim. And let’s face it, the real lure is the big half mile and the high-speed action it produces.
The Late Models (the track record is 97.8 mph), Super Stocks and Spec Mods can be fun to watch and produce some good racing but optics often come into play.
Any field of under 15 cars, and especially fields of under a dozen, look a bit spartan on the track, no matter how good the racing might be.
The big track makes trying to allow different styles of Late Models to compete difficult as horsepower and aerodynamics equate to a huge advantage. That is not the case at the third-mile Madera Speedway where a wide-range of Late Models can compete on a fairly equal basis (the smaller track is an equalizer) and a big show will draw 50 entries.
The real speed is on display when Super Late Models, such as the Winter Showdown or Southwest Tour cars, hit the track. The track record is 103 mph but if the track is really closer to .533, that would equate to a 110-mph lap.
That is flying. And fun to watch when a fields feature 24 or more cars.
But those are special show cars, not a weekly show.
Could the future be eight-to-10 big shows a year and no weekly program?
Or will the future be much like it is now, trying to grow the weekly program with around half-dozen big shows?
Let’s just hope that the future includes racing for years to come.