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Proposed Speedways Fail To Provide Fast Track To Jobs

As the popularity of motor sports, especially stock car racing, blossomed during the late 1990s and 2000s, a number of would-be race track developers and local government officials in California pursued high-speed economic dreams. However, actually building a race track in California has proven to be far more difficult than proposing a track and even winning development entitlements.

At least four jurisdictions approved race tracks from 1998 to 2008, and other local governments have considered with the idea. But not one of the projects has actually been completed. A multiple race track facility approved by Merced County supervisors in 2006 generated more litigation and hard feelings than anything else; the project officially died last year when the property, near the closed Castle Air Force Base in Atwater, fell into foreclosure. A speedway complex approved in late 2008 by the Tulare City Council appears in serious jeopardy, with the developer lacking capital and the City Council still sharply divided on the project. Construction of a half-mile oval track on the edge of Bakersfield adjacent to Interstate 5 commenced in 2007 but halted midway. Developer Alan Destafani's company declared bankruptcy last year and the property sits for sale. Ground never broke on an oval track approved by Yuba County voters in 1998, in part because developers involved ended up in their own feud. Race track proposals in Madera, Tehama and Fresno counties and in the Coachella Valley have not progressed beyond the dreams-and-schemes stage.

The newest race tracks built on private property in California are located in Fontana and Irwindale. Those speedways both opened during the late 1990s. Auto Club Speedway on the site of the former Kaiser plant in Fontana hosts big league NASCAR stock cars two weekends per year, while Irwindale is a minor league facility that operates most Saturday nights. Both facilities also have busy drag strips and racing schools, and they serve as test tracks.

Speedways provide economic appeal on several levels. The Fontana track is featured before huge television audiences two weekends per year, providing national exposure to Fontana, San Bernardino County and the L.A. area in general. Major league facilities such as the one in Fontana cost hundreds of millions of dollars to develop, providing many well-paying construction jobs. Ongoing operations offer permanent, albeit mostly part-time, employment to hundreds of people. The hospitality industry around the speedway benefits. And speedway operators hope that members of "the industry" car and parts manufacturers, race teams, souvenir and appeal providers, etc. will locate near their facility.

An economic impact analysis of the proposed Tulare Motor Sports Complex, prepared by The Ramsay Group, found that the facility would generate between $367 million and $735 million in annual economic activity, including receipts from a retail component of the project. An analysis of Riverside Motorsports Park proposed by John Condren and Craig Nicholson in unincorporated Merced County said the eight race track facility itself would do $180 million worth of business per year and employ 600 to 1,200 people.

Nationally, a speedway boom of sorts occurred during the 1990s and first half of last decade, as major league facilities opened in numerous locations. But while race tracks in places such as Las Vegas and Fort Worth have thrived, others have struggled and at least one, in Colorado Springs, closed after only a few years in business. Meanwhile, far more minor league speedways have closed than have opened during recent years in the United States.

Race tracks are inherently bad neighbors. They are noisy, often operate at night and generate a great deal of traffic. Thus, a new race track proposed near any populated area almost automatically stirs opposition. The Merced County Farm Bureau and environmentalists sued Merced County over the environmental impact report for the proposed Riverside Motorsports Park. Opponents of the Tulare track have filed at least three lawsuits.

On the other hand, there was zero opposition to Kern River Raceway when the Kern County Planning Commission approved the minor league facility in 2006. The track would replace Bakersfield's beloved Mesa Marin Raceway, which closed on the other side of town in 2005 when the owner sold the land for housing development. The stalled Kern County track is in a remote location next to an interstate freeway. Construction halted two years ago when developers reportedly ran out of money. Ted James, interim director of the Kern County Resource Management Agency, said he knows of no plan to resuscitate the project. 

The multi-track complex proposed for Merced County may have generated more acrimony than any other project in county history. The Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to approve a general plan amendment and other provisions for the track in 2006, with the majority touting the 1,200-acre project's economic benefits. Opponents countered that the development would conflict with agriculture, jam roads and generate too much noise and air pollution, and the Merced Sun Star repeatedly raised questions about whether developers Condren and Nicholson had the capital and experience to develop and operate the huge facility. A Merced County Superior Court judge in 2008 invalidated the project's EIR, and, last July, Condren declared Riverside Motorsports Park dead. In its wake lie lawsuits and unpaid bills to government agencies, lawyers and consultants.

Scott Galbraith, president and CEO of the Merced County Economic Development Corporation, said the race track project was divisive and simply faced too many obstacles. He said economic development boosters these days are emphasizing more popular projects, such as reuse of Castle Air Force Base as a heavy maintenance facility for the proposed California high-speed rail system.

The current situation in Tulare is somewhat similar to the one Merced County experienced. Approved by the Tulare City Council on a 3-2 vote, the proposed development includes a one-mile oval track with seating for 55,000 spectators, a quarter-mile drag strip, go-kart tracks, a conference center, about 400 hotel rooms and 600,000 square feet of retail space. Backers tout the expected direct and indirect jobs from the 700-acre project proposed next to the International Agri-Center, while opponents site conflicts with farming, the cost of a freeway interchange for the project that the city agreed to build, and noise, air pollution and traffic impacts. Questions have also arisen over Fresno-based developer Bud Long's ability to complete the project. Negotiations that Long and other track investors have had with the International Agri-Center over purchase of land for a portion of the project have started and stopped several times, and the developers have been slow to pay city processing and review fees. City of Tulare officials did not return CP&DR calls.

Other proposed race tracks have never even come close to the approval phase. A negotiating agreement between the Riverside County Economic Development Agency and an organization known as DJTRM, LLC, over the proposed sale of county land near Thermal for development of a road course race track apparently expired earlier this year without formal action. The proposed Yosemite Motor Speedway in Madera County received a great deal of national attention nearly a decade ago, but a flurry of legal activity buried the project long before the Board of Supervisors ever weighed the idea.

Resources:
Tulare Motorsports Complex: www.tularemotorsport.com.
Tulare Motorsports Complex EIR: www.brandman.com/TMSC-EIR/index.html.

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