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Racing To Riches? Not With A Speedway

The City of Tulare has officially given up on a proposed speedway. The premature checkered flag for the Tulare Motor Sports Complex is hardly a surprise.

On the surface, auto racing tracks seem like a sexy way to generate big economic returns. Cities such as Indianapolis, Charlotte and Daytona Beach owe a good portion of their existence to auto racing. But these places are the exception, as numerous other cities have learned over the last decade.

When the popularity of NASCAR reached unprecedented heights during the 1990s and early '00s, a lot people thought stock car racing was going to make them rich. As the stock car organization pushed its way into the number-two slot in TV sports ratings, behind only the NFL, race track development gained speed. New tracks were built and many more were proposed as developers and local governments produced studies that said a new track could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in annual economic activity.

What so many people seemed to ignore were the sport's limitations. NASCAR's top three touring series race only about 35 times apiece, much of the racing season schedule is carved in stone, and only the top series the Sprint Cup is a guaranteed money-maker at the front gate. Speedways can stay active between major NASCAR races with minor league races, driving schools and concerts, but it's important to recognize that a speedway is not like a major league baseball stadium that is guaranteed 81 games a year, an NBA arena that gets 41 games annually or even an NFL stadium that hosts 10 games a year. If you're lucky, you might get Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Danica Patrick at your new race track one weekend a year.

At least two major speedways built during the 1990s with NASCAR in mind have already closed, in St. Louis and Memphis. Racing ended after a few years at new tracks in Orlando and Colorado Springs, which now serve only as test and school facilities. A new Nashville track where NASCAR's second- and third-most-popular series raced before mostly empty grandstands last weekend is owned by the same company that built and shuttered the St. Louis and Memphis tracks.

As we have reported in the past, California has seen apparently serious speedway proposals come and go in Yuba County, Madera County, Merced County and the Coachella Valley. All of those plans died since California's last major new track opened in Fontana nearly 15 years ago.

Still, Tulare would seem like a good place for a major speedway. Nearly 2 million people live within an hour's drive, auto racing has deep roots in the San Joaquin Valley, the fairgrounds at Tulare already has a successful dirt track, and Tulare and neighboring Visalia have a substantial hospitality industry that helps serve the giant International Agri-Center in Tulare. The proposal from developer Bud Long called for a one-mile oval track, a quarter-mile drag strip, go-kart tracks, a convention center, a hotel and, naturally, a shopping center.

However, the project appeared troubled from the outset. NASCAR indicated no interest in the proposed track. Long was unable to lock up all of the land needed and never produced evidence he had the necessary capital. Environmentalists and neighboring property owners hated the idea. The City Council was sharply divided before and after it approved the project in December 2008.

The city ended up fronting $1 million for the environmental impact report. The city never got paid back, which apparently cost the city attorney his job and may have contributed to the surprise retirement of the longtime city manager. Early this year, a Tulare County judge invalidated the EIR. Rather than appeal, the City Council which now has a majority opposed to the track overturned all project entitlements on April 19.

The entire episode mirrored the painful experience of Merced County only three years earlier regarding the proposed Riverside Motorsports Park.

Development of new speedways, like development of just about everything else, has ceased. It's time to start the economic development engines in more mundane and reliable ways. 

Paul Shigley

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Josh Stephens on The Urban Mystique at SPUR: January 19
On Tuesday, January 19, please join CP&DR Contributing Editor Josh Stephens and our friends at SPUR for a conversation about his book The Urban Mystique and the ineffable complexities that make all cities wondrous, maddening, and fascinating.
Registration: https://www.spur.org/events/2021-01-19/urban-mystique

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