Sunday’s NASCAR race will cap the busiest weekend of the year at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kansas. It’s a market that’s a bright spot for a sport on a downward slope nationally.
Investment in racing in the Kansas City area is even ramping up, as evidence by Kansas City-based developer Chris Payne purchasing the old I-70 Speedway property this summer. Payne plans to not only revive the dormant track near Odessa, Missouri, into a half-mile clay oval but also install a quarter-mile drag strip that has been missing from the Kansas City area for almost a decade.
In 2008, Missouri had 40 tracks with 30 in Kansas. The National Speedway Directory shows that’s dropped to 31 in Missouri and 26 in Kansas. A dozen of those are within a 100-mile radius of Kansas City.
Payne, who also owns tracks in Topeka and Ohio, believes the time is right for more.
“It needs a small intimate track like I-70 that’s open to almost anybody,” Payne said of the Kansas City racing market. “At the same token, we need a track like Heartland that can cater to the show, what you see on television.”
Not far from the I-70 site is Valley Speedway in Grain Valley, a one-third mile clay oval where drivers compete weekly from April through the end of October.
Dennis Shrout sold his motorcycle shop 10 years ago to run the track.
“I thought, ‘This sounds kind of like fun,’ about like everybody else. This sounds like fun and not much work,” he said, reflecting on his purchase. “Well, I was wrong.”
Shrout has worked through some major hurdles — like battling with Grain Valley over noise regulations and enduring a track’s worst nightmare in 2012: a fatality.
Shrout is concerned about market oversaturation.
“There’s too many tracks to be quite honest with you,” he said. “Everybody’s kind of struggling.”
The national divide
The same day Shrout talked about Valley Speedway, NASCAR held its second day of testing at Kansas Speedway as drivers prepared for NASCAR’s playoffs, which includes the Hollywood Casino 400.
The current crop of drivers are struggling for recognition as the sport’s biggest names — Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart — have parked their cars for good. Those names attracted interest at the grassroots level beyond the hard-core fan, according to former Lakeside Speedway owner Marc Olson.
“He (the hard-core fan) knows what Tony Stewart eats for breakfast,” Olson said. “I’m sorry I don’t, but he does and he’s going to be right. The fan I always wanted to get was that casual fan.”
For a while, Lakeside in Kansas City, Kansas, did. And so did NASCAR, with ticket revenue peaking in 2007 at more than $467 million, according to an ESPN report in August.
But it changed after the 2008 recession, dropping by more than 50 percent to today’s numbers. That drop in attendance carried over to tracks here. Olson got out of the business, turning Lakeside to someone else.
So when Shrout heard about the redevelopment of the I-70 complex, he was surprised.
“I just don’t see any way with the amount of money it’s going to take to get it back into shape make it a profitable venture,” Shrout said. “I don’t understand that at all.”
Payne hears that criticism. He owns a couple of cars ready for the drag strip, but rarely races these days, yet the sport tugs at his heart and his pocketbook.
“Racing’s a passion of mine that guides some of my financial decisions, right or wrong,” he said. “There’s much better investments as an investor without a doubt.”
And he has his pedal to the medal when it comes to I-70 Motorsports Park. He said he’s spending several million dollars above the nearly $2 million purchase price to shape up the complex.
“Hopefully it will be there for decades to come,” he said.
He’s hoping it’ll reopen next summer, but there are a few hurdles to get past first. On Thursday, there’s a public hearing in Lafayette County on the request to combine two plats of land into one and a month from now, there’ll be a hearing on the permit that Payne needs to operate the facility.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.