Saturday, June 5, 2010

San Jose Speedway: Can It Be Rebuilt Once More?

In the 20's and 30's, they raced at a track called San Jose Speedway. Fires claimed the grandstands there, but racing came back to the city in another, better known paved track called San Jose Speedway. Many heroes were born on those hallowed grounds, until the gates were closed in the late 70's. Racing wasn't gone for long, because San Jose Speedway was born at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. More heroes were born on that racing facility. You know the story. It's been told.

This is a story that looks at the mistakes, looks at a budding movement to bring racing back and asks, isn't it about time racing was brought back to San Jose? Just rebuild it, and they will most assuredly come.

You know the names, Pombo, Sargent, Kaeding, Scott. San Jose Speedway was the place to be. Fact is, San Jose has a great racing tradition, and it can be reborn again if given a chance. One thing the powers that be need to ask themselves is, is no income better than the money that can be brought it by auto racing?

How did we get here?

I think it began not long after we lost Baylands. In fact, not even a year later. NASCAR wanted to pave the mile. They wanted to bring big time racing to San Jose. I believe a smaller track would have been built as well for more regular events, but the possibility of the big boys of NASCAR coming was very real. The offer was declined, and NASCAR went road racing in Sonoma instead. I believe the clock began ticking on San Jose then. Anything short of strong leadership at that track who could stand up for racing the way it was needed was not going to be successful.

The track lasted ten more years under the "open the gates and they will come" philosophy. Better than nothing, right? To be honest, it's not fair to blame any one person. There's plenty of blame to go around. Some will say not many people would have done better than the management that was in place at the time, and maybe they are right.

In the 90's, when Supermodifieds had given way to the Sprint Cars, we still had WoO, NARC, GSC, 360 Sprints, Late Models, Dirt Modifieds, Enduros, huge D-Derbys and the George Steitz Race. Right to the end, the big shows could still pack the grandstands, despite the $5 parking fees they had to pay in 1999.

When they took San Jose Speedway from us, they ripped the heart right out of Bay Area Sprint Car racing. We still hadn't completely recovered from Baylands, but then again, people still hadn't recovered from Vallejo and West Capital. I really hurts to lose a race track.

When San Jose fell, NARC was next, after the power play over the GSC deal, there was nothing NARC could do and no place they could run. Merced seemed to be out of the question, and Chowchilla didn't quite work out for them the way they hoped. I heard stories that there were prominent members of NARC trying to work a deal to run San Jose Speedway in 2000, but it didn't happen. Had it happened, who knows? The amphitheater was a bust. Racing might still be there today.

I've been critical of the management at San Jose, but Lord knows it isn't easy running a track. The man had just lost Antioch, and the problems of San Jose became that much more exposed without the Antioch income offsetting things. I wondered why Rick didn't put up a bigger fight for the track. It seemed like he was resolved to walk away, but then again, I couldn't really blame him except for one thing. He could have made it easier for anybody trying to come in and pick up the pieces.

Then again, what outgoing promoter at a race track makes it easier for the guy coming in? It usually doesn't happen. In many cases, it's a leave with fingers in the air taking anything not bolted into the ground with you. Salvage what you can.

There were voices in the crowd wanting to fight for the track, but they weren't organized. I can't blame them. People don't really know what to do in a situation like that. Al had his web page, which many times just spewed anger at the Board of Supervisors. Again, I can't blame him. They were taking his track away, and he was pretty upset about it. Joe followed Rick to Watsonville and seemed reluctant to use his show to help the cause even a little bit. It wouldn't be that big a deal, but he had no problem using that show to trash Marco at every turn. A few minutes giving people information on how to help the fight couldn't have hurt.

A young boy, whose name escapes me, had a petition to save the track and spoke in front of the board at a meeting. I admire the kid for taking a stand, but this is what it came to in the end? Where was everybody? I guess people decided it was over, but it really wasn't if they'd have gotten organized. Does anybody think Ventura Raceway would be here now if people had that attitude there? No, it wouldn't.

The fact is, Blanca and the Board Members were not all that organized themselves. They wanted an amphitheater, but they had no idea what they were doing. There was other competition out there already, and this idea NEVER stood a chance. The only power they had was the power to shut the track down, and that was made all the more easier when nobody presented a serious argument for the track and why it should be there in terns the board could understand. So, they pushed for the concert venue that was doomed to fail from the start.

Quietly, there were those looking for a way to put racing back on the track again, but it was too late. Things were not left in good enough shape. Jim Soares looked at things and declined. That's how bad it was, because a guy like Jim could have whipped it into shape had there been enough to work with.

So a year or two after the last race, the grandstands were demolished. I heard mention of the fact that it was not done legally, but who knows? Did anybody care at that point? In my opinion, if anybody is left on the board from that time period, they should be fired on the spot, but I digress.

The amphitheater fell through, as expected. But, there were no grandstands. Racing was dead. I'm not even going to dignify the road racing they attempted there with a comment. Somewhere along the line, though, San Jose Speedway was born again. It's not what you think. They have a little 1/8th mile dirt track, and they race motorcycles, go karts and mini sprints there. Better than nothing, I guess, but far from what should be there. Make no mistake, though, if they put a track back there again, I'd like to find room for the cycles and karts too, somewhere on the facility.

Mike Hennessy stirred it up on the Motorsports Show on KNRY 1240 AM, hosted by Tony Karis. He plans to circulate a petition at his Hot San Jose Nights event at the Fairgrounds in July to get a track built there again.

Can it really happen again? Can another track exist in San Jose where a new generation of Pombos, Sargents and Kaedings can compete? Lord willing, yes it can, but it won't be cheap or easy.

I have no idea how hard Mike has thought this thing through beyond the petition and speaking with some local politicians. Does he have construction people in mind to build? It's a build from the ground up proposition, after all. You might catch a break on some pricing, but make no mistake, it won't be cheap. I'm not sure how deep the spirit of donating to this cause is in this day and age, even for those who love the sport.

How big will the grandstands be? Are we going for WoO races again? Listen to me, I'm talking about a track that may never exist. And that's the thing. If Mike really intends to move ahead with this, he will need all the support of the people that he can get. If he needs people at public meetings, they should be there. If he needs signatures on a petition, people should sign it. People should be willing to jump in for whatever they are needed and fight for this cause as long as it takes, or it will never happen, despite Mike's intentions. He can't do it alone.

I understand the odds of this happening are not great. One might even suggest that a person wanting to run a race track should head to Sacramento or Porterville or any place where a track is setting dormant and try there. But, the fact is, the space is still there in San Jose. There is still a fairgrounds there, and many fairgrounds facilities still generate income through the great sport of auto racing. Those places still find value in the sport, and San Jose should too.

One aspect I think needs to be addressed in any future endeavor for this San Jose Speedway is community involvement. On one web page I noticed an effort to keep Santa Clara Fairgrounds alive. There has been talk of selling the land for redevelopment, and these people are touting the value the fairgrounds has to the community. They're right, it does.

But, what does the community really get out of a race track? I have looked, and sure, there are some places that have good relationships with their community. One of the things I noticed about Merced Speedway under the previous management was that they did things to keep the community involved, such as kids bike races, fund raisers, free admission nights, high school motorsports and other stuff.

Some tracks are doing things like that, and others seem to think they don't need to. I'm not pointing any fingers, but it wouldn't take me long to get to some places that don't do much. To be sure, a promoter is very busy doing the things that need to happen just to open the gates, and they need help doing things. In many cases, they can't pay much or at all for that help, but if a promoter is good or respected enough, that won't stop people who care about the place from helping. But, I digress.

I'm still a believer in track heritage as a selling point. Hall Of Fame night, special races honoring past greats and that sort of thing. San Jose has that. But, again, what does it do for the community? I'll give you an example. I noticed recently a race track had a high school nearby that is in need of funds to replace their outdated track. The kids are practicing across town at another newer high school facility, and the school is hoping to get a grant from Pepsi. Do you suppose the nearby speedway could hold a fund raiser or offer to donate something to the school that has been its neighbor for decades?

So fund raisers for worthy local causes is one thing that can help. Another would be if San Jose Speedway established a real high school racing program with a half dozen or more schools involved, even building it to a point where schools could field two cars each. Bone stock 4 Bangers would be the class. Cheap, but safety conscious. Get the schools involved. Bring experienced racers who aren't currently racing into the effort as instructors. Kids would work on the cars. Bring sponsorship to help fund things, but have the kids involved in raising some money though car washes and that sort of thing.

I don't need to tell you how the kids today are racing on the streets. Getting them into racing in a structured environment has much value to the community in the lessons they learn about sportsmanship, dedication, team work and so on. The students at the schools have cars they can cheer on as part of the high school team. You get a school champion in auto racing, just as you would other sports. Plus, some of these racers may go on to join the sport in other divisions and you gain new racers and fans. I don't need to explain to you how the sport is in need of new fans and competitors.

Now, if the track keeps a smaller track for Karts and Motorcycles, a similar school program could be attempted for junior high or even elementary school. Just a thought.

Keeping along with the 4 Banger idea, I have another though. Don't get mad Sprint Car fans, the track will race Sprint Cars as well as stock cars in one form or another. At Altamont, Greg Rayl started a Mini Super Truck rental program that became very popular, very quick. Drivers paid to rent the trucks and repair any damage they may have caused. This would present the perfect opportunity for a fan to go racing and connect the fans more closely to the sport. Most fans will never get that chance due to cost and other factors, but if something like this existed, they could try it.

Four Bangers would also afford the track the opportunity to have local politicians, media, business men and women and other public figures a chance to step in for a night and go racing. These are just ideas on how you can make the race track part of the community. If you get media involved this way, it will likely lead to more ink in newspapers and even a spot on TV. A win/win situation.

I know the odds of San Jose Speedway coming back are low, but there is always a chance if it's done right. It can happen if the effort is made the right way, if the people get involved, if the backing is there and the proposal has a broad appeal that involves the community. Picture Sprint Cars, Dirt Mofieds, Street Stocks, Hobby Stocks, 4 Bangers and other classes racing right in the heart of San Jose once more. It can happen if people believe in it and get behind it, or it can just be another dream that never comes true.

On July 9-11 at Hot San Jose Nights at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds, the hot rods will be on display, probably a race car or two, Dennis Mattish will have his History Of San Jose Speedway book on sale and Mike will have his petition for a rebuilding of San Jose Speedway. Where it goes next, who knows? It depends on the will of the people, but at least somebody stepped up and tried to start something.