It completely caught us off guard. Drivers, team members, sponsors, promoters, the media and racing fans never saw it coming. We were so busy writing eulogies for and singing the praises of the Stockton 99 Speedway, which closed in mid September after 60 years of racing, that problems regarding the Madera Speedway slipped right by us until it was too late.
The September 20th announcement that the one third mile track, located at the Fairgrounds in Madera, was closing at the end of this season left us stunned. But, sadly, it was also a case of deja vu. We've spent the last two consecutive racing seasons bidding farewell to race tracks with no guarantee that we won't be spending next year doing the same thing.
The closure of the Madera Speedway had a similiar thread with the closure of other western states tracks: so called progress and the construction of badly needed residential housing tracts and retail centers. But this particular case also stands alone because it came from the hands of public officials under some rather eyebrow raising, not to mention unethical, circumstances. Once this story began to unfold the stunned surprise of California racers, and their fans, turned to white heat anger.
According to published reports, the Madera Speedway was placed in the capable hands of Elizabeth Ann Williams in January of last year. The Madera County Fair Board Of Directors signed a five year lease with Williams, with a reported additional five year renewal option, to operate the speedway. Williams, in turn, reportedly invested $400,000 of her own money to make capital improvements at the facility and began the serious business of operating her new enterprise.
I can only imagine the shock Williams experienced when she learned of the news that her lease was going to be cancelled, three and one half years early, and the speedway that she put so much effort into was going to be destroyed and turned into a retail strip mall.
According to published reports, from area newspapers, the fate of the Madera Speedway was sealed on September 20th during an open meeting conducted by the Madera County Fair Board Of Directors. There were plenty of speedway supporters at this meeting but the general feeling, after it was over, was the dye had already been cast and the Board Of Directors listened to the sentiments of the citizens present simply because state law says they have to. Those same published reports also inferred that the Board Of Directors alledgely made a hasty retreat to the parking lot, after the meeting was adjourned, to avoid the questions from the frustrated constituients they represent.
In the aftermath came a series of allegations and rumors. The first reported one stated that Elizabeth Ann Williams intended to file a civil suit against the Fair Board. Good for her. The least case senario supports the fact that she's entitled to compensation to recover her personal investment in the Madera Speedway as well as compensation for future revenues she will lose because here lease was cancelled three and one half years early.
There are rumors that claim the retail strip mall, that will replace the speedway, is going to be anchored by a Lowes Home Improvement Center. Isn't it ironic that a race track is being replaced by Lowes: the official home improvement center of NASCAR?
The final days of September brought some really interesting rumors. We are now hearing that there is plenty of room, on the Fairground's property, to accomodate both the stirp mall and the racetrack. We're also hearing that the Madera Speedway will be closed in 2007 but racing will return in 2008. This one year closure alledgely gives the Fair Board time and opportunity to solicit new bids for the racetrack. It's also been alledged that rebidding is a viable option for the Fair Board because it will eliminate previous issues between them and Williams that they deem unresolveable. At this writing there has been no public disclosure as to exactly what these issues are.
Unconfirmed rumors and a lack of disclsoure of facts aren't going to fly in this case because this is not a private business dispute. If this was a case of a private property owner vs a tennant then the public would have no real say so in the matter and the only true disclosure of details would come from a civil trial. That's only because our judicial system is funded by the tax payers.
It's that public's right to know theory that makes this situation especially interesting. The Madera Speedway is located on land owned by the public and is funded by the public via state tax dollars or the presence of Off Track Betting, OTB, facilities approved by the state.
Fairgrounds in California, officially known as Agriculture Districts, are created by the state. The administrators, AKA a Fair Board Of Directors, are appointed. That appointment process begins first with the endorsement of a County Supervisor and final approval comes via a document signed by the Govenor. The cost of the process is funded by, you guessed it, the taxpayers and state law clearly states that anytime the public's money is expended then the public has a right to know about it.
Also in the aftermath of this situation is the formation of a grass roots group known as SOS: Save Our Speedway. This group is led by Chairman Dave Galleano who, in a prepared statement, wrote "our campaign is simple, we want our state legislators and local officials to know how we feel about racing as a community."
Galleano is asking the public to support SOS by sending letters and emails to state and local officials to remind them that there's a lot more involved with the Madera Speedway than just another form of family recreation. This speedway is, in fact, a major source of tourism dollars that creates an economic impact for the city, county and the state. He goes on to say"when we travel to tracks as spectators and competitors alike we spend money on hotel rooms, we buy food and gas and even visit other local attractions while we are there. We also VOTE."
Galleano also said that he would like to see SOS groups established in other communities to form a network and added "we need groups of racers supporting racers from one end of California to the other. My hope is that by putting together local networks of people, and after we win this fight, when other tracks are threatened in the future our network can rally to support that track."
Galleano also issued the warning that complacency will only guarantee a lost cause adding "without effort none of us will have a place to race sooner than later. If we fight and lose then it is meant to be. If we don't fight and lose then we have no one to blame but ourselves."
Further information regarding SOS can be obtained by contacting Dave Galleano at 559 662 0333. The fax number is 559 673 7792 and the email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The group is also in the process of putting together an official SOS website located at www.soscaliforniacarracing.com.
SOS is quite correct in their belief that it's time for all members of the racing community to get invovled to stop this disturbing trend of racetrack closures. The Madera Speedway has been presenting high quality racing shows since 1972 and to lose that without a fight would truly be a shame.