Posted: Apr. 4, 2014 12:01 am Updated: Apr. 25, 2014 4:14 pm
By STEVE EIGHINGER
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
When the green flag drops for Quincy Raceways’ 40th anniversary season April 13, there will likely be a noticeable change in the air.
It’s called optimism.
New track promoter Ken Dobson and his CILTRAK operations group have spent most of the offseason not only rebuilding the fan base but earning the trust of the drivers. Both the number of fans and drivers had fallen off in recent years.
A sign that Dobson’s group is on the right track — no pun intended — was seen last Sunday when about 500 fans showed up just to watch and listen as a group of about 30 drivers tested and tuned their late models, modifieds, sport mods, stock cars and sport compacts.
“Wow ... this many people turned out just to watch practice?” Dobson said.
Dobson and his staff will spend the next week getting the facility in proper racing condition. Opening night was originally scheduled for Sunday, but ongoing poor weather conditions forced Dobson to cancel this weekend’s action early Friday morning.
Dobson’s management group is headquartered in Jacksonville but he may need to rent a house in Quincy for the amount of time he has spent in town since early last fall meeting with sponsors, drivers and fans.
Dobson’s hands-on approach was evident at the practice.
“We met a lot of people, and hopefully everyone knows not to be shy about offering constructive opinions,” Dobson said. “When we ask a driver ‘How’s the track?,’ we aren’t doing it to get a pat on the back, we are asking because we really want to know what drivers are starting to see as conditions change. We want to stay ahead of it.
“The long winter has really pushed us back on many of the things that need to be done to open the doors. My biggest concern is that we have been unable to make some of the improvements we wanted in place prior to opening the season.
“For example, we were just able to get the water lines fixed and flowing again (last Sunday morning),” Dobson said. “So people are going to come back to a race track that looks very similar in most respects to the one they left last fall — and that certainly wasn’t our plan. But we are confident that each week throughout the beginning part of the season people will see small improvements that make the experience better.
“(April 13) will be far less a grand re-opening, and more like the first step toward making Quincy Raceways one of the premier facilities in the Midwest,” he said.
The drivers, too, have sensed a change.
“It was needed,” said Steven DeLonjay, the three-time defending champion in the modified series. “I think everyone is looking forward to the season. The new promoter seems to be doing a great job.”
Denny Woodworth, the defending champ of the track’s marquee late model division, is excited about what the CILTRAK group has brought to the table — from the group’s enthusiasm to its efforts to improve the track facilities.
“I’m hoping they do a good job,” said Woodworth, who expects the car counts to climb as the season progresses.
Woodworth expects a trickle-down effect from having more cars in the pits.
“More cars always means more fans,” he said.
A few years ago, Dobson and his group resurrected a facility in Jacksonville that was on the verge of closing but is now regarded as one of the top United Midwestern Promoters (UMP) tracks in the region. CILTRAK also has taken over the speedway in Lincoln.
In one sense, CILTRAK’s rebuilding effort will be easier at Quincy Raceways, long considered one of the crown jewels of dirt-track racing in this area of the country before a series of problems over the past six years gradually began to affect attendance and car counts.
The deterioration of the racing surface, overall track maintenance, a lack of special events and high concession prices were among the most common complaints that led to low attendance figures in the stands and in the pits.
The track seats 3,400, and until a few years ago most of those seats were filled on Sunday nights and for special mid-week events. An average crowd in recent seasons was about 800. Car counts had dropped by about 25 percent.
Knowing the role the track has played in the community since its 1975 opening, local businessman and developer Paul Holtschlag helped keep the facility open the past couple of years. Holtschlag had taken over control following a partnership with Tony Rhinberger, but Holtschlag announced about midway through the 2013 season that it would be his last at being a full-time operator of the track. He sought an individual or group to buy or lease the property. By early fall, he had worked out a deal with CILTRAK to take over operations on a lease basis.
Many of those with long-time connections to the track were grateful for Holtschlag’s efforts.
“Without Paul,” said a long-time employee who asked for anonymity, “the track would have closed. Every race fan in the area owes him a great deal of gratitude.”
Holtschlag told The Herald-Whig he no longer had the time to devote to the track and needed to concentrate on his other business interests. Holtschlag remains owner, but is out of the promoting business.
Since Dobson and his group have taken over operations, he has reached out to and met with numerous community leaders and powerbrokers in an effort to get them involved with the track — if not immediately, then down the road.
Dobson also has repeatedly met and talked with former owners Bob and Jeff Scott, whose family founded and operated the track until January 2007.
Dobson said it is hard to describe to those outside of Quincy the “passion” he quickly discovered here for racing.
“Quincy is a great racing community, and it’s exciting to be here,” Dobson said.
QUINCY RACEWAYS OPENING NIGHT
When: 6 p.m., Sunday, April 13.
Where: 8000 Broadway.
Classes: Late models, modifieds, sport mods, stock cars, sport compacts.
Admission: $12 adults, $9 seniors, $5 ages 10-16, under 10 free.
Promoter: Ken Dobson (217-371-3653).