Coming back around

  • By Rich Myhre Herald Writer
  • Tuesday, April 5, 2011 12:01am
  • Sports

MONROE — The start of a new racing season is often a time of optimism and excitement, and that seems particularly true this year at Evergreen Speedway.

After years of lagging attendance and diminishing driver participation, a new management team has taken over with a vow that better days are ahead for the venerable Snohomish County-owned track.

“We want to make Evergreen the premier race facility in the Northwest,” said Doug Hobbs of High Road Promotions and the speedway’s new managing partner and promoter.

“We’re very privileged to have this contract, and we want to take it to the nth degree to make sure that everybody in Washington, and especially in the Puget Sound area, is proud of the history and heritage at Evergreen Speedway,” he said. “We take that very seriously, and we’re proud to be able to do it.”

Hobbs is partnered with Steve Beitler, who has owned and operated Alger’s Skagit Speedway for several years. Beitler will continue to focus his energies at Skagit, while Hobbs will run the show at Evergreen.

High Road Promotions is taking over a facility that is coming through a stretch of lean seasons. Though the speedway has a long and distinguished legacy, the last few years have been disappointing for all concerned.

The recent history goes like this. Early in 2008, Mickey Beadle ended three decades of family management at the track by selling International Productions, Inc., and the remaining three years of the operating contract with the county to Lex and Danni Johnson, owners of Johnson Productions.

For the Johnsons, the timing could hardly have been worse. A slumping economy combined with other issues — or what Hobbs called “a perfect storm (of problems) … if anything could’ve gone wrong it did go wrong, and a lot of things went wrong” — put track operations into a downward spin.

“It’d be unfair for me to point fingers,” Hobbs said. “From the economy to internal things that happened with Johnson Productions … I think they probably did the best with what they had.”

With the operating contract expiring after the 2010 season, High Road Promotions stepped in and won the bid. And the biggest challenge heading into the new season, Hobbs said, is to “continually win back drivers and fans.”

“The more fans in the stands, the more you can do for your drivers,” he explained. “And the more you can do for your drivers, the more cars you’ll get. That’s been the biggest challenge and right now, knock on wood, we’re getting a really good response. The drivers see what we’re doing.”

It is, he added, “much more of a partnership than an adversarial role.”

Shari Ball, president of the Western Washington Racing Association, which oversees the Sky Valley Stocks and several other classes on the speedway’s usual Friday night schedule, said Hobbs and his team have been striving “by leaps and bounds to grow us back to what we used to be in the 1980s and 90s. … They’ve been very easy to work with. They’ve been great so far.”

Attendance is a major concern. In peak years the speedway would attract 250,000 to 300,000 spectators, Hobbs said, but last season the total was under 100,000. “There is,” he said, “a lot of room for improvement.”

Tom Teigen, director of parks and recreation for Snohomish County, acknowledged that Evergreen Speedway has been through some “significant struggles” in recent years. Still, he said, “the racing community owes (Johnson Productions) a debt of gratitude. Because the truth is, if they had not stepped up and provided the leadership and taken on the financial risk and burden, there might not have been racing at all.”

During last year’s bid process, Teigen said, the county heard from “a number of really good groups,” but High Road Promotions “came through from the standpoint of a huge racing background and a really strong interest in reinvestment of the track right away.”

During negotiations, he went on, “they were very, very attuned to saying that this is a family-based facility with long history and heritage, and they want to value both those things and bring it back to its glory days. And from our standpoint, we were saying, ‘Where’s the downside of that?'”

To date, Teigen said, “it’s been a great relationship. They’ve been really proactive, and that’s what we wanted to see. … (County officials) are excited about this next chapter in the speedway’s life cycle.”

Indeed, Hobbs and his team have big dreams for the speedway. The plan is to add luxury suites (some as soon as this year), a large scoreboard with a video screen, and a new motocross track. Of course, paying for those projects means “getting (attendance) back to that 250,000-300,000 level,” he said.

This season’s schedule, meanwhile, offers the traditional weekly series of late models, street stocks, mini-stocks, figure eights and stinger 8’s, plus a new division of extreme V-8’s. But the biggest weekend of the year is July 8-10, when the NASCAR K&N Pro West Series is slated for the speedway’s 5/8-mile oval.

Other traveling groups are also on the season schedule, which begins this month and continues to late October.

As he looks to the future, Hobbs envisions Evergreen Speedway being “a motor sports park that will cover pretty much everything from go-karting to bikes to NASCAR.”

Ambitious, yes, but there is also a clear and passionate purpose, he emphasized.

The goal, Hobbs said, “is to try to rebirth (the speedway) and get it back to the history and the heritage of what it had been for so many years.”

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