For most of the past 40 years, there has been racing at Paducah International Raceway.
Kentucky Lake Motor Speedway will be sold at auction Thursday.
After Friday night’s Chris Smith Memorial Summernationals race at PIR, track management will be one step closer to a decision about the fate of that track.
In a worst-case scenario for competitors and fans, regular racing may come to a halt.
In the best of all possible outcomes, KLMS will reopen under new ownership and PIR will get back on a regular schedule.
But for now, everything is in limbo.
After suffering six rainouts in the first eight tries to hold a race this season, the 3/8-mile Paducah oval sat idle for three originally scheduled Friday night race dates. Only four races have been staged, the last one on May 24.
PIR re-opened Friday night with a Fan Appreciation Night program, featuring half-price admission. Additions such a face-painting vendor, a driver autograph meet-and-greet session between warm-up laps and heat races and other novlties were offered.
Spectator turnout was modest, and the number of competitors was slender.
Promoter Bob Sargent, at the pre-race drivers’ meeting, thanked the competitors on hand for supporting the track. He told them track management is trying to continue to provide a weekly racing program for them, but could not commit to anything beyond Friday.
“Right now, we are not definite on any plans,” he said. “We’re just gonna get us through this couple of weeks here and see where we’re at.”
Chris Corum, a racing promoter from the Knoxville, Tenn., area, is helping Sargent try to get things going while the track’s general manager, Leon Zeeb, recuperates from an illness.
“I tell my wife, I feel like it’s my responsibility to make sure racetracks don’t close,” Corum said. “And when I heard this one had closed, it made me really sad. Bob called me a couple of weeks ago and said, ‘Can you help me with a couple of events?’ and I’m honored to do it.”
The Summernationals event is an annual big-money race ($10,000 to the winner). The event is part of a series of races in June and July at tracks in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
It usually draws competitors from an extended region; Brian Birkhofer, of Muscatine, Iowa, won last year’s race.
It attracts a hefty crowd, as well, at premium ticket prices.
The question is whether, in a challenging economy, a local track can make ends meet and take in enough revenue in its regular weekly programs that cater to the local races, not the touring professionals.
“When racetracks close down,” Corum said, “there’s just a lot of people that quit that raced at that racetrack.”
There’s little question that many of the racers who once were regulars at PIR were absent Friday because they have already quit racing, or they have found another track within reasonable driving distance where they can compete.
“The racing community as a whole needs more racetracks to be strong,” Corum said. “Now, obviously, they have to work together. When they try to tear each other down, that’s not good for anybody.”
Which brings the discussion to Thursday’s auction, and the fate of Kentucky Lake Motor Speedway.
The track opened in 1997 and ran regularly for more than a half-dozen years before the regular program was replaced by a series of special, big-money event and alternate attractions, such as Figure-8 school bus races.
Sherri Heckanast, a Chicago-area native whose family has been involved in racing and in the automotive recycling business, is selling the property.
She bought it at auction for $1.622 million in 2005.
Potential bidders are keeping mum, but the rumor mill has been hot, with speculation about just about everything, including unconfirmed reports that NASCAR driver Clint Bowyer, an avid dirt racer, is interested in buying the track.
Bowyer’s peers Tony Stewart, Ken Scharder and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are partners with Sargent in ownership of the Paducah track.
The track was built by Marshall Countians Dwight and Keith Greer.
“We went and looked at Kentucky Lake the other day,” Corum said. “A beautiful facility, I mean, that place is top-notch, and for whatever reason hasn’t been open or hasn’t done good or whatever.”
Corum is convinced the two tracks could co-exist and work with each other to strengthen the local racing community.
“Biggest thing is to look at it with an attitude of trying to help each other,” he said. “It’s tough times for all racetracks in the United States right now. I see ‘em close down every day.
“But there’s a few of them that are doing better than they ever have. I think it’s the tracks that have taken that attitude, to cooperate with each other.”
Whether it’s one track or two, most racers in any local area need a regular place to compete, with the opportunity to earn prize money to at least partially offset their expenses.
A number of the more serious and those with some measure of financial support from sponsors will keep racing if there is no local venue, but many, as Corum said, will just drift away from the sport.
The four-state area is not and never has been a nationally renowned hotbed of stock car racing in the manner that the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia and Alabama have always been.
But there is a good half-century of history of good, competitive racing that has produced two national champion late model drivers, Benton’s Terry English and Mayfield’s Randy Sellars, and many other better-than-average drivers.
It would be a shame for that grind to a halt.
Here’s hoping that it won’t. n