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Chris Murphy, Published May 04 2013

Red River Valley Speedway finally runs out of tread

West Fargo - A slight fog calmly creeps over the track at the Red River Valley Speedway as it sits quietly in the rain. It was almost as if the exhaust from races past was unable to let go. Lights point toward an empty track, and speakers aim at empty grandstands.

An entrance to the track was still open like the entry way for gladiators at the Coliseum. The track where three drivers laid their last blood and thousands left their sweat stood still.

It’s the end of the road for racing in West Fargo.

There was no funeral for racing at the RRVS in West Fargo. There were no goodbyes, there was no sendoff, and there was no revving up for a 21-engine salute. All that’s left are the mourners.

“I loved it,” said Rod Miller, who was an announcer at the RRVS for 33 years starting in 1973. “I was the luckiest guy in the world. You can’t beat doing something you love. I have so many lasting memories.

“I wish I could put my finger on it, but something happened where the competition changed. Now, it’s every driver for himself. There’s no camaraderie. Instead of being a real fun time, it became a business.”

There will be no racing this summer at the Red River Valley Speedway for the first time since 1967, and there’s no guarantee it will return.

“I don’t see it coming back to be honest,” Red River Valley Fair Association General Manager Bryan Schulz said. “You’d have to invest a lot of money to entice people back.”

The speedway itself isn’t going anywhere, but there won’t be cars crossing the finish line.

“When you start seeing that there’s 100 or 200 people in the stands that sits about 8,500, that doesn’t pay the bills,” Schulz said. “We’re leaving it intact, but we are just going to use it for a multitude of different things like marathons, monster trucks, demolition derbies, tractor pulls and those kind of things.

“There are just so many other things to do. Racing is not of interest anymore.”

Like watching a close relative begin to feel the effects of age, the RRVS has all the features, but it just doesn’t look the same. The current three-eighths of a mile dirt track and empty grandstands is a shell of what it once was. It looks nothing like the half-mile track that made a winner of the white No. 4 stock car of 27-year-old East Grand Forks native Don Mack in front of 2,600 fans in the first race on it on Aug. 18, 1967.

The lights no longer shine on 3,100 as they did in the grandstand when 28-year-old Dick Jones outlasted Dan Morrow and Al Moldenauer two days later in the first nightcap for the speedway.

“As a racer, when the grandstands are packed, it doesn’t get any better,” said the now 74-year-old Mack, who lost one of his best friends Dave Skari in one of three fatalities at the RRVS. “It’s too bad that things are working out like this. It was one of my favorite tracks.”

Mack is a sprint car legend and promoted the World of Outlaws stop in West Fargo from 1981 until 2005. He’s also helped with the River Cities Speedway in Grand Forks, which has shown no signs of slowing down. He will remember the RRVS in its prime.

“I remember weekends where we’d get close to 22,000 over a weekend when I was with the World of Outlaws,” Mack said. “In all honesty, the fair board there is missing how things should be. They run the show.

“We’re fortunate how we get to do things (in Grand Forks). The fair board doesn’t interfere and they let us run it the way we wanted. It takes cooperation from the fair board. To me, it looked like that was one of the problems in Fargo.”

Considering Schulz received death threats when racing was nearly cancelled three years ago, the idea of not having racing didn’t come with celebratory cigars and a victory lap. The numbers didn’t lie.

On the 2008 income sheet for the RRVS there is one entrant of $18,516, which was a donation from Danny and Diane Schatz to pave a back lot for the World of Outlaws Sprint Car series. It has to be listed as an income, since the speedway didn’t pay for it. Even counting that donation, the speedway lost $39,194.

“We were losing on average anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 in the years I’ve been here, and from what I’ve seen in previous years,” Schulz said. “When (NASCAR Sprint Cup champion) Tony Stewart was here the grandstands were full, but how often do you get Tony Stewart to come here? In the ’80s and early ’90s, we would probably get 6,000 people in the grandstands, but you didn’t have the Fargodome with their concerts, the casinos within a 45-minute drive or Newman Outdoor Field for the RedHawks, and the lakes weren’t as prevalent.”

In 2009, just once in 13 racing events – seven additional races were canceled due to weather conditions – were there more people in attendance than the first ever race at the Red River Valley Speedway in 1967 and that was during the Red River Valley Fair. There were a total of 17,330 in attendance in 2009.

From 2010 to 2012, local business owner and former competitive racer Danny Schatz leased the track, operating it out of his own pocket. The move saved racing in West Fargo, but really only prolonged what seemed like the inevitable. When Schatz signed on for three years with the option for a three-year extension, he wanted more time tacked on to it. After the three years, however, he did not renew the lease.

“The Red River Valley Speedway was the big ticket,” Schatz said of the prime days for the speedway. “People were hungry for something to do, and racing filled their plate. There’s so much competition nowadays when it comes to all the things that people can do. People always have to have something new and exciting and once they experience it, it seems boring, noisy or dirty and they eliminate that and go to something else that they can do and have more enjoyment.”

Schatz shortened the track, moved race dates to Wednesdays and then to Saturdays, and brought in big names like Stewart, but the attendance didn’t come. Schatz found out in his first stint running a track, there was more to it than meets the eye.

“If you have six or seven classes, as opposed to the two classes there used to be, it’ll take you two-and-a-half days to get a three-hour race in,” Schatz said. “With wrecks slowing things down, it would go until midnight or 1 a.m. We’d have people carrying their kids out before the main event.”

From weather to altering the track, the to-do list never ended for Schatz.

“If you have bad weather four hours before a race, that will change the minds of half of your audience on whether or not to come,” Schatz said. “We tried to improve the track to hold moisture, but then we had people complaining about dust. I had the track hard in some areas and wet in some areas and the moisture came up and caused holes and wrecks. Some people loved it, but car owners hated it. You can’t undo a screw up with the snap of a finger. A guy who never tries, never makes mistakes though I guess.”

According to Schatz, racing in West Fargo can be resurrected. He’s just not the man to do it.

“It’s not like this place wouldn’t work,” Schatz said. “If a guy just had two or three special events, it might be the only salvation for this program. It’s a big facility. My expenses were year-round there. You got the same light bill in December when you have nothing going on as you do in June. It’s tough and it got to the point where I had too much going on.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Chris Murphy at (701) 241-5548