Getting ready to race again
By Mike Bennett
WINCHESTER, Ind. -- For a few hours Monday, the sounds and the smells of racing hung in the air again at Winchester Speedway.
NASCAR Craftsman Trucks driver Steve Park turned 137 laps on the famed half-mile racetrack.
Park's Orleans Racing team rented the track to test shocks for a race Wednesday night at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway.
Winchester's paved surface has similar bumps and banking to Bristol.
"We found out a lot," Park said. "We narrowed it down to what we're going to use at Bristol."
He found the experience memorable for another reason.
"I was five laps in and thought, 'It feels historic,'" he said. "I thought it was great. I felt like I was right with them."
Park was referring to the legendary drivers who've raced at the tight track that opened 90 years ago -- drivers such as A.J. Foyt, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Rusty Wallace. There are dozens and dozens more.
About half the drivers on the NASCAR Nextel Cup and Busch series raced at Winchester on the way up in the past couple decades.
But, no emerging stars have raced there in 2004.
The track is closed.
Majority owner Charlie Shaw and co-owner Jeff Jeffers took the year off to research ways to reverse financial losses.
Shaw of Lynn and Jeffers of Richmond share a deep reverence for the history of the track and its Indiana roots.
They won't let the track fall into disrepair.
Except for a few weeds popping up in the pit area, it looks race-ready.
"We've kept it up," Shaw said.
He plans to re-open next year or sell to someone who will keep it open.
"We don't give up easy," Shaw said. "I would do whatever to help keep the track open."
He enjoyed his day in the sun with Park and the crew of about 10.
Park flew from his home in North Carolina to Indianapolis on Sunday and drove a rental car to the testing session. He returned home Monday night while his crew continued working to set up two trucks.
"It was nice to have some action going on," Shaw said.
Handfuls of track workers and safety personnel were at the ready Monday as Park took laps at an average of 115 mph.
Many visited with Park later and shared cake to celebrate his birthday.
He turned 36 on Monday.
Jeffers was happy, too: "It was good even to smell the fragrances (of racing)," he said. "This is an exciting place. It's a shame nothing is going on here."
Shaw wants to schedule six to eight races next season, including the major Winchester 400.
"We're working on it (the re-opening), but I can't tell you for positive," he said.
He's hopeful that major racing groups will return.
"If we run next year, I'd say ASA would be part of it," he said. "I talked to USAC two weeks ago. They want to come back here."
The ASA organization promotes national late-model events, while USAC is a major sanctioning body for sprint-car racing.
Above all, Shaw wants to attract larger crowds.
He'd like to buy the wooded property to the east of the track and use some of it to park recreational vehicles.
"You've got to have that," he said. "They (fans) go race to race."
He'd like to lower the infield so teams can park trailers there and not disturb the view of fans.
Shaw is hopeful of landing major sponsors or partners -- possibly the big-name appeal of top NASCAR drivers.
"We need someone with connections ... a Gordon, a (Ryan) Newman or a Stewart," Shaw said. "We have to do something to bring more fans in."
Contrary to Internet speculation, Shaw said he's never visited with Stewart about buying into the track. Stewart has helped finance the careers of many drivers in the past few years and often visits small tracks across the nation. That leads to daily rumors about his next racing venture.
What's true is Stewart, Gordon and Newman all have Indiana connections and their involvement in any track would raise fan excitement.
Park knows the buzz that NASCAR can create with fans: Nextel Cup events at Bristol draw 160,000 fans. Events at Daytona and Indianapolis attract nearly twice as many.
He won two times on the NASCAR top series before a serious head injury in 2001 stalled his career.
Park knows the power of personalities in the sport's success. He offered to come back to Winchester.
"Next year, you start racing again," he said. "I'll come in and sign some autographs and meet some fans."