DANVILLE — It’s time for the checkered flag at the Vermilion County Speedway, where racing days are officially over now that the fair board has moved forward with reconfiguring the short track that has hosted fast cars for 50-plus years.
“I hate (to do) it. It’s been there forever, but we can’t let it sit there idle,” Vermilion County Fair Board President Rick White told News-Gazette Media on Tuesday.
Plain and simple, the speedway has not been profitable, he said, “and we’ve got to make some adjustments.”
So, this week, the fair board hired a contractor to “repurpose” the quarter-mile banked dirt track, White said, with the hope of using a reconfigured flat area for truck and tractor pulls, motorcross events, demolition derbies, concerts and other events, both during the county fair and on other dates.
“I truly do hate (to do) it,” said White, who has been on the fair board for 40 years and involved with races at the speedway for even longer. “But we are a fair first and a racetrack second.”
And when something isn’t making money — no matter the tradition of a track where future NASCAR star Tony Stewart, among many others, raced — the board can’t continue to fund it, White said.
'Just one more place that won't be available'
Ryan Cary and his dad, Roger, both raced there.
Roger, who is now retired, raced for more than 40 years. Ryan, who is still racing, said his first career feature win came at the speedway, in a race where his dad followed in second.
“Pretty special memory for both of us,” said Ryan, who also won the last feature race they had last year, along with the UMP Modified Track Championship. “Always be a special place for the Carys.”
He said it’s a shame that something couldn’t be worked out with the fair board.
“But it seems like this racetrack has always had a hard time keeping a track promoter around,” he said. “There isn’t much to do in Danville anymore, and this is just one more place that won’t be available. I know there will be a large group of us that grew up there that will definitely miss it.”
It has been more than a year since races have been held on the dirt track that at times was a huge local and regional draw for drivers and fans of short-track racing.
In the winged sprint-car racing years, White said he was involved with events that drew big-time racers to the speedway, and he recalls drivers saying it was one of the best quarter-mile dirt tracks in the area.
“I’ve never forgotten that. It’s too bad, but those wing-sprint races got to be so expensive, we couldn’t host them anymore,” he said.
Racing events were still strong at the speedway through the 1990s, but began to struggle more and more after 2000.
In 2016, after the previous promoter quit, Michael and Kim Daugherty — who had also re-opened a speedway in Boswell, Ind. — came to an agreement with the fair board to promote the track as the Kickapoo Speedway and run modifieds, pro late models, street stock, pure street and sport compact racing events.
But in July of last year, the Daughertys began canceling races while claiming the fair board had breached their contract.
No events have been held since.
'Coincided with the decline in Danville'
Back in the day, White said, Sunday night races at the speedway were packed.
“The grandstands were absolutely stuffed full,” he said, adding that when a lot of the businesses left Danville, some of the fans and drivers went, too.
“The decline in our track coincided with the decline in Danville. And racing has gotten to be like any other sport — it costs so much money, and a lot of the drivers can’t afford to build cars, and spectators can’t afford money for races.”
Same for the fair, which has found success the last two summers by charging an admission fee and offering unlimited carnival rides.
Rather than $3 per person at the gate, plus a $21 arm band for rides, the fair board decided to charge a flat $6 gate fee, good for unlimited rides.
“Our attendance doubled overnight,” White said. “We’ve got to cater to the type of economic atmosphere we have in our backyard. This part of Vermilion County has done some suffering economically, and we are trying to cater to that.”
Also, he explained, the banked track made it difficult to cater to other events, which had to be pushed back from the stands into flatter ground in the middle of the track. And fencing that guarded the audience from flying tires and other debris in racing didn’t provide a great viewing experience for events that didn’t need it, White said.
“That’s always been a negative, but we had a good racing program back in the day, so it didn’t matter,” he said.
'We've got to adapt'
The plan is for the track area to be raised and flattened, and put spectators 100 feet closer to the action.
“All of that put together, we will have a track that can host concerts, rodeos and any number of things,” White said. “There’s a lot of things we are going to work on and discuss and come up with a better idea.”
Some people have already let the fair board know they aren’t happy with the decision, White said.
“Some people are going to choose to blame us or me, but we’ve done our best, and it didn’t work, and we are adjusting to what we think the future will bring,” he said. “Times have changed, and we’ve got to adapt.
“I don’t want to place blame on any person group or whatever; it just hasn’t been working.”