There was a time when Lanier Speedway saw its bleachers packed, parking lot full and big-time NASCAR races gracing its tracks. But those days are long gone. Now, track owner Donnie Clack is struggling just to keep the place operating, and is on the verge of having to sell the speedway due to poor attendance.
The obvious blame for the track’s decline is a poor economy. From there, some finger-pointing has been going back and forth. Some say Clack is the problem. Others say lack of fan support. And everyone not in Clack’s position has an idea of what they believe would fix the speedway’s critical state.
But it’s Clack alone that must endure any financial hits the track takes, and he’s made some drastic changes to this year’s racing season to ensure his losses are minimal. He’s also made it clear if the changes don’t work, he’ll sell the track.
This season’s changes call for racing to go on as scheduled, regardless of weather. On race days when inclement weather is possible, driver payouts will either be reduced or canceled. The purse for a given event will be reduced by 20 percent when forecasts call for a 20 percent chance of rain, and when there’s a 30 percent chance of rain or higher, there will be no purse for the night’s events.
At this point, Clack is just hoping to get through the season.
“I feel like we’ve got the season to see if we can get things turned around,” Clack said. “If we can’t, I’ll sell the track. Hopefully, we’ll come back around.”
So far, however, there’s little indication that will happen. Last weekend, the track hosted an event that has drawn close to 1,500 people in year’s past. Ben Jones, best known for his role as Cooter Davenport on Dukes of Hazzard, made his annual appearance at the track. But the draw this year was only between 300-400 people. Had it not been for Jones’ presence, the event may have drawn even less people.
Clack said the track’s fate, at least under his ownership, will be determined by what is normally the biggest event of a given season — the Fourth of July weekend event. It will take place on July 2, and will be highlighted by a traditional fireworks show. Tickets to the event will cost $20 for adults and $5 for kids 11 and under, with doors opening at 4 p.m. Anoop Desai, an American Idol finalist in Season 8, will be on hand to sing the National Anthem.
“That event will be a tell-tale sign if people are willing to come out to the races or not,” Clack said. “People usually come out just for the fireworks. It’s one of the biggest Fourth of July shows in northeast Georgia. If there ain’t nobody there, you know something’s wrong big time.”
Clack said he and those who support the track aren’t going down without a fight. He said he gets a lot of feedback from the racing community on how to keep the speedway afloat.
“Racers and fans are coming up with creative ideas,” Clack said. “This track is part of the Hall County heritage, and there are a lot of memories here over the last 25-30 years. No one wants to see that go away.”
Clack said he’ll look into which suggestions can and cannot work. In the meantime, the racing community will have to make due with the implementations currently in place.
Dwayne Buggay, a Pro Late Model driver, has been competing at Lanier Speedway since 1994 and considers it to be his home track. He’s seen race nights where there were 30 cars lined up on the track. Now he says, it’s a good night if 10 show up.
“If you put Lanier up against other facilities, I haven’t seen a nicer track,” he said. “I hate seeing where it is now. It’s tough on every body.”
Buggay said the most frustrating developments in the Speedway’s recent slide is the lack of a payout for racers.
“I mean, we’ll race for a trophy,” he said, “But people don’t like it when they’re not offered money. The financial situation (Clack) is in, we know he’s got to make money.”
Sam Mundy is a dedicated Lanier Speedway fan that has attended races beginning in its dirt track days, when it first opened. The 64-year-old Buford resident continues to attend races regularly, and takes his grandchildren to the track.
He’s seen a lot of NASCAR stars cut their teeth at Lanier Speedway, including Kyle Busch, David Ragan and Chase Elliot.
“It was one of the country’s premier short tracks,” Mundy said. “I’ve traveled out of state in the past, and people were always talking about Lanier. That’s the reason I hate to see this happen.”
He sees the efforts of Clack and the racing community to keep the track running under current ownership and hopes they continue.
“It’s going to be a give-and-take situation for everyone involved,” he said.
Sponsors have dwindled over the years, but one local company has stepped up to offer support. Rheem Manufacturing Company, based out of Atlanta, is a fixture in racing across all levels. It sponsors Kevin Harvick’s No. 29 car on the Sprint Cup circuit, Clint Bowyer’s No. 33 car in Nationwide, and Cale Gale’s No. 9 car in ARCA.
On the local level, Rheem sponsors 14-year-old Brandon Jones and 12-year-old Spencer Davis, both of whom compete at Lanier Speedway. Rheem also sponsors the track itself.
“Lanier Speedway gives us an opportunity to give back to the community,” Rheem corporate director of marketing Ed Raniszeski said. “It’s not an hour’s drive from our Atlanta offices, and we’re involved because we’re interested in seeing them get back on their feet.”
At the same time, there are other tracks in the area Rheem could turn its attention to if Lanier Speedway goes under.
“Business is business,” Raniszeski said. “(Clack) has to make decisions and we’ll live with whatever he decides. We’d hate to see something happen with Lanier, but if the track isn’t available, we’ll figure out other alternatives.
We don’t prefer it, but we’ll definitely shift gears and continue developing drivers at other race tracks.
“But Lanier is important to us at this level.”