Shut Down

Memphis Motorsports Park has been providing local race fans with a first class racing experience for the past 23 years. However, that disappeared on Friday, when in a completely unexpected move, Dover Motorsports Group announced it's immediate closure.

Memphis Motorsports Park was opened in 1986 after it was constructed by a consortium of local investors spearheaded by Ed Gatlin. It was operated by this local ownership group until 1996, when the track was sold to Chris Pook, a motorsports entrepreneur who founded the Long Beach Grand Prix. Pook later acquired a controlling interest in Gateway International Raceway in St. Louis, before selling the Long Beach Grand Prix Association to the Dover Motorsports Group in 1998. The sale of the Long Beach Grand Prix Association to Dover included the race tracks in Memphis and St. Louis. Dover Motorsports Inc. is listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE - DVD).

I watched this facility rise from a graded field to a fully functional racetrack in the mid-80's and was on the grounds for the first drag race ever held there (an NHRA division 2 points meet). I also was present for the opening of the (then) dirt oval when Memphis Motorsports Park first hosted the World of Outlaws sprint car series. This multi-purpose racing facility filled a large void in the our area after Lakeland International Raceway locked it's gates for the last time in 1979. Since MMP opened, I have spent many enjoyable days there, and always looked forward to my next visit. To say that this unexpected announcement is a disappointment, would be the very definition of understatement. Recalling the throngs of race fans that usually occupied the grandstands, I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in my disillusionment.

I count myself as a drag racing fan first and foremost, but Memphis Motorsports Park gave me reason to explore other forms of motorsports on several occasions. From SCCA Trans Am to WoO Sprints, Formula Fords to the VW Golf Cup. The East vs West Formula Atlantic Challenge showed me terrific open wheeled racing. The Sportscar Vintage Racing Association taught me what an Elva was, and then showed me how Brian Redman could carve up the road course in a priceless Gulf Porsche. Eventually the dirt oval was expanded and paved as NASCAR brought their second tier stock cars and truck series to town under the new management.

The types of events held from year to year sometimes changed, but the one constant was the drag racing action. NHRA Held a national event here for 22 of the of the tracks 23 operational seasons starting in 1987. An NHRA divisional points race was held here every year, and was in fact the first race ever held on the barely completed drag strip in 1986. Factor in the Super Chevy events, the NMCA series, the ADRL, the Hot Rod Magazine Pump Gas Drags, and Drag Week events, 'Pinks All Out', and Million Dollar Bracket series, and it's obvious that the Memphis quarter mile was a busy place.

I'm going to try and reserve critical judgement about this situation until a clearer picture of why this happened becomes more obvious. The sanitized version exists on Dover Motorsports website now. According to WMC TV reports, attendance was not an issue at Memphis Motorsports Park. I can personally attest to having been turned away at the gate of the drag strip in past years due to a sold out event. I don't think I ever witnessed a major event at the track in decent weather conditions, that was not heavily populated with ticket buying fans. The tracks best years for attendance were as recent as 2005, and 2006 when over 600,000 race fans went through the gates annually. However, Dover representatives have indicated that ticket sales were soft and that the Memphis operation was producing losses during an economic downturn that gives no mercy in a small market.

Realistically, the national economy is in a deep recession, and attendance at motorsports events nationwide is down. Still this affects every racing venue, not just Memphis. It's no secret that Memphis Motorsports Park was being shopped around for a buyer, and that a tentative agreement with Gulf Coast Entertainment LLC to purchase the facility recently fell through when financing could not be arranged. It's also no secret that the potential suitor wanted to move the Memphis NASCAR dates to their currently under construction Alabama race track.

Something that is not so obvious, is the financial turmoil that Dover Motorsports Inc. has endured as of late. Dover has recently made an 8K filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, they have suspended the payment of a quarterly dividend on their shares of common stock, and a major shareholder has been applying pressure to Dover to "sell their racetrack assets in the Midwest US which could result in an increased stock price to around $7.50 to $8.50 per share." Presently, Dover stock is far from that price. Earlier this year, the NYSE threatened to de-list Dover's stock because of low market capitalization. Bruton Smith's Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (NYSE -TRK) made an offer to buy Dover Motorports Inc. during 2007, but the offer was rejected. Is a well attended, yet modest sized racetrack in Memphis TN really the reason for all of this? Hard to say, but it is noteworthy that all of Dover's racing ventures are suffering, and the aforementioned stockholder pressure specifies divesting assets in the "midwest"... so if I were another Dover "asset" not located in Delaware... I'd watch my back.

To their credit, Dover Motorsports Group invested 12 years of effort into Memphis Motorsports Park before deciding to sacrifice it to an economic downturn. It seems that the meteoric rise in national popularity of the NASCAR race series may have unwittingly led to unrealistic expectations of the Memphis market, and perhaps to the very sustainability of corporate racing enterprises themselves. After all, a sell out in Memphis still means 25,000 race fans, not 140,000 as is the norm at Dover International Speedway.

Is there any hope for Memphis Motorsports Park? Maybe not, but as of now, the track is simply closed and not razed to the ground. Dover Motorsports Group has indicated that they are willing to entertain offers. Furthermore, the track never looked better than it did during my recent visit to the annual NHRA National event. However, the transfer of the existing NASCAR race dates to other Dover venues, and NHRA removing the Mid-South Nationals from their 2010 schedule, may not bode well for the marketability of an already closed racing facility.

Regardless, it was a good run, and a perfect fit for Memphis. I'll miss it if it stays shuttered, and Memphis will miss the 50+ million dollars that the track infused into our local economy every year. I'll keep my fingers crossed that the track can make a comeback, but I'm not holding my my breath. Especially if Memphis Motorsports Park were to remain a publicly traded entity.