MOUNT VERNON — Even in the worst of times, financially, the dedicated race car enthusiast will find a way to feel the rush of wind, smell the burning rubber and barrel down the track. Racers are a die-hard breed so don’t expect them to give up their favorite pastime. They may, however, have to make some adjustments.
“Well, I’m retired,” said longtime Pacemakers veteran Harlan Updike of Fredericktown. “I live on a fixed income and I’ve got one rental property. If I keep that rented, that’s the money I go play around on. I race as much as I can — maybe one time a weekend. I go with my grandson junior racing on Saturday mornings. I do the points meets about every other weekend when they run that.”
B.J. Fouts, son of Pacemakers owner Mike Fouts, feels the pinch. He, like many drivers, will find a way to race. “I can’t afford to go to some of the races I’d like to,” B.J. Fouts, a senior at Capital University and a Gahanna resident said. “Being in college, trying to save money for books and everything. My last school year is coming up so I’ve had to cut back on racing. I don’t buy as much stuff.”
“A lot of my racers have cut back on their racing,” said Mike Fouts. “They’re not racing every week like they normally would in the past. They realize the situation. I was talking to one last night, who has the threat of layoff coming up and he doesn’t know how much he will be racing at that point. With a lot of our racers, this is their weekend. This is their relaxation time. It’s a family time for a lot of them, so they’re going to make every effort they can and, if nothing else, they’re going to come up and race, spend the weekend at the track and forget about all those other economic issues — at least while they’re here. Then they can go back Monday morning and they’re fresh again and they can deal with the real world. A lot of them will cut back on other entertainment things so they can afford to come out and race.”
The recent climb in gas prices has compounded the problems that many drivers face.
“I live in Fredericktown, which is about six miles drive so I don’t spend much driving back and forth,” said Updike. “To go to Norwalk or National Trails I’ve got $25 to $30 in gas plus a $25 to $30 entry fee, so you spend $60 to $75 for a weekend. It keeps getting tighter and tighter on the gas money.”
Willie Tabor of Columbus has had to make changes.
“Oh, it’s definitely affected me,” he said. “You try to save as much as you can. We don’t come out as much as we used to because of gas prices. You try to save a little bit here and a little bit there, mostly shopping and stuff. You know, shop around. You just try to limit your runs because the gas is $8.50 per gallon.”
Jimmy “Dipstick” Harrison brought his family in a camper from Glenford in Perry County, while pulling his car on the back. It gets tougher to haul everything up to Mount Vernon.
“It takes an hour and five minutes to get here,” said Harrison, who is in his 50s. “It’s tough. This is the first time I’ve been out this year. Everything’s more expensive. It’s the racing fuel and the gas going up and back. It costs 200 bucks just to come up here and back and that doesn’t count the entry fee and everything else.”
Those who drive alcohol burning dragsters get a break from the racing fuel prices.
“Fuel prices help me because I only pay for alcohol,” said B.J. Fouts, who’s dragster is powered by a 496 Chevy big block. “It’s a lot cheaper than race fuel. I’m only paying a $1.80 a gallon while most people pay eight dollars for their race fuel, so it hurts other people more. I have a job and I get a good amount of hours so it doesn’t hurt me as much. It hurts though because we miss a lot of people who used to race but now, they can’t so we miss that.”
With car counts down at many of the tracks, sponsorship is a matter of survival. “It really is, but it’s not recession-proof,” said Mike Fouts. “A lot of the sponsors that do come on board with us realize, even in the slow times, you still have to advertise. Historically, our racers are pretty dedicated and they are going to do business with who supports them as much as they can so advertisers know they are getting more value for their dollar here than in some of the other venues that the advertise in.”
“Jim’s Auto Center is my sponsor,” said Tabor, who drives a ’68 Firebird with a 468 big block. “He helps me by paying my entry fee and all I need to do is pay for my gas. That helps quite a bit. If it wasn’t for Jim’s Auto Center, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it at all.”
“It (low car counts) definitely cuts back on guaranteeing pots,” said B.J. Fouts. “A lot of people can no longer guarantee the money they used to — Especially now. You don’t know if the cars are going to be there to afford it. It’s not just here. The other tracks are struggling. I can even see it at (National) Trails.”
“The car count numbers are something we definitely look at,” said Mike Fouts. “I’ve adjusted my payout structure, in other words, how much the racers can win. It’s based on car count. It’s still money worth racing for, but, if I have 20 cars in one class, it’s going to pay X amount of dollars. If I get 40 cars in that class on another weekend, the money goes up accordingly. It allows the racers to win some money and it allows me as an operator to maintain the facility, pay the insurance, cut the grass and keep the place looking nice.”
Aside from the free admission to spectators on most weekends, which makes Pacemakers the best family entertainment bargain anywhere, Mike Fouts has done what he can to make it affordable for the racers.
“We try to keep the pricing and the events where it’s not terribly expensive,” he said. “We have tried to do what we can and try to keep the track open, too. I think the biggest concern is if we are at the bottom of this recession and how much worse it could actually get. I think, talking to a lot of my racers, there are a lot of them with that overhanging threat of being laid off. From my own business standpoint, things are a little on the slow side. Personally, I don’t think we are at the bottom of the recession, yet. I think it’s going to be tough for the whole 2009 year.”
However long the recession lasts, it will come down to the will of the individual racers to hang onto a sport which is, for many, a way of life.
“I’ll never give up racing,” said B.J. Fouts. “I’ll run (foot races) if I have to. Whatever it takes.”