Lucas Schott was one of the most consistent drivers in the United States Modified Touring Series in 2021, collecting 10 top five finishes in 31 starts to finish fifth in the series points.
A year later, Schott isn’t running in the USMTS full-time. Instead, the Chatfield, Minnesota driver is dedicating more time to racing weekly at Mississippi Thunder Speedway. The reasons: his family business and the dramatic cost increase in racing.
“The biggest thing is that we’re so busy at work,” Schott said. “We have a small hardwood flooring company, just me, my dad and my brother. We’re working hard on that and obviously the cost of everything is ramped up this year.”
“When you win, the pay is good. When you’re struggling and don’t have the time to do it right, it’s just time to pull off the tour if we can’t do it the way we wanted it to go. Financially and with work, it got to be too much so we decided to pull off the tour.”
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Rising gas prices, inflation and supply chain issues are just some of the obstacles small race teams and race tracks across Wisconsin face in 2022. With a litany of issues, teams and tracks are trying to find ways to save money and keep the sport in strong standing beyond 2022.
Data from The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that gasoline prices in July were up 10.4% from May and up 60.6% from June 2021. The Bureau’s data also shows vehicle parts and equipment are up 14.5% from last year.
Racing tire manufacturers Hoosier and American Racer each announced price increases on tires in April with both companies referencing a shortage in supplies.
Mississippi Thunder Speedway owner Bob Timm, who also serves as track operations manager and car owner for his son Jake, said he can’t recall when in his time in motorsports where there have been as many financial challenges.
“The last few years with COVID and now the cost of everything have been the most challenging,” Timm said. “Through the years I’ve been racing, we’ve seen the gas prices go up and down but nothing to the extent of what we’re seeing in 2022 at the track. While in the past we may have seen gas prices go up, we haven’t seen the significant increases in everything else associated with racing. It doesn’t matter if it’s parts, motors, tires or fuel.”
The challenges for teams
According to Timm, the most significant charge that teams have to account for when planning a season is not only do cars need fuel to get on the track, but trailers that require heavy fuel loads to transport cars and equipment are a heavy factor in teams budgets .
“It was basically $100 for an hour of drive time,” Timm said. “If we had a race eight hours away, it was $800 to get there. Then, you’re running a generator while you’re there and then need to pay that same amount to go home. You’re talking $1,600 for travel and then another $100 to run your generator while you’re there.”
Bob and Jake Timm know first hand how much traveling for racing can be costly with Jake running the No. 49 cars this year as far east as Ohio and as far south as Missouri.
The issues aren’t exclusive to gas or dirt tracks. La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway general manager Chuck Deery said a supply chain issue has forced teams to think wisely about how they use equipment like tires and parts.
“Whenever there’s a shortage of supplies, it forces prices up,” Deery said. “I know the dirt guys are really suffering with tires and we have our issues, too. The race teams are very creative on how to overcome challenges and they’ve done that. We’re very continuous at La Crosse. We limit the tires and try to keep everything as cost effective as you can.”
The ARCA Midwest Tour — an arm of the Automobile Racing Club of America that runs at La Crosse every year at Oktoberfest — has had to get creative as well. The amount of tires allocated to the teams per race weekend were cut in half from eight to four. Practice times have been cut down from a maximum of 90 minutes to a maximum of one hour and preliminary races have been shortened to prevent wear on said tyres.
Gregg McKarns, the president of the ARCA Midwest tour and owner of Madison International Speedway, said keeping the cars on track and in one piece is always the focus of his series.
“From a supply chain issue, just trying to keep cars on the track has been tough,” McKarns said. “We had one driver break a rack and pinion, which is used for steering components in the car. Trying to find a part to fix it took him three weeks, so there’s a car that’s not there for three weeks.”
McKarns mentioned another driver in the ARCA Midwest Tour can’t find parts to fix his engine, meaning he’ll be forced to miss an upcoming event.
At La Crosse, Late Model driver Devin Schmidt missed four weeks of action after a crash left him struggling to put his car back together. Schmidt would go on to win his first race back. One driver at Mississippi Thunder Speedway broke both of his motors in back-to-back weeks and was forced to spend the next few races at home.
ISSUES FOR TRACKS AND TOURING LEAGUES
It’s not just drivers and teams that are hit hard. Tracks deal with the same supply chain issues when it comes to providing services to fans and teams.
“The track gets it two-fold,” Timm said. “We need competitors and we need spectators and they all have to drive to the speedway. The track is prepared using a bunch of heavy equipment that uses diesel and gas, so the track preparation cost is way higher than they usually are. Food prices affect us, energy costs affect us. We get that side of it.”
The tracks and drivers are also stuck in a cycle of reliance on one another for business. Cars are dependent on tracks being open while tracks are dependent on cars actually showing up and paying an entrance fee.
“We just need to open our doors every week,” Deery said. “No race track means no race cars and vice versa. We need to be able to open the doors every week to pay our bills, and by doing so we give race teams the opportunity to race.”
Lower turnout of cars and fans means lower purses. While McKarns has been able to raise payouts at Madison by 12%, Timm and Mississippi Thunder are among those reliant on fans and teams to help keep purses high enough to warrant teams coming back.
“Our purse is funded by spectators and by the competitors,” Timm said. “We need a significant number of competitors to cover the backend and help fund that purse. If there’s people racing less nights or not at all, then our revenue stream is down and it makes it more difficult for us.”
Those issues multiply for the likes of McKarns and other touring series. On top of doing business with tons of different tracks, the series has to worry about traveling to get their drivers and teams to races.
“On the tour side, everything from hotel rooms to fuel has increased,” McKarns said. “We have a travel incentive plan to try and help them out with their travel expenses. Even with current diesel prices, we found that fund isn’t enough to cover their fuel from track to track.”
FIGHTING THE ISSUES
Deery said teams now need to go the extra mile to ensure they can go the entire season. On top of dedication, Deery said more sponsorship and less travel are what some teams — such as Schott — are working on to get through the tough times.
“There’s always pressure in fielding a team and having the funding to do it,” Deery said. “It’s no different than the past except for everything being a little more expensive. It requires a little more commitment, maybe a little more sponsorship, or the teams just don’t race or travel as much. Some teams used to travel a lot but have cut that out of their budget to race weekly.”
For a team like Jake Timm that travels all over the country to compete for big payouts, more thought has been put into where the No. 49 is going to race and how it will affect their budget.
“It’s significant,” Bob Timm said. “It’s causing us to evaluate every weekend of racing very closely and decide which weekends are most important to be at. We look at the pay and cost and try to make the wisest decisions in terms of going to races that are going to allow us to get to the end of the season without running out of our budget.”
Schott can attest to the sponsorship aspect of racing, himself driving with the support of several sponsors including Culver’s and Rochester Chevrolet.
“When you win $1,000, you’re basically breaking even now for local shows,” Schott said.
“If you’re not winning or your stuff isn’t good, you’re bringing home $100 to $200 a night and that just doesn’t pay the bills. You have to have some good sponsors to do this in this day and age.”
Some are concerned less about the effect costs have now, but more about what it could mean for the future of short track racing. Signs that the future is still bright, according to McKarns, include racing’s past history with hurdles and the good number of drivers still coming up in the support classes.
“Race car drivers in general, and fans as well, are in a breed of their own and know how to adjust,” McKarns said. “Even through the gas shortage of the 70’s and 80’s people still raced. We have to be smart about it while not ignoring the issue. There’s good support class numbers around the country and I think they’ll help higher classes throughout the years.”
James Krause can be reached by email at James.KrauseJr@lee.net or on Twitter @jkrausepro.