The arrival of autumn 2016 heralds a major historical turn in the Niagara/Western New York dirt track racing complex.
The way we used to do things is bowing its head to history.
Since racing on clay tracks in the region forms the roots of the sport and our interest in it for many of us, this is tremendously important.
The 2016 “local” racing season has come to an end, and from this point forward, the landscape could be in for big changes.
Many years ago, I first described Merrittville Speedway in St.Catharines/Thorold as Canada’s oldest and longest operating dirt oval.
However the spring of 2017 could very well shelve that lofty distinction.
After an original business plan ballooned from 5 years to 14, The Bicknell and Williamson family partnership has no desire to manage and operate Merrittville into 2017 and are seeking a buyer.
If a new owner is not in place soon, there is very real danger we could drive by the historic bullring at the corner of The Merrittville Highway and Holland Road in the spring and find it padlocked.
The sadness of that possibility is tempered only by optimism from Pete Bicknell himself, who is 90% sure the track will operate… somehow… next season.
The future of the other facility in the Niagara Region, Humberstone Speedway, is the subject of sustained debate, but it’s nowhere near as precarious as Merrittville’s.
General Manager Bob Davidson personally addressed the fans at a recent event assuring them Humberstone had not been sold, was not for sale, and their gates would be open in 2017.
It’s natural to figure should Merrittville not open next spring, Humberstone could assume the Saturday night time slot and swing the headlining DIRTCar 358 Modified division over to their Port Colborne attraction.
Talking with some ticket-buying fans recently, the point was made that in light of Merrittville’s pending sale, dwindling car counts and higher admission prices tied to the sorry state of Ontario’s economy, perhaps Niagara can only support one dirt track going forward.
We used to boast the fact we had three top notch speedways within an hour’s drive.
Maybe we can’t afford that luxury anymore. Time will tell.
And that leads us to that third track- Ransomville Speedway.
This is where we find better news.
Just across the border in Ransomville New York, it’s always been included in Niagara’s racing landscape despite its U.S address.
The Friesen Family of St. Catharines, after 43 years of ownership, felt they had taken their track as far as they could, and sold Ransomville to Parm Atwal of Buffalo NY last year.
The usual fear of fallout from new ownership was quickly calmed, as “The Big R” turned out to be the Guiding Light of 2016.
The new owners immediately invested in capital improvements.
New clay was laid down on the track surface. New additional hospitality suites and a new office and novelty stand building was erected. A new modern lap counter/scoreboard and even a huge video screen was installed to enhance the fan experience.
Veteran Sales and Public Relations Director Tana Robinson was promoted to General Manager.
And the fans came out in very strong numbers to see what the “new” Ransomville Speedway was all about.
Without question, Ransomville boasted the highest attendance of Niagara’s tracks, keeping in mind the economy on the other side of the river is drastically different than Ontario’s.
I look at it this way: the fan base for local racing is generally still healthy and that bodes well in the big picture for tracks on this side of the Customs Booths.
We know that fan base will form the foundation of Canadian Motor Speedway’s future customers.
It will be a major challenge for Niagara tracks to push on into 2017.
Just paying the Hydro bill to keep the lights on will be at the top of the list. And that all trickles down to the cost of putting cars on the tracks, and what’s charged at the gates.