David White, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, May 25, 2009
Altamont Speedway has died its thousandth death, and no one bothered
to show up for the funeral.
It was too sun-baked by day for auto racers in their fireproofed
suits, too wind-blasted by night for fans in their layered hoodies,
and too noisy on weekends for a few lawyered-up neighbors.
With no proper sendoff, the half-mile track, perched on the back side
of Altamont pass, shut down some time after the 2008 season ended in
October. The last oval, asphalt track in the Bay Area is closed for
the sixth time in its 43 years, and many think this could be the once
and for all of it.
"It's the curse of Altamont," said former track promoter Kenny
Shepherd. "I wouldn't call it a surprise. It's more a shame."
A shame, Shepherd said, because Altamont Speedway sits in the dark
and cold on Memorial Day weekend. This is the most celebrated holiday
of the racing calendar, from the Indy 500 to the little big shows at
small tracks across America.
Aside from the wandering horses and wild squirrels, all that raced
within Altamont's property lines Saturday was loose foxtails and
tumbleweed in the 30-mile per hour gusts.
Its current owners hope to get a new use permit and restart the
track, possibly by next season. Anyone who knows anything about its
long history of false starts and colossal failures share the same
plea: Let the dead be.
"I don't think anyone can make this place work," said Ken Clapp, a
NASCAR senior consultant who oversaw its western operations for 25
years. "It has always been a nightmare."
Doff Cooksey Jr. has a goatee hanging off his chin, tobacco chew
sticking in his teeth and a mean streak flying out of his 21-year-old mouth.
He towed his late-model Chevy from Brentwood to Stockton 99 Speedway
on Saturday fixing to break even with a $1,500 winner's check.
Fifteen hours later, all he had to show for an eighth-place finish
was a $350 payday and $500 in damages after 150 laps of paint-exchange racing.
The sides are scraped. The front end is busted. And now, he's got to
load up the bent mobile for a midnight run back to Brentwood, almost
an hour away if his trailer catches the green lights on crooked Highway 4.
"I'm glad to have a good place to race, but I'd rather be at
Altamont," Cooksey said. "I love racing to death but I can't be
traveling every weekend, not in this economy."
Altamont Speedway was his hometrack, just 20 minutes from his house.
Cooksey started racing there as a 13-year-old. At age 20, he finished
second out of 25 regular drivers in last year's late-model standings.
Every race is a haul now. Altamont It was the last Bay Area track
left on the oval asphalt circuit. San Jose Speedway died in 1977.
Oakland Speedway went away in 1954.
All that's left locally are dirt tracks in Antioch, Calistoga and
Petaluma. Infineon Raceway has a drag-race program and brings in the
NASCAR Sprint Cup series for a road race once a year.
But, for those interested in NASCAR's signature style of racing -
left turns on asphalt - the closest options are in Stockton,
Roseville and Madera.
Only five of Altamont's 25 late-model drivers are known to still be
racing on a regular basis. If Altamont is dead indeed, it's taking a
crop of Bay Area race teams with it.
"There's just nothing left for us in the Bay," said Doff Cooksey Sr.,
who runs a helicopter spraying business. "I can't be doing this all
the time like I used to. We work seasonally seven days a week. I
gotta get up for work at 4:30 Sunday morning."
The Cooksey family thinks re-opening Altamont would save NASCAR
racing in Northern California. Those who tried to run the track wonder why.
'Trying to figure it out'
Kenny Shepherd thought he would make things different when he was
named track president and general manager in 2006. They all do when
they buy into Altamont Speedway.
"When I got up there, some of the older guys told me to stay away,
it's cursed," Shepherd said. "I knew going in it was a nightmare. and
the odds were so big against us. I spent a lot of time trying to
figure it out."
The track itself is considered fantastic. The surface is as fast as
the straightaways are long. Smaller tracks are like bullrings, where
the winners are those who best avoid the pileups. Altamont runs more
like a sprint to the finish with elbow room.
Too bad everything else makes it such a miserable place.
No one seems to know why, but the original owner built the track in
the howling center of the Altamont Pass wind corridor. The later it
gets, the stiffer the breeze and colder the night.
"They put them windmills on those hills for a reason," current track
president Jeff Macey said.
The restrooms were rank no matter how hard the cleaning crew
scrubbed. The water in the local well had too much sulfur, giving it
the aroma of rotten eggs.
"I've never seen anything like it," Ken Clapp said. He's run some
4,150 single-day shows at 18 race tracks. He was Altamont's promoter
for a brief time in 1973.
"It was always something. Grass fires, traffic jams, power failures
were imminent. The losses were huge. For every home run, there were
99 failures. I can easily count $12 million that's been lost there
and I think it's probably a bigger number than that."
Yet, new owners keep diving in, convinced they can be the ones to
turn the track around. The track has burned through nine ownership
groups in all. The original owner sold it after three years.
The next in line rented the place out for the "Woodstock of the West"
concert featuring the Rolling Stone in December 1969. A crowd of
300,000 trashed the place beyond use. A teenager was stabbed to death
by a Hells Angels security guard. Racing did not return for three years.
"You talk to all the operators and it's the same thing," Shepherd
said. "It's a piece of Bay Area property. How can I lose on it?
Somehow, someway, they all end up losing."
Current co-owner Mel Andrews wonders why he never got the message.
Andrews is a Southern Californian who invests money for a living and
races vintage cars as a hobby.
He wanted to get into track ownership. In 2006, he bought into
Altamont as a lead investor in Lakeside Motorsports-Altamont, LLC.
He's been losing money ever since, more than he cares to disclose.
"I probably was not aware of the history that it had," Andrews said.
"The people that were the lead in running this either weren't aware
of it or they weren't as forthright as I would wish they'd be." I
kept putting more money into it, so I became a much bigger investor
than I had ever dreamed.
"Given what I know now about its history, I would not have gotten involved."
Truth is, no one could have seen what was around the turn.
The group spent $1.8 million in upgrades to a track that was dormant
from 2002-05. It operated under a conditional user permit from
Alameda County, but it expired in 2006.
The renewal process took on a death of its own.
A new neighbor brought complaints and land-use lawsuits against the
track because of the weekly noise. The state Department of Fish and
Game held up the track's environmental impact report because the
proposed project - adding a sign, awning and caretakers' house -
could endanger the San Joaquin kit fox and California tiger salamander.
The county allowed the track to operate last year with restrictions.
Races could only run during the day and had to end before nightfall.
Current track president Jeff Macey said those rules "strangled" them.
"It's hard enough to get people out there to start with," Macey said.
"Then to get them to come there in the heat of the day? That really
hurt our fan base."
With the restrictions the county put on us, there was absolutely no
way we could be functional as far as making a profit."
That's why the track is closed today. Big events always drew big
crowds at Altamont, especially on Memorial Day weekend, but they were
never enough to outweigh the weekly overhead of a full season.
"As much as it seems a shame to have it sit there empty," Andrews
said, "it's better than having to write a check every month to cover
Racing teams impacted
Jeff Macey has been in auto racing for 35 years as a mechanic,
driver, builder, owner and track manager. He remains president and
general manager of Altamont Speedway, but he couldn't just sit and
wait to see if racing comes back.
So, he took the job of competition director at All-American Speedway
in Roseville, where he oversees large car fields and even larger
crowds just outside Sacramento.
Macey is using the same formula he had at Altamont: take care of the
drivers, bring in big events, and make it affordable for the fans. It
turns out, the formula works just fine.
"It must be working because the grandstands are packed and we've got
great car counts," Macey said. "Altamont always had its own set of
problems. What has there been, how many owners? That tells you it's
never been totally successful. If it had been, someone would have
kept it for a long time."
Shepherd, too, is enjoying post-Altamont success. He took over a
closed-down Madera Speedway in 2007 and brought it back to life. This
year, he has Chowchilla Speedway back in operation.
"The same business model I'm using here just did not work at
Altamont," Shepherd said. "No matter what you do, you can't get
crowds out there."
Perhaps they can draw fans some of the time, and maybe that's how
asphalt racing can return to the Bay Area.
One idea Andrews has is to re-open the track on a part-time basis
with perhaps one big race per month. That, or sell the place to
someone who wants a personal track to play in.
For now, he's focused on getting through the permit process with the
county while pushing forward plans to build a road course and
motorcycle park in Tracy.
Shepherd thinks he has the best idea of all, if only it were possible.
"If we could move Altamont race track, pick it up and slide it down
the mountain in either direction, it would be an absolute home run,"
Shepherd said. "Even if you take away the political and neighbor
pressure out of the equation, I still don't think it makes it
financially because of where it sits.
"That's just a tough place to be."
E-mail David White at email@example.com.