In building a track, Baltimore way behind the curve

ON MOTOR SPORTS

February 14, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- If Maryland was going to have a major-league racetrack, it should have it by now. Ten, 15 years ago, when Winston Cup stock car racing was beginning its growth spurt, that was the time to start thinking about building such a facility.

And, through the years, various groups have tried. And failed. In the meantime, new tracks have been built in New Hampshire, Texas, California, Arizona, Florida, Indiana and Nevada. Several others are close to breaking ground.

It's too bad that when Chris Pook came to Baltimore looking to develop a track in the mid-1980s, that he didn't hook up with Missy Berge, the woman whose money is behind the current proposed track.

Pook has developed the Long Beach course and Gateway International Raceway outside St. Louis. Just last year, Pook lamented Baltimore's situation.

"Baltimore would have been perfect," he said, "but they didn't have any money."

Berge has spent $5 million over five years for virtually nothing, and Robert Douglas, attorney for the track, indicates she will continue to pursue her dream in some other Maryland county. Howard, Carroll, Frederick and Cecil have been mentioned.

Before she does, though, she should consider what she wants. If it's a racetrack for any kind of racing, she should go ahead. If it's a track that will feature NASCAR racing, she should reconsider her situation before going forward.

Her track, if she manages to get it built, may well have to survive without NASCAR.

Her chief operating officer, Joe Mattioli III, said yesterday that the intentions of Chesapeake Motorsports Development Corp. all along have been for a diverse program: 20 weekly events, seven moderate-size events to draw 20,000 to 30,000 and three capacity events.

But that hasn't stopped Chesapeake from attempting to obtain bread-and-butter NASCAR events before the project's completion. And it has been those efforts that have so alienated NASCAR that it will take a long time to get back in its good graces.

Here in Daytona, NASCAR president Bill France, his new chief operating officer, Mike Helton, and senior vice president Brian France were adamant about that.

France basically said if his organization eventually expanded the Winston Cup series to 52 events a year, he'd be hard-pressed to see a Maryland track with a race.

France had said only a few minutes earlier that "you should never say never about anything." And, in the past, when asked about the possibility of races going to proposed racetracks, his answer has usually been to take a wait-and-see approach. No promises. But no flat-out denial, either.

But he and his organization have been irked not once but several times by the efforts of the Maryland group. They have tried to buy the rights to a Busch race at South Boston, which while on the surface seems a pretty smart thing to do, wasn't seen that way by NASCAR, which thought it had been blindsided. On another occasion, published reports say, officials learned the Maryland developers were contacting a number of its top race teams proposing a new all-star circuit of which the Maryland track would be the cornerstone.

All of that, obviously, was on the NASCAR officials' minds when asked about the continuing efforts in Maryland.

"Anyone can build what they want to build," France said, handing off to Helton, who is now in control of NASCAR's day-to-day operations.

Helton grimaced.

"The thing about Baltimore, if it existed," Helton said, referring to the track, "is that there is no denying its population, its fan base, its enthusiasm and its location. It's a wonderful place. Everything you'd want is there. The problem remains that the area is saturated."

Surrounded by Dover (Del.) Downs International Speedway, Pocono (Pa.) International Raceway, Nazareth (Pa.) Speedway and Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, Helton said he feels all of NASCAR's series -- the Busch cars, the truck series and the Winston Cup series -- have good representation.

"Nazareth, Dover, none of those tracks want to give up any of the events they have, and if we're going to grow the sport, we have to go somewhere where we can impact the area," Helton said.

Is NASCAR saying "never" to NASCAR racing in Maryland?

"There's a lot of other forms of motor sports out there," said Helton.

"They're on life support when it comes to Winston Cup," said Brian France.

If there is a wedge for Maryland's big toe in the door, it's awfully tight. But Mattioli, the COO of the Maryland project, said yesterday all its marketing surveys show fans and sponsors have great interest in a Maryland track.

"Right now we have a lot of options for a new site," Mattioli said. "And, hopefully, all sanctioning bodies, if we build it, all of them will want to bring their races at some point."

If Berge is an optimist, she can buy into the hope. If she does, just hope she realizes it might be a long time before the most popular motor sports series in the country returns her calls.

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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