Monday, January 16, 2012

A few thoughts on Independence and Tim Tebow

Yes, I'm still alive. To those who follow In Staging, I'd first like to offer an apology for taking so much time between my most recent blog (September of 2011) and this one. To the rest of you, I hope you enjoyed my four-plus month hiatus.

I never intended to go so long between blog entries, but there really wasn't anything going on that compelled me to write. Believe it or not, I try not to write to simply fill space. I'd rather have something to actually say rather than waste anyone's time. Sure, I've had my opinions about various racing news items out of other areas of the state, but I felt that was best left to bloggers from those immediate areas. They are far more informed on the tracks in their areas and I felt it best suited to leave those topics for them to discuss.

Note: To prevent me from wasting your time, if you have no interest in Independence Motor Speedway or my thoughts on Tim Tebow, you can stop reading now. As for the rest of you, feel free to proceed if the desire remains.

** Following the 2011 racing season, there was a lot of chatter about the future of Independence Motor Speedway. Cam Granger just finished his third season at the helm of the facility, the longest tenure of anyone since Jerry Blue's 16 years from 1984-1999, yet many questions remained concerning 2012. After a lot of speculation, the fair board voted in November of last year to award the new contract to Darin Burco and his business partner, Todd Summers. For those unfamiliar with Burco, he is an Independence-area businessman who was a Late Model driver for a number of years. In fact, he won 14 features at Independence over a 15-year span and was the 2000 track champion. He also had a lot of success in the weekly battles at Fayette County Raceway (now Speedway) in West Union. Burco is no stranger to racing, nor is he a stranger to running a successful business. His partner, Summers, is an expert in dirt and has made it clear from the start that he expects to make huge improvements to the racing surface.

The timing of the announcement came as a bit unexpected to many. Considering the Independence awards banquet has traditionally been held sometime in November, the change at the top not only left banquet plans, but also plans for 2012, up in the air. I spoke with Darin shortly after he was awarded the contract, at which time he asked me to stay on board at Independence to announce the races and to help run the racing program. His main priorities were to start working on improving the racing surface and to review areas needing improvement in the racing program. Since that time, however, not much news was publicized about the upcoming season at Independence. Specifics were, for lack of a better word, elusive.

As I mentioned, Burco and Summers have already acted on plans to improve the facility by hauling in many loads of new dirt, a need that any race fan in the area has come to know in recent years. They also plan to make structural improvements to existing buildings and, in general, make the Buchanan County Fairgrounds one of the best facilities in the region. With Burco and Summers on board, race fans can expect great things to come at Independence.

The news of those improvements has been welcomed by everyone, however details specific to the racing program had people asking questions. Yes, they are hoping to draw some new specials to the 3/8-mile oval, but most people have been more concerned with the weekly racing program; specifically, will it remain IMCA sanctioned or will there be a change?

While those discussions went on, officials were still considering a date to hold the 2011 awards banquet to honor last season's champions. After that date (January 14) was set, and as it approached, Burco continued his research and announced at the banquet that Independence Motor Speedway would remain committed to IMCA in 2012.

In the weeks and months prior to that announcement, it was interesting to listen to and read the debates on the direction Independence would take. In the end, without a doubt in my mind, the decision to remain IMCA sanctioned wasn't just the best, but the only decision Independence could make.

Some will (and have) said that "it's time for a change at Independence," while others have stated Independence "wouldn't survive" if it switched sanctions or dropped a sanctioning body altogether. I found many of the arguments intriguing, however I felt many of them were without merit and truly baffling.

Yes, Independence is the longest sanctioned IMCA track in the country. This season will be our 29th consecutive season with IMCA Modifieds and the 19th straight with IMCA Stock Cars. The track first sanctioned Late Models 26 years ago, the Hobby Stocks will begin their 11th season sanctioned with IMCA and 2012 will be the fifth season for the IMCA SportMods. The simple fact that it is the longest tenured IMCA track isn't necessarily the reason it should remain IMCA in 2012, although it does say a lot for its stability, durablity and history.

If you remove from the equation all seasons prior to, oh, let's randomly use 2007 (just the past five seasons), that right there is enough to convince even the most casual race fan that Independence should stay sanctioned. How many tracks have we all seen struggle in recent years? How many were struggling even before the economy took a turn a few short years ago? How many tracks don't get car counts worthy of putting on a credible show? How many tracks have seen fan counts dwindle to the point they can barely keep the gates open week to week? How many tracks have closed in that time? How many tracks have closed just in the past few months or the past year? How many tracks are still up in the air as we approach the 2012 season? We all know the scary answers to those questions.

On the other hand, how many tracks that have been committed to the same divisions for their weekly shows have averaged over 100 cars? In fact, Independence had the highest Modified car count in the state in 2011, averaging just under 25 every Saturday night. Despite the competitive options vying for everyone's entertainment dollar, how many tracks have maintained a solid, committed fan base? How many of those tracks have been committed to staying IMCA sanctioned, especially through the tough economic times Independence Motor Speedway leads that list and, for those reasons, has put itself in the best position as we move forward. Why would there be a need or desire for change?

How many other tracks that have changed their rules packages or sanctioning body from IMCA have returned because they ultimately realized IMCA is their only option to provide a successful weekly racing program? It isn't only because IMCA is the "best of what's available," it's simply because IMCA is a great option.

Those who insist that Independence should change to something else really have no basis for argument. When considering other tracks in our area, no other option has established itself with long-term success as has IMCA. Aside from the tracks who have switched away from IMCA only to return, there are as many tracks who were never IMCA sanctioned in the past, but have realized that's the route to go if they want to survive and give themselves the opportunity to thrive.

I've heard arguments that Independence should have dropped IMCA so that "so-and-so" would show up on a given Saturday or because we'd "gain" a couple names who don't compete with us regularly. I feel there are two problems with that argument. The first is that the drivers we would have gained wouldn't have committed to racing weekly with us. If and when "special" events were scheduled at other tracks during a weekly race night at Independence, those drivers would have hit the road to travel to those specials. I'm not placing blame on them, I'm just saying that's the type of racing that many pursue when they don't race IMCA. IMCA is for the weekly racer and, there's no other way to say it than this - IMCA offers race tracks the best opportunities for a weekly racing program. You can have as many special events as you want at your local track, but unless you're Boone, Knoxville or Eldora, your weekly program will determine your success. To believe otherwise is foolish.

The second problem I struggle with is the argument that we need to make a change in order to get other "names" to race at Independence. Why? Our fan base is pretty proud of the 100-plus names that already race with us weekly. Changing would only result in sacrificing those drivers who have already committed to Independence for much, if not all, of their careers. I won't apologize when I say I would rather have five, 10 or 20 drivers in a division who have remained faithful to Independence over the years continue to join us weekly than hope to get anyone else to race with us at the expense of our traditional and career-long drivers. Having drivers committed to our program is due to the fact that it has offered the most economical brand of racing with an established set of recognizable, fair and enforceable rules that we wouldn't have at our disposal with any other option. Yes, I'd rather have 20-plus drivers in any division and their fans who have committed to us for years, rather than a handful of drivers who people find "recognizable." Besides, I'd go to bat for every one of our weekly racers. Why? Because they're damn good, have proven they can compete anywhere and have chosen to be a part of our racing family at Independence.

Some have said that Independence hasn't changed through the years because we're "afraid" of change. That comment is completely unfounded. We have made changes through the years at Independence. We've eliminated some divisions and transformed others in order to continually offer a fan and racer-friendly program for as long as I can remember. No, that doesn't mean we have changed or dropped sanctioning bodies. Why would we? As I said before, we average over 100 cars per night and have averaged over that number for two decades. Despite tough economic times, our drivers and fans have done their part to remain faithful to our program. You'd be hard-pressed to find any other track in the region who could boast those numbers or sentiments.

Some question the financial benefit for the drivers when sanctioning with IMCA. Whether during the season or at season's end, people believe there are other options that provide a better return. What is offered by IMCA is a guaranteed return... A guarantee of your point fund money, a guarantee of an established set of rules when you pull through the gate and a guarantee that you can pull your car into the pits at your hometown track on Saturday night or another track within 30, 40 or 50 miles on Friday and Sunday night knowing not only the rules are on a level playing field, but they provide you the most level competition dollar for dollar.

Along with that, take a look at the other tracks in the area. To drop or change our sanction would, in effect, not only put Independence on an island, but a deserted island. The drivers we pull are committed to IMCA racing and the tracks around us promote the same message. We all know racing is expensive, but IMCA has made it more affordable than any other option. Other tracks in the area realize and understand this, as well. We want to work with those tracks, just as we want to work with our drivers. Remaining committed to IMCA is remaining committed to our drivers. Again, to think otherwise is foolish.

I realize there will be some people who question why I lean toward IMCA. Some have already told me that I'm biased because I grew up and live in Vinton, that IMCA is located here and simply because it's all I've known my entire life. I honestly couldn't disagree more with those thoughts.

Many of you know that I was once editor of Hawkeye Racing News, a publication that provided race results from throughout the region and, in many instances, from across the nation. To me, HRN was a racer's newspaper. It didn't matter if a race was IMCA, USRA, WISSOTA, UMP, WoO or affiliated with any other sanction. If it was circle track racing in our region, it belonged in HRN. I wasn't biased toward IMCA and I was passionate about expressing those feelings. Despite the fact that our newspaper was in the same office building as IMCA and, at the time, owned by the same family, my commitment was to the readers of our newspaper, not to any sanctioning body, including IMCA. Why? Because the newspaper represented more than a single sanctioning body. While discussions may have gotten heated many times, I was passionate about providing what I felt was the best product our newspaper could offer. Those I worked alongside and those in the IMCA offices will be quick to tell you that my passion was for the racer and the race fan, nobody else.

It is that exact same passion I feel for Independence. I have been a lifelong race fan of the track 27 miles north of my home in Vinton and have worked there for the better part of the last 12 years. I want to see IMS not only survive, but thrive. For Independence to do that, IMCA isn't just the best option, it is the only option that will give it the opportunity to build on the success it has established through the years. It is the only option that will ensure continued average car counts of 100-plus, just as it is the only option that will provide for a grandstand full of fans to witness the most competitive and affordable racing. Without IMCA, Independence Motor Speedway would not have established itself as the successful track it is today. Likewise, it certainly would not be able to carry and build on that success in the future.

As I said earlier, from my time at HRN to just being a casual race fan to being a track official, I've been around the sport my entire life. I've seen tracks part ways from IMCA and I've seen them struggle. Many have returned, while others have closed their gates. While there may be other options for other race tracks, I believe there is no other option for Independence and I am proud to return there in 2012 under the IMCA banner.

In the end, whether you agree or disagree with the decision to remain IMCA sanctioned, you can rest assured that we are going to work our tails off to provide Independence drivers and fans the best show possible.

** Why all of the animosity toward Tim Tebow, anyway? What is wrong with all of you Tebow haters? He's a football player who gave his team the chance to win ballgames this season, despite the fact that he is non-traditional at his position.

Yeah, the guy has a strong faith and isn't afraid to wear that faith on his sleeve. Rather than condemn the guy, how about we teach our kids that it's okay to express a belief in God, if they so choose? How about we teach our kids that it's okay to have compassion for others and passion for our life's work? How about we teach our kids that it's okay to be humble in our achievements and have a genuine appreciation for the opportunities that life has to offer us? How about we sit back and enjoy the fact that Tebow doesn't appear to be like many of the money-hungry, arrogant, unappreciative criminals that we do let our kids worship?

We should appreciate Tim Tebow. We should like what he offers the sports world when there appear to be so few role models out there for our children. Tim Tebow has done nothing except play the game of football and apparently lived a good, clean life in the process. He has values that he doesn't sacrifice and a work ethic that has taken him far in his craft.

There's only one thing I don't like about Tebow and it really has nothing to do with him. If you want to be mad at someone (and most people in today's world seem only content if they are at odds with someone), why not direct your animosity toward the media? Blame ESPN and other media outlets for dedicating endless segments to his game, his personality and his beliefs. I would venture to guess that Tebow himself is less than thrilled with the attention he receives throughout the week, let alone any given gameday. Appreciate that American sports don't always offer the greedy, unappreciative dolts that we've come to know.

To clarify, I'm not a Broncos fan. In fact, I'm a Green Bay fan. Honestly, the Tebow haters frustrate me more than the New York Giants. Yes, even the day after. I witnessed Aaron Rodgers have one of the best seasons a quarterback has ever enjoyed in the NFL. His accomplishments, along with those of Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Matthew Stafford have been overshadowed by Tebow's presence. Does it piss me off? Nope, not at all. They've all had remarkable years in their own right and deserve the attention they receive. What irks me is the Tebow hater and how he/she thinks his presence somehow takes away from their enjoyment of the game. Get a grip and use that energy to cheer for your team; don't use it to come down on someone who represents not only what's good in sport, but good for society.

That's all for this time around. Hopefully, I'll return in a more timely fashion before my next entry. Until then, enjoy what's left of the off-season and I look forward to seeing everyone in the spring!