Patrick Finley: Fixing racetrack up in more ways than 1

2012-12-21T00:00:00Z 2014-07-08T15:34:02Z Patrick Finley: Fixing racetrack up in more ways than 1Patrick Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
December 21, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Two men in their mid-60s, a smattering of contractors and a hound dog named Elvis braced against the cold wind whistling over the race track Wednesday.

Workers were busy cutting, painting and installing 600 pieces of 2-by-10 boards, replacing rickety grandstand benches one plank at a time.

Plywood was plied off the backs of bleachers, to be replaced with aluminum.

Six swatches of sealant soaked into the first turn at the three-eighths-mile asphalt track, like paint chips on one of those HGTV home improvement shows.

The concrete guys arrived the next day, filling cracks on the track that could swallow small animals: 2 feet wide and a 1 1/2-feet deep, the result of a generation of erosion and neglect.

"We're doing 20 years of maintenance on the thing," said John Lashley, one of the two mid-60s guys.

He formed START-Tucson and subleased the 44-year-old racetrack from Southwest Fair Commission in October and began fixing the old place up. (Pima County leases it to SFC, who subleases to operators.)

"We're gonna take care of things that have been left unattended to," said operations director Keith Ames, who ran Central Arizona Raceway in Casa Grande in the '90s.

It hasn't been cheap. Fixing the racing surface alone costs $100,000.

START is paying for every penny of the remodel, despite being merely renters, in what the men say is a good-faith gesture toward the racers of Tucson.

Lashley and Ames changed the name from Tucson Raceway Park to Tucson Speedway, a necessity after the last decade saw three different renters struggle with attendance and upkeep.

The most recent leaser tried and failed to convert the track to dirt in 2010 and eventually stopped putting on races.

"We've got a legacy, at least in recent times, of failure here," Lashley said.

I asked why fans and racers shouldn't be suspicious this time around.

"Rightfully so," he said. "What makes us different than the other guy?"

Here's one reason: Their group, which has an advisory board, is a 501c3 nonprofit organization.

I looked at them like they were crazy. Turns out, Lashley's wife asked him the same thing the night before.

"John said to me, 'I'm here because I'm not all there,'" Ames joked.

Their first event is scheduled for March 16.

Ames said they'll put on races on the first and third Saturdays of each month and hope to open the track to car clubs on dark nights.

Ames' three-year projection found Tucson Speedway needs about 1,000 paying customers per race.

The racers are excited; Ames said about 28 super late model cars are ready, four times the total a few years ago.

"We're getting a lot of positive reception," said Ames, a real estate manager and neighbor of Lashley's on the Northwest side.

It hasn't been all easy.

They say Pima County has yet to turn on the power at the track. They have to use one extension cord for the whole facility, connected to a TEP box.

(I called the SFC on Thursday to see why, but its executive director was travelling and unavailable.)

Work continues, though, even if Elvis, the dog with white paint splatters on his ears, has to jump into the cab of Lashley's pickup truck for warmth.

"Haven't you," Lashley said, "ever just wanted to make something better?"

On StarNet: See more photos from the renovation efforts at azstarnet.com/gallery

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