Today we hear an all too common theme in the short track world. It seems like every year we hear news of multiple venues closing their doors or soon to be on the chopping block.
We hear the same old story every year.
Be it for eminent domain for a highway or sold for real estate development, there’s no shortage of reasons we lose tracks year after year.
There is however, those little glimpses of hope when we hear about a track re-opening or even changing from asphalt to dirt.
I happened to find one of those glimpses of hope near the town of Findlay, Ohio.
This track is called Millstream Speedway. If you have been around Ohio and Indiana it’s a track name you may recall. With drivers like Hewitt, Bealle, Kinser, Allen and Blaney making their names in the facility’s history book, it certainly has a past many tracks would envy.
With more than half a century of racing it has been a hot spot for Sprint Car and Dirt Late Model racing since its opening in 1954.
If you fast forward to the year 2000 the Paxton family decided to sell the property after taking ownership in the mid 90’s. They upgraded the facility and brought top-tier talent to town for a number of years, adding to Millstream’s history in dirt racing.
With the sale nobody knew what would transpire or what the ultimate fate of the facility would be.
Sadly, what would happen was the facility would sit dormant for the latter part of a decade. There were never any signs of a potential event to be held nor a hint of hope for any races in the near future. Actually what it became was a glorified dump site, making fans that knew the long history of the facility sick to their stomachs.
From 2008 to 2012 there were attempts at bringing the facility back to life. From hosting All Star Circuit of Champions races to the now extinct IRS Late Model series, a scattering of events were held. Regardless of the efforts made, the promoters and the property owners would not get any agreements to last.
The place just couldn’t gain any momentum.
This would effectively leave the property quiet yet again, putting a void in Sunday night racing for the fans in northwest Ohio.
Over the winter of 2014 to 2015 the attention of fans and racers was directed to Millstream once again. Randy and Lisa Hammer agreed to a three-year lease with the property owners to promote and operate the facility.
The Hammers are a well-known racing family from Fremont, OH, who have owned a top tier Sprint Car team for over a quarter of a century.
I was able to sit down with Randy and Lisa on the eve of the most anticipated event on Millstream’s 2016 schedule. This particular Sunday had the Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions Sprint Car Series visiting for their annual Ohio Sprint Speedweek date. The anticipation was building as drivers that included the likes of Rico Abreu, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson were taking time out of their busy schedules to hit some of the Speedweek dates to battle with the All Star regulars. Also slated to make an appearance was the boss, Tony Stewart.
The week before yielded a dusty start. This left some fans nervous about what the rest of the night would hold, but ultimately it proved to be a great evening of racing. The area had been dealing with close to drought conditions all summer, and with high temperatures thrown into the fold it certainly was wreaking havoc on dirt tracks.
This particular Speedweek show at Millstream Speedway would end up starting a little late due to these same issues. A call made by the All Stars to put more water on the surface right before hot laps were scheduled to commence would lead to a late start. Without a doubt, any fan grumbling about the late start was smiling ear-to-ear at the end of the A-main at about 10:30 p.m.
The packed facility witnessed three of the four heat races resulting in last lap passes in the Top 5 – two of which were for the final transfer spot. Fans especially enjoyed Byron Reed’s effort to transfer into the feature from the C-main.
The feature would see two All Star Sprint goliaths go to battle with Chad Kemenah and Dale Blaney hooking horns. Kemenah would be the early leader of the race after starting on the outside pole. After starting 13th Blaney would eventually make his way up to take the lead and ultimately the win. Blaney had to hold off Kemenah on a restart with three laps to go, but he proved to be victorious at the end of the night.
It’s easy to see why Randy and Lisa Hammer wanted to take on this challenge. Randy stated how the facility caught his eye when the opportunity came along.
“You’re a diehard race fan and racer, and you see all these other tracks all around the country getting closed up and here sat a facility that was capable of holding big races – if somebody put the effort in to do it.”
Owning and operating a team was certainly the mainstay for the Hammer family. They won the F.A.S.T (Fremont Attica Sprint Title) as well as the Oskaloosa Front Row Challenge. Adding to the Hammer’s accomplishments was their son Aaron claiming Crew Chief of the Year with the All Star Circuit of Champions on three occasions.
Randy and Aaron also had invested time into helping former Sprint Car diver, Frankie Kerr.
The undertaking of re-opening a track lead Randy and Lisa to the difficult decision to end their tenure as car owners to shift their focus over to the promotion side.
“I love having a racecar, but the cost of running a car has just gotten out of control,” said Randy. “I would love to still be doing that side of it, but all you do is spend money and get nothing back from it. We didn’t do this for the money, but you hope to at least break even and not be taking money out of your pocket like you do when you’re racing.”
When making such a switch it’s understood that there will be pain points. You go from worrying about stagger on the car to worrying about sanctioning fees; it’s a different side of the racing world. This can lead to some changes in the daily routine to say the least. When it comes to understanding the effort that promoting a race track takes, Randy was quick to explain what people may most underestimate.
“Absolutely it’s the amount of hours its takes, it’s just endless. There’s not enough time in the day. I’ve been out here since Tuesday night. I was in the water truck last week for fifteen hours and in fifteen minutes the track was garbage. It just makes you sit there and want to go crawl in a porta-john.”
Randy continues by noting, “And it’s a gamble every time you open the gates. I mean there’s days I sit back at 4:30 p.m. and want to puke when you look in the grandstands. People don’t realize how much money you lay out there on the line and taking that chance. Hats off to the other people out there that are doing it. I guess there’s good ones and bad ones but it still takes a whole lot of time. I’ve learned that of all the racetracks we’ve ever went to and how many junk tracks there were, why they’re that way because it’s not easy.”
Lisa agreed, but offered how their positions differ as well.
“It’s definitely the number of hours that goes into it that is the most challenging. He does the track prep, and I have to worry about someone being at the gate, paying that person at the gate, advertising when the gates are going to be open, and making sure the food is stocked. We still work regular jobs – I’m a deputy clerk at a common pleas court, and Randy has the pallet business. We didn’t quit our jobs to take on this vision, but we do love and are very passionate about this sport, and we want to see this facility succeed.”
Try to imagine what it would take to get a facility running that had been sitting dormant on-and-off for a decade. Without a doubt the challenge was large, but the Hammers knew what it would take to get the facility as close to their standards as possible. Going in without a plan could prove disastrous, so when asked what their first task was when working on the facility it was simply stated – clean up.
Randy took to the dumpsite as project number one.
“I said there is no way anything was ever going to happen until people could drive down the road and see something was going on here by cleaning up the dumpsite.”
There were large piles of broken concrete scattered through what is now the parking lot. I personally couldn’t begin to tell you just how much was actually there as I remember parking next to it at a race in a previous year, but Lisa recalled the amount of labor it took.
“It took eight-straight weeks of 10-hour days to clean up that mess. There are $300,000 houses that have been built out here, and I guess our property caught some of the construction wastes. To clean that mess up has definitely made me the proudest.”
Among other things they have done is replace broken windows in the press box, repair fencing, update the electrical service, paint railings and the addition of a concrete area for handicapped race fans.
Randy spoke of what it took to get the bleachers and the press box up to their standards.
“I spent two weeks doing nothing but power washing these bleachers because they were black with filth. We put new glass in the press box – it was all broke.”
Lisa spoke of what it meant to her to have an area for handicapped fans, which can sometimes be overlooked by venues.
“It was a vision to have a concrete pad for handicapped accessibility, and Heitmeyer Concrete came out and put it in for us. I actually cried that day, because they came out because they wanted to do it for us. That meant a lot.”
Making the place look nice was also a feat noticed by the surrounding area. When Millstream closed in 2000 it sat out in the middle of nowhere by itself. Now the track is surrounded by many homes that easily have values in the 300-500k range. In the age of housing developments contributing to the closure of racetracks, the Hammers have been able to not only please the neighbors but actually befriend them and gain their support.
Randy says communication and taking care of people go a long way.
“For the most part, everyone that lives close enjoys the track, and they’ll even come over and help us. I was out here at 2 a.m. in the morning the other night and one of our great neighbors showed up to help out. Everything is really good right now with our neighbors. Obviously houses are going to keep going up. I’ve been to township meetings where they acknowledge that the racetrack has been there forever, but I’m sure there’ll come a time down the road that it will be a battle. With that said I know there are tracks across the country that are located right in town; a big part of it is the communication.”
But for now Lisa states the neighbors carry great attitudes, and she takes pride in having and continuing to have a great relationship with them.
“We want to hold special events, but we are also excited about doing things to compliment the community and enhance the community. They see that we’re trying to build that trust with them. People, who ran the track in the past, have not been really trustworthy in their eyes, so were trying to change their view.”
Randy also added how cleaning up the grounds went a long way toward improving the working relationship with the surrounding neighbors.
“By cleaning up that front lot, it got everybody’s attention. A guy just mentioned the other night that we came here and did what we said we were going to do. We didn’t follow the mold of what some of those in the past said they were going to do but didn’t do.”
Lisa also added a great story about that very same neighbor growing up going to the race track.
“That same neighbor said when he was a young boy he was always excited to come here to the racetrack, so he built his home across the street from it. He said his daughter grew up knowing it only as a dumpsite. He said he was so excited for her to come home from college because they were finally going to be able to experience coming to the races together. That’s pretty cool for me to hear.”
Along with the neighbors there are also the local townships that like to chip in. Their first weekend offered up a dry and dusty surface at the beginning of the night. As the night went on the track became very racy and offered great feature racing action. After the races the local townships contributed to adding water to the racing surface and helping with traffic control.
Lisa noted, “We have three different townships that help us here – Liberty, Portage and Blanchard. Last weekend when it was so dry one of those townships brought out their tanker and helped us water the track until 3 a.m. I make a donation to the township and they help us with the parking and getting people out of here in a timely manner and a safe manner – that is huge, that means a lot to us.”
When it comes to the historic facility, the drivers are quick to express their gratitude and confidence in the Hammers efforts to the make the facility great once again.
Byron Reed is a 26-year veteran of Sprint Car racing in northwest Ohio and raced against the Hammers for many years and has taken notice of their efforts.
“I’ve been coming here my whole life. I watched Jack Hewitt run here. I’ve watched Jeff Gordon run here in the #6 car. I was here the one night – before they had a wall – when Hewitt was qualifying and two guys walked across the track, and he darned near ran them over. It always been a great race track and has always been competitive. I appreciate the (Hammers) effort. They got the place looking great, and they’re doing a great job of promoting it.”
Before his win at Millstream Speedway – on this same night – Dale Blaney recalled his experiences and success at the Ohio speedway.
“I think the earliest I was here was probably 1991 or 1992. We raced here in the mid 90’s quite a bit. It’s always been a cool place and always fun to race on. It was good to come back in ‘08 or ‘09; we’ve always had a lot of success here and won a lot of races. It’s a cool place, and hopefully they get a good crowd and have a really good night.”
One All Star regular that holds many memories of Millstream is Caleb Helms. The speedway is more or less in his back yard, but more importantly he is one of three generations to race at the speedway. On any given night the Helms family may have four generations at the track. It all began with his grandpa Larry followed by his father Shane. Caleb is the third generation and literally began his career at Millstream.
“The first time I ever got into a Sprint Car was here when they opened it back up for a speedweeks show back in 2008,” Helms notes. “There’s a long history in this racing community. It’s a really a great place for a race track with all of the hotels, restaurants, and businesses nearby.”
Helms continues by saying, “The race track itself has a lot of great history. I hear about it all the time with the people I’m around. Obviously my dad and my grandpa both raced here quite a bit, and it’s in my back yard. So it’s really neat to get to come here and race this place. The Hammers are hardworking, great people who really know a lot about the sport and have a lot on their plate to get it working.”
For the ultimate fan’s view of Millstream, I asked the ultimate fan and media personality, Duane Hancock. Duane has worked in various functions for the All Stars and local race tracks over the years and is currently hosting his own racing, radio show in northwest Ohio.
“To me having Millstream open again is awesome. It’s been a Sunday night tradition forever and it’s different than any other track around because you can bring your family and the kids can play on the hillsides. I mean look around and you see blankets and kids playing – it’s just great. There’s great history here. You’ve had Pennsylvania guys here. You had Jack Hewitt and Bobby Allen one time here starting 23rd and 24th and finishing 1st and 2nd in the A-main. It’s always been great racing and the crowds have always been great. It’s kind of unique compared to other tracks because a lot of them just have bleachers, but here you can have lawn chairs. You can stretch out, the kids can come, and it’s always been a family environment.”
Needless to say the Hammer’s efforts aren’t going unnoticed by the drivers or the fans. But there is one still item on the docket – the ever-long conflict of tenant vs landlord.
The Hammers have the facility under lease which has been in the back of their mind. Having put lots of money into the facility they still see unlimited potential for the future, but only if they can purchase it.
“We’ve been able to make it operational, but now to actually carry out the vision, we need to proceed to the sale of the property to know it’s worth our time and investment,” comments Randy. “I get more excited about the things I’d like to do that aren’t racing related to help enhance the community. There’s a big pond out back and, I’d love to develop that into camp sites and do a kids fishing derby. There is a Go-Kart track in the middle that we’d like to promote more family functions at the racetrack.”
Caleb Helms may have said it best.
“They are kind of working with their hands tied behind their backs. It’s hard to put stuff into something that you know you might not get a return back.”
One thing is clear though, the hard work and effort it takes won’t be hindered by the lack of the purchase. With bad luck last year raining out four of their eight scheduled races the Hammers are full steam ahead for 2016. With all that hard work comes reward.
Randy expressed in a moment of reflection what makes it all worth it.
“I haven’t told this for a while, but last year when I was here sun up to sun down, I was literally falling asleep at the stop lights on the way home. I sat here one day thinking, ‘What in the hell am I doing here?’ And then I thought about guys like Larry Helms, who was there to support me every week. I just thought, ‘You know, that’s the reason we’re here doing this this, for those retired racing guys that have always believed in this place’.”
Lisa also reflected on how positive words from racers and fans have made all of the hard work worthwhile.
“We’ve been married 36 years, and this last year has been really hard but the strength of family is what gets you through it. He (Randy) will tell you some days I want to race more than anybody else. Like I said, that approval and respect from the neighbors is huge as well as the support from the race fans. The old time race fans that have always come here will say sometimes say, ‘Wow what a face lift you have put on this place.’ That means a lot to us and keeps us driving forward.”
There is no question race fans around northwest Ohio are rooting for Randy and Lisa Hammer to succeed in bringing Millstream back to life permanently. They have an army of racing patrons, who support them wholeheartedly.
There’s also great sponsors like Mac and Bob’s Wrecker Service, Kramer Signs, Helms and Son Excavating, KT Equipment Rental, and a host of other companies that support the track.
As my wife and I were sitting in turn one at Millstream for the Speedweeks race my wife came to a moment of realization during a pause in the action. She was staring out into the vast open scenery one could expect in northwest Ohio.
Her quip to me was, “We’re racing in a field.”
Such a simple statement sparked me to utter the ever popular line from one of the cinematic all-time great movies, Field of Dreams.
“If you build it, they will come.”
I looked at my wife with a smirk and repeated the ever popular movie line only to quickly rephrase it as, “If you rebuild it, they will come.”
The Hammers are doing more than rebuilding a track – they are rebuilding history, and the race fans thank them for it.
If you would like more information about Millstream Speedway or their schedule for the remainder of 2016 be sure to visit their website www.MillstreamSpeedway.net .