By Ben Shelton
The rules are pretty simple. Nonsense isn’t tolerated, so don’t even try it. Fighting isn’t an option. You will receive respect, but you should fully intend on giving it as well. If you plan to bend the rules you better be prepared to pay the penalty. You might think it’s a man’s world, but when you get to this place it’s a woman, who runs the show.
The rules above don’t apply to a bar or a club, but rather Tracey Clay’s I-30 Speedway in Little Rock, Arkansas, which over the past four decades has operated as one of the most successful short tracks in the country.
Every weekend across our great nation hundreds of race tracks host their weekly events. Some make good profits, while others are happy to just break even, and some perpetually lose every week. For the tracks that have remained profitable through the good and the bad times, there seems to be a secret recipe. For I-30 Speedway the recipe seems pretty simple.
“At I-30 Speedway we’ve always had the mindset that we don’t care who you are or who you know, you’re going to get treated the same,” comments promoter, Tracey Clay. “Whether it be one of our loyal fans in the stands or one of great racers in the pits, we are going to give you respect from the time you get here until the time you leave.” With a smile she concludes, “Well that is as long as you understand, we expect the same in return.”
At I-30 Speedway we’ve always had the mindset that we don’t care who you are or who you know, you’re going to get treated the same.
She reminisces, “From my youngest years I can remember looking forward to the weekend each and every week because I just loved going to the track with my dad. In fact, I called his Sprint Car my big brother.”
The Clays spent many a weekend competing at tracks across the South, but it wasn’t until the 1987 season that the close-knit family made the transformation from racers to promoters/owners.
“We went to I-30 Speedway just about every Saturday night, and in 1987 word hit the street that the track might soon fall into financial troubles,” Tracey remembers. “My dad along with local businessmen, Ron Pack and Odus Pack, just loved the place and decided to go in together to purchase the track in bankruptcy court later that year. From that point there was no turning back as the Clay family took control of the facility that originally opened around 1960.”
In August of 1987 I-30 Speedway officially opened for business under the direction of the Clay family, and at 25-years-old, Tracey’s first job was to work in the ticket office alongside some of the long-time employees of the track.
“The folks, who worked in the ticket office had been doing it for a long time, and I quickly learned a lot of the ins-and-outs of the business from them. It really laid a good foundation in the racing business for me.”
While Tracey spent a majority of the night selling tickets, running numbers, and putting together the payouts in the ticket office, when it came time for the nightly Sprint Car feature, you could only find her in one place. The press box.
“I don’t care what had to be done early in the night, there was no way I was every going to miss watching a Sprint Car feature,” laughs Clay.
She quickly began to take note of the scorers and was fascinated at how they could keep track of where each car was in the field on each lap. Tracey began scoring for fun as she watched the Sprint Car feature, and in 1994 she made the transition to full-time scorer.
While the Clay family enjoyed running the track, they quickly found that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
Tracey comments, “I can remember as racers we always thought that promoters and track owners had it made, but we quickly learned it can be a really thankless and stressful job. No matter what you do there is always a conspiracy theory floating among the racers and accusations of favoritism. We learned real quick that you just have to do the best job you can, and not take any of it personal.”
In 1996 Tracey’s dad, Joe, had decided that working in the track office and managing the day-to-day affairs of the track just wasn’t his cup of tea, and with that came another role change for Tracey as she became the promoter.
“Dad basically told me that answering the phone and doing the paperwork wasn’t especially his thing, so he wanted me to do it,” remembers Clay. “It was all way new to me so it was definitely a sink or swim thing, but I was able to get the hang of things pretty quick from trial and error.”
Tracey, who is known as one of the toughest promoters in the country, credits her strength and sometimes stubbornness to the experiences she faced with drivers and other promoters early in her new role.
“To be fair it wasn’t everybody, but a lot of the drivers and promoters in this sport just saw a young woman, who was running a race track, and I think they honestly thought to themselves I can steam roll this person to get what I want,” she notes. “One thing I can tell you is that I might’ve been young, but I sure wasn’t a push over, and I think it shocked a lot of people early on that I would stand up to them. Caving in to intimidation just wasn’t an option for me.”
With Tracey Clay spearheading the charge I-30 Speedway quickly grew with weekly car counts in excess of a hundred entries and packed grandstands. As the weekly show grew so did the track’s trademark event, the annual COMP Cams Short Track Nationals, which was born in 1988 and is hosted each year in late October. The race soon gained mega-even status, and early in its existence starting drawing approximately 40 cars before moving ahead to current day, where it now attracts more than 100 Sprint Cars each year to the 1/4 mile oval.
“To see what the Short Track Nationals has become is really just humbling,” Tracey Clay says with a big smile on her face. “My family, our great fans, racers, and sponsors have all worked hard for over 25 years now to build this event, and to see what it is now….well, words just can’t describe that feeling. It’s just amazing.”
While big events like the COMP Cams Short Track Nationals have put I-30 Speedway on the national map, Clay is equally proud of what her and her family have been able to create with their weekly shows.
“A lot of tracks struggle with their weekly show, but we have pretty much 100 cars in five divisions every week,” comments Clay. “A lot of people come to see the Sprint Cars, but I’ll say this. Our Super Stock division puts on an amazing show each and every week, and many a night, they steal the show. It makes us proud to have an entry level class that is so competitive with so many great drivers. I look forward to their feature every Saturday night.”
Twenty-five years after taking the reins of I-30 Speedway the Clay family continues to enjoy operating the track just as much today as they did in the beginning. While Tracey Clay works as the track promoter, her dad spearheads the track preparation crew, and her brother, Joe Jr. works as the weekly announcer.
It’s a total family effort for us, and we all love this sport more now than when we started.
From the promoter role Tracey still feels like she is fighting an uphill battle in a male dominated sport, but on the same token she feels that she now gets more respect than ever before.
“There’s no doubt that some people just look at me, and think to themselves this is a woman trying to run a race track. I’m sure she doesn’t know anything. However, there’s just as many that now respect me and my hard work. They know that I pour my heart and soul into making this track work, and making it as fair as possible for everybody, who passes through that gate.”
I-30 Speedway recently concluded a very successful 2013 season, and they are already planning for an even bigger 2014 campaign that will include a fair share of specials to go along with their benchmark weekly racing series events. As Clay looks ahead to the future, she does so with optimism, but also understands that this is a different world than when she started in the racing game.
“Obviously the economy has dealt us all a curveball over the past few years, but equally important we as track promoters all have to continue to look for new ways to entertain the fans. We can’t sit back and keep doing the same thing over and over if we expect to grow or even survive for that matter.”
With an eye on the future and a respect for the past, Tracey Clay and the Clay family do as good a job of running a race track as anybody in the country. One thing is for sure, when you go to I-30 Speedway, you might not like the shake you get, but there is no denying you are getting treated the same as the next person. And after all as racers and fans can we really ask for anymore than that? I personally don’t think so.