The prospects for auto racing in Asheville this season don’t look good, despite a last-minute appeal by racing enthusiasts.
With plans for building a track near the Asheville Regional Airport apparently dead, and another in Canton not expected to be complete until 2001, fans lament the end of 40 years of racing history. And the owners of local racing-related businesses say they fear losing their livelihoods.
Marion Thomas‘ 20-year-old automotive business is already suffering. Without any customers for his custom-built race cars, he expects to lose $70,000 this year. Even though racing continues in Hickory, a little more than an hour’s drive from Asheville, Thomas noted, “No Asheville business is going to sponsor building a race car to advertise in Hickory.”
“We are not asking for a piece of gold,” added Marion’s partner, Larry McRae, as the two stood picketing in front of City Hall on March 15.
Marion and McRae joined 150 others to ask Asheville City Council to broker yet another year of racing at the now-defunct Asheville Motor Speedway, off Amboy Road. They seemed to hit a brick wall, however, when Mayor Leni Sitnick declared there was nothing more that Council could do for them.
“This Council bent over backwards, and went to the donors and RiverLink and begged for another year,” Sitnick said about efforts to secure an extra season of racing in 1999. “We had to promise not to do it again. We made an agreement. Anybody who asks a public official to break an agreement is not doing a proper thing.”
Earlier in the week, the organizers of Racing for 2000 and Beyond had predicted a huge turnout at the Council meeting — about 2,000 race fans. In anticipation, the Asheville Police Department had stationed extra officers to deal with a crowd that never materialized.
During the meeting, no one mentioned the low turnout. Instead, speakers focused on rehashing the way the racetrack had been closed, airing conspiracy theories about secret meetings and why racing restrictions had been placed on the site.
The city accepted the property, with deed restrictions, as a gift from the nonprofit RiverLink in 1998, with the stipulation that the land be turned into a park. RiverLink had bought the property from owner Roger Gregg, using donations and grant funds.
Don Yelton and Mike Morgan led the offensive on behalf of the racing group. Both men are seeking seats on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, having used the racetrack debate to announce their candidacies at a Jan. 25 City Council meeting. At that time, the two criticized the city’s handling of the racetrack issue and pledged to support the racing community, if elected.
At last week’s meeting, Morgan challenged Council members to “heal our community by bringing racing back to Asheville until another speedway is built.” He added that, without racing, enthusiasts are being denied the pursuit of happiness.
Yelton agressively questioned the property donors’ motives. He called the $1 million gift a “Trojan horse,” which he calculated is costing the city $9 million per year in lost tax revenue from ticket sales.
“Racing is a redneck hobby that got in the way of a greenway and a high-dollar hotel,” Yelton said, alluding to one of the often-repeated conspiracy theories.
The speedway was taken away, elaborated Clyde Flowers, so the new “hotel on the hill,” being erected on the Biltmore Estate would not have to deal with the noise from the racetrack.
Yelton demanded that Sitnick — who did all the talking for the Council — reveal who put the restrictions on the land and explain what racing folks have termed the “secret meeting.”
Sitnick replied that it was Gregg, the original property owner, who had put the chains on racing. And she restated her long-held position that the closed-door meeting had been necessary to acquire the land and had been legal under state law. At that closed meeting, she added, Gregg had requested that Council name the park after his father, Roger Gregg Sr., and he also asked that the transfer and park name remain undisclosed, as a favor, until his father’s birthday. There were no other closed meetings, she said.
In hindsight, Sitnick noted, “If I had known the pain this would cause, to keep in confidence this gift, I would have said, No, thank you.”
But an unmollified Yelton was still on a roll: He called on Council to forget its agreement and try to secure another year of racing at Amboy.
“If you did it before, you can do it again,” he said, to huge applause from the packed audience.
The mayor quieted things down quickly, however, when she revealed that she had tried just that, two weeks before. But the answer from the donors and RiverLink had been a resounding no. Just making the calls, she noted, had put her in jeopardy of being sued.
Unsatisfied, Yelton maintained that she hadn’t tried hard enough. “I’m tired of elected officials that say their hands are tied, and individuals that hold a personal grudge against an entire group of people,” he said.
The mayor replied, “We are sorry for the wounds,” but went on to ask why no one had thanked Council members for securing the extra year of racing in 1999. She then added, as she has during past Council discussions about racing, that anyone could have purchased the property before it was given to the city. “It was advertised in state and out-of-state newspapers for four years, and nobody bought it,” she said.
Audience members replied that they hadn’t been aware of the notices.
“If you didn’t know what was going on, and you were down there every weekend, how could you expect us to know?” replied Sitnick.
After this, racing fans started for the doors, but they kept stopping to listen each time Sitnick allowed an additional speaker get in his or her parting words.
“You need to think about the ramifications of your actions before you stick your foot in it,” said Candler resident Charles King. “God is a racing fan, too.”
After the meeting, about 100 people gathered around Yelton outside Council chambers, as he vowed to continue the fight in the courts. But after the crowd had dispersed, he conceded: “I don’t think there will be racing this year.”