InnerVIEW's

Before we get into the drama of the last three or four years, why don’t you tell me what you were you doing prior to November 15, 2013, and why you gave up what you had and accepted the job as the president of the IHRA - a stagnant and marginally profitable company at the time?

 

SG: It was business as usual for me (and Laura) with all three race tracks (Cordova Dragway Park, Eddyville Raceway Park and Cedar Falls Raceway). I was very fortunate to have good partners at Eddyville and Cedar Falls and had completed turning the corner with all the properties now being profitable.

 

At that point in my life I had the urge to do something different but to stay in racing. You have to remember I had already been at Cordova for 20 years at the time. So, when I was approached with a prospect of selling Cordova at a fair price and becoming president of a major sanctioning body, I knew I had to do it. The appeal for me was the challenge of taking the IHRA in a new direction and to get the heart beating like it was in the days Bill Bader was president. I knew the challenge would be monumental, but also felt the ownership support was there to get it done. The ownership group was eager for a new plan.

 

Was the IHRA -- as a for-profit racing business -- in better or worse condition than you expected when you took over as president?

 

SG: Actually, it was in decent shape. Aaron Polburn and Skooter Peaco had the “booked in formula” of feature shows and the sportsman series doing pretty well. They hadn’t reached the goal line yet, but were damn close. However, the new ownership group wasn’t interested in that business plan and wanted to return to a professional competition format.

 

After you took over as president of the IHRA there was a great deal of support from sponsors, racers, and fans for the “new IHRA”. Generally, the industry thought the IHRA was making progress. But just over a year after you had been hired both you and Jason Rittenberry were both fired. What were the reasons for that?

 

SG: Actually, I had been with IHRA just over two years and during that time we had re-established ourselves a player as a sanctioning body. We had huge increases in sponsor involvement throughout our programs, more competition events, and the member racer base had double-digit increases each year I was there. I credit our team for those results as the morale was high and everyone was working hard to move the IHRA forward.

 

Then, the IRG Board of Directors (the owners, the people who hired me) made a decision to consolidate their debt (the race tracks they purchased, the IHRA, and everything) into one loan obtained from TPG Specialty (a hedge fund company based out of New York). Once that happened, things changed very quickly. I wasn’t privy to all the details of the agreement and conditions, but it became apparent that TPG did not like what they saw once they had completed the loan and had their own accountants inside the business. Shortly thereafter TPG took control of IRG, which included the race tracks and the IHRA. It was almost immediate that Jason Rittenberry was gone.

 

At that same time they asked me (and my team) to develop a plan to get the IHRA into immediate profitability. I believe we had a reasonable plan that would do that. However, I was told the plan didn’t show enough EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization) and it was rejected. At about that same time, the IRG hired Chris Lencheski as CEO and Vice Chairman of the Board. I knew after my second meeting with him and subsequently when I went to the PRI Show that December that my time was short with the IHRA. In fact, during the PRI Show, we had an IRGSE team dinner which got pegged “the last supper” as it was obvious the end was near for much of what we had worked hard in putting together.

 

It was probably best I was out as I didn’t believe what Lencheski was selling and he knew it. The D1 plan was one of the biggest showboat grandstand concepts I had ever heard of and I knew it wouldn’t fly. The cost would be horrendous and the sponsorship and government support it was based on would never materialize. It was a great salesman job that I almost immediately saw through.

 

What do you think were the expectations of the IRGSE when they bought the IHRA and four racing facilities (Palm Beach International Raceway, Memphis International Raceway, Cordova International Raceway, and Maryland International Raceway)?

 

SG: At the beginning, I truly believe it was multi-fold. Hire a Director to oversee the facilities so they would ALL be profitable -- and that was Royce Miller (from Maryland) -- as well as rebuild the IHRA to increase the opportunity for profits through a professional competition format (which was me). The tracks owned by IRGSE would work side by side in many cases with the IHRA. The plan during that time was to be like a real good AAA baseball league and not to compete in markets where the NHRA had their national events or even with their type of classes.

 

We had nitro nostalgia funny cars, Pro Mods, Mountain Motor Pro Stocks and nitro Harleys plus a cool all-female jet car show not to mention a damn good sportsman series.  All the ingredients were in place for a rise to the top and with more time and some decent weather we would have been there.

 

Who were the people or group of people who initially went to the Texas Pacific Group venture capital folks and convinced them to extend a $30-40 million line of credit to buy racetracks and the IHRA?

 

SG: I don’t know all the players but do understand that Joe Lubeck was a part of the equitation.

 

Scott and Laura Gardner have been working together in drag racing for over 20 years. What came first, IRGSE buying the Cordova, Memphis, and Maryland tracks or them offering you the IHRA presidency?

 

SG: The IHRA presidency and the purchase of Cordova were nearly simultaneous. I had signed agreements in place for the selling of Cordova when I went to work at the IHRA in November 2013. Laura (Gardner) stayed back and operated Cordova with our seasoned staff in 2014. The closing actually happened late that year. I believe the Maryland acquisition was about the same time and Memphis had already been done.

 

Did you have any conversation with former IHRA president Aaron Polburn when you became president? Did you talk to current IHRA prez Mike Dunn when he took the job?

 

SG: I consider Aaron a friend now as he was before and during my time as IHRA President. Aaron is a smart guy and did many things right during his time in drag racing and at the IHRA. He was great during the transition and I think he could see why they (IRG) had chosen me to lead as they wanted to go an entirely new direction. As far as Mike Dunn is concerned, I did speak with him at the PRI Show in December of 2015 when he approached me about opportunities at IHRA as it related to television and production. Little did I know that he would be approached shortly after that point to take my position, although as I stated above, the writing was on the wall for me either way. I haven’t talked to Dunn since then.

 

In your opinion what is the future of the IHRA as a professional racing sanctioning body?

 

SG: In my opinion, the future is bleak as far as being a sanctioning body with professional racing. Everything we had built up with the feature classes and stars is now gone. Top Fuel Harleys and Pro Mods are now at NHRA, Mountain Motor Pro Stock is back with PDRA (who had discontinued running them during my tenure at IHRA) and the Nitro Nostalgia Funny Cars have other opportunities such as the DRO series.

 

As far developing a series similar to what NHRA offers, I would guess unless someone has a dream and several million dollars of capital to get it off the ground, it will never happen. Hell, NHRA has a hard time filling the professional fields; another sanctioning body with those same classes would just create havoc.

 

As far as IHRA being a sanctioning body for sportsman racing, I believe as long as they allow the people who understand drag racing to run it, they will probably be fine. They have super programs and great people in the ranks who understand the sportsman racer.

 

When IRGSE fired Jason Rittenberry and yourself they hired corporate trouble-shooter Chris Lencheski who in turn hired ex-NHRA Funny Car driver and announcer Mike Dunn as the new IHRA president. One of the first thing Mr. Lencheski did was to announce that the World Series of Drag Racing would be moved from its long-time home at Cordova to another IRGSE property, Memphis Dragway. The race was a massive failure last year. My question is why would Mr. Lencheski move a race from an IRGSE-owned track where it was supported massively by the local press and government and was almost guaranteed to make a six-figure profit annually to a track and location that NHRA had withdrawn their national events from?

 

SG: A good question that has several answers. In my opinion, he didn’t understand what the World Series of Drag Racing was and what it meant to the people of that region of the country. With that, I also don’t think he believed the P&L information I provided and he claimed we never had those types of crowds. I also think he was trying to impress his NASCAR buddies on how good he could do with an event in the Memphis market so they would support some type of larger NASCAR event there in the future.

 

I knew about the plan to move the World Series before my departure at IHRA and it made me sick (I mean really sick) as I knew it would go down as one of the biggest failures in motorsports. As time went on, I was anxious to actually see the results of the WS at Memphis as I knew it would be a type of vindication for me. I probably shouldn’t have looked at it that way, but I’m an emotional person and had 20+ years of hard work and pride into the World Series of Drag Racing at Cordova Dragway Park.

 

As with Lencheski’s D1 plan, the moving of the World Series was a knee-jerk reaction without a single strand of evidence to prove it could work and then to make it worse he picked the Memphis market which had a poverty rate of nearly 30% at that time. I was speechless.

 

What did you learn about the business of drag racing while IHRA president?

 

SG: I learned several things of which I will mention three. First, is that there are many struggling track operators that need guidance on their programs and operations. I tried to help as many as I could during my tenure as this is a real challenge for the industry. Next, as in most businesses, we had a small but vocal anti-IHRA contingent who for the most part couldn’t get over things that happened in the past and wouldn’t give us the benefit of the doubt trying to move forward. Then lastly, that I was expendable and that my opinion meant nothing to a group of people who didn’t understand the business of drag racing. Just before I left IHRA, I was told that relationships mean nothing and have no real bearing on doing business. Ugh!

 

A lot of racers and fans would like to see you buy back the Cordova track. Is there any chance that might happen, and if not why not?

 

SG: Likely not as I don’t believe it’s for sale and that ship had moved out. With where I’ve been and what I know now it wouldn’t make sense to go back. I have a lot of new irons in the fire and actually I’m more relaxed now than I have been for months.

Scott Gardner

Innerview conducted by Jeff Burk

Scott Gardner was the long-time owner and manager of Cordova Dragway Park in Cordova, IL, long-time home of the World Series of Drag Racing. In late 2013, he became the president of the IHRA that had been bought by IRG Sports + Entertainment. IRGSE also purchased the Cordova track and renamed it Cordova International Raceway.

 

After a couple of years running the IHRA, he was dismissed by new IRGSE president Chris Lencheski. Gardner’s wife, Laura, had long been his partner in business and the two moved to Topeka, KS, to take over running Heartland Park Topeka for its new owner. After over a year there, the Gardners left to form their own racing consulting business.

 

DRO Editor Jeff Burk had a few questions for Gardner about his long, strange trip.

So, after about 14 months on the job as the IHRA president on Jan. 16, 2016, you were “released”. In just two months you had a new job as the president of the Heartland Park Topeka (HPT) in Kansas. How did that job come to you?

 

SG: NHRA Division 5 Director Rob Park called me several times. He was helping out the ownership group at HPT and they were looking to go another direction with their management. In retrospect, I made the decision/move too fast.

 

While you were working for the Topeka ownership group you oversaw the acquisition of National Trail from the NHRA. That is the first time in recent history the NHRA has sold any tangible assets. In your opinion, why did the NHRA sell their track? I also hear rumors that the NHRA also wants to sell Atlanta Dragway to the Topeka group; what do you know about that?

 

SG: I don’t know factually why the NHRA sold National Trail Raceway although I would guess the property didn’t fit their current business plan as it couldn’t host a national event. It would take several million dollars in facility renovations to host one there again. I believe the timing was right for them to get out from underneath the facility.

 

As far as other properties are concerned like Atlanta, I don’t know if it had been shopped to the Topeka group. I, like you, have heard the rumors that NHRA is looking to sell Atlanta.

 

So, fast forward another 16 months and despite what appears from the outside to have been a successful turn-around of Heartland Park Topeka you have resigned your position as president. What happened that caused you to make that decision.

 

SG: Essentially it came down on how business is done. I have my way and they had theirs. Not saying anything is wrong with that, just simply wasn’t what I (or Laura) wanted to continue to be a part of. I believe -- and built my successful race tracks -- on relationships and doing business as what might be referred to as the “old fashioned way”. I don’t like when accounting is making decisions that affect the operations. Success (including financial) is created with your customer base (racers, fans and sponsors) and how you do business with them. Enough said here.

 

What did you learn that really surprised you about a holding an NHRA national event?

 

SG: The sheer size was overwhelming and it takes a lot of effort and everyone on the same page to make the event work properly and be financially successful. NHRA has some tremendous people that work extremely hard to pull off all the national events they are involved with. It also takes a good track partner to really make an excellent event. Both sides need to pull the same direction 110% and appreciate and see what the other side has to do. It’s a two-way street. The national events that are successful are at the facilities that have good partners.

 

Most of the NHRA track operators I have talked to say ticket sales for their national events are down compared to previous years. This scenario applies to all major motorsports from NASCAR down. What do you think is the cause for that slide in attendance?

 

SG: Simply put, we all have a lot more choices on how and where to spend our money. I think in the last 24 months NHRA has done a tremendous job on turning the attendance trend around at the national events. The attendance has generally been up when comparing events with similar weather over last year. In spite of short professional fields that complicate matters, they seem to be doing decently.

 

Ticket pricing, food cost, “short” professional fields, three-day races. Which one of those items would you consider to be contributing to the decline in attendance at NHRA national events?

 

SG: Well, all of those have an effect on attendance. The ticket price must meet the expectation of the fans and be on target for the particular market, the entertainment must be good (no matter the number of pro cars in attendance) and the format must be compact and strong. The typical national event now starts Sunday eliminations at 11 AM and concluded by 4 PM which is much better. Not a bad time frame when considering four professional rounds of eliminations in the pro categories.

 

It is obvious that fans aren’t attending the Sunday finals at NHRA events. Why do you think that is and what could be done to bring more fans on Sunday?

 

SG: I would have to argue that the Sunday attendance has been generally better as of late. In fact, Sunday at Heartland Park was excellent. Overall, the tightening of the program has tremendously impacted fans in a positive manner. Not many people want to spend six or more hours to see a race concluded. Better competition on race day has also helped. A few years ago, qualifying was the best show. Now, hands down the eliminations are the best bet.

 

Last question.  For the last five years you have been at the top of professional drag racing management. What did you learn about the sport of drag racing and the business of drag racing other than the best jobs usually last about a year and a half? Would you still want to continue a career in drag racing and what job do you want?

 

SG: I have to laugh at this question. I really didn’t intend to be in these positions for as limited time as what worked out. It wasn’t easy moving that many times. Our society has a developed the mindset that everything has to happen instantaneously and especially business profits. I believe it takes a minimum of three tough years for a start-up company or a failing operation to be turned around. It seems some corporate expectations are simply too high. In fact, I see this in race track businesses very often. Success rarely comes overnight and takes a lot of hard work and time.

 

Moving forward now, I have formed a company that includes what I believe are some of the best people in the business to work on projects for race tracks. Gardner Race Track Consultants is made up of eight talented people with decades of experience that can take on just about any problem or issue a track/track operator might have. We can identify problem(s) and create pathways to overcome the obstacle(s). Our services cover physical plant issues (construction, timing, etc.), to marketing and race operations and everything in-between.

 

Unfortunately, we have way too many failing race tracks that will ultimately close if they don’t get some help. Our company has the experts that will turn them around. I’m totally content and happy to be doing this now as I believe we will provide a real value to the industry. 

VOLUME XIX,  NUMBER 9 - SEPTEMBER  2017

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