News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Sports Columns

May 2, 2012

TRACKSIDE: Helfrich: Short-track racing has good future

When questions arise regarding the current state of sprint car racing, whether they be at the local or national level, one doesn’t have to search much further for the answer than veteran promoter Tom Helfrich.

Recognized as one of the country’s premier short-track promoters, the owner of Tri-State Speedway in Haubstadt is well-versed on the present-day problems that face sprint car racing and what the future might hold for the popular form of open-wheel racing.

While attending the recent Terre Haute Action Track season opener, Helfrich took time from his hectic schedule of overseeing the event in his role as Midwest Sprint Car Series president to give his personal assessment on the health of the Indiana’s most popular form of racing.

Whether it be the regular weekly short programs, USAC, his MSCS, or the prestigious World of Outlaws circuit, Helfrich knows firsthand where the sport stands and what direction it might be headed.

In his many roles as track owner, promoter and series owner, the former racer sees it all. And what he sees is a relative healthy picture for the short tracks. At the same time, he issues a note of caution to his fellow race organizers not to get complacent when it comes to promoting their sport.

He knows from experience how competitive the battle for the entertainment dollar can be and what it takes to keep the fans coming back to the track.

As with most things in life, sprint car racing has its own pecking order in terms of popularity and prestige. While non-wing supporters might disagree, it’s pretty well accepted that the World of Outlaws rules the roost.

The Outlaws make four visits to the Hoosier state during the season, with Helfrich’s short track first on the schedule. Their recent appearance at Tri-State drew a capacity turnout despite less-than-ideal weather conditions.

Helfrich was not only pleased with his gate but with what the winged sprinters brought to the table.

“It can be a very risky venture for any promoter. It’s not cheap,” Helfrich said of the Outlaws purse, which is usually double what he will pay for any other special event at his track.

“It’s all about the glitter,” Helfrich said of what is appropriately billed as “the greatest show on dirt.”

“We bring them in once a year. I have a tendency to forget how fast they really are. When they fire up those engines, it’s a sound that you can’t find anywhere else in motorsports.

“For our little bull ring, they really go after one another. It’s not like NASCAR where you have to play by the rules. Our fans really get into it.”

After the passing of its founder and ruler Ted Johnson, the Outlaws series has undergone a host of changes with Dirt Motorsports Inc. now calling the shots. Helfrich likes the direction the new management is taking the series.

“[Outlaws] officials have really educated the drivers on the importance of what the fans mean to their existence,” Helfrich said. “It’s produced positive results that is making it better for everybody involved with the Outlaws.”

While he might be a little too modest when it comes to measuring the growth and acceptance of his MSCS series on the Midwest scene, Helfrich seems comfortable with the support his series has with the fans and racers.

“The thing with our little series is that it’s kinda headquartered at our track. We don’t go out and try to sell our shows to other tracks. Not every track is suited to sprint-car racing. Sprint-car racing is unique and has to be handled different. You don’t have starters on the cars and there’s the safety issues,” he explained.

“We’ll have 12 to 14 races this year. We’re just trying to find our niche where you have young drivers who want to come and learn sprint-car racing. It’s working OK.”

A strong supporter of USAC racing, Helfrich says the Indianapolis-based sanctioning body is doing an excellent job of making stars out of their young drivers, which generates a positive feedback for its fans and promoters.

At the same time, he acknowledged the difficult times USAC is facing when it comes to salvaging its faltering pavement racing division — that the group faces an uphill struggle in trying to keep that form of racing viable for its competitors.

“One problem is that they are operating in the hotbed of dirt-track racing, that the sport has become so specialized,” Helfrich said. “The days when a guy would run his car on dirt at night and change over to pavement the next day has become a thing of the past. The costs of pavement-track racing has eliminated so many guys from the sport.”

As for the future, Helfrich says the sport can’t rest on its laurels. It must always look for new ways to make itself more appealing to the paying public. “One thing you’ve got to remember, you always have to look to the future,” he mentioned. “It’s like the old drive-in theaters. There wasn’t anything wrong with them. There was just something better that came along and replaced them.”

Joe Buckles can be reached at jbuckles4@frontier.com.

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