The news was as sad as a funeral notice and as sudden as a heart attack. Racers throughout the Southwest took a hit to the heart with the announcement that Manzanita Speedway would close.
If that wasn’t enough, there was precious little time to say goodbye. Just one month after the sale was announced, the track was to hold its last race.
In less time than it takes to foreclose on a bad mortgage or repo a car, a half-century of racing in the Arizona desert would come to a stop and the historic half-mile oval would be scoured from the desert landscape like a dune in a windstorm.
Racers were both anguished and angry. The loss of a racetrack always leaves a hollow feeling of something missing, like an empty spot at a dinner table after a family member dies. Suddenly, Friday or Saturday nights were empty spots on a calendar that were supposed to be filled.
For many racers, it was more than lost weekends. The track’s closure interrupted a way of life.
“I’m 61 years old and I’ve been going to that track since I was four,” said Jimmy Blanton, owner of Arizona Race Mart, who drove his first race car on the half-mile oval two weeks after graduating from high school.
The last race, he said, would be more of a wake than a funeral.
“There are hundreds of people who feel like I do,” said Blanton. The loss of the race track “is more than losing a friend,” he added. “It’s like a death in the family.”
But the anguish over the news soon turned to anger. Racers felt betrayed by the secrecy and the suddenness of the deal. Their fate was not in their hands.
Helpless to influence or stop the sale, they had no more control over their future than a race car hurtling toward a wall with no steering.
After giving every indication that the track would run an entire 2009 season, the press release announcing that the track would close in 30 days felt like an eviction notice.
To rectify the perceived injustice, there were petitions circulated to remove the track’s owner from his spot in the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame. Some, predictably, would have been just as happy to crucify him at the intersection of 35th and Broadway.
But passions were just as deep, if not obvious, on the other side. Owner Mel Martin faced conflicting choices of his own. He helped build Manzy, yet was responsible now for tearing it down.
As a former car owner and promoter, he has an interest in racing. As a businessman with strong ties to South Phoenix, he has concern for the community.
His strongest feelings, however, are for his family. Strong and ongoing disagreements between Martin and his son, who ran the track, triggered the sale, making the entire episode look like a soap opera.
But the sale of Manzanita Speedway is real life, not reality TV. Ultimately, it was family ties and money – big money – that waved the final checkered flag on one of the most prestigious dirt tracks in America.
Those factors were pushed along by the expense of operating a racetrack in a big city media market and the pressures of operating in a rapidly encroaching urban area, underscoring the fact that what really happened to Manzanita could be repeated at short tracks in most parts of the country, any time.
The 2009 season began at Manzanita Speedway like the 50 that had come before it. A schedule was published that included 62 nights of racing just about any type of vehicle that had four wheels and an engine.
Modifieds, stock cars and bombers were mixed in with open-wheel shows for midgets and mini-sprints and the non-wing sprint cars of the non-wing American Sprint Car Series Southwest Region.
Upgrades over the winter were more than just a slap-dash coat of new paint. The Martins, who took control of the racetrack in August of 2007, invested over $1 million in refurbishing a facility that had been severely neglected in recent years.
“Nobody had spent any money on it in a long time,” said Mel Martin, noting that the track had been the subject of ongoing litigation between two previous owners (the Kimbro family and Keith Hall) before he and his son took it over. “No one would want to spent money on a facility like this in the middle of a lawsuit,” he noted.
With the intent of running the track for many years, the Martins invested in new aluminum grandstands, higher walls and new concession stands. Tons of gravel were brought into the parking lot to mitigate complaints about dust.
The overhaul also included the front office. In December, 2008 the Martins hired a new general manager to improve track operations and increase business.
Hollywood Leary, owner of several auto body shops who had hung around racers for many years, knew changes had to be made to attract more fans.
“I went to the Western World (in the fall of ‘08) as a fan, knowing that I might have something to do with the track beginning in the off-season,” he recalled. “The ticket taker was wearing headphones and texting someone with their left hand while they took tickets with the right hand.”
After he was hired, “I got the staff together and said that kind of behavior wasn’t going to fly,” he said.
The staff was admonished to “put smiles on people’s faces” to make it more fan-friendly.
Leary described his biggest job as “putting butts in seats.” Manzanita, he said, “needed someone to talk about what goes on here and get people to come.”
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