As if the state of the economy weren’t crazy enough, the state of short course racing has of late been completely whacky. Following the serious destabilization of CORR at the end of 2008, there have been a rash of announcements of new series to start the new year, including Ricky Johnson’s three-race Off-Road GP series, followed by the six-weekend, 12-round Lucas Oil American Off Road Series of former CORR race director Tony Vanillo. And the specter of CORR still lingers despite the fact that the sport’s former(?) premier sanctioning body has yet to announce a 2009 racing schedule.
And the balance may be tilting further, as the latest news to come from the short course racing world emerged this weekend as follows:
Los Angeles, CA (January 17, 2009) - Off-road racer and supercross legend
Ricky Johnson and the principals of the World Series of Off-Road Racing in the
Midwest, announced this morning that they have agreed to bring both their
organizations together, forming a new organization named the Off-Road Grand
Prix(tm) (ORGP or Off-Road GP). The move will solidify short-course off-road
racing and unify the off-road racing communities and driver bases of the
Midwest and the Western U.S.
A letter of intent was signed with the World Series and a new 2009 series
schedule will be released as early as this coming Tuesday which will include
eight races at venues in Phoenix, AZ; Crandon, WI; Bark River, MI; Oshkosh,
WI; and Perris, CA. The events will be sanctioned and operated in
cooperation with the United States Auto Club (USAC). The Off-Road Grand
Prix(tm) Series will be the exclusive short-course off-road series of USAC.
The agreement gives ORGP long-term exclusive rights to hold off-road races
at Crandon International Off-Road Raceway in Crandon, WI, and Bark River
International Raceway near Escanaba, MI.
Johnson stated the agreement assures that short-course off-road racing,
which has such a great heritage in the Midwest, will continue there as well
as the West Coast. "One of the points in the deal that I am most excited
about is that the USAC sanctioned Off-Road Grand Prix(tm) will be bringing
the highest level of professional short-course off-road racing to passionate
fans in the Midwest where the sport has its roots but also to the super fast
racing community in the West," Johnson continued. "In 2009, we have a
schedule of races that brings five weekends to the Midwest's best facilities
in addition to several West Coast racing dates. It's truly a nation-wide,
unified series with driver support and that's what the sport needed."
The management team at Off-Road Grand Prix(tm) has worked closely with a
significant group of unified, high profile professional drivers and sponsors
to put this package together. USAC will also play a major role in the series
operations as they do in several other series. Currently USAC sanctions K&N
Silver Crown Series, National Sprint Car Series, Mopar Midget National
Championship, Ford Focus and .25 Midgets.
In addition, Off-Road Grand Prix(tm) will create advisory boards consisting
of drivers and sponsors alike to insure that both groups have a voice in
structuring the decisions of the series. More details along with a
schedule will be announced next week.
Check out USAC Racing at: www.usacracing.com
“This is something we had to do,” Johnson says. “I feel like I’ve had the weight of the world on my shoulders for the past few weeks,” Johnson says. “Everybody has to be on the same page and be going in the same direction in this.”
As of Monday, January 19, however, that deal was not yet set in stone. In fact, WSORR officials that we contacted were very tenuous in their response to our questions. Johnson attempted to clear the air.
“I do have a letter of intent to purchase the World Series, and if I follow with everything that I said I’m going to do and we agree on how the structure is going to work, then it is going to happen. We have been in nonstop conference calls on this, working night after night.”
Much of short course racing’s future appears to hinge upon a sponsor meeting that is scheduled to take place on January 20. At that point, Johnson says, some of the sport’s major players are going to be making the tough choice as to which series – the new Off-Road Grand Prix, the Lucas Oil American Off Road Series, or the CORR series that spawned them.
Whatever the outcome, it appears as though the Off-Road GP series already has the support of another organization, a newly formed Professional Drivers Group that is being jointly headed up by two of the sport’s most prolific stars, Scott Douglas and Johnny Greaves, and comprises what Douglas refers to as the majority of the “core” race teams that have competed in CORR and WSORR.
“We have been really busy here, too,” Douglas says. “What has happened is that the drivers have gotten together and formed a new driver’s group called the Professional Drivers Group (PDG), and we’re collectively trying to get support so that we can support one series and keep short course racing from fraying into a bunch of different pieces. The handful of drivers who are starting this – the original people who started this were me, Curt LeDuc, Carl Renezeder, Johnny Greaves, Rick Huseman, Evan Evans, and…I hope I’m not missing anybody…but the main group is comprised of people who have direct involvement with sponsors at the team and series level.”
Douglas has long preached of the need for the drivers to unite and have a say in how their sport is run. The PDG, he says, is the means to that end. The first item on the agenda, says Douglas, was not how much money the drivers were going to get paid or by who, but rather what would constitute an ideal schedule with regard to geographic coverage and give the sport what Renezeder calls a true “national footprint.”
“We realized that if we could have four races in the West and four races in the Midwest, we would have a true national series,” Douglas says. “Then obviously we wanted to have good television connected to it, etc. That was our dream situation, and we went from there to bringing in the different sanctioning bodies and asking them what they had to offer and if they were willing to work together or whatever. We brought Tony Vanillo in and got his presentation. Tony and Sherri have done a lot of great work and put a lot of the details together, but we think that the tracks that they plan to run, like Lake Elsinore, aren’t real facilities. They’re going to run into the same problem that CORR had, no infrastructure [bathrooms, permanent grandstands, etc.]. Also, while Tony was willing to work with the drivers, he expressed no interest in working with any of the other sanctions.
“Then [CORR’s] Cissy Baldwin gave us her presentation, and basically it was the same thing that we already know, that CORR is planning on paying its debts and that it wants to have a series for 2009, and that it does have television contracts with Speed Channel and NBC,” Douglas continues. “We also asked her if she would be willing to work with us to make something work collectively, and initially she seemed to be very open to that. We talked about having to of our Western rounds being at Chula Vista and then doing two more with Ricky Johnson – and Ricky said that he was completely open to anything.
“But then at the next meeting, Cissy came back with some more numbers, and CORR had changed it up to where they would be willing to let us use the Chula Vista venue but that whoever sanctioned it would have to pay for the infrastructure. And basically, they priced themselves out of the game. What was so inviting about Ricky’s schedule was that the infrastructure is already in place at his tracks in the West and in the Midwest. Ricky and the World Series were very accommodating to the point that they merged. With that we [the PDG] signed a letter of intent to support the Off-Road GP, with stipulations.
Douglas says that among those stipulations is that 1) The executive board members of the PDG will have representation and a 60-percent say in how the Off-Road GP is run, and 2) the off-road GP will have what the PDG calls “an acceptable television package.”
Since then, Johnson has attempted to negotiate a deal with CORR’s Jim Baldwin to utilize the CORR television package, to no avail. That’s unfortunate, says Douglas, who says that the PDG regrettably does not see CORR has a viable option in 2009.
“We sat back and watched until January 5, and we finally got together and decided that we needed to do something,” Douglas says. “We feel like we gave CORR more than a fair shot to put something together.”
Surprisingly or not, the one “core” pro driver who is taking no satisfaction in any of this is Renezeder, who finds himself caught in a political crossfire that is straining personal, professional and familial ties to the max.
“So what else is new?” Renezeder says. It’s a joke, but one stated in a tone that clearly tells the strain that the situation is placing upon him. “For some reason this kind of trouble always seems to find me, and I’m sure that whatever goes wrong in this is going to be my fault. I was the one who set up this whole driver’s union up, and then I got voted off my own island because it went down a different line than I was trying to take it.”
Renezeder says that his goal was to bring all of the professional drivers together in an attempt to of short course racing’s assets. That changed, however, when the group decided to place its destiny in the hands of Johnson and the Off-Road GP, entities that Renezeder claims do not hold all the necessary pieces to complete a cohesive short course mosaic.
“Ricky Johnson is a good friend of mine and I think very highly of him, but he doesn’t have all the pieces that it takes to do it, “Renezeder says. “Nobody does, and that is why you can’t alienate anybody right now. You can’t alienate Lucas. You can’t alienate CORR. Not anybody. The only reason that Ricky went with the WSORR people is because that was all that was left and WSORR didn’t really have a choice. That wasn’t the way that I saw this happening. I was hoping that we wouldn’t alienate anybody. We’re not strong enough to do that.”
One thing that is agreed among several of the players involved in the sport is that each entity brings a piece or pieces that could be aligned to produce a blockbuster short course racing series. CORR has a potential television package that equals its offering in 2008 – one that everyone agrees did more to expose the sport of short course racing to new households than any other singular move in the past decade. Johnson brings a vision for a new “short” short course racing on established half-mile and larger dirt track venues. Vanillo is technical genius whose expertise in rules making and race direction is incredibly valuable. WSORR has the “Indianapolis Motor Speedway” of short course venues in Crandon Inernational Raceway. The Professional Drivers Group brings the show.
A Difference of Opinion
It would seem that putting differences aside in the best interests of the sport should be easy. But remember that it isn’t just a sport; it’s a business too. Johnson says that he contacted AORS president and CEO Tony Vanillo and discussed options that would have unified the Off-Road GP and the Lucas Oil American Off Road Series. Johnson says Vanillo turned him down.
“Tony said, ‘I don’t do well with partners,’” Johnson said. “I had already done a race, and I had a lot of people telling me that I needed to do more of them. The thing is, if nobody wants to work with you, you still have to keep going. So, we’re going to keep going.”
Vanillo says that the contact with Johnson came very early in the formation of the Off-Road GP, and while everything remains cordial between the two promoters, they have diametrically opposed visions on the future of short course racing that make it all but impossible for them to combine forces.
“We went back and forth on where each other was at, and Ricky wants to go in a direction that we aren’t comfortable with,” Vanillo says. “He wants to include motorcycles, ATVs, UTVs and the like, and he is looking at Friday and Saturday night shows in smaller arenas, and that just isn’t what we are planning on doing.”
Venue-wise, the two are even further apart in their thinking.
“Primm Valley is a big track that we are going to change to accommodate to make a land-rush start, while Ricky wants to go to more half-mile car tracks and run a track within the track like he did at Perris,” Vanillo says. “We want 8/10 or 9/10-mile tracks, big tracks with land rush starts. Our track at Speedworld in Arizona, for example, is an even bigger track than Primm.”
So what makes Vanillo’s Lucas Oil American Off-Road Series different than the CORR series it is designed to replace?
“Not that much,” Vanillo says. “We’re going to be tighter on our ship because we have to. You won’t see grandstands that hold 12,000 people because we can’t do that. You will see grandstands that hold 4,000 along with provisions, such as hills, where people can stand and watch the action. The entertainment value will be better, and we hope to add a little more pizzazz has far as the show is concerned. We are going to target a younger audience and really have more of a motocross-type atmosphere.”
What Vanillo does have is solid backing from at least three major series sponsors: Lucas Oil, Bully Dog and General Tire. What he doesn’t appear to have, at least not yet, is the support of the PDG. If Vanillo is worried about that, you can’t hear it in his voice.
“Look, we have 10 short weeks to get our programs together, and we’re done talking and we have to keep moving here,” Vanillo says. “Obviously we hope that they will support us, but either way we feel like we are going to be fine. We know that we have a full Unlimited 2 field already. People can say what they want to say, but at the end of the day they are going to go where they are getting the most support. I don’t want to make it sound like we don’t need all the guys, but I believe that when the smoke clears we will have everybody playing.”
“Either way, AORS’s superstar line up will form to the right of Renezeder, who says that he is committed to running the Lucas Oil American Off Road Series in 2009.
“Tony has really been the only one to come to the table with a complete package and put it out there,” Renezeder says. “Is it the best possible deal? No. But is it a viable deal? Absolutely.”
Owing to his sponsor connection with Lucas Oil, that seems like a given, although Renezeder claims that wasn’t necessarily the case prior to Johnson’s meeting with Lucas Oil to discuss the 2009 racing season.
“Ricky pissed Lucas off to the point that they don’t want to have anything to do with them,” Renezeder says. “I was really disappointed it went down like that, but I go where I get paid to go. I think that RJ and the drivers have gotten ahead of themselves. How do you just start from scratch like that? I tried to explain that to them, and they just asked me if I was in or if I was out. So I guess I’m out.”
Renezeder is completely cognizant that he could be one of the few of what could be referred to as the “inner core” of professional short course drivers to plant stakes with the Lucas Oil American Off Road Series, which he surmises may not bring the necessary profile to attract the energy drink teams for example.
“Maybe not, but it is a great place to start,” Renezeder says, “And it’s still better than starting from scratch. As far as venues go, is one better than the other?”
Maybe. Johnson’s letter of intent to purchase WSORR would net him the use of short course off-road racing’s mecca, Crandon International Raceway, with its World Champion Weekend each Labod Day being the one event that every self-respecting short course legend or legend wannbe places on his or her racing calendar each year. Renezeder doesn’t dispute the importance of Crandon.
“The national footprint is important, and you do have to have something in the Midwest rather than just regionally or locally,” Renezeder admits. “But I’m just saying that Tony’s (Lucas Oil American Off Road Series) is the only one that venues and has a television.”
Vanillo is confidently hopeful that will be enough of a foundation to get the Lucas Oil American Off Road Series off the ground. He is adamant, however, that no matter how 2009 shakes out, short course racing can ill afford a protracted battle over turf or for possession of souls.
“I just hope that everyone keeps their eyes and ears peeled, because we cannot end up in the same spot next year that we are in right now,” Vanillo says. “We were completely cognizant of the fact that WSORR and Ricky had dates out before we did, and we have completely worked around everyone’s dates. I hope that nobody comes along and says, ‘Well, we’re going to come out and put our dates on top of this guy’s dates because we’re the baddest asses out here.’ I don’t think that will accomplish anything. At the end of the year we’ll just have to see who puts on the best program on, and then after that we can’t continue to have this atmosphere. Off-road racing cannot afford this. It hurts the industry as a whole.
Renezeder agrees and adds that 2009 is going to be as precarious a year that has ever been experienced in short course racing.
“What I see happening is that our sponsors are going to have to pick, and when they do they are going to divide, and our sport can’t handle that,” Renezeder said. “It’s complicated. I was just talking to Curt LeDuc about it, and there is no good answer unless we can pool our assets together. At the end of the day that is what we have to do to fix this sport.”