By T.J. Buffenbarger
After only holding a handful of events over the past several seasons Gas City I-69 Speedway started a regular slate of racing last Friday. The source of Gas City’s rebirth as a weekly race track came from an unlikely source in Jerry Gappens.
Gappens name is well known in motorsports circles from television to high-ranking positions some of the most well-known racing facilities in the country. Gappens had a short stint as a sprint car driver at Kokomo Speedway before giving that up to become a student at Ball State University. Later in his his college career Gappens had the opportunity to work at National Speed Sport News. That eventually opened the doors to a career rising through the ranks of Speedway Motorsports Inc. and their various properties.
After departing SMI and doing some public relations work Gappens decided to visit one of his old co-workers and Friends at SMI.
“Roger Slack from Eldora Speedway had called and invited me up for the Kings Royal and the NASCAR Truck Race. I hadn’t been at Eldora in a long time, so I thought I’d go up. I drove up and watched the Kings Royal,” said Gappens.
During the gap between the Kings Royal and the NASCAR truck race he made a trip over to see his Mother on the south side of Kokomo, Indiana. On that trip back to Kokomo he noticed Gas City I-69 Speedway. Instead of driving by, Gappens had to have a peak at a racing facility he went to in his younger days.
“Being a racing junkie like we all are I stopped to look at it because I hadn’t seen it in about 30 years. I climbed the fence and looked at it and realized the facility is a lot nicer than I had remembered it 30 years ago. I certainly was aware of the success the facility had with Jiggs and Nona Thomason and Jack Himelick the owner.”
After the visit with his Mom Gappens returned to Eldora and watched the Truck Race. On the way home from Charlotte the experience from Eldora combined with his impromptu visit to Gas City got the wheels turning in Gappens’ head.
“It caught me off guard that the Kings Royal had a standing room only crowd and actually drew more people than the NASCAR Truck Race,” said Gappens. “In all my years in Motorsports I never thought I’d see a sprint car race sell more tickets than one of the top three touring series of NASCAR. That made me start to think there was something to short track racing and people getting back to their grass roots.”
At that point Gappens started contemplating doing something at Gas City, but not without some hesitation.
“I was doing my own marketing and PR thing for a year and a half and decided to track down the owner. I came up and met with him a couple of times and kept thinking about it. Honestly, knowing everything I do about motorsports I tried to talk myself out of it.”
After a lot of self-reflection and prayers Gappens pursued a deal to become the promoter at Gas City. When everything was finalized in January Gappens had to hit the ground running to put together a schedule. While the late start to scheduling would be daunting to any promoter, Gappens tried to use it to his advantage.
“The good part (of the late start of scheduling) was I could look around and make sure I didn’t have dates scheduled up against something in the area that could affect attendance or car count.”
Fans will see a lot of the staples that raised the track’s profile through the late 90’s and into the 2000’s highlighted by Non-Wing Sprint Cars. One difference though is each night has theme and special activities associated with it outside of the racing along with multiple visiting divisions booked throughout the season.
“I did not want to have something on the schedule called a “regular show”,” said Gappens. “I don’t want any nights to be regular here, I want to have every night be special and have that special event feel.”
Often when tracks remain idle and are revived there can be some pushback from the community. Gappens has experienced the opposite in Gas City where local area businesses are excited to see the track back in regular operation.
“People remember the track being a great asset to the community,” said Gappens. “Everyone from the convenience stores to the gas stations and hotels at the exit here off of I-69 has had a good reception so far.”
In turn Gappens has tried intertwining the track into the surrounding area.
I’ve tried to go and use the things I’ve learned throughout my career at Speedway Motorsports to engage with the community and the chamber to make the track integrated again with the people around here.”
Gappens is well aware of the daunting task ahead and the failure rate of new promoters yet has some realistic goals for his first year promoting a short track and beyond.
“I don’t know what to expect out of this first year. There are over 800 short tracks around the country and the average time span for them is two to three years. If you can get by that there is a good chance you will be in it for good. I’d like to establish this as an entertainment facility that’s not just what there is on the track, but expand the fan base by getting the fringe fan or doesn’t even care about racing to come out and when they leave realize how much fun this is and want to come back.”
Schedule wise Gappens looks to procure solid divisions on a regular basis while cultivating a couple of marque events to make Gas City stand out.
“One or two major events seem to be a staple of lot of tracks that have had success,” said Gappens. “One or two races a year that you know are related to that track. I couldn’t go too far out on the edge the first year with that, we have 2,500 permanent seats, so not quite big enough for a World of Outlaws show. So you have to be a little creative with that.”
One unexpected thing was the rejuvenated enthusiasm from track owner Jack Himelick.
“The race track is not Jack’s primary business,” said Gappens. “He’s 83 years old and really excited about what we’re doing coming into it full time with the professional approach to it.”
With opening night under his belt Gappens is ready to continue pounding the pavement to let the community know about Gas City’s full slate of races.
With a business that has been dormant you have to bang the drum loud that we’re back. There is where my pr/marketing background is handy,” said Gappens. We’re on Cable TV, social medial, print, and radio trying to blast it out that Gas City is back up and racing again.”