Great Lakes Edition: Q&A With Butler Motor Speedway Owner Tim Wilber

Tim Wilber. (John Berglund photo)

By T.J. Buffenbarger

(September 13, 2022) — One of the best stories of the year has been the turnaround at Butler Motor Speedway under owner Tim Wilber. A successfull businessman with plenty of racing experience, but none of it from the side of operating a race track, Wilber took on the daunting task of owning one. So far Wilber along with his family and employees have seen steady improvement every week in the quest to improve the track’s reputation. I had a moment to discuss Wilber’s first year of race track ownership leading into the final race of the 2022 season.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

T.J: You already have like multiple businesses that are successful and promoting a racetrack isn’t easy. Why in the world would you ever want to do this?

Tim Wilber: You know, I don’t know? I think unfortunately, I live too close to the track. I’m about four miles away. For some reason for the past 10 years, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do and it’s always been Butler that I’ve wanted to promoter because it’s been my home track for 29 years.

T.J: When did things start getting serious about you obtaining Butler Motor Speedway?

Tim Wilber: Pretty close to 12 months ago. We might have made it till October. That’s when I got the first call from Denny, and we kind of started talking about it. Pretty close to late September, October last year.

T.J: The sale did take a while and you didn’t even have a full offseason this year.

Tim Wilber: We went to Florida for Speedweeks to watch. It was in the works then. We were talking to a few people there, and I’m pretty sure my modified was sold by that time. That’s when I realized we needed to get some balls rolling here.

I just thought about that Saturday when I was working the track. I am not ready for an off season, but I start looking at all the things we need to do at the track, and I realize we need to do this. It’s just so hard every day when you go over there and work on the track, doing all those other small things that need to get done each week.

T.J: Was the facility in as good of shape as you anticipated or were there things you ran into that you didn’t expect to find?

Tim Wilber: No, I think for the most part, obviously I did a walkthrough. I was a little surprised of some things that I thought was worse that were better. They just needed a little bit of paint, some elbow grease, and just reviving it. Just bringing it back to life is the big thing, but overall, it was probably better than I anticipated. It’s just putting the hours into it and those things came back quickly I feel.

T.J: What’s the one thing running a racetrack that you never thought you’d have to worry about?

Tim Wilber: That’s a tough one. I say if you put the right people in the right areas, it makes your life a lot easier. For example, we have one guy that kind of takes over the safety crew and worries about the safety truck and ambulance people coming every week. We have another couple that’s retired that works in the kitchen. They come over there during the week cleaning the kitchen and working on it. Those people make that aspect for my wife and I a lot easier.

T.J: Good people good places to make business makes it run properly. Imagine that.

Tim Wilber: That’s what you got to have. Believe me. There are not enough hours in the day for me to think, oh, I can run the kitchen and I can run you just can’t.

T.J: What’s the biggest improvement you think you’re proud of so far that you’ve maybe gotten the best feedback on since taking over the racetrack?

Tim Wilber: I think probably the biggest thing is people are happy to come there. I think the atmosphere in general. I’m not saying everyone is walking around with a smile, but I think in a way people happy compared to just the same old routine. We try to do something different to the facility every week.

We did some stuff to the handrails last week It’s funny, you may wonder why we did that with just two weeks left? We might be just getting to them or whatever, but each week we are doing something to make an improvement. People see that. One buddy mentioned to me one time that one of his friends had been there the first five weeks and didn’t see anything new this week. I told him that’s because he missed what we did, because we did do something. If each week you can get something done it helps because if we got them done off the bat it’s not as much fun to go every week.

T.J: …and you would probably drive yourself crazy trying to get it done all at once.

Tim Wilber: Right!

T.J: Are you as far along as you wanted to be at the end of year one at Butler?

Tim Wilber: Yeah. It’s funny. I’ve had zero involvement of running a racetrack with a headset on, running a piece of equipment like a grader, zero of that when we started this process and if you had talked to me after night one or two, I would have told you we did great for new people we had behind the scenes. We had some that had been there, but we had new scorers, me in the infield, everything was just different.

Now if I look at what we did this past week, and what we did night number one or two, like not saying we’re at an A right now, but I feel like I’m at an A last week and night number one or two was like a C. Once you see your improvements and the communication that we all kind of have it can read each other I think our grades are better now than what it was at the beginning of the year.

T.J: How has the feedback been from the racers since taking over the racetrack?

Tim Wilber: I think it’s good. It’s funny on the other side. I try not to make many calls. I’ve got two guys upstairs that do it. TI think for the most part the racers feedback has been good. I always kind of chuckle if a racer has a comment that they want to give me when they say, ‘Everything is good, but…’. My reaction is ‘Uh oh, why do you have to say the word but, because something follows.”.

for the most part, started the year we kind of dealt with a little bit of some holes here or there. Kind of normal Butler and I want to say for the years. I really think the last month or month and a half we kind of got on to some stuff and I think the track has been probably the best it’s been in the past five years.

T.J: One of the most noticeable things I’ve seen is that you got rid of the tractor tires in the infield and built up a dirt berm. For someone like me that doesn’t know everything involved in making that change, what were some of the things you had to do and the pitfalls of making that change?

Tim Wilber: if I had my way, I really wouldn’t mind the tires. A lot of the drivers don’t like the tires I’d love to cut in like 20 feet into the track and then bring the tires back out, but they don’t like the tires at all, which I totally understand. I mean, I’ve ate some tires in my day too.

But yeah, we got rid of those. It’s got that berm down there. I kind of cut into that berm every once in a while. My ultimate goal is to open that bottom up another eight or 10 feet. I think I’ve got about I probably got it for six feet cut in just this year little by little, but I’d like to be another eight or 10 feet. It’s just it’s kind of a tough thing, I talked to a guy that came there this week that hasn’t been there in 13 years and he said, ‘Your boys like to put their elbows up, but it’s just such a narrow track that it’s not hard to put your elbow up because the track so narrow, you know if you can just get a little bit wider. It’d be nice.’

T.J: I would I guess your ultimate goal though would be how probably a race the top or the bottom maybe it’s like to the middle or something like that?

Tim Wilber: Yeah, that would be the goal, to get two grooves. The last couple of weeks we’ve been kind of dominant upstairs. But it’s just it’s tough to get the top working, the bottom working, and you know and then one week you don’t have a top and you got the bottom working, so you got to try to find that happy medium. Then with the transition of the weather, which makes it a lot easier to groom the track when the temperatures are nice like they are right now. I think if I could get a little bit wider that might help

T.J: One of the complements I’ve heard while of straw polling teams are that you are very visible, going around asking their opinion, and you thank people for coming. Was that something that you made a point to do? Or is that just how you run your businesses? Is that just your personality?

Tim Wilber: I’m going say that’s probably my personality. I think even over the years we’ve had a few scuffles with people, but when you have that scuffle with somebody it might last that 24-hour period. But you know, at the end of the day, not that you’re two faced, but then you race for 20, some years, you realize there’s more to it than going home mad and just dragging this out the whole season.

Even when I was a racer, couple years ago, a guy and I got together and we got to the track the next week, and the first trailer I went to the next week was his. I said let’s just brush this under the rug, we both made a mistake, and let’s be over with it.

I told someone the other day, it’s probably my salesman in me. You try to keep everyone happy. But you can’t give them fake answers, either. You’ve got to be straight up front.

I told a couple people that asked me, ‘Hey, where did this call come from?’ and I told them I made the call if it was right or wrong, I assisted on making it. I think in the past, you could maybe go and ask somebody what was this call made for and the and the response was a circle that you never did get your answer by the end. I guess I want to give them an answer. If it’s a right or wrong, we made the right or wrong call, but there’s a reason why we made it.

I just think your biggest thing is if people come from five miles away, or 105 miles away, we need them each and every week, so just let them know they’re appreciated, and we thank them for coming.

T.J: Is there another racetrack promoter or operator you have learned on for advice?

Tim Wilber: Nobody, really. I really haven’t called anyone. I really haven’t. I guess I just kind of wing it and go, put the horse blinders on, and I go over the race night and start working the track. Sometimes I’ve done a few things, and by Wednesday or Thursday I realize if something is not going to work, but you just figure it out what the process is each week.

My wife asks when I’m going to be done each night and I tell her it’s like the alphabet or connecting dots. You must do the steps in order, that’s the toughest part. I can have 10 people that want to come over and help me work on a track Friday night, but you must do this dot before you can go onto the next step, so I can’t put them in a particular piece of equipment. If you want to help put water on, you can do that because I can monitor that, but I’m not putting you on the disk or the grader, that’s my job.

T.J: Is the community starting to catch on that things are different around there?

Tim Wilber: I think so. Especially that the track is so close to our town of Coldwater. Obviously, there are some bad things out there, probably things we still need to fix. Most of the feedback is we haven’t gotten has been positive. I’m on that flip side/ I don’t really want to know the good, I want to hear the bad things to make sure we are not stepping over things that need to be done. So, it’s kind of nice to read the bad feedback if it’s somewhat civil and they don’t get carried away.

T.J: What are some of the off-season projects we can look forward to seeing for next season?

Tim Wilber: I just think it’s I think it’s still just a bunch of little things that will make one great big thing. I think getting some sponsors out there, last year we were kind of late to the ball. It would be nice to get some sponsors for the drivers next year that race here all year long for our points fund. I think that’s one thing we’re probably lacking. We’re going to have a point fund this year, but it’s not going to be like what the drivers race for at Fremont and Attica this year. They put out good things and that’s probably one thing that we’re behind on right now. If I could get a good point fund down the road to help us draw more cars every week.

T.J: Three years from now, where would you like to see this place?

Tim Wilber: I think probably the best improvement all year, and it might have taken three quarters of the years to do, is get a smooth, consistent track every week. That’s my ultimate goal is each and every week, at least for the track facility to be good and smooth. If it’s not that steers away a lot of people away.

The dirt situation is a tough one. Obviously, if we can get some dirt in there would be a great improvement, and just keep making the minor adjustments on the facility just to make it better and better each and every week.