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Gas City Speedway now in full throttle

RACING: Sprint car driver Clinton Boyles, Greenwood, Missouri, climbs from his ride Friday evening at Gas City/I69 Speedway. Boyles was one of more than 100race teams to enter in one of the four divisions of cars as the Grant County establishment tries to resurrect Fridday night racing under new track promoter Jerry Gappens. Boyles won the rain-delayed non-winged sprint car feature race.

By CHUCK LANDIS - clandis@chronicle-tribune.com

GAS CITY — Gas City/I-69 Speedway has seen good times and bad times, and new promoter Jerry Gappens hopes to lead the track on a revival back to its best days.

Not so long ago, between 2000 to 2010, the track was packing in the fans with an exciting brand of non-winged sprint car and UMP Modified racing that many considered the best around. Drivers and fans raved about the quarter-mile dirt track’s surface that created wide-open racing, and it was typical to see more than 100 cars entered in four or more divisions.

Yet, Gas City has struggled lately with three different promoters over the previous four years and ever-dwindling crowds. The last group to try its luck, KMS Promotions which also owns nearby Kokomo Speedway, had ran only a limited number of shows at Gas City the past two seasons.

Gappens, with a background in NASCAR and super speedways, took over track operations in January and has resumed a full schedule of races through the summer and early fall. He’s done plenty with marketing and social media to get the word out that Gas City is back and running.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day and I might have expected that at the start,” Gappens said before the start of Friday evening’s program. “But I feel like it’s coming around.”

One thing Gappens can’t control is the weather. He’s had two straight shows rained out, including a USAC Indiana Midget Week program that would have brought huge crowds. Friday’s show looked promising with 102 cars at the track and the grandstands filling up one hour before the start of racing. Then, a quick popup rainstorm threatened to wreak havoc once again on the track.

“We had a great opening night crowd,” Gappens said of the April 20 grand re-opening. “The others have been weather impacted, and there’s always been a threat of rain. Even today there has been rain everywhere.”

Rain set back the program two hours, but those fans patient enough to stick around saw a program reminiscent of Gas City’s glory years. Four feature races had close racing, including a last-lap pass in one, along with a few car flips where the drivers walked away uninjured. Gappens is hoping word spreads about the quality racing and attracts bigger crowds.

“That’s an area we need to improve on,” Gappens said of the attendance, “and I’m working on that and trying to figure it out to get more people through the front gate. We lost some momentum with the rainouts and we haven’t run for three weeks.

“The key to make this track run is to have fans come through the front gate and support it and enjoy it,” he added. “I think the real racing fans know we’re back. Now we need to go out in the Marion area and find the fringe fans that want to bring their families out and enjoy it and look at as a night of family entertainment.”

Gappens is using different social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – to spread the word about Gas City and keep fans informed. Jacob Quick was hired as manager of social media and marketing and he had camera in hand Friday transmitting for a Facebook Live feed.

“I want to give people a little taste of the racing that goes on out here,” Quick said. “We’ve been on Facebook Live for a few of our different races, and we’ve had over 5,000 views on some.

“We’ve had over 15 states represented viewing in on Facebook Live so far, and we’ve even had people overseas watching,” he added. “It’s huge to continue to promote Gas City and let people know it’s back and we want to get people here.”

Gas City’s plight certainly isn’t unique and other similar race tracks around Indiana are struggling to remain in business. Veteran driver Scott Orr, Columbia City, a past track modified champion, remembers what the track once was and believes it can get there again.

“We’ve had lot of good memories over here and usually run well here,” Orr said. “It’s close to home and we’ll support it if we can. It’s good that (Gappens) is taking a chance because a lot of tracks are dying quick and it’s a tough business.”

Darek Snyder, Akron, is another long-time Gas City modified driver and the rookie of the year in 2009. He was excited to see the track back to full-time racing. In recent years, Snyder has raced regularly at Plymouth Speedway, which is actually much closer to his home, but he will make frequent trips to Gas City.

“This place is awesome,” Snyder said. “It’s hammer down and it’s by far my favorite track to race on  – and I’ve been to quite a few different ones. I’m glad they opened back up, and the modified drivers are trying to support it, as you can see there are quite a few of us here (28 entrants).”

Sprint car driver Joe Ligouri, Lebanon, made it back to Gas City for the first time Friday after he had been a regular competitor in sprints and midgets in the track’s heyday. Through everything, Ligouri still holds Gas City in high regard.

“I still love the place and it’s my favorite track to run on here in Indiana,” Ligouri said. “It’s racy, there’s two grooves usually all the time, and you don’t have to worry about people running into you to get to their groove because there’s another one.”

Crystal Leighty, Columbia City, attends races all around Indiana following her father’s modified race car and she’s another of Gas City’s biggest fans.

“It’s an awesome track and it’s nice to see it going back full force,” Leighty said. “The crowd’s enjoying it, and that’s nice to see. Gas City’s always been one of my favorites; it’s a good track to race on and it has a nice surface, the officials are great here and it’s a fun time.”

Gappens said he’s incorporated interactive fan activities and giveaways while bringing in a diversified field of race cars to the track. One upcoming super street stock race July 13 will offer a $6,000 purse that is far above the typical $1,400 for the class, and a USAC national sprint show for Sept. 7 was just added to the schedule this week.

“To see Gas City back and bustling where the pits are full and the grandstands are full is just an exciting time for us,” Quick said.