By Ryan Costello, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
Justin Bingham is trying to turn around a racing career of bad luck at Enid Speedway.
His first season, Bingham wrecked his car after six races. Year two was cut short by a blown engine, as was the next, his third and final.
Three overseas deployments and a small business later, the now 35-year-old is taking another crack at the racing business, albeit not on the track.
Barring any setbacks — and there already have been plenty — the Enid Speedway is less than two months from returning to its roaring, dirt-spitting days of former racing glory, a pastime drivers insist has deep roots in Enid, but has fallen by the wayside thanks to spotty attendance and spottier participation in the years before the track was abandoned at the end of the 2012 season. At 7 p.m. August 10, a date not yet set in stone, the track is scheduled to have its first race in almost a year, with Bingham as its promoter.
At a Thursday drivers’ meeting, Bingham consulted a contingency of almost 40 — 30 drivers and their guests — about how to keep the stands and track filled.
Bingham took suggestions at a table with Terri Fletchall, who never raced, but whose family always remained close to the track, including her grandfather, who Fletchall said helped build the facility before it was opened in 1948 as Thunderbird Speedway.
As Bingham and Fletchall jotted down thoughts and addressed concerns, other conversations sparked throughout the room. The meetings’ hosts didn’t mind. It was race talk, after all, and the first time this much of the Enid racing community had been together in the same room in more than a year.
When the track closed, “everybody was scratching for somewhere to go,” said Brad Costello, who started racing in Kansas once Enid Speedway was shuttered. “It was either Elk City or Ada, or Wichita.”
“Enid’s been a racing community for years,” said John Sattler, another local driver. “We’ve got one of the best tracks, best facility around, in this state, and in Kansas. They can’t compare to this one.”
Enid Speedway’s recent doldrums chewed up three veteran race promoters in three years, most notably 2011 track boss Ed Beckley, whose charge of the track lasted a single race. Beckley took over for longtime promoter James Longpine, who exited after a four-race 2010. Beckley left after claiming a $7,000 loss after his only event.
“It’s like someone started a birthday cake and then they left,” Beckley told the News & Eagle after leaving his post in June 2011, a departure that came after an apparently non-binding verbal agreement with the Garfield County Fair Board. “Someone needs to come in and finish it off.”
C. Ray Hall tried, but low counts coupled with lighting issues at Enid Speedway put an end to the Kansas-based operator’s run after an abridged 2012 season.
So how does Bingham, a rookie to the business, turn the troubled track’s fortune?
After a previous bid fell through, Bingham started organizing on his own, not knowing if the fair board would be receptive.
“The hardest part was to going there with less than $10,000 in my pocket to say, ‘Hey, I can do this,’” he said. “Truthfully, I had my doubts, I really did.”
But through support that included a car show organized by Fletchall and attended by more than 200 people last month, Bingham’s $10,000 — a year of savings from Jus 10 Time, his delivery business — doubled, and the board’s final approval came in late May. Bingham signed an agreement to manage the track a week later.
Drivers at Thursday’s meeting said they would race without driver payouts for the first two events, agreeing that without entry fees beyond pit passes, and without paying as much as $500 for round trips to tracks in Kansas or southern Oklahoma, an in-town track to race on would be best for the long run.
Together, and with proceeds from early events and sponsors, which he said already had shown interest, Bingham hopes to hold anywhere from eight to 10 events — at least $50,000 worth of racing — during the remainder of the 2013 season, treating the shortened stretch like a “dry run” in preparation for what he hopes is a full run in 2014.
A full season would be Enid Speedway’s first since 2009, and if its going to happen, Bingham has more hurdles to climb. Sponsors and car registrations will be needed to fund much of the at least $100,000 Bingham estimated would be needed to hold a 20-30-event schedule in 2014, and without fans in the stands, neither would come.
The hopefully prodigal promoter is leaving few strategies unconsidered to keep Enid’s racing community in his corner, and more importantly, at the racetrack. Bingham lowered ticket prices for adults to $8 from $10, and to $7 in advance. Children 6-12 would enter for $6 and $5 in advance, and children younger than 5 would enter free. Bingham hopes to lure more young fans to the track, with plans as specific to children as having a track mascot — probably a dog — in 2014.
For the shortened 2013 season, Bingham plans to loosen car specifications to include as many drivers as possible, narrowing the rules to what’s most convenient for next season.
As much as it can before the races start, the approach seems to be working.
“If it’s taken care of, and people treat it right, promote it right — give Justin a chance; everybody needs a chance — he can have one real nice facility here,” Sattler said.
“We’re lucky,” Fletchall said. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders.”
Between the effort’s two Facebook homes — Bingham’s Enid OK Speedway page, and Fletchall’s Keep Enid Speedway Kicking page, which originally brought the two together — the pair have amassed a digital following of close to 2,700 people.
Whether it’s enough remains to be seen.
“I’ve got the keys, and I’ve got the contract,” Bingham said. “I just need the support.” �