Despite all of the uncertain commentary regarding the health and viability of our sport in these times, there is certainly a lot of ongoing prosperity, both above and below the radar. Most notably, tracks around the country are investing considerable funds in upgrading their facilities — some have built new venues from scratch in new places, while others have virtually wiped clean the existing track surface and structures and begun anew. Whatever the case, it’s good news — no, spectacular news — anytime a racetrack is successful and builds on that success.
The latest to take such steps is a long-time quarter-mile strip in Michigan: the Lapeer International Dragway. Opened on Independence Day 1968 during the glory years of the sport, the Lapeer strip continually operated through the decades under the guidance of the Vakula brothers, Ed and Mike. The Vakula’s built the strip on family property — a result of Ed’s street racing exploits and his vision for a safer, legal racing environment. In 1989, Ed purchased his brother’s ownership stake of the facility and, with the help of his wife and other family members, marched on into the 21st century.
However, the track and its supporting structures had long since begun to show their age. And for the Vakula’s, the time was right to hand off the torch. In April, local racer William Jennings struck a deal to acquire the Lapeer Dragway and immediately drew up plans to invest significantly in revitalizing the 51-year-old venue.
So why would someone without any background in racetrack operations purchase — and invest in — a strip in these sometimes financially tumultuous times?
It was either keep my money invested in the stock market and other investments, or do something I can have fun with and give back [to the racing community]. – William Jennings
“I went up there to the track as a kid. I later got into street racing, and here in recent years I was building a couple of cars and was thinking about building a test-track at my house, and I heard they were talking about selling Lapeer. I called them and we met and talked and about a month later I bought it,” Jennings shares.
Jennings confirms he had some hesitation about the purchase, noting “it was a big shock. I’ve never owned a racetrack, but I have owned other businesses. It was just something I had to get my head around, but we did some research and decided to go for it. It was either keep my money invested in the stock market and other investments, or do something I can have fun with and give back [to the racing community].”
Jennings’ first move was to rip up the entire, dated racing surface and start fresh. Concrete was poured through the eighth-mile and asphalt was paved for the remaining 660-feet and into the shutdown area. New concrete retaining walls were also constructed to the 1,320-foot mark. New asphalt was also laid in the pit area and the return road was freshly re-done. New fencing and light poles were installed, spectator parking was upgraded with asphalt, and all new electrical service was run throughout the facility. New wooden slats were also laid on the existing bleachers temporarily while awaiting the arrival of new grandstands.
The racing surface, Jennings says, was the most-needed of the investments, commenting “it was in pretty bad shape. Anybody with any kind of horsepower wouldn’t come here because the track wouldn’t hold it. It had just guardrails the entire length, so we went through and did everything we could think of to make it better.”
Jennings has a track manager in place, but says this will be largely a full-time endeavor for him. All told, he has invested some $2.5 million to date, with a few other projects remaining on the docket, including extending the spectator-side guardrail further into the shutdown area. “I takes money to make money,” Jennings chides. “I’ll be running on this track, too, and I wouldn’t expect anyone to run on something that I wouldn’t.”
Going forward, Jennings intends to utilize the track to its fullest, citing his plan to co test heads-up racing and other special events on top of the local bracket racing program.