It’s the final points race of the year at Don Martin’s Lernerville Speedway, the year is 2014. A healthy crowd and car count are on hand considering high school football has just started up and it’s Friday night. It’s a night when a general manager is in race night mode, but is most likely pleased with the goings on.
And then, the unexpected occurs. Showers had been predicted as a possibility on this night, but nothing of the magnitude that transpired. After the first two rounds of heats, a severe thunderstorm moves in over the speedway with relentless 40 miles per hour winds. The rain comes down in sheets as fans scurry to the parking lot, many huddle together under a small roof at the top of the stands. They look at each other with disappointment, waiting for the dreaded announcement to come over the public address system, that the races are cancelled. It would have been completely understood.
The facility received nearly two inches of rain in a near 30 minute span as evidenced by the small streams trickling towards the racing surface from the stands. Then, after many in attendance had already left and the remains of the crowd started to gather their things as the rain ceased, a faint noise of a four wheeler approaching the track was heard. It carried a man who had yet to throw in the towel. Both rider and machine took a gentle lap around the drenched surface as a brief moment passes, the announcer informs the crowd that there will be an attempt to resume racing that evening.
It wasn’t a special event, and many in the crowd would have completely been fine with applying the rain check to one of the September events on the schedule. It would have taken a miracle to get the surface run in again anyway. Lernerille general manager Gary Risch Jr. then climbed off his atv and put his incredible track crew to work. The night went on, the features ran and the effort put forth by Risch Jr. and his team that night will most likely end up being remembered as one of the most amazing rescues of a weekly show in dirt racing history.
Gary Risch Jr. makes things like that happen. And he’s got one of the hardest jobs in the industry. He balances the needs of drivers, fans, and sponsors as if each aspect were on the corner of a triangle situated directly on top of a large sphere containing the needs of ownership. Stand on one corner of the triangle for too long, and the thing will fall down. But he finds a way to keep it balanced year in and year out. He’s the general manager of Lernerville Speedway. The one job in racing that seemingly has endless numbers of detractors all firings shots via social media on a weekly basis. It’s a job many think they could do better, and many have little clue about how to do whatsoever. But that doesn’t seem to matter much to him. He’s still as passionate as he’s ever been for it.
“I still get the tingles every Friday night,” He remarks regarding the affinity he still has for the job. “It would be easier just to be a special events promoter, but there’s nothing like fab four racing. I love being a part of it, I love the people, I have a great staff and we have great competitors. We make decisions sometimes where some people don’t like what we do, but we’re looking out for what’s best for the whole and what’s best for Lernerville Speedway.”
No one in their right mind would be envious of his position though. It’s one thing for an individual to try their hand at promoting a regular speedway. But to try to fill the shoes of a legend in former owner and National Sprint Car Hall of Famer Don Martin, and then keep that high standard set and moving forward, takes a different mentality altogether. Risch Jr. has developed that mentality that it takes to keep the quality of the show, facility and relationships from it’s rich history moving forward. He came from the ranks of the drivers as an accomplished big block modified wheelman when he was summoned to lead the speedway in 2006 and quickly learned what it took to be successful at the western Pennsylvania facility.
“It was kind of a tip toe into it deal for the first couple of years there. I think for the first year my dad was a little bit involved in it and the World Racing Group kind of moved him out of that situation and kind of focused on me moving forward with it. I had some really great assets to use at WRG with Tom Deery and Brian Carter and some of these guys that I work with that are staples in the industry. I came into it with a lot of respect from those guys and I met a lot of great promoters at the RPM workshops and things like that and it really molded myself into understanding the business. Coming from a racer into the promoter side of it, it’s a big difference. I would love to take every racer and let them do my job for a few weeks and they’d have a whole different outlook on what we have to do to make that happen every week.”
Risch Jr. walked a fine line from the outset. The success of the track in years past had been a product of Martin’s savvy business sense mixed with a personality that lent itself to building many great relationships within the community and a passion to bring a quality product to the fans. Success for him was a case of not tweaking the formula that had made the facility one of the finest operations in the country, but also not becoming complacent and being open to new sponsors and the creation of new events.
|Eric Westendorf Photo|
“I think the biggest challenge I had earlier in my career was the feedback and the social media stuff that was just starting to become a craze ten years ago. And coming from the racers side, you’ve got a lot of friends that race and when you come to the dark side. the promoters side, a lot of those people become acquaintances and it becomes hard to balance that kind of stuff. It’s a tough job to be a promoter and be fair and not play favorites or not show that your playing favorites I think I’ve done a good job of being fair with all of the competitors. I’m a pretty outgoing person and have come up with some really good relationships.
It’s about working with companies like Valvoline, Diehl Automotovie and the Precise folks but you can’t forget about the people who have been here for years. It’s all about relationships and friendships. Sometimes our sponsors just call up to see how we’re doing and ask “what’s new?” and likewise. Believe it or not, this sport is about all sides getting something out of a relationship. Not just the racer, not just the sponsors, and not just the racetrack. It’s a juggling act to see that everybody gets what they want out of it and to keep all sides happy. The track needs to make money to succeed, the racers need to have enough money to and enough sponsors to be able to come out every week and the sponsors have to get those people to come and buy stuff so they can be involved in it. It’s not easy to balance all that. And I think that’s one of the best things I’ve done at Lernerville, to not change too much to lose that balance, but to bring some different marketing aspects into it at the same time.”
While he’d had a successful run as general manager over the course of the next several years, he was thrown a curve in May of 2015 when the ownership of the facility changed hands. Risch Jr. had reported to World Racing Group, the official owners since his tenure began. The new ownership, headed by local businessman Ted Thomson and Thomson Scrap Metal, made their first decision without haste, to retain Risch Jr, and stand behind his experience and ideas.
“It’s been really cool because the new owners have been really involved with me and they’ve done some really great stuff to pick up some of the things that I’ve moved on from with me and my career expanding with the Volusia stuff and the World Racing Group and the consulting stuff that I’ve been doing. They have really great relationships with a lot of great people that are going to bring new relationships into the speedway. There’s nothing I’m more proud of in racing than the two World of Outlaw events that we’ve built, the Firecracker 100 and the Dirt Car Roundup at the end of the year. It’s great that we’re expanding on that too with making the Working Man 50 a two day event. And the new ownership is behind it. I talk with them five to 10 times a day about understanding and learning the ins and outs of how we do things because this business is so different than any other business out there.”
|Eric Westendorf Photo|
The ownership change also kept intact the World of Outlaw Late Model three day festival of speed at Lernerville. The Firecracker 100 has become a summer staple in the late model world, and it has grown in a way Risch Jr. has enjoyed. It’s a show that has quickly become a familiar meeting place for fans far and wide full of off track events with a great deal of driver and fan engagement. You can camp for the week, win a best campsite contest, play horseshoes and kickball with the drivers, go to concerts and oh yeah…there’s the racing.
“The Firecracker still grows by leaps and bounds each year. People are just excited to be a part of it every year. It’s the top late model event in our region. I look at it as being a top four event. If you look at the Dirt Track World Championship, the Dream and the World 100 at Eldora and I think we’re right there as far as the event goes. And when events get to that point, you just don’t change stuff to mess them up, you just try to do little things better each year to accommodate your fans better and maybe do some different things for them to allow them to have fun.
I still look at ourselves as being in the same brand as Eldora or Williams Grove. I think we’re at the top of our game. There’s a lot of tracks across the country that would love to be able to do what we do every week. I’m pretty proud of taking what Don and Helen did and not screw it up. That was the biggest thing on the weekly thing, we didn’t screw it up. We’re still doing it and we’re successful with it all and we were able to build some great events.”
In the transition from racer to general manager, Risch Jr. had to learn each and every one of the different hats of the job. However the one that perhaps measures his passion for learning was his commitment to learning the fine art of track prep. The red clay surface presents challenges when one takes into consideration that three top divisions plus stocks partake every Friday night. It’s the subtle nuances of the different machines that he must take into consideration that runs 410 sprints, super late models and big block modifieds that all shift back and forth through the lineup. And the surface team at Lernerville gets it right more often than not.
“Ouch Roenigk was one of the best track prep guys in the country and my brother in law Chad worked for Ouch since he was fifteen years old and he’s a great machine operator and he has a great feel for what we do. And with Larry Fink and the other guys, we kind of brought a great team together that was really good and I managed them and became pretty good at it myself. I can’t take all the credit there, it’s an awesome team, they could come with something great at any track in the country. Lernerville has really good clay, but you have to know what you’re working with. It’s not rocket science, it’s dirt and you don’t overthink it. A lot of tracks try to overthink it, put too many chemicals in it and they don’t know what they did the week before to make it any different from the current week. You just have to be consistent and you can’t be overdoing stuff. It’s all about a good base in your racetrack and finding where the rough spots in your surface are and knowing what you have.
We try to keep it consistent as possible at Lernerville. You know mother nature plays it’s game with it but I like to keep it consistent. I think we’ve all come to realize that once the place slicks off, if you’re in a late model it’s racy as heck. In a sprint car it really depends on what class is running first and that dictates how it ends up. You want a little cushion for the sprint cars and a nice bottom for them but when it comes to the late models you want it a little high and wide. That’s the struggle we have at Lernerville because we’re trying to cater to three top divisions where most other tracks in the country only have to worry about one.”
The overall body of work with surfaces has been impressive for Risch Jr. and it’s taken him to a position he still holds with the World Racing Group as the general manager of Volusia Speedway Park, and also the top surface man at events that range from Super Dirt Week, to the World of Outlaw sprint shows at the dirt track at Las Vegas, and the World Finals in Charlotte. He’s seemingly everywhere these days as his presence is in strong demand among his fellow promoter peers for advice or on track assistance. But he still loves doing the show at Lernerville first and foremost.
I have a great hold on doing this job now, and I have a passion for it. With working for the Thopsons now and still working for World Racing Group I really don’t have time for other passions, and that’s okay. I’m focused on this career and focused on making things better for Lernerville and I love being a part of it.
I still look at ourselves as being in the same brand as Eldora or Williams Grove. I think we’re at the top of our game. There’s a lot of tracks across the country that would love to be able to do what we do every week. I’m pretty proud of taking what Don and Helen did and not screw it up. That was the biggest thing on the weekly thing, we didn’t screw it up. We’re still doing it and we’re successful with it all and we were able to build some dang cool events. We’ve always been innovators, clear back when Don was and we were leaders in this whole deal. And I took a beating last year moving this crate engine program forward with the stocks. But the feedback over the winter has been tremendous. I took some lumps for it, but I truly believe it’s the best thing for that class to move forward and I think it’s going to be bigger and better. And it wasn’t anything other than doing what was best for the racers and the track and everyone else. The timing was right to make the change before it got any worse. There was a time when there were 30 some stock cars at Lernerville every week. And then we were down to 18 and there’s a reason for that.
Risch Jr. makes the hard decisions nobody wants to make. It’s a job many unenlightened people would like to take a stab at, but have no clue about what it entails. He’s inherited a great team, and kept it together and grew it. He kept the balance of the program, and is preparing to take Lernerville into the future under new ownership with a creative edge that still nods to a rich history that many tracks can’t really conceive of.
“I have a great hold on doing this job now, and I have a passion for it. With working for the Thomsons now and still working for World Racing Group I really don’t have time for other passions, and that’s okay. I’m focused on this career and focused on making things better for Lernerville and I love being a part of it.”