After recent turmoil and uncertainty shrouding the future of auto racing in western South Dakota, no news was considered good news as local drivers and fans prepared for the 2012 season at Black Hills Speedway.
The relative calm leading up to the scheduled May 4 season opener at the half-mile oval east of Rapid City was shattered with Thursday’s news that a new ownership dispute roiling at the track will likely have to be resolved in court before engines can fire.
“Everybody thought we were smooth sailing, ready to go, and then this bomb dropped on us,” driver Clint Anderson of Belle Fourche said Friday. “We’re just trying to make a game plan and figure out what’s going on. I don’t think anyone’s real happy about it.”
Shane Liebig of Rapid City was the successful bidder for the 39.70-acre speedway property at auction in November of 2010, with Ed and Lori Kirchoff of Cross Country Real Estate in Gillette, Wyo., providing financing for the purchase.
Liebig operated the track in 2011, making thousands of dollars in permanent improvements to the facility and seeing increasing crowds and car counts at the track for his effort.
Preparation for the 2012 season appeared to be on track until March, when Liebig filed suit in 7th Circuit Court accusing the Kirchoffs of breaching an agreement concerning the payback of the $350,000 auction price.
Ed Kirchoff responded by locking Liebig out of the facility because of what he said was Liebig’s failure to make lease payments for 2011 and 2012.
A jury trial to resolve the dispute is set for June 11-12 in Rapid City. Ed Kirchoff said Thursday that the track would open under new management on May 4 as scheduled, while Liebig announced through the track’s Facebook page that the start of the season would be delayed at least until after the trial.
The quandary is going to hurt recent gains in car counts and crowds, Anderson said.
“Everybody got the feeling that there was some consistency, that the place was going to be open and they’d build a car and come race. Now, this has set us back more than a month or two. This could really screw things up for years,” Anderson said.
Anderson is a three-time season champion in the 360 sprint car division, which was looking at up to 20 cars lining up for the 2012 season.
“That’s the real disappointing part. We were making some gains, building the class and then something like this happens,” he said. “That’s not just the sprint cars, it’s everybody.”
Estimates had more than 40 Midwest modifieds, 20-25 street stocks with as many super stock division cars joining 12-15 late model division entries for 2012.
“There were just tons of cars. Now we’re sitting in limbo again,” said veteran super stock driver James Hughes of Rapid City.
That perception has drivers worried about sponsorships already sold for the season.
“Do you have to wind up giving that money back to (sponsors)?” Anderson said. “It’s just going to scare them away. We’re less than a month away from starting this deal, so I can guarantee that money has been spent.”
Modified driver Brady McDonnell of Rapid City had been working with Liebig on a July tribute race night for his brother Travis McDonnell, who was killed in a garage accident near Wall just prior to the 2011 season.
“That’s all on hold now,” McDonnell said. “We’ll have to wait until after the trial, and hopefully they’ll get it resolved.”
Hughes and McDonnell both said they won’t race at BHS if Ed Kirchoff opens BHS under new management on May 4. The Kirchoffs also operate Gillette Thunder Speedway in Wyoming.
“I feel like Mr. Kirchoff isn’t thinking of the drivers over here,” Hughes said. “He easily could have said go ahead and run the season and then … sit down and figure out what they got going on.”
Others are taking a wait-and-see approach.
“If I have to, I can run at either place. If Rapid isn’t open, I’ll go to Gillette just occasionally,” street stock driver Jeremy Farr said. “Four-dollar-a-gallon gas is going to hold back a lot on traveling. Hopefully things get resolved here. That would be a better solution for everybody, I’d say.”
“I’d hate to sit there and say if (Kirchoff) runs the track, I’m out. I would never say that,” late model division driver John Bey of Sturgis said. “I still would like to support my local track. I have some local sponsors and I still have some local fans I have to think about.”
Bey said drivers, with thousands of dollars invested in their cars, are caught in the midst of the legal squabble.
“Promoters are always worried about the track, and they should be. That’s their job,” Bey said. “But it seems like in this case, they’re leaving the racers hanging.”