Editor’s Note: This story was originally published Nov. 17, 2010.
In more than 40 years in the auto-racing business, James Hylton has probably forgotten more about short-track racing than most people learn in a lifetime. He spent years beating and banging on NASCAR’s short tracks, making a living one fender at a time.
These days Hylton, 76, doesn’t make much money competing in the ARCA Racing Series. He does it mostly for fun, scraping together a few dollars here and there to make it to the next race.
“It’s hard to survive on short-track racing because really the expense is more at a short track than it is at a major speedway,” said Hylton, the 1966 NASCAR Sprint Cup (nee Grand National) Rookie of the Year. “A lot of work goes into a short-track car, plus the fact you can win the race, sit on pole and win the race, but you’ve got a 90 percent chance of leaving there with a beat-up race car.”
Beat-up race cars cost money to fix, money that isn’t so easy to come by these days.
It wasn’t all that long ago that race car drivers could make a career out of racing on short tracks, using winnings to further their careers and support the race team while still having a little left over.
According to Jesse Smith, a 21-year-old part-time ARCA competitor from St. Louis, most short-track purses don’t even cover race team costs these days.
“Even if you go out and run really well you’re probably not going to cover your costs, even if you win the race, even some of the bigger races,” Smith said. “If you count testing and everything, costs at the shops, all the parts and labor and even if you get a free helmet, it’s not really feasible unless you win every single big race, which nobody’s ever been able to do.”
In these difficult financial times drivers and teams have figured out ways to cut corners and save money. Bobby Measmer, Jr., a regular in the late-model division at North Carolina’s Concord Speedway, said his team usually spends the bare minimum just to break even.
“In the super-late-model ranks it’s not profitable for a little guy. You can, say, run some selective races that pay pretty decent to start, like this race here [the North-South Shootout] paying $800 to start,” Measmer said. “It covers one set of tires and a fuel bill, which is what we’ve done. We’ve only bought the necessary amount of fuel and the necessary amount of tires to run this race with it being our local track.”
Colt James, a late-model driver from Texas who races mostly in the Southeast, explained how he uses purse money to support his team’s minimal budget.
“The main thing that we come to do is just to break even. That’s what we really look for,” James said. “We don’t spend quite as much money as some of the other bigger teams. Some teams might spend $5,000 at a race. We probably spend about $2,000 to come to a big race. If we can win that $5,000 then that’s $3,000 that we don’t necessarily pocket, but we just use it for the next race.
“We won a big race about a month ago in Pennsylvania that paid $8,500 and that enabled us to be able to go Gresham (Motorsports Park in Georgia) the next week. We finished second there and we paid for our bills there and we were able to come here [Concord Speedway]. Anytime you can say you broke even for the season, then I think you’re doing good. That’s usually our goal, just to pay for our tires and our fuel bill and all that,” James said.