Only a short time ago, while many other asphalt facilities in Pennsylvania were operating and trying to thrive, Jennerstown Speedway was simply an afterthought after it closed its doors in 2008. Entering the 2016 season, the tables have turned as the track in the Laurel Highlands region is now one of only three in the commonwealth regularly open for business, and could arguably have the most momentum going for them.
Most recently in early 2015, six area businessmen with various ties to local racing partnered up to give the half-mile, which holds an immense amount of history, another renewed shot at life. Given that the group had eight weeks to get ready for what would normally be eight months’ worth of work, the weekly season that started in June turned out to be a major success.
With optimism and more time to make necessary arrangements for this year, the track staff is treating preparation with more of a first-year approach despite it being their second in operation. One of the frequent faces that can be observed handling a multitude of tasks on any given day at the complex is Bill Hribar, the track’s Co-General Manager.
“(The off-season) gave us a chance to step back, analyze what we did, the rights, the wrongs and what we need to do different,” Hribar recently told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “We did make some changes to the racing program, and some things were well-received and others it’s going to take some time to win people over.”
One of the changes announced over the off-season was the formation of a relationship with American Racer tire, whose local dealer, Lias Tire, is located out of nearby Indiana, Pennsylvania. The two parties have worked together to put rules in place, have held on-track testing and pre-season tire sales at the track on multiple occasions. All of these aspects have shown that their commitment is unwavering while continuing to establish trust with the local competitors.
Despite the official tire rules only being released in recent months, the decision had been a long time in the making.
“Even before we opened the doors we were talking to tire manufacturers and we touched base with Fred Woodward from Lias Tire,” Hribar noted. “He was willing to come out and do things that we really didn’t actually start testing tires or anything with them until the end of the season. They went back to the drawing board and they came up with what they felt was a quality product and they provided it to us. We ran it in our Late Models and it actually exceeded expectations.”
The headlining Late Model division has seen its share of struggles in the region keeping expenses down and therefore preserving decent car counts. For 2016, many of the area’s top weekly competitors including Barry Awtey, Garry Wiltrout, Bobby Henry, and defending track champion Matt Sever will be back. In addition, drivers from outside Western Pennsylvania are expected on occasion such as Travis Fisher and Geno Steigerwalt from the Northeast part of the state.
Rules, especially tires, can be a sensitive issue for all divisions, but the track staff and competitors that have already tested have given good reviews about the long-term direction for affordability.
“To find a really good Late Model tire that has repeatability and is cost-effective, they were the only ones in the market to provide that for us,” Hribar, a former weekly racer himself, said. “At that time we looked at expanding to the other divisions. We actually made a change this year where the Four Cylinder class has the option to run an American Racer tire and our Charger class is going to run an American Racer tire, which is what we feel in the needs of safety and is very cost-effective as well for the racer.”
Not only is managing a race track about keeping the racers happy, but bringing fans back and constantly making new ones is crucial. Several different offers are being promoted, including a season ticket punch package, winter promotions at various shows featuring a simulator car and themed race nights to cater to various groups of visitors.
“The facility was already beautiful as it was, but there have already been numerous amounts of changes and upgrades to the concessions to make it a more fan-friendly experience and handle them in a more efficient manner,” Hribar added.
Another item that the entire management group has focused on is not doing too much too fast, like many in the business have done before and ran into troubles. Instead of bringing in every touring series in which interest has been shown, they have been focusing on promoting one major event that many familiar to Jennerstown have not witnessed in several years.
“We had a pretty level even keel and said we want to pick one show and put our eggs in that basket and make it the best we can,” Hribar explained. “We picked the ISMA Supermodified Series and if anybody has never seen them before at Jennerstown they’re just incredible. We sold tickets in eight different states so far. We’ve had people from nine hours away purchase tickets to come to this show.”
The current unprecedented deal taking place offers free admission to any two other weekly events if tickets for the ISMA show are purchased online in advance, virtually netting at a low cost for attracting fans to the venue on multiple occasions.
In addition, the Super Cup Stock Car Series will bring national television coverage with their two summer twin features each to be broadcast on MAVTV at a later date, a first for the track since the ASA National Tour and Hooters Pro Cup days.
The final event of the 2015 season featured that series, packed stands and impressive car counts for all five local divisions that had been gradually climbing over the summer months. Ending on such a high note, some may question if it can be topped but the confidence is there.
The track has partnered up with local radio stations out of Pittsburgh for marketing, and is running some promotions with different organizations throughout the area all in an effort to make Jennerstown Speedway Complex a destination for the community much like in decades past.
Included will be an Armed Forces appreciation night, the Saturday following their May 14 season opener, which will be a nationally registered event known as a VetTogether. Active or retired service men or women will get free grandstand admission and a Mobile Response Unit for veterans will be coming out of Virginia.
In addition, an Emergency Responders Night, Scout Night and Autograph Night will be offered to fans throughout the summer. To support some of the weekly competitors, races serving as a tribute to a former racer have been scheduled for the Street Stock and Chargers with added money to the purse.
With tracks and management teams coming and going as well as some facilities staying status quo over time, the Jennerstown Speedway Complex staff intends to be here to stay and ever improving.
“If anybody has never experienced Jennerstown, whether you are a dirt fan or an asphalt fan, please take the initiative to take the trip and just come see our facility because it is one of the best kept secrets in the Laurel Highlands,” Hribar concluded. “Nothing is better than short track Saturday night racing that you can spend with your family and friends.”
-By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com Central NY & PA Editor – Twitter: @aaron_creed
-Photo credit: Patrick Miller Photography