Miller Motorsports Park: On the right track?
Racing » After setbacks, Miller Motorsports Park explores new avenues.
By Steve Luhm
| The Salt Lake Tribune
First Published May 25 2013 08:51 am
Last Updated Dec 07 2013 11:32 pm
Tooele • Miller Motorsports Park is quiet this Memorial Day weekend.
No high-pitched shrieks from bullet-like motorcycles.
No riders pushing their machines down the long straightaway at nearly 200 mph.
No worldwide media coverage.
For the first time in six years, the racetrack that the late Larry H. Miller carved out of the Tooele Valley desert is not playing host to FIM World Superbike, one of the most high-profile motorcycle racing series on the planet.
The event never took off in Utah.
Attendance lagged far behind what WSBK draws at its other venues, and Miller Motorsports Park lost millions of dollars on what had evolved into its marque event.
"World Superbike is huge internationally and we did everything we could to make it successful," MMP general manager John Larson said. "But it didn’t make sense for us to continue. … It was a financial decision."
Officials at World Superbike seem to understand Larson’s dilemma. They have moved their only North American tour stop to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, in Monterey, Calif., in September.
"There’s no critical reason why we do not come to Miller anymore," said WSBK spokesperson Valentina Conti. "It is a great circuit with a fantastic staff. But the contract is over. We had to look at further opportunities and California is a great motorcycle market. It is a chance to [increase] our visibility there."
Laguna Seca and northern California have three major advantages over Miller Motorsports Park when it comes to providing a home for World Superbike: market size, predictable weather and a long-established history.
Gill Campbell, the CEO and general manager at Laguna Seca, calls Miller Motorsports Park "a great racetrack."
She knows, however, that her venue provides many benefits — requirements, maybe — that MMP does not.
"Being a ‘destination’ can be very important," Campbell said, "… and Salt Lake City is not on everybody’s radar. But the Monterey Peninsula is a destination — with a ribbon in it."
She continued: "Race fans are among the most picky in sports. … You need to be able to get off a plane, drive a short distance to the hotel and drive a short distance to the racetrack. We have that here."
In hindsight, Larson knows Miller Motorsports Park was fighting an impossible battle by staging WSBK on a 7-year-old track located 40 miles west of Salt Lake City. The event’s weekend attendance was about 49,000 last year.
"This is a very immature motorsports community, compared to Laguna Seca and other tracks that have been around for 50 or 60 years," he said.
Referring to market size, Larson said, "In motorsports — traditionally — you have to fish from a much bigger pond just to get the support you need."
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, of course.
Miller Motorsports Park was built at a cost of $85 million, or almost $20 million more than Larry H. Miller spent on constructing EnergySolutions Arena in 1990-91.
The world-class track opened in 2006 and almost immediately attracted events such as the American Le Mans Series and the Grand-Am Sunchaser 1,000 endurance race.
During the announcement of MMP’s 2007 schedule, director of racing Mitch Wright said, "You will see the top racers in the world at Miller Motorsports Park."
Then-general manager Alan Wilson added, "MMP has gone from zero to 200 mph in less than 24 months. We are attracting race series that typically take years for a new track to secure."
Making those events profitable, however, was difficult and eventually doomed them in Utah.
The American Le Mans Series did not return to Miller Motorsports Park after its 2010 race. Now, World Superbikes is gone.
"We were probably running before we even learned how to walk," Larson acknowledges. "With Larry, there was probably a feeling that, "If I build it, they will come.’ But they didn’t."
This summer, two of MMP’s top two attractions won’t even be contested on concrete.
The Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series is scheduled June 22-23 on a dirt course constructed three years ago across the parking lot behind the main grandstand.
On Aug. 17, the Lucas Oil Pro Motorcross Series will christen a new course built inside the road race track.
When those plans were announced, Larson said, "Some traditionalists wondered what the heck we were doing — putting a motocross track inside that great facility? But you have to adapt. You have to be relevant."
The trend toward dirt racing at MMP has been dictated by the marketplace.
"We feel like we are going to get a reasonable return on our investment," Larson said. "More importantly, we’re going to get a bunch of people out to Miller Motorsports Park that have not been there before."
Larson expects a crowd of 15,000 or 20,000 for the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Series, which would make it the best-attended single-day event in track history.
"We’ve found dirt racing has some legs here in our community," Larson said. "… We realize, certainly, that we have a world-class road racing facility. But we’re trying to adapt and, at the end of the day, have a little money to pay the bills."
There is one certainty about the immediate future of Miller Motorsports Park.
While Larson will continue to tinker with the race schedule, the facility and its increasingly valuable 511 acres of land is not for sale.
"I have never been involved in a single discussion where that has been a topic," Larson said. "Yes, we have changed the model and are doing things that weren’t even on Larry’s radar when he built the facility. But this place is incredibly important to the Miller family. They are committed to it."
And the Miller Motorsports GM isn’t ruling out a return to big-time road racing at some point — but not anytime soon. The Salt Lake market will need to get bigger — with more corporate and sponsorship dollars — for that to happen.
"We could see the American Le Mans series or Superbikes again," he said. "But not for a while. And not until we see where the market takes us."