(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Motor Sports Park Senior Vice President and track manager Dixon Hunt talks about the challenges of operating a race track during the coronavirus pandemic, on Thursday, June 11, 2020.
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Grantsville • Dixon Hunt, senior vice president of the Utah Motorsports Campus, envisioned 2020 as a banner year for the 15-year-old asphalt track that sprawls across 511 acres of pasture near the southern tip of the Great Salt Lake. This season would stand as the starting line in the race to profitability. It would be the baseline on which a bright new future would be built.

But that future will have to wait — again.

This time that pesky virus called COVID-19 sidetracked the turnaround season for UMC. For the past five seasons, a series of sales and lawsuits and political games took track managers like Hunt through so many twists and turns that navigating the 4.5-mile road course at breakneck speeds likely looked easy in comparison.

In December 2018, on its third try, Chinese carmaker Geely finally bought UMC from Tooele County. With that large, race-savvy organization in the driver’s seat, Hunt said the coronavirus should be just another bump in the road for the complex.

“We’re also very fortunate that we’re owned by who we are,” Hunt said, “because if we would be owned by, you know, just a one-off person or a very small group, I don’t know that the financial business would have been able to maintain through what we just went through.”

UMC just watched nearly its entire slate of races for the 2020 season disappear before its eyes. The only one left of the three big racing events scheduled for the track this summer is the ARCA Menards Series West races.

Originally scheduled to be held over Memorial Day weekend, the NASCAR feeder series race was rescheduled for June 27. The Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series originally had been scheduled that weekend, but it scuttled its entire 2020 season because of the virus. The third large event, Travis Pastrana’s Nitro World Games, is now expected to be moved from this fall to sometime in 2021.

Hunt said the virus hit right when everything was falling into place for the track. Not only did it have a full slate of events, but for perhaps the first time in the history of the facility, it expected to make money.

“You know, before this all happened,” Hunt said, “we were almost confident that [UMC] was going to be profitable based on what we had booked.”

That’s not the case anymore. Restrictions on how many people can attend events — 500 will be allowed at the ARCA races, a far cry from the 14,000-person capacity of the stands or the roughly 100,000 Hunt said the entire complex could accommodate — means fewer sales of tickets, concessions and merchandise. Those are the real moneymakers for the track, Hunt said.

(File photo courtesy of Nitro World Games) The annual Nitro World Games were scheduled to return to Utah this summer at the Utah Motorsports Campus near Tooele before the coronavirus hit.

Still, Geely has shown it has patience, especially for things that are out of its control. If the company could wait three years to purchase the complex, which it did for $18.5 million in December 2018, it could wait a few more years to see a return on that investment.

STALLING OUT

Built in 2005 as a pet project of businessman and car dealership mogul Larry H. Miller, the track opened to the public in 2006. When the lease came up in 2015, six years after Miller had died, the Larry H. Miller Group declined to renew its agreement. Tooele County, which oversaw the property, then started looking for someone to buy the complex.

It found Geely.

Little known in the United States, Geely is China’s largest private automaker and the parent company of more familiar brands like Volvo and Lotus. What’s more, it is steeped in auto racing and owns several tracks similar to UCM around the world. It planned to grow the track as a race and entertainment facility.

Tooele County sold the campus to Mitime Investment and Development, a subsidiary of Geely, for $20 million in 2015. Mitime wasn’t the highest bidder, however, and the sale was for less than the value at which the county taxed the property, closer to $28 million. So Center Point Management, a real estate development company that offered $22.5 million for the track, where it planned to build trackside hotels and condos, sued the county. In December 2016, 3rd District Judge Robert Adkins agreed with Center Point Management and blocked the sale.

The legal wrangling over the track dragged on for three years. In the meantime, the county hired Mitime to oversee track operations.

"They had three choices: shut it down, run it themselves or find someone to run it,” Alan Wilson, the track designer and then-UMC president told The Tribune in 2016. "If they put it in mothballs for six months, they would have lost everyone and everything. … It would have taken years to rebuild. So they selected the management process and we were the only ones who stood up and said, 'We'll manage it.' There was no one else offering to do it."

Finally, in November 2017, the county and Center Point reached a settlement agreement, opening the way for the sale to Mitime. The sale closed in December 2018 for the original price minus what the county owed Mitime for its upkeep of the track.

Hunt said little could be done to expand UMC’s offerings while the sale was tied up in court. The short span between the sale and the 2019 season also resulted in a limited program that year. This year, however, things were supposed to be different.

Future is wide open

Bringing NASCAR back to the track — the ARCA races are the first NASCAR-affiliated races at the track since the series, then known as the K&N Pro Series West, left after the 2016 season — marked a significant step toward expansion.

“One of the things that we're really looking forward to in getting back, and it was one of the things Dixon and I were excited to work on together, is to try to make this a long-term thing moving forward,” said Brandon Thompson, NASCAR’s touring series manager.

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune The Lantern Fest at Utah Motorsports Campus Saturday April 30, 2016.

Thompson said one of his first stops after he took his job in 2016 was at UMC for a K&N series race. He said the facilities rank among the best and most technologically advanced of any of the tracks not owned by NASCAR. UMC is also unique in that it is a road course, which has become particularly desirable for West circuits, he said.

Hosting the ARCA series can pave the way for more prominent NASCAR races to come to the track, possibly starting with the outdoors truck series. Superbikes also could make a return, and Hunt would like to see a racing academy set up on-site. Plus, Hunt says he envisions a plethora of off-track options, including Coachella-like music festivals.

“I kind of liken us to being in an adolescent phase right now,” he said. “It’s where, you know, we were born but we're still … trying to figure out what we want to be and how that works.”

Making a profit this season would have helped propel that self-discovery forward. Instead, with the omnipresent coronavirus risk and the statewide restrictions that come with it, the track is again stuck in neutral.

At least for now.

“You know, these tracks have been around for a long time and they’re [run by] racers and typically racers have a pretty gritty spirit,” Thompson said of facilities like UMC across the United States. “They’re not going to fold up easily.”