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Speedway bucks area economic trend



SPEEDWAYECONOMY
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A third of the Riverside Speedway grandstand is visible in this photo of the driver introductions on June 6. The rest of the stands were just as full with a front gate count of more than 1,000 people attending the races that night. (Photo by Alan Ward) (click for larger version)
July 01, 2009
GROVETON — While industry in Groveton has been on a downward spiral in recent years, there has been one ray of light shining along the Connecticut River. Riverside Speedway has been growing steadily, rebuilding its fan and driver base and experiencing an overall renaissance under the leadership of Lyndonville, Vt.'s Dick Therrien.

The last few years have not been kind to the business climate in Groveton. Both Groveton Paper Board and Wausau Paper closed their doors leaving an empty mill complex and many unemployed. A few miles outside the downtown area, however, Mr. Therrien has been building up the race track he leases. He has lent his marketing prowess to the task and succeeded in spades. A good weekend fills the stands with more than 1,000 spectators and the pits with more than 400 team members, from drivers and families to pit crews. Last July 4, the attendance at Riverside exceeded the population of the town of about 2,500, bringing in excess of 3,000 people to the track, a figure Mr. Therrien said was "unanticipated."

"To bring 3,000 people to the town of Groveton is extreme," he said. "We've worked very hard to get to this point."

Five years ago, when Mr. Therrien signed on as General Manager at Riverside Speedway the track was in "pretty rough shape." The weekend races would draw less than 400 people, he said, noting that the previous manager had done the best he could with the resources he had. In 2005, however, Mr. Therrien came aboard bringing decades of marketing experience and a solid reputation among the race world from his previous post as race announcer at other local tracks and as a racing radio talk show host.

The track had been floundering. It wasn't generating enough revenue to maintain it properly and fans as well as drivers had been staying away. Mr. Therrien implemented a two-part plan to draw both racers and spectators back to the 1964 track. With about 35 gallons of paint and some new boards for the grandstands he gave the place a facelift. He and his family, as well as some friends, also hauled trash out and mowed the unkempt racetrack and campground facility. Then, he upped the winning purses in the first steps of his quest to give the track with a "rough and tumble reputation" a little bit more appeal. Mr. Therrien said that when he took over the track was lacking its own identity and had some work to do in building the public trust.

Riverside didn't have its own local base of drivers — a must for small short tracks. "You just can't do that in this game," he said. So he set out to build a base, using his close to 30 years of marketing experience to bring in sponsorships and sponsorship packages, as well as create events like the Jan. 2 "Hangover" race and other special events throughout the regular racing season. He also added a youth development program that has so far netted him more than a dozen entries in his many divisions that are driven by racers who started out in the youth Daredevil division.

An influx of cash also helped him make further facilities improvements to make the experience more enjoyable for the fans. In turn, the attendance numbers have grown steadily.

In his first two years at the track, Mr. Therrien focused on small changes that made a difference. In 2007, he upped the stakes and went from Manager to Lessee at Riverside Speedway. After rebuilding the race base with increased purses, the return of the Late Model Division and other changes that saw drivers returning to the northernmost speedway in the state, he was able to step up his efforts now that he had a vested interest in the track. Riverside is now also one of the stops for the Pro All Star Series, a traveling championship series in New England and the Carolinas.

Over the five seasons he's been in charge attendance has increased more than 100 percent. In his first year alone the crowd counts were up from 350 at the start of the summer to around 550 at the end. It continued to rise over his tenure and he estimates that on a good week in 2008, the track drew around 1,200 people — 800 in the grandstands and 400 in the pits. This coming weekend, the track again expects a large crowd, though maybe not as big as last year given the economic climate in general. "We're hoping for 1,100 to 1,200," Mr. Therrien said.

Riverside Speedway has not been immune from the current economy, especially as it affects its drivers. Mr. Therrien said it has become more difficult to maintain the number of drivers it has fielded in recent years. "The economy has been a challenge to the teams, fans and the track. Our bills don't go away," he said. Still, he said the front gate has seen a slight increase in 2009.

Racers are still entering as they can afford to, which in some cases means they come every other week instead of every week. Mr. Therrien did say that he urges his drivers to maintain perspective and make sure that in these tough times they make sure their bills are taken care of at home before they go racing. "It's tough — it's a tough game," Mr. Therrien explained, noting that many drivers are "addicted" to the sport and making sure their car is as competitive as possible — an often costly endeavor. "I'm just as bad as anyone else," he said.

Riverside Speedway hosts races throughout the summer from May to October and employs around 30 seasonal workers.

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