July 1, 2014

Burke in charge at North Ga. Speedway

By Devin Golden

— Chip Burke’s family has been part of North Georgia Speedway for more than three decades.

Because of that — and his own history with the speedway — he cares whether it thrives or suffers.

Burke became the Murray County dirt track’s newest promoter in January and has ushered in the 2014 season with new changes and new visions. It won’t be easy for Burke to turn around the speedway, which has seen people come and go amid deteriorating conditions and lower attendance numbers over the years.

“I love the track and always loved to race here,” said Burke, who started racing at the speedway in 2008. “I’d rather race at North Georgia Speedway than anywhere else.

“It just has been neglected.”

Burke replaces Jason Jones, who relinquished the promoter role after the 2013 season. He issued a statement Dec. 27 on the North Georgia Speedway’s Facebook page announcing the news. It reads, “Again, we want to thank each and every one of you for an awesome two years of promoting the track, and for all of the love and support we received during that time!”

Questions about the track’s future arose in June 2012 when former co-promoters Keiff Ellis and Terry Wilson left for financial reasons, with Wilson saying they had “lost too much money.” The speedway opened the 2012 season on March 31 of that year, lasted through April and temporarily closed for much of May due to maintenance reasons and date conflicts with other area tracks. It reopened June 2 for one night of racing before shutting down again on a more permanent basis.

Jones reopened the track in July 2012.

The speedway has a recent history of closing and reopening, as well as frequent changes of promoters. Ellis and Wilson became co-promoters in June 2011 after the track closed down for one month during the heart of the 2011 race season. Timmy Millwood was the promoter before them, and Monty Morrow held the title from 2007 to 2009. Ron Harris and Ronnie Sutton ran it from 2005 to 2007, and Scott Lee and Kristi Ayre from 2003 to 2005.

“That place has been there for a long time but hasn’t had a pretty solid promoter for a long time,” said Aaron Ridley, a Chatsworth resident and driver at the track. “Yeah, I think (Jones) did have some (perception) stuff to overcome.”

The speedway also has a history in its new promoter’s family. Burke’ father, Kevin Burke, started racing at the track in 1980. Now, the younger Burke said, his father is there helping prepare the track each weekend before the tires dig through the clay and give spectators a reason to cheer.

“He’s there every Friday from 6 to 10 p.m. and every Saturday from morning until midnight,” Burke said. “Everyone is putting everything into it and we’re doing everything in our power to make it succeed.”

After becoming the new promoter, Burke opened the track for competition on April 5 after the originally planned opening date of March 29 was postponed due to rain. Aside from a few rainouts, engine rumbling has been heard since in Chatsworth each Saturday night since then.

“I told him before he had it that I thought he should get it,” Ridley said of Burke. “He’s a successful business guy and can run it like a business.

“I think he’s doing a great job. He’s trying to bring the family stuff into it.”

Pits open at 4 p.m., grandstands open at 5 p.m. and racing starts at 7 p.m. each Saturday, although the track will be closed this weekend. Children ages 5 and under are admitted for free, while grandstand tickets for ages 6-11 cost $6 and ages 12 and older are $12. Pit admission is $25, except children ages 5 and under are free. Those prices are for standard events, however, and costs are higher for some special events.

After this week’s off date, the speedway will resume racing with a visit from a touring series. The Ultimate Super Late Model Series comes to the track with a 40-lap main event and a $4,000 prize for the winner. All classes will race, with the Limited Late Models combining with the Super Late Models, and the competition starts at 7 p.m.

Burke said one of the first changes for the track was the racing schedule. He remembered Saturday nights rolling into Sunday mornings and programs not finishing until 2, 3, even 4 a.m.

“It was really late,” Burke said. “It wasn’t good for families. ... The races are usually finished by 11:15 or 11:30 p.m. now instead of 4 a.m.”

Another change is the appearance. He said there is new lighting, speakers and other improvements such as concessions. Burke owns a construction company, Global Building and Remodeling, and lives in Dalton.

“I had set aside $65,000 to renovate and spruce up the entire facility up,” he said. “... I think image is important. If people think they are going to a dump, they won’t be as excited to go.”

His next improvement is for the drivers. He said the speedway was “the only track around that didn’t have a victory lane podium or sign.” Now, he’s got a victory lane sign and podium for the top finishers in each class. He’s also giving bigger payouts — he said Boyd’s Speedway in Ringgold gave payouts nearly double of North Georgia’s last year — and each class, even the small ones, have two “large-purse payouts” on this year’s racing schedule.

Those changes, plus fan involvement such as plans for spectator races and raffles allowing random ticket-purchasers to sit in two-seat racecars on the dirt track, are intended to return the track to its former glory. If the attendance numbers pick up, it’ll be a big sign of the track shedding its struggle label and becoming the thriving speedway Burke remembers.

“That’s my goal,” he said. “The only way I know how to do that is show consistency and let people know we’ll be there.”