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Bumpy Beginning : From Bankruptcy, Michigan Track Has Become the Best

August 10, 1993|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Larry was a salesman, maybe the best I ever knew," said Richter, who ran the Riverside track after a Hall of Fame football career as a Ram linebacker. "He could sell refrigerators to Eskimos and make them think they had a hell of a deal. But about that time, the recession set in and people started asking LoPatin for their payments.

"Michigan was making money, but LoPatin was milking money made there to pay the bills in other places. He was spreading himself too thin, especially considering the way the economy was turning around. When he couldn't make the payments to the contractor that built the Texas track, the whole thing began to fall apart."

Richter had become president of American Raceways, Inc., after the sale of Riverside, and when bankruptcy appeared imminent, the creditors turned to him to save the sinking ship. While Richter was negotiating for time, LoPatin went into bankruptcy.

There were two interested bidders, Penske and Pat Patrick, who later teamed to form Championship Auto Racing Teams Inc. to take control of Indy cars everywhere but Indianapolis.

Penske quickly put together a plan to purchase the track with money he would derive from an around-the-clock emissions control test program for American Motors Corp.

"I was already a car owner involved in racing, so when I heard the Michigan track was going into bankruptcy, I was interested," Penske said. "I had our attorney make a bid. Then I went to American Motors, where I had been involved with their Javelin racing program, and proposed that AMC do its emissions testing program at the track instead of on the city streets of Detroit. We offered an opportunity to run their cars 24 hours a day in 50,000-mile tests.

"When they agreed, it gave me the income to make a tangible bid and cover the mortgage payments."

It was about that time that Fritz Duda obtained controlling interest in Riverside, which Richter continued to run until 1983, when he went to work for NASCAR. He also was a consultant at Michigan during that period.

LoPatin never returned to racing and died last April at 63 while working on a resort development in northern Michigan.

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Walt Czarnecki was a spectator in the infield for the first Michigan race in 1968. He joined Penske from American Motors two years later and has overseen the development and expansion of the track since that first night when a thunderstorm stuck the money together.

"MIS has grown as a business in an orderly fashion," Czarnecki said. "As we felt a need for them, we built more seats. But sometimes people don't realize that when you add seats, you have to add restrooms, concession stands and increase your parking. It's not just a matter of putting up more stands."

There are about 78,000 seats now, with plenty of room in the infield for the camper crowd.

"We like to think of MIS as a place for the family to go for entertainment," Czarnecki said. "We like to ask people why they come here. I asked a 9-year-old the other day, and he said, 'I've been coming here with my dad and mom since I was 3. We come a couple of times a year.' When I heard that, it dawned on me that we're into our second generation of fans.

"Years ago, when we were expanding, Joe Dowdall (then a Detroit sportswriter) said, 'Don't ever forget the two-dollar bettor.' And we've tried to follow that philosophy, to never forget the family customer. When we had a race postponed for a week a few years ago, we gave back $40,000 in refunds to people who couldn't come back."

The success of the track mirrors its owner's success in racing. Since 1969, Penske-owned cars have won nine Indianapolis 500s, 76 races and eight Indy car championships.

At MIS, Czarnecki also had to overcome ill will left from the LoPatin era.

Chuck Dewey, a retiree from the Jackson city fire department, is co-fire protection director at MIS, but he remembers how things were different 25 years ago.

"Things were really a mess until Roger bought the place," Dewey said. "Sometimes people weren't paid, we couldn't get the proper equipment, things like that. Then Roger came in and showed a genuine interest in us by pitching in where it was needed. He was great for morale."

Dowdall, who covered MIS from its inception until he retired several years ago, recalled that "for the first few races, there was no traffic pattern, the plumbing was not all connected and the parking lot was dirt, which became a mud bog when it rained."

To create good will in the neighborhood, Penske organized a charity golf tournament at the Country Club of Jackson that has raised more than $1 million for local hospitals in 13 years.

"Greg Norman played this year," Czarnecki said. "The tournament was Tuesday before the Indy car race. It was the week after he'd won the British Open, but he kept his commitment. We had 36 touring professionals in the pro-am."

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Criticism of MIS has centered on the track's racing surface. Some say it is too fast for Indy cars. Others claim it is often too bumpy for safe racing.

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