By Joe BucklesTribune-Star Correspondent
PUTNAMVILLE — A new era was ushered in at Lincoln Park on Saturday night as the Spiker family of Greencastle took over promotional rights at the popular Putnam County dirt track oval.
Joe and Jill Spiker reached an agreement with track owner Dave Allison last month on a five-year lease-purchase contract to take over the day-to-day operations at the Putnamville facility.
Their debut featured one of the track’s premier events, the Putnamville Clash, one of the season’s biggest paying sprint car events. The annual affair paid $2,000-to-win with Billy Puterbaugh taking home the top prize.
The Spikers follow a long standing tradition of family ran operations at the 5/16-mile dirt oval.
Built in 1969 by Kenny Ferrand, the track has been under the ownership of the Buck Arnold family of Coatsville, the Mike Farrar family of Indianapolis, the late Bill Hopton and his wife Marlene and the Allison family of Martinsville.
Relatively new to the area racing scene, the Spikers have made their presence felt in a big way, having taken over promotional chores at two area tracks in 2009. They are also in charge at the Vermilion County Speedway near Danville, Ill., since the start of this season.
Their debut Saturday was eagerly anticipated by those who support the weekly Saturday night shows at LPS.
Even an ominous weather forecast and intermittent rain showers that made for a longer than expected night of racing failed to dampen the spirits of those gathered.
And while the night could have been bigger and brighter, few went away disappointed with the efforts of LPS’ new management team.
Facing the daunting task of restoring the facility to its once proud status will not come easy or quickly — something those involved know quite well.
With the help of countless numbers of volunteers in recent days, the track is already taking on a new and improved look. While the changes thus far are primarily just cosmetic, many see it as a promising start.
Spiker looks forward to putting LPS back on the map.
“We’re excited. It’s like having two new kids, only worse,” Spiker said with a grin. “This is an awesome race track. One of the nicest in the country. We’ll get it back where it belongs.
“We’ve got a long way to go. It’s made for some short nights and long days. I have been here after work every day till two to three o’clock in the morning,” added Spiker.
News of the Spiker takeover was released prematurely giving some fans the impression that the Spiker family had purchased the track.
“Dave Allison actually owns the property. We’re going to lease it for five [years], we can lease it for 10 or we can buy it. There is a purchase price already agreed upon. I don’t think the place will support the payments right now. So it will be better for us lease it right now.”
After several earlier failed attempts to get possession of the track, Spiker held out hope, thus taking over the operations at VCS. The offer to take over LPS caught him by surprise.
“When the deal came to the table it was now or never, so it was now,” confided Spiker.
An excavator by trade, Spiker says his love for the sport will not take precedence over making the operation at the track a profitable one.
“The bottom line it’s still a business. I’m not as experienced as most people in this field. I thought it was going to be a part-time job making a lot of money, but it’s turned out to be a full-time job not making any money.”
He’s learned quickly that winning over and keeping the paying public happy involves more than just offering quality entertainment on the track.
Something as simple as reasonable ticket and concession stand prices to a timely-run program or having clean restrooms can make a difference from turning a profit or closing your doors.
Surprisingly, the restroom might take top priority. “If momma can’t go to the bathroom, dads not going to the races. That’s just the way it is,” Spiker said from experience.
The changes have already won over several drivers that compete at the track.
“Everything I’ve seen thus far is nothing but a positive,” offered sprint car competitor Kent Christian. “People want to come back to Putnamville. They want to feel like they are involved, they are welcomed. I don’t think its always been like that the past couple years.”
Defending bomber class champion C.J. Bryan also likes what he sees.
“It’s [turnaround] not going to happen overnight, but the guy [Spiker] has put more effort into it the past two weeks than what was done the last six years.”
Modified racer Paul Wright echoes similar praise for changes being made.
“Any way you look at the changes they have been positive,” offered the Terre Haute driver. “They finally got a weed eater, mowed some grass and put up new signs at the entrance. It makes the place presentable so the people know there’s a race track here.”
Spiker’s efforts at VCS has earned him praise from racers and fans alike. What transpires the final two months of this season at LPS will go a long way in setting the tone for 2010.
“Hopefully the fans will see the efforts we’ve made to improve the facility,” voiced Spiker. “We’ve still got a long way to go. Looking up there at the stands tonight I think we have passed our first test of turning this thing around,” he said with guarded optimism.