When Ralph Nantz constructed East Lincoln Speedway on his property nearly 25 years ago, he nurtured it, leased it to various individuals then eventually sold it in 2008 to former NASCAR team owner and championship crew chief Ray Evernham and Bob Mack.
Two years ago, however, you could say the three-tenths-mile dirt track found its way home.
Today, Keith and Donna Frye lease the track from Evernham. For Donna Frye, that lease means nurturing the 19-acre facility that Nantz, her late father, built.
Donna, who works full-time at Julius Blum Inc. in Stanley, manages the track’s office while Keith Frye serves as the speedway’s general manager.
“We worked for Ray (Evernham) for three years, me as the technical director and my wife as the office manager,” Keith Frye said. “Then he decided he didn’t want to be a promoter anymore, so we made him an offer to take it over. So it’s sort of back in the family, so to speak. We’re just trying to make it profitable.”
The couple also own and operate the speedway’s Dirt Track Racing School, a business venture they bought in October 2012 which Keith Frye describes as “one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”
“We have two late models, an open-wheel modified and a sprint car,” Keith Frye said. “Forty to 50 percent of our clientele have never driven a race car like that. The first time they get out of one of those cars, the look on their face is priceless.
“Last summer, we had seven guys from Australia.”
Evernham and Keith Frye also started the Carolina Race Saver Sprint Car Series which is a budget sprint car racing circuit that Frye now operates.
“Ray and I are big sprint-car fans,” said Keith Frye, who has been in and out of micro-sprints and mini-sprints for several years. “He ran across this guy in Virginia who started this series. It’s a specific set of engine rules, and then he sanctions different groups, or regions, in different parts of the country. We’re one of the groups.
“We use his engine rules, and then he backs us up technically to make sure we do it right. We primarily run at East Lincoln, but we do have other tracks that we go to. Sprint-car racing isn’t big in this area, but it’s starting to gain a little bit of a foothold.”
Keith Frye concedes it’s been tough operating the track during the recession, and local short tracks will continue to fight for survival as long as discretionary income is tight for many.
“Racing is a hobby for most people, and if they’re having trouble paying their bills and putting food on the table, most of them will go with that instead of racing,” he said.
Still, even the many obstacles faced by track promoters didn’t deter the couple from leasing the track from Evernham when he was considering closing it.
“Ralph (who died two years ago) wanted to keep it going,” Keith Frye said in explaining why he and his wife decided to lease the track, then sub-contract with about 30 people to help them every Saturday night.
Part of the couple’s plan to keep the track in business focuses on activities for children.
“If we’re going to continue to do this, our kids are our future in racing,” said Keith Frye, an electrician who works full-time at Davidson College. “We want to keep as many of them as possible interested in short-track racing. We try to accommodate them as much as possible.”
That accommodation includes bicycle races, a candy drop during Saturday night’s intermission, a non-alcohol family section in the main grandstand and children ages 10 and younger admitted free.
Hickory opens March 8
Hickory Motor Speedway opens its 2014 season March 8 with the NASCAR Whelen All American Series Spring Classic Season Opener. The event is a challenge race and includes a 100-lap late-model stock event. Other divisions racing that day are limited late-model, street stock, four-cylinders and renegades.