Risk & Reward
Morton’s Move To Resurrect Wall Stadium Paying Off
In recent times it has been all too common for well-established race tracks to close, falling victim to a combination of rising land values and changing entertainment options.
It is far less common for any such track to re-open after a year in mothballs, but that’s exactly what happened at New Jersey’s third-mile Wall Stadium. First opened in 1950 and closed following the 2007 season, it was brought back to life in late 2008 due to one person’s passion and determination.
Jim Morton was the track’s operations manager when the owners decided to close down the track where Mario Andretti raced, where Ray Evernham got his start and where the Truex family first made a name in racing.
Built by Tom Nicol and controlled by the Nicol family for more than 50 years, the track was sold to a new ownership group in 2002, a group that never did find its stride as speedway owners. They changed the name to Wall Township Speedway and went through a succession of managers, but the books showed only red ink.
Morton, whose father, Oscar Morton, was a competitor in the track’s early years and who grew up around the speedway, couldn’t sit by idly. In 2006 he lobbied aggressively to get the managerial position, finally convincing the owners to put him in charge midseason. But by then the owners had lost their collective interest in being speedway owners, and Morton’s ability to effect change was hamstrung.
Following the decision by the owners not to open for the 2008 season, the track was, according to Morton, “done.” Equipment was removed and plans were made to tear down the facility and sell the property for development. But Morton began to lobby the owners once again. This time, instead of asking for a job, he was asking to be permitted to give the track a proper sendoff: He wanted to lease the facility and present the traditional year-ending Turkey Derby.
Late in the year, a deal was struck for a one-event lease, and suddenly Morton was a tenant and a promoter with a short lead time until the race. He recruited a staff of both employees and volunteers, spruced up the neglected grounds, and blessed with favorable weather, produced a hit, an out-of-the-park home run with a standing-room-only crowd and parking overflowing to the adjacent airport.
He also won a risky bet: He had mortgaged his home to finance the event.
Of that race, Morton has said, “It is my opinion that something like that is not likely going to be seen again.”
Yet the success of that event led him to seek from the owners a lease to present racing throughout the 2009 season. And so it came to pass that Wall Stadium — Morton restored the original name — presented racing this past year.
Significantly, the resuscitated Wall Stadium is not a weekly track. Morton aims to present three Saturday night events per month.
“Running weekly does not add to the bottom line,” he states, because fans, even devoted fans, can’t be there every week. Instead, Morton added monthly cruise nights for collector cars and a Sunday series for entry-level racing divisions.
And at year’s end, he staged his second SRO Turkey Derby.
Having renewed the lease for 2010, Morton recently released his schedule for the upcoming season, and it looks similar to the 2009 edition. In general he runs a five-division show, with small-block modifieds as the headliners. But his goal is to give fans a 2 1/2 hour show, so he schedules the heats at 5:30 p.m. for the diehards and cues up the features at 7:30 p.m.
The ATQMRA TQ Midgets are the only touring series that visits with any regularity. Special events for tour-type modifieds are on the calendar and each of the regular divisions gets at least one night for an extra-distance showcase. A stand-alone enduro is scheduled, as is a two-day Formula Drift event. And, of course, the 37th annual Turkey Derby is listed.
Morton is better positioned for this year than last.
“We were not in place until February last year,” he notes, and he had only the time from February until April to make necessary repairs, create a schedule, assemble a staff, and attract cars and fans.
Morton says there are only a few key principles to how he operates the track: Get the people in (via promotion), get them out (via a tightly run program), give them quality refreshments and keep the facilities clean.
“People have to be comfortable,” he says. “Mothers and children have to use the bathrooms. They have to be clean.”
On the competitors’ side of the fence, the rulebook carries a Mission Statement: “To provide a first-class speedway, safe and fair.”
Kevin Eyres, a veteran driver in the sportsman division, is glad that the track is back.
“Jim is doing this on his own, with his own money. He is capable and he is willing to risk a loss,” Eyres said. Overall, Eyres says, Morton “is doing an awesome job.”
Morton’s promotional emphasis is on the regional “shore” market, where during the prime summer months of July and August he is competing with the nearby oceanfront amusements, a Six Flags theme park, and a minor-league baseball team. He does not market aggressively to the racing community. “They know we’re here,” he says.
His classic car cruise nights are part of that local approach. There is no charge, and car owners get to drive controlled-speed laps of the paved oval, which features 30-degree banking in the turns.
“It exposes my race track to new people,” Morton notes. “I’ve seen new people at the races who I first saw at the cruise nights.”
Still, why does a guy like Jim Morton try to save a speedway?
For Morton, there was no grand scheme.
“I did it for the love of the sport, for the love of a challenge, for the love of Wall Stadium.” Experts say that you should do what you love, and Wall Stadium is the 54-year-old Morton’s full-time job. The lease payment is significant, and so 2009, he says, was not a profitable year. “But,” he added, “I was able to pay myself a salary.”
And he is clearly doing what he loves.
Even with Morton’s effort and dedication, the future remains uncertain. Morton has a year-to-year lease, and this year is secure.
“I believe we will have 2011,” he says, but the property remains for sale and as Morton says “there is going to be a buyer eventually.” Morton knows that a likely buyer is going to be buying the land, not a race track, and so he is seeking the right investors to perhaps become the buyer himself.
“I know what it takes to make this place tick,” he says.