New Owner, but No Racing: Sale of Canaan Fair Speedway Leaves Track’s Future in the Air
Visitors meet with racers on the track during the pit party at Ricky's Race for Kids to benefit David's House at Canaan Fair Speedway in 2010. The speedway was sold recently to Tillman Gerngross, a professor at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College
Valley News file photograph - Patrick T. Fallon Purchase photo reprints »
Gerngross, shown in 2007, has not decided what to do with the property yet, but there will be no racing next year. Valley News file photograph - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »
Canaan — With a new owner about to take charge at Canaan Fair Speedway, there is a degree of uncertainty over just what will become of the popular racing venue.
But one thing is certain: the speedway will not host a summer of dirt and asphalt auto racing in 2014, although motorsports of some sort will be in the mix in the future.
Tillman Gerngross, a professor at Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering, reached a purchase-and-sale agreement earlier this summer with Sandy and Chick Henry, of West Lebanon, who have owned the speedway since 2006. The deal was contingent upon completing the ongoing racing season before the full transfer to Gerngross, who confirmed on Friday that he’s paying “in the neighborhood” of the $675,000 asking price for the property.
He will take full ownership in October.
The college’s associate provost of entrepreneurship and technology transfer, Gerngross said he’s seeking an economic model for motorsports at Canaan other than what the Henrys and previous owner Charlie Elliott have maintained over the track’s history.
Gerngross told the Canaan Selectboard in June that he favored building a road course to race vintage cars, but on Friday he said he’s not made up his mind yet.
“At this point, there are many options,” Gerngross said. “The existing owners have done a heroic job of trying to save the raceway in its current form, to maintain the type of racing going on there. The problem is that it’s highly unprofitable and no longer sustainable.
“What I’m doing is assessing models of how one could profitably run an activity there, and that process has not concluded. What I can say is, at least for the first year, I will make some significant improvements. There will be no racing in 2014 just because the facility needs a major upgrade. As we’re doing that, we’ll figure out the right model to make it a sustainable operation.”
Gerngross co-founded GlycoFi, Inc., a biotechnology company based in Lebanon, with Charles Hutchinson in 2000. In 2006, the company, which by then had nearly 100 employees and investors who also owned shares, was sold to Merck & Co., Inc., for $400 million. In 2007, Gerngross and Hutchinson were named “Entrepreneur of the Year” at the New Hampshire High Technology Awards Recognition Banquet.
One veteran Canaan competitor expressed frustration over the sale.
Randy Howe, of Lebanon, a 13-time track champion in the dirt Modified division, said drivers had been told the track hadn’t been sold as of a month ago. Without the speedway, Howe’s closest competitive options are Bear Ridge Speedway in Bradford, Vt., and Legion Speedway in Wentworth, N.H.
“People are curious as to what’s going to happen, (but) you just hear rumors,” Howe said on Thursday. “It’s been there so long, you would think somebody would operate it as a racetrack of some sort. The track’s there; they have the permits in place. As soon as you stop racing, the town might never give them the permits to go racing again. It seems nobody wants to race cars around anymore.”
Canaan’s dirt track season is scheduled to conclude on Oct. 19. The asphalt track’s regular season ends Aug. 31, although the Granite State Pro Stock Series has leased the facility for an event on Sept. 14.
Factoring infrastructure improvements into the equation, running the speedway hasn’t been a money-making venture, Sandy Henry said on Thursday.
“We’ve become busy with other things, other businesses we’re involved with,” added Henry, whose family owns Upper Valley Equipment Rentals in West Lebanon. “We’ve made a lot of changes out there, improved it as much as we could. It’s time for the next person to take it further than we have.”
Barring a change of fortune, the Upper Valley’s asphalt drivers will have seen both of their area racing options go dark in the span of less than a year.
Claremont’s Twin State Speedway announced in the spring that it would not sponsor weekly racing while owner Dennis Fleury sought a buyer for his track. Fleury said this week he hasn’t received any serious offers for Twin State, which has hosted once-a-month stock car shows since July.
A perceived lack of information over Canaan’s sale has bothered some drivers as rumors filled the void. Walt Hammond, of Canaan, said he and his son, Walt Jr., face the prospect of a two-hour trip next summer to the nearest asphalt facility if they wish to continue to compete.
“The guys are all hanging in there the way racers will until the last gun fires,” the elder Hammond said. “But for guys like me, who grew up there and worked for Charlie when he built the dirt track, we’re disappointed. … I’d feel better if they’d come to us racers and say, ‘This is the deal, we’re not doing this anymore.’ Right now, I’m sitting here and I don’t know anything.”
The Henrys have had the speedway on the market for two or three years, Sandy Henry said. They and Gerngross reached an agreement that completed the sale in phases, according to Gerngross, “where the purchase occurred, then I leased (the tracks) back for them to finish the races. I wanted to make sure we honored the various commitments.”
Owner of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering and a doctorate in molecular biology from Austria’s Technical University of Vienna, Gerngross called the purchase “an interesting opportunity to try to do economic development in an area that has not been on the map in that regard.” Never a professional driver, Gerngross said he’s done “a fair amount” of racing on tracks on the West Coast, but strictly as a hobby.
“My interest is broader,” Gerngross said. “This presented an opportunity as an entrepreneurship challenge, to build something of value that serves the community and the people that work around here.
“All options have some automotive-slash-motor racing component, but the question is the blend, the revenue models,” he added. “I went to some of these races, and it’s inspiring to see the energy and excitement that the racers bring. That factored into my analysis. The problem is, in its current form, it has been losing too much money. There’s only so much philanthropy you can do.”
With no racing at Canaan next year, it will cost the Hammonds more travel time to find a place to compete.
The asphalt Modifieds they drive would require longer trips to tracks that sponsor the division, Walt Hammond said. The closest options — Monadnock Speedway in Winchester, N.H., and Star Speedway in Epping, N.H. — are two-hour treks.
Hammond said driver morale “has been pretty good as this winds down.” That said, a message on the track’s future from the Henrys or Gerngross would go a long way.
“Not knowing is the hardest,” he said. “If the new owner is saying he’s not interested in promoting (oval racing), then we can say it’s time to start selling. Give us time to go a different way or to a different division. The thing that will stress guys is not knowing.”
Gerngross said he understands the emotions. He also understands Canaan’s time for change is close at hand.
“I’m very regretful for the current racers and the uncertainty,” Gerngross said. “The problem is that the activity going on there was losing a lot of money. It’s no longer sustainable. It had to change, and I’m sympathetic with their disappointment. It’s economic reality that’s driving this process.”
Greg Fennell can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3226.
This article has been amended for clarification. Tillman Gerngross and Charles Hutchinson co-founded GlycoFi Inc. in 2000, but when it was sold in 2006 to Merck & Co. for $400 million, the company had nearly 100 employees and investors who also owned shares in the company. An earlier version of this story was imprecise on the ownership structure.