Since the winter of 2005, California racing fans have been avidly waiting for a green flag to wave over a field of stock cars at the Kern County Raceway in Bakersfield. But the financial fortunes of the proposed state of the art motorsports facility have been on an endless five year roller coaster ride with equal parts of despair and euphoria. In other words, this project has been up and down so many times no one is quite sure how it’s going to end.
However comments made during a recent interview by Marion Collins, one of the former major principals associated with the Kern County Raceway, during the Thanksgiving weekend may provide a reason for many race fans to be thankful.
Upon realizing that the Kern County Raceway project wasn’t going to see completion any time soon, if indeed at all, Marion Collins and his son Larry along with Brian Olsen purchased the SRL, StockCar Racing League from promoter Steve Fensler. Under the new name of the Spears Manufacturing SRL Southwest Tour Series, the regional racing series has quickly flourished into one of the most viable racing series visiting tracks throughout the western states.
It was a November 27th SRL race, at the Toyota Speedway at Irwindale, a half mile track located near Los Angeles, where race fans felt the latest wave of euphoria regarding the Kern County Raceway. The following day “Racing West”, an extremely popular motorsports website based in Thousand Oaks-California, ran a video interview with Marion Collins that was produced by their associate website “Race Scene.”
While the central theme of this interview was centered around the Spears SRL Southwest Tour Series, Collins was asked if there was any progress regarding the Kern County Raceway in Bakersfield. The fact that Collins had to choose his words very carefully was completely understandable but he did say “there seems to be a few things that are turning and going. I don’t know exactly when it’s going to happen, but I believe the race track will happen.”
When asked if the Collins family would be having any form of involvement with the Bakersfield track, he said “the organization that’s interested in putting the program together, and the organization that we’re working with, (said) the only way they’ll buy it and finish it is if Brian, Larry and myself run it.”
The Marion Collins comments made to “Racing West/Race Scene” during that evening was the first positive sign of life that we heard regarding the Kern County Raceway in quite a long time. However, west coast race fans need to exercise some caution, from this latest round of euphoria, because there is still a perceived lengthy process remaining before the financial and legal knots that has choked this project are untied. To fully understand that process, one has to become fully aware of the five history of the project.
The absolute first round of despair for NASCAR sanctioned racing in Bakersfield came in October of 2005. It was the night that the Collins family officially closed the Mesa Marin Raceway following 28 years of high quality racing shows.
When Marion Collins began construction on Mesa Marin Raceway he practically needed a high powered telescope to even find his nearest neighbor. However, over the next two decades, the Bakersfield housing boom slowly began working it’s way towards the track’s property line. Despite the massive amount of tourism dollars Mesa Marin Raceway brought to the city of Bakersfield and Kern County, local government officials saw even larger dollar signs from the potential property tax that could be generated from privately owned single family dwellings.
In summer of 2005 Collins was informed by Kern County officials not to expect renewal of his Conditional Use Permit and he should be thinking about what he was going to do with his race track. In the aftermath of this news came a real estate offer from a local housing developer that, under the future circumstances, was just too good to refuse.
It led to the famous final scene months later when Mesa Marin Raceway held its final October Classic weekend. True to the Collins family tradition, the weekend was loaded with outstanding racing from multiple local and regional touring divisions. But the conclusion of the evening was gut wrenching. Fans gathered on the speedway’s front stretch to share memories and hug each other while tears streamed down their faces. In a sheer note of irony, a soft rain fell over the speedway at the end of the evening. It was later discovered that the rain only fell directly on the race track property. The land and roads adjacent to Mesa Marin were completely dry.
Two months later, December of 2005, the Bakersfield racing community and its fans gathered at the Buck Owens Crystal Palace. This evening was originally scheduled as the last ever Mesa Marin Raceway awards banquet. Instead it was a jubilant celebration of the unveiling of plans for NASCAR racing’s new home: the Kern County Raceway. There was a lot of celebrating in the house that Buck built that night.
The artist concept boards of the new track displayed that night were eye popping. The Kern County Raceway was going to feature a high banked one half mile track, similar to Mesa Marin, with an integrated quarter mile track and a one eighth mile drag strip. The raceway was described as a joint venture between the Collins family, who were going to provide promotional and administrative management, and the Destefanis, a well known agriculture business family, who were actually going to provide the funding, estimated at the time to be $12 to $15 million, for the track’s construction.
However the wheels of development often turns slow especially with a project this large. Fully completed plans along with environmental impact reports and the required changes that often comes with the process finally received approval from the Kern County Planning Commission in December of 2006.
The sense of euphoria from that final approval led to even more excitement when the Kern County Raceway officially held the groundbreaking in February of 2007. The construction was set to begin immediately when racing planned for the spring of 2008.
By the end of 2007, despair had set in again. There were rumors that said the Destefanis were having difficulty paying the construction contractors. The master plan for financing the track was reported to be based on the Destefanis selling a large parcel of agriculture zoned land. While it never officially confirmed, there were additional reports that said the purchaser of this real estate was unable to secure the bank financing to complete the deal. In other words, the beginning of the nation’s economic crisis had now set in.
The debt structure, owed to the contractors, were reported to be in the area of $7.8 million. In February of 2008, the first of a series of mechanics liens, a legal procedure seeking payment, was officially filed against the property owners.
A brief moment of euphoria set in, during March of 2008, when it was revealed that a group of Bakersfield area businessmen, after forming a limited liability corporation, loaned the Destefanis $4.5 million to complete the construction. However, the financial woes of the race track were far from over. By December of 2008, when it was evident that the loan could not be repaid in any timely manner an official default notice was filed by the lenders. This procedure is considered the first step towards foreclosure.
In April of 2009 the property was officially listed as being up for auction due to the default status. However the auction date was postponed in light of the possibility that a buyer for the property had been found. That company was later revealed as being CALA Holdings Inc, a Fresno-California based sports and entertainment center corporation, who was negotiating with the Destefanis to purchase the property and the now partially completed race track for $19 million. Making this news even more interesting was a report that said the financing for the purchase was coming from a source located in the European Principality of Luxembourg.
Despite the insistence of CALA Holdings Inc that said $5 million was en route from Luxembourg to be deposited into escrow, the funding has yet to materialize. In May of last year the Destefani family officially filed bankruptcy. The Chapter 11 protection was set in place to protect the project developers from the pending foreclosure process.
But in May of this year that legal financial protection took a major hit when a Federal Bankruptcy Judge, based in Fresno, ruled that the lender’s foreclosure efforts could now be moved forward in light of testimony that said the funding of a potential buyer never materialized. This past June the foreclosure proceedings were reported to be complete and the lenders, who put up the original $4.5 million loan, were now the new owners of 490 acres of land including the 83 acres occupied by the partially completed race track.
If Marion Collins’ comments, made during the course of the “Racing West/Race Scene” interview this past Thanksgiving weekend, turns out to be true and there is indeed “someone” interested in buying the land and completing the race track then it’s another source of euphoria. But we will have to be patient because the grand opening of the Kern County Raceway will be a long wait. The purchase will have to meet the financial satisfaction of the new and current owners. There is also the matter of setting the debt structure, now reported to be $5.9 million according to County records, owed to the contractors.
Regarding the construction status of the race track, it’s reported to be approximately 75 percent complete. The half mile oval is built, the crash walls, safety fencing and track lighting are in place as is the grand stand seating. The track will require an extra layer of asphalt and the infield area will need an additional two layers of coating. Also outstanding is the construction of a three story structure that will house concessions, restrooms, a race control area as well as administrative offices. This is all extremely doable once the lengthy legal and financial concerns have been satisfied.
Over the past five years we have ridden the roller coaster, with its up and down elements of despair and euphoria, many times waiting for the official arrival of the Kern County Raceway. The big difference here is the fact that the latest round of euphoria is coming from Marion Collins: a straight talking, honest, man whose word many feel can be trusted without exception.
Keep your fingers crossed “left coast” racing fans and let’s hope that he’s right.