EVANS MILLS — Racing fans flocked to the Evans Mills Speedway this summer for another year of fast-lane fun. While they cheered from the wooden tower and grandstand as Modifieds, INEX Legends, Sport Compacts and Thunder Stocks raced around the three-eighths mile track, the new owners revved up the quality of life at the raceway behind the scenes, and not without notice.
Lee Gill, previously a top racer in the area before hanging up his helmet, and his wife, Peggy, knew what they liked in a speedway, and updated theirs based on ideas while traveling to other facilities over the years. While he said the speedway “was a turnkey facility” when he bought it in December, with a well surfaced track and all of the vital infrastructure, they made mechanical and cosmetic improvements to bolster the customer experience they wanted to provide.
Prior to and during the initial season, the couple had the entryway painted and cleaned of cattails, a strip leading to the tower and grandstand blacktopped for handicap accessibility, 80 percent of the wooden seating in the grandstand replaced, plastic railings installed along its steps, 5 percent of the defunct light bulbs in the 26 light towers replaced and more.
While the updates were “costly,” Mr. Gill, part owner of Gilco Trucking and Guilbuilt Transportation in LaFargeville and owner of about a dozen NAPA stores in central and northern New York, said he wanted to tackle them, or else perceptively minor issues would steamroll. Fans would witness a new improvement each weekend throughout much of the season, Mrs. Gill said.
“I approach stuff to win,” Mr. Gill said. “If we’re up with the speedway, up with the right people and the right angle, we come out on top.”
The LaFargeville couple’s investments paid off, not only through the compliments Mrs. Gill said they received from fans, but in attendance. While the number of participants and fans fluctuated each Saturday, Mr. Gill said the speedway experienced an overall increase in viewership and racers. Their first night, May 4, attracted 25 drivers and 300 spectators, but their final night, Sept. 21, garnered 60 and 1,000 respectively. The couple planned to host one more event Saturday, but mechanical issues and inclement weather prompted them to cancel.
The event that garnered the largest crowd was the Aug. 3 monster truck show, which featured renowned driver Jimmy Creten and his truck, Bounty Hunter. Mr. Gill said the event packed the raceway, adding that the tower and grandstand can house 3,500 guests, and Mrs. Gill said she remembered the crowd erupting when Mr. Creten flipped Bounty Hunter and landed it back on its tires.
Their last day paid homage to the late John W. Burr, iconic voice at race tracks around northern and central New York known for his signature “Who’s it gonna be?” remark during nail biter races. Mr. Burr died last month. The John Burr Classic, as the event was called, featured sportsman modified, super stocks and sport compact car races, as well as the Oswego Small Block Supers. The crowd cheered when he was honored.
“He was just a very exceptional man and very special to all of us,” Mrs. Gill said.
The couple’s first season yielded many lessons about how to operate the speedway each week. Mr. Gill said he learned the importance of preserving order in the competition, having a race director and scorers. They typically recruited 20 to 25 workers per event, which included six to eight volunteers. Mr. Gill said he held continuous improvement meetings with his top staffers like he would at his other businesses.
The Gills also realized they could enhance customer satisfaction with trash collection during events, not just afterward. Mrs. Gill said she witnessed guests helping the man they recruited to clean up at the races.
Audience engagement was also vital to their operation, Mrs. Gill said. During one race, they handed out oil rags to audience members to wave. The couple also thanked their guests at the conclusion of each event.
“And it’s little things, but it’s big,” Mrs. Gill said. “A lot of it boils down to treating people just the way you’d like to be treated.”
The couple launched extensive marketing efforts during their inaugural season. Mr. Gill installed banners along the track to promote Caskinette Ford, Carthage Area Hospital, F. X. Caprara Harley-Davidson, McDonald’s and other sponsors. They also installed a digital sign on Route 11 with rotating advertisements. Mrs. Gill said she promotes the speedway through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“If you spend a dollar with us on marketing, you’re going to get what you paid for,” Mr. Gill said.
Unlike a race car engine after a big race, Mr. and Mrs. Gill do not plan to sit idle now that their first season has concluded. Mr. Gill said they plan to have the tower painted white, giving it a fresh and inviting look. The couple also plans to bolster its marketing, which is vital to funding the speedway.
“We’re committed financially, we’re committed emotionally,” Mrs. Gill said.