MIDDLEBURY TWP. —Asked what he’s learned in his first year as co-owner of the Owosso Speedway, Ken Williams laughs.
“I’ve learned I’m not 30 years old any more,” the 63-year-old jokes.
Since he and his brother, Gerry, bought the 40-acre complex last winter, they’ve been hard at work fixing everything from the ticket booth to the rest rooms to the pavement on the 3/8-mile track that’s been in operation for most of 80 years, minus a couple of gaps, including a stint as a camp for German prisoners of war during World War II.
“My brother and I have owned many businesses in the past,” said Ken Williams, who is a financial planner when not overseeing the business end of the track and ongoing renovations. “Probably the biggest challenge is, it’s such a big facility, and bringing it back to what I want to call presentable, something you would be proud of.”
That includes renovation of the restrooms and the kitchen, putting in a playground for kids and replacing the boards in the bleachers. Lots of them.
But it also includes looking into playing host to other events besides racing.
Toward that end, the speedway will be home to concerts by “Dukes of Hazzard” co-star Tom Wopat on Friday night and Saturday afternoon, and by Whey Jennings, the grandson of the late country superstar Waylon Jennings, on Sunday.
Wopat will appear with Byron Cherry, who played Coy Duke on the show, and there will be a “Dukes of Hazzard” chase scene as part of what’s called the “Hazzard County Stars and Cars.” Tickets for the Friday and Sunday concerts are $15, while Saturday’s concert, followed by racing, is $20. A pass for the weekend is $30.
“We originally had 18 events scheduled, all of them races,” he said. “I want to get up to 25 events, so there are eight or nine others I would like to do.”
HOW IT STARTED
Gerry Williams has been around racing most of his life, as a driver and in his business owning a machine shop frequented by race drivers.
“It was one of those things where this came up available, and I said, ‘What the heck?’” he recalled, chuckling.
Ken Williams had fond memories of the speedway.
“When we started racing cars 30 years ago, every now and then (Owosso) would have sprint cars,” he said, referring to race cars with giant wings on the roofs. “I remember driving here from Flint and thinking, this is one cool track. I would come out here once a year, and when the opportunity came to buy it, I remember I used to love coming here. And then the opportunity arose to purchase it.”
The previous owner, Dave Bigos, had been in charge for more than a decade. When the Williams brothers took over, they found out a lot of work needed to be done.
‘You start at one end and start whittling away,” Gerry Williams said. “We’ve been replacing bleachers, for example, and it’s a five-day-a-week job to maintain that and get ahead of the job a little bit. It takes a bit to get her back together, and we have a ways to go.”
“Fans were saying they wanted the bathrooms redone,” Ken Williams said. “The kitchen needed updating. The skyboxes were in need of repair and this ticket booth was obsolete. We thought we could get everything done by opening day, but it was a lot more work than we thought. We didn’t have a spring, either, and it was also the sheer size and scope of the work we needed to put into the place. We got it done, but we have another five years of wish-list items that we’d like to do.”
Of the first seven scheduled nights of racing, four were rained out. But when it wasn’t raining?
“The crowds have been good-sized,” Ken Williams said of a speedway that has bleachers for just under 4,000 fans. “We had a demolition derby and the crowd was just a hair under capacity.”
More importantly, things ran without a hitch.
“The kitchen ran like clockwork. Everything worked really well. There were no heart-attack issues.”
The Williams brothers and their wives are at every race, in contrast to previous years.
“I think he said he was at the track four times last year and the staff ran things,” Ken Williams said. “Now there are four of us who are here all the time. I have a daughter who works here and a granddaughter who runs the snow cone machine, so it truly is a family business.”
A FAMILY AFFAIR
In fact, Williams’ granddaughter, Libby, is a large part of her grandfather’s focus.
“When we got this place, it was really run-down,” Ken Williams says. “Everything needed paint, where right now only 75 percent of it needs paint. My goal is if I can get my granddaughter to be proud to come in, the restrooms are good enough, the food is good enough and the show is good enough. If she smiles, I know I’ve done my job.”
Owosso Speedway has been family-oriented for decades. Dale Spencer of Ovid is the fourth generation of his family to race at the track.
“My great-grandfather raced here, my grandpa built cars, my dad and uncles raced there and multiple cousins,” Spencer said. “I grew up in the bleachers. My whole family has raced forever.”
Besides painting and refurbishing the restrooms and other areas, Gerry Williams has made the most of the pavement on a track that is, as Spencer put it, “forever and a day old.”
“He took the cracks out and replaced it with a hot patch,” Spencer said. “It’s much smoother than running over cracks, and you can go faster.”
That comes in handy when running anywhere from 20-30 laps in a feature race.
Ken Williams says the family aspect applies to those who come to the track.
“The biggest reward is the people who I’ve met here,” he said. “It’s the biggest family I’ve ever met. There’s a family network here among the employees. Our photographer doesn’t drive, and people pick him up and bring him here. Anybody would do anything for anyone who’s a part of the family. It’s not like any business I’ve ever owned before.”
Gerry Williams likens the experience to drive-in movie theaters a half-century or more ago.
“I remember going to drive-ins, playing on the swings and things like that,” he said. “I don’t remember the movie, but I remember going to the movies. Same thing here. This is something that kids will remember. They might remember the cars, but they will remember they were at the race track.”
A couple employees couldn’t committ to a full season, but the Williamses said they kept as many workers who wanted to stay on as they could. They’ve added 10 to 15 more for micellaneous jobs.
The brothers have also done their best to be good neighbors, working with township officials and residents who had become upset with the speedway over the years for noise complaints.
“Gerry and Ken are working hard to work with the neighbors,” Spencer said.
The Williamses also have a full safety team on site for each race. Negotiations with the Ovid Fire Department fell through because not enough firefighters and EMTs could be found for each Saturday night, so the track has its own safety force.
“If someone has a heart attack or breaks a leg, we’re covered,” Gerry Williams said. “A lot of tracks, and in previous years, this one didn’t have that. We went for safety. We weren’t skimping on that.”
A PLAN FOR THE FUTURE
Ken Williams says his wife, Pat, told him when they bought the track that her participation would be willing, but temporary.
“We have a place up north, and she said, ‘You’ve got me for May and June, but from July through September, I’m at the cottage,’” he said. “But now she’s so into it that she wants to see a lot of these shows.”
They hope the enthusiasm catches on for a track that, as it began to decay, lost the interest of fans.
“They’re working hard to try and promote the place,” Spencer said. “They had a float in the Curwood parade (last month in Owosso), and it was amazing to hear how many people didn’t know it was still open. That was a good thing to let people know we are still here.”
And, if the Williams brothers have their way, a new birth for a track that claims NASCAR drivers Benny Parsons, Brad Keselowski and Erik Jones as alumni.
The speedway has four classes now — pure stock, sportsman, modified, and outlaw, with plans for more as soon as next year.
Ken Williams has other plans for the track on non-racing days, including setting up a course for high school cross country races, and perhaps a Valentine-themed event for next Feb. 14, or, as suggested, a Relay for Life event.
Changes without altering the essential nature of the facility.
“I’m not trying to make it something other than what it is,” Gerry Williams said. “We want to make it fun for the whole family. It’s a family track. We let them bring in beer and coolers. We don’t sell beer, but they can bring it in. Pack the lunches, bring the kids and have a good time.”
Ken Williams says owning a speedway has gone from an investment to an adventure.
“My wife’s an accountant. She has an MBA, and everything has to make sense,” he said. “She was out here last night stocking the coolers. It’s like we’re here at 10 at night.”
“It’s not what we were doing last year,” he added. “It’s become such a big thing. But it’s been interesting.”