Taking control of Madison International Speedway is realization of a lifelong dream for Gregg McKarns, who caught the racing bug at an early age.
One of his treasured mementos is a black-and-white photo showing McKarns, as a toddler, watching a race at MIS in 1981. The half-mile oval in the town of Rutland, then known as Capital Superspeedway, was operated by his late parents, John and Sue McKarns, in 1980 and ’81.
McKarns, 35, took a step toward ownership of the track last week by finalizing a purchase agreement with businessman Terry Kunes.
“Madison has been part of my life for a long time, and this opportunity allows me to become an owner at one of my favorite tracks in the country,” McKarns said.
Kunes owned the track for 12 years and mulled four purchase offers late last year, including one from Madison Area Technical College.
Kunes said the deal with MATC was interesting, but it wasn’t as secure as he anticipated due to an opt-out clause. The school rented the property for several years for use with its police and fire training program.
McKarns and Kunes were drawing up paperwork on a deal last summer, but discussions stalled in August. Talks picked up again last month, and Kunes said he’s thrilled to pass the keys on to McKarns.
Kunes called the deal a “purchase over time period” agreement.
“Some people got to be first place in my head in cash, but Gregg was first place in my heart,” Kunes said of the negotiations.
“I don’t think I could have found a better buyer than Gregg McKarns. With Gregg, his profession is racing. Not racing himself, but providing a facility, providing a series and providing a program for racers.”
McKarns doesn’t expect to make any drastic changes for the 2015 season, though one option under consideration is making MIS a NASCAR-sanctioned venue through the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. Short-track facilities and drivers affiliated with the series compete at local, state and national levels for championships.
McKarns categorized the series as a “minor league feeder system for NASCAR” and said an announcement whether MIS will join will come in the next few weeks. The only sanctioned tracks in Wisconsin are La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway and Cedar Lake Speedway, a clay oval located in New Richmond.
“I’m going to talk to competitors who have supported the track in the last three years to let them help with that decision,” he said.
The weekly Friday feature schedule will be comprised of late model and sportsman divisions, and McKarns also put a monthly super late model event on the schedule. Trucks and legends divisions will run on a rotating basis, and McKarns will look at implementing an entry-level class of four-, six- or eight-cylinder vehicles to compete on the one-quarter mile oval.
The 2015 MIS season opens on May 3 with the Joe Shear Classic, an event coordinated by the ARCA Midwest Tour Series, a late-model series that McKarns, a resident of Rockford, Illinois, took over last month.
Though he admires the career of Matt Kenseth, McKarns doesn’t expect to host an All-Star race with the Cambridge native in 2015.
Kenseth, the 1994 MIS track champion, posted six victories in 11 events at the track from 2003 to ’14. During Kunes’ tenure as owner, those races were big moneymakers and brought in thousands of fans.
McKarns said he’ll work hard to showcase the talents of local and state drivers.
“Those shows are terrific one-off shows, and it’s great to do that, but I want to build a base that people want to come and see because the guys running Friday night are just as good as NASCAR stars we can bring in,” he said.
One potential addition to the race lineup could get fans out of the stands and onto the track with a street drag program similar to one he found success with at La Crosse.
“The events are 300-foot drag races with street cars,” he said. “The way the pit road is at Madison, it is something we might be able to do.”
Besides overseeing ownership at MIS, McKarns also will promote the track and work as the facility’s general manager. One priority McKarns will focus on is an initiative to appeal to and draw younger fans. Capitalizing on use of the quarter-mile oval is critical to that goal.
“We need to have kids involved in racing, and that’s not just from a fan standpoint, it’s from a competition standpoint,” McKarns said.
McKarns, who worked as a general manager and promoter at Rockford Speedway for more than a decade and still coordinates races at La Crosse, has seen the short-track industry transition to smaller crowds. He developed a tireless work ethic watching his parents form and oversee the ARTGO Challenge Series, a late model series that competed at MIS.
He realizes it will take time to build success at MIS, but said being passionate and becoming immersed in race culture gives him an advantage.
“There’s no secret formula on how to rebuild a fan base and how to continue to grow that,” McKarns said. “Each track, each series presents its own challenges and it’s a matter of making the right decisions along the way, and having help from the racing community to bring it to where they want it to be.”