For the past 62 years, this was the weekend on which drag racing fans from across the country descended on our area to have their eardrums rattled and to watch flame-spewing cars thunder down an asphalt track in rural western Illinois.
The World Series of Drag Racing wasn’t for everyone. It was an acquired taste, but an awful lot of people seemed to acquire it.
The event was a fixture on the local sports landscape long before events such as the John Deere Classic and the Quad-City Times Bix 7 came along, and it often attracted 15,000 people for both the Friday and Saturday night shows at Cordova International Raceway.
Not this year.
The event was abruptly relocated to Memphis International Raceway earlier this year.
Not surprisingly, that move disappointed and infuriated many people.
Joe Taylor, the director of the Quad-Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau, likened it to the Kentucky Derby being moved out of Churchill Downs.
Dean Moyer, the president of the village of Cordova, was harsh in his comments when the move was first announced and he hasn’t changed his tune.
“I really think it was a poor decision on their part,’’ Moyer said earlier this week. “That track down there could have invented their own special race instead of taking the one from here.’’
Cordova had hosted the World Series since 1954 and it was one of two major events at the track each year that Moyer suspects more or less dictated its financial fortunes. The other event, the International Hot Rod Association Summer Nationals, also is gone.
As you might expect, this all comes down to money. The Cordova track is now owned by IRG Sports + Entertainment (IRGSE), which oversees several sanctioning bodies and venues related to drag racing, including IHRA and the Memphis track.
IHRA president Mike Dunn told the Memphis Commercial Appeal earlier this month that Memphis has supported drag racing for many years and that the World Series has a chance to be bigger than ever there.
"The event could not grow any more in Cordova, where it had been for years, and we have potential to draw from a wide area coming to this venue," Dunn said.
Chris Lencheski, the CEO of IRGSE, told the Memphis Daily News that this gives the event a new level of “growth potential.”
You might remember Lencheski as one of a series of absentee owners who nearly killed hockey in the Quad-Cities. He owned the Quad-City Mallards for exactly one year (July 2009 to July 2010), attended exactly one game in person and refused to comment on published reports that he had to borrow $171,000 from fellow owners in the league to keep the franchise afloat.
Now, after failing to kill one sport in our area, he seemingly has set his sights on another.
Moyer is skeptical that the Cordova track can survive the loss of the World Series.
“I hate to say this, but I suspect this puts them in terrible, terrible financial straits,’’ said Moyer, who grew up watching races at the track in the 1960s. “They had those two big races every year and if those two things turned out well, the track was on solid ground. If they lost both, it was a bad year.’’
He doesn’t think it will hurt the town of Cordova that much. He said most visitors to the World Series didn’t spend much money in the community anyway. It just means the loss of a couple dozen temporary jobs.
The guy who has had to deal with all the outrage for the past few months is Rod Wolter, who was named in May as the new president and general manager of the Cordova track.
“I fully understand that when you take a major event away from a track, it can affect every little business in the area, whether it’s a café or a gas station …’’ he said.
“I think it’s just a corporate attempt to grow the event,’’ he added. “Whether that happens down there or not remains to be seen.’’
Just last week he overheard diners in a local restaurant gossiping about how the Cordova track was going to close its doors after this weekend.
He said he is under contract for the remainder of this year and already is being asked to make projections for a schedule and a budget for 2018.
“There is no intention of closing this place,’’ he said.
“It’s one event,’’ he added. “We will get some other large events here, maybe as large as that one … I’ve just told people ‘Let’s just have some fun, get some people working together.’’’
He admitted that attendance has been sub-par for some weekly events at Cordova this summer. He heard some fans were boycotting the track because of the departure of the World Series although he has seen a resurgence in attendance the past few weeks.
Moyer admits that this hasn't completely killed interest in drag racing here.
“They’ve been holding a lot of small races at the track on weekends and they’re not all that small,’’ he said. “It’s not packed like it always was for the World Series, but it’s still a pretty full parking lot sometimes.’’
But there won’t be anything at Cordova this weekend. The place will sit empty while the big, loud show goes on in Memphis.
We can’t really blame a big corporation for making a decision that it thinks will reap bigger profits. It’s the American way, right?
But that doesn’t mean we have to like it.
And it doesn’t mean the drag racing fans of the world have to like it.
Dragzine, a publication devoted to the sport, ripped the move in an editorial in February — when it was still in the rumor stages — and noted that fans everywhere were disturbed by the choice.
It said it “could go down as one of the all-time great flubs in drag racing history.’’