Third Year Promotional Team on the Fast Track to Success
This week, the storyline is shifting from the competitors and sanctions to now spotlighting another segment of our entertainment industry and that is the business side of race track promotion. To that end, I went to the up and coming, profile-raising duo of Rob Leonard, Jr. and Maria Pirazzi. This piece highlights their beginnings in the sport as well as their chronicled promotional exploits at Thunder Mountain Speedway (TMS), in Brookville (Knoxdale) Pennsylvania.
Before entering the promotional ranks, the backstory of this twosome had different yet similar indoctrination into motorsports. Accordingly, Maria's youth found her family taking trips to the paved track in Clearfield, PA, as well as numerous other NASCAR events. Maria readily admits “I am really not a fan of racing”. On the other hand, Rob stated, “(I) grew up watching it (races) on TV and attending various races”. He then deepened his involvement recalling, “I helped on a few race teams and then transitioned to owning some late models”. As life goes, later down the road, the story shifted as Maria and Rob started dating. Maria lamented, “He has always owned a late model, so I would go to the races to support him”. Therefore Rob’s background in short track racing as a Super Late Model car owner primed the pump for consideration of track promotion.
Now fast forward their relationship to the off-season of 2016; Rob knowing that the TMS property was for lease, he asked Maria; “Do we want to tackle doing a track”? The answer is obvious at this point that she answered yes. Maria knew that Rob was fully committed to handling all of the track prep duties and responsibilities while she agreed to sign on as the fiscal agent handling the finances and concessions. As their mutual roles and understandings evolved, Maria recalled, “Rob asked if we wanted to lease a race track?", to which Maria replied "if you want to, I do" and that’s how they ended up running Thunder Mountain. Part of their overall, unwritten partnership agreement and why TMS is a rising promotional star in the region is the consideration of “run(ning) things by one another, coming to consensus to make a joint decision”.
A deeper dive into this promotional effort finds that like most short-track operations, the principles have full-time jobs outside of the entertainment business. The story for Rob and Maria is no different. Rob is a fuel delivery driver for Friday Gas and Oil, Byrnedale, PA while Maria is a Computer Engineer for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. The general observation is, that most racing operations cannot and do not make enough net profit to sustain a living wage for the partners, however they can and do make enough proceeds to continue and maintain their business.
Coming into this effort and understanding the racing community’s perceptions versus reality, Rob and Maria knew that they had to shift the paradigm of the past. They have successfully kept their eyes wide open to the opportunity, but with a healthy dose of realism. As an editorial observation; in our sport, there is somewhat of a perception among some fans, drivers and car owners that track operators are getting rich in these entertainment propositions. Consequently, some 40 years ago, one very wise promoter once told, “Do you know how to make a small fortune in racing”? I looked at him with wide-eyed amazement in my quest for his sage advice and the Wisdom of Solomon, to which his refrain was, “Start with a BIG ONE”. That is an oft times used cliché in motorsports today, but it is reality for most short track operators. This reality is, like any other small-business; there is profitability (on some nights), which is necessary to stay in business. That “good” is also offset with its fair share of not so good; especially as our form of entertainment involves the outdoors and climatic challenges that are completely out of the tracks control. With that, the conversation deviated slightly for Leonard and Pirazzi when asked “Of all of the positives that occur in racing at the short-track dirt level, what provides you the most frustration about operating and promoting a race track?” Their response was almost choral. “The people who complain week in and week out and who don’t know what it takes to put on a race each and every week. They don’t know the time and money that goes into it or the weather factors of how the track surface is or if we would need to cancel”.
Rob and Maria with these foundational understanding cemented between them, as well as negotiating and signing a two-year initial lease for TMS, began their promoting voyage together at the beginning of the 2017 season. During the first season they walked slowly, learning the ropes and not taking unnecessary risks to ensure their continued viability to operate the track during year two. That success was contributed to Rob’s efforts and knowledge of racing from the competitor’s perspective while Maria contributed her business savvy jelling into a successful operation.
Moving forward to the end of the 2018 season, with the initial lease expiring, and after two years of building successes the duo signed a new multi-year lease ensuring the long-term vision for the Brookville speed plant.
Leonard (39) from Dubois, PA and Pirazzi (38) from Penfield, PA are now poised to enter their third season at the promotional helm at TMS. Through their consistent performance, they have been proactive in not only their weekly shows, but the subsequent purse offerings. Given the forgoing, their weekly Friday fare features the: Super Late Models ($1,400 to-win out of a total purse of $8,105 that is one of the richest in the region); 358 Semi-Lates ($800 to-win from $4,525 total); Street Stocks ($700 to-win with a total purse of $3,785); Pure Stocks ($400 to-win out of a $2,255 purse) and Front Wheel Drive (FWD) 4-Cylinders ($300 to-win from $1,795 in A Main purse monies).
With a deliberate action plan, Maria and Rob are not setting on their collective laurels. They have keyed in on the present while maintaining a focusing on the future. “(We) look for the purse to keep growing in each of our weekly divisions. Hopefully we will get to the point of having some bigger touring series come to visit the track. We have already had a lot of interest from bigger sanctioning bodies. To make that successful, we would like to add some more bleachers for this to happen”.
As in any good promotional effort, variety is a vital addition to the weekly staples. This team is no different and sprinkled throughout the season are a number of special events falling under the umbrella of both non-sanctioned and sanctioned events. The non-sanctioned shows includes: the 410 Sprints, featuring a $3000 to-win event; a Semi Late program with $2000 to-win winners share; and the FWD 4 Cylinders featuring a $1000 to-win program. On the sanctioned side of the ledger, their events dotting the schedule include appearances by: the BRP Big Block Modifieds; Penn Ohio Pro Stocks/Street Stocks with a $1,500 to-win show; the ULMS Late Models for a $3000 to-win event; and in their season finale dubbed “ThunderFest”. The headliner slated for this two-day show is the Ultimate NE Series (Super Lates). The first day UNES program finds drivers vying for a $4,000 to-win show followed by the second day featuring an $8,000 to-win event. This marquee event has the promoters hoping to grow the purse each year.
Given the all of the forgoing, of course this couple like any other has their favorite sanction bodies to work with. For Maria that is the BRP Modifieds, while Rob, is a dyed in the wool late model guy who prefers the ULMS and UNES. As the reputation of TMS continues to grow, these partners want to eventually be able to present both the World of Outlaw Late Models, as well as the Lucas Oil Late Model Series before they finish their promotional careers. Looking to the twilight of their racing lives, Maria stated, “I really am not a racing fan, but have got to know teams and grew friendships with them, so I will probably attend races that they would be at”; while Rob’s sentiments were different as he will go back to his roots stating, “I will always be at the race tracks or helping other teams”.
Veering to the off-season, as if there is much of that anymore, Rob and Maria while not tending to the business end of operating TMS enjoy their time away and they have their favorite haunts and events. For Maria, her favorite track, other than obviously TMS, is the high-speed Port Royal Speedway in Mifflin County while Rob prefers “The Bullring” of Tyler County (WV) Speedway. When it comes to favorite events; for Rob, as would be predictable given his favorite track, is Carl Shorts, LOLMS “Hillbilly 100”. Conversely, Maria prefers the warmth of Florida during the winter for the LOLMS “Winter Nationals” at East Bay as well as the LOLMS at Bubba’s Raceway Park.
None of this team’s efforts would be possible without sponsorship. This is a key component to both the team owners, as well as this promotional team. Sponsorship provides numerous benefits and opportunities for both sides of the fence. TMS is no different with a host of sponsors supporting Rob and Maria’s efforts. They included divisional sponsorship support from: Legends Powersports (Super Late Models); Kinetic by Windstream (Semi Lates); FDR Inc. (Street Stocks); Watt Logging (Pure Stocks) and Dunlap Lawn Garden (Fwd 4 Cylinders). Other sponsor support comes via: Bubbas Racing Supply; Chad Lilley Septic; Carns Equipment; Iron Horse Salvage; Wallace Audio; Ireland Bait and Tackle; Huey Brothers Inc.; Brooks Services; Friday Gas and Oil; PA Great Outdoors; Daugherty Motorsports; Triple Nickle Distillery and Hoosier Mid-Atlantic.
Finally, May 3, 2019 marks the season opener for TMS and the third year of operation under Rob and Maria at the Jefferson County speedway. The opener will include the regular fare of Super Late Models, Semi-Lates, Pure Stocks and FWDs along with the first of three visits by the BRP Big Block Modifieds.
For further information regarding Thunder Mountain Speedway please visit them on a variety of electronic media platforms including: Website: thundermountainspeedwaypa.com