The Wheel Deal

Kil-Kare puts the family back in motorsports entertainment

By Rusty Pate

Photo: Jerry Dunkel during time trials at Kil-Kare’s drag strip on April 26, 2014; photo: detroitharrysphotos.com

Perhaps no sport loses more in the translation from live to television than auto racing. From the roar of the engines to the smell of the gasoline to the burning rubber and the inherent sense of danger that comes with being close to fast cars, TV simply cannot capture the grandeur of this melding of man and machine. Residents of Miami Valley are lucky to have one of the finest tracks right in their own backyard: Kil-Kare Raceway in Xenia.

The world of racing may have scratched the surface of mainstream appeal with events like the Daytona 500, but lovers of speed have become a subculture in every sense of the word. They have their own language, style and ethos. They spend nights and weekends in garages, building cars and tweaking engines to squeeze out every ounce of horsepower they can. They then take those cars to the track, because lining up and running is the only way to know which car is the fastest.

“It’s been a focal point and destination for a lot of people in that motor sports world, as well as with enthusiasts and gear heads over the years,” says Will Tharpe, the company’s general manager.

Kil-Kare originally opened in 1951 as a dirt-track speedway. The following year would see the oval paved. Throughout that decade, ownership switched hands several times. In 1959, Kil-Kare, Inc. was created, with a drag strip added in August of that same year. It has been a sanctioned track under the NHRA since 1972 and was a member of the NASCAR family of tracks from 1989 until 2014.

The decision to move away from NASCAR events was not an easy one, but was necessary as the company looks ahead.

“Our goal over the winter time was to establish a more efficient operation, to not only make money but be able to sustain for the future,” Tharpe says. “We enjoyed our run with NASCAR, but we felt moving forward, the NASCAR business model was not best for us. It just wasn’t representative to what we want to put out there for our customers as entertainment.”

While auto racing has footholds all over the world, perhaps no community has embraced the sport quite like the Appalachia region. The earliest days of stock car racing stemmed from prohibition-era bootleggers building cars fast enough to outrun the law. Today’s squeaky clean, corporate-sponsored racing world bears little resemblance to those humble beginnings, but that history always percolates just under the surface.

Sometimes, it boils over, and for a time Kil-Kare had a bit of a reputation in the area.

“When I took over, this place was party central,” the track’s owner, Dave Coterel, Jr., says. “It was a free-for-all.”

Underage drinking, drug use and drug deals became almost commonplace. Fights broke out. It’s true that any large group of people is bound to have a few unsavory folks, but Coterel made a concerted effort to change that culture when he took over operations in 2012. No fewer than six deputies patrolled the grounds in those early days, and their mandate was clear: clean things up. It was a policy that was not immune from criticism. Patrons took to social media to voice their disapproval of the crackdown, but it was an action that Coterel claimed had to happen.

“There was some push back, they said we were going to lose all our clientele,” Coterel says. “Some clientele you don’t need.”

Coterel is not quite your typical good ol’ boy. Sure, he’s a big guy and he sits in the track offices in a pair of blue jean overalls and a T-shirt. He talks with a slight drawl in a metered and deliberate tone. Staff refers to him as “the boss man,” but the tone among the small staff is jovial. Coterel seems like the type of leader who doesn’t rule with an iron fist, but also doesn’t take any crap from anyone either.

He has a passion for this place. He began coming here when he was 16, and part of his motivation for buying it was to stop the downward spiral that seemed to be happening. One thing is for certain – he’s not in it for the money.

Near the end of the interview, he casually mentioned how he and his family hit the $314 million Powerball jackpot in 2007.

With a wry smile and a chuckle, he told a story about going to a car dealership in dirty clothes. The obvious low-man-on-the-sales-floor totem pole showed him a few cars, and when Coterel asked about test driving a Jeep Cherokee with a Hemi engine, the unsuspecting salesman said he needed to run a credit check first.

Only then did Coterel reveal his true multi-million-dollar identity.

The story does not come across as boastful. Coterel’s not saying “I put that little punk back in line.” He seems to understand the absurdity of certain situations that come with having that kind of money.

And having that kind of money has made it a bit easier to upgrade Kil-Kare.

A flurry of renovations has taken place in recent years, and all seem to fall under Coterel’s mantra of “make it more bigger, make it more beautiful.” The first focus was on the drag strip.

“We basically started with the drag strip to make it the premiere racing surface in Southwest Ohio,” Tharpe says.

They also added several safety features, such as concrete walls running the entire length of the track and safety nets to keep errant cars from going into the river.

Those efforts have helped yield six NHRA division III Track of the Year titles. That division is comprised of 23 tracks in Canada, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio. The improvements have paid immediate dividends, both in the number of drivers and attendees. The track drew more than 400 vehicles to their annual Turkey Classic in 2013 and attendance can average anywhere from about 1,000 people on a normal weekend to 2,000-4,000 during special events. Those events include the aforementioned Gathering of the Geezers, and Night of Fire on June 25– featuring jet-engine racing and what Tharpe likes to call “the first fireworks of the Dayton area.”

In addition to the track improvements and safety features, they also have streamlined the process for getting patrons through the door.

“We’ve actually devised a grand entrance to get people off the road and not create a traffic issue on Dayton-Xenia Road,” Tharpe says. “Years past with previous owners, it was always an issue and very unsafe conditions for passersby as well as our customers.”

Above all, Kil-Kare looks to shift the culture away from the unseemly elements. The most common phrase from both Willetts and Coterel during the interviews was “family-friendly.”

That begins with security, and the presence of deputies has brought the drugs and underage drinking problems under control. However, it also extends into more traditional ideas of customer service.

So, just what can patrons expect when they visit the track?

“One of the big things we looked at was the value,” Tharpe says. “We’ve kind of focused ourselves more on the entertainment side. Racing is the byproduct of what we do. Our ultimate goal is to entertain people. We’ve taken the approach that the racers are our talent and our spectators that come out and watch are our customers. What we’ve tried to really do is create that positive environment for folks to come out and enjoy what we do.”

Sporting events are rarely known for offering little more than hot dogs and nachos from the concession stand.

However, Kil-Kare has a not-so-secret weapon in that department.

Tammy Brewer provides home-cooked food that is more reminiscent of a mom and pop diner and for good reason – she owned and operated one for years with her husband. She got the job almost by accident. She had inquired about taking over concessions, but the track already had someone they kept on the payroll year-round to avoid losing him. Then, he left – just two weeks prior to the season opening.

“Some things happen for a reason I guess,” Coterel says.

Like everything else, the concessions have been revisted this year to improve the experience for racing fans.

“We revamped our concessions,” Tharpe says. “We wanted to become more efficient for our customers to get a little bite to eat at the race track. We kind of thinned out our menu a little bit, which let us focus more on the customer service aspect – so you don’t have a long line, waiting for this or waiting for that. The whole culture of the business has been to find the most efficient and cost-effective way to deliver the entertainment to our customers.”

While there had been a somewhat contentious relationship with local governments in the past, Coterel says the city and township love what raceway brings to the community.

The history of Kil-Kare, in a certain respect, is a mirror to the larger history of motor sports. Both had nefarious stretches populated by shady characters, but have emerged in the new millennium as bona fide family events. It is a continual process, but it all falls back to the track’s mantra.

“We’re trying to build it,” Coterel says. “Make it more bigger, more beautiful.”

Kil-Kare Raceway is located at 1166 Dayton-Xenia Road in Xenia. The Raceway is open from Thursday through Saturday, from early April through early November. Admission cost is $5 per spectator. Pricing may vary for special events throughout the season. For more information and a full schedule for both the dragway and speedway, visit kilkare.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer Rusty Pate at RustyPate@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Rusty Pate
Reach DCP freelance writer Rusty Pate at RustyPate@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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