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Columns
Fourth Place
Dave Kallmann, Milwaukee Journal

Bartus left his mark

Remember the caricature of the used car dealer, the Grade A huckster with the outlandish suit and over-the-top sales pitch whose image still appears occasionally in TV commercials?

That exaggeration could never live up to Sam Bartus.

"Put it this way," said the Rev. Dale Grubba, who for years delivered invocations at racetracks Bartus owned, "Sam was a very colorful person."

Bartus was a dreamer. A promoter. And, yes, a salesman who owned a hundred custom sport coats crafted from draperies and bedspreads and studded with rhinestones. He wore mink bow ties and pants of hues not found in any rainbow.

Bartus died Sunday at a hospital in Wausau. He was 93.

And although he stood out with a wardrobe that would have made Liberace blush, Bartus also will be remembered in racing circles for his contributions to short-track racing in the state.

"Without his vision and risk, we wouldn't have the beautiful facilities we have now, both the ones he had a direct hand in and the ones that were built to mimic and better the ones he built," said Gregg McKarns, the owner of Madison International Speedway in the Town of Rutland, a track in which Bartus once had a hand.

"Keith Simmons, who runs Farley (Speedway) and Dubuque (Fairgrounds) in Iowa and West Liberty (Raceway) in Iowa was out there in May, and he knew who Sam Bartus was. And then a lot of promoters on the national scene knew who he was."

Bartus, who raced in the 1950s, built some small dirt tracks in the Wausau area, but his first big and successful project was Golden Sands Speedway between Wisconsin Rapids and Plover. It opened in 1967.

Then came Madison, where Bartus took a quarter-mile Oregon Legion Speedway and rebuilt it as a paved half-mile known as Capital Super Speedway for the '69 season. McKarns' parents promoted the track briefly in the early '80s, after Bartus had sold it.

"We invited him down here for the Joe Shear Classic at the beginning of May," McKarns said. "He was able to go out on the track and see the track again, and we spent about 15 minutes just talking about not just Madison but promoting rock concerts, because we both had our hand in those, and so on."

Bartus was an originator of the Great Northern Bluegrass Festival in Mole Lake and put on some other concerts in and outside of Wisconsin.

Not everything he tried worked. The 1988 National Rock Festival near Shawano flopped. The state revoked Bartus' license to sell cars. He sold Capital as it struggled, and Golden Sands sat idle from 1980-'84 before anyone bought it.

"A lot of times he would be doing something special and then somehow it would not turn out quite the way it should," said Grubba, recalling an incident from the '70s when Bartus owned Capital.

Bartus had a two-day show but scrapped the Sunday portion because of a bad weather forecast. Racers who had been promised "tow money" to come from a distance weren't going to get what they expected.

"They have that officials' stand, the tower up there on the line poles," Grubba said.

"(One driver) was just wild. He wanted a chain saw so he could cut that tower down because Sam was up in the tower and he wasn't coming out.
"That was Sam, though. He was just a very colorful person."

Gordon’s final chance

When he has gone a few days without shaving, as he has, and the gray hairs in his not-quite-a-beard outnumber the dark ones, as they do, Jeff Gordon looks every bit of 44 years.

The conversation is littered with the word "last," too.

Last time.

Last Chase.

Last chance.

So it's apparent as Gordon counts down from 10 to the end of his NASCAR career that he isn't the kid who changed the business. Not by a long shot.

And if you look at the numbers Gordon has put up this season, they don't look much like the ones that topped the late Dale Earnhardt for three of Gordon's four championships. They haven't been good enough to challenge a 43-year-old Matt Kenseth or 30-year-old Kyle Busch or 25-year-old Joey Logano, just three of the drivers standing between Gordon and a fifth title.

But there is a Chase for the Sprint Cup. So there is time. And there is a chance Gordon could go out with a bang.

"He's given so much to the sport, dedicated his life to it, I don't want to see him have a bad year," six-time champion and Gordon protégé Jimmie Johnson said Thursday at a gathering of all 16 championship-eligible drivers. "I don't think anybody does.

"He had such a great year last year and was so close to being in that final four and having a real shot at that championship, but it didn't pan out. It was a shock to all of us when we found out he was going to retire this year because he had so much momentum.

"Year to year is tough. I don't like to see him in this position. I want to see him win races and be a threat to win the championship."

Sitting in a director's chair — maybe not the best, given his bad back — Gordon tossed out some names and hinted at others of those more likely to hold the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series trophy 10 races from now.

Kevin Harvick, the defending champion.

Logano, the Daytona 500 winner this year. Logano's teammate, Brad Keselowski, who won the 2012 title.

Kenseth, the 2003 champ from Cambridge, Wis., with Busch, and Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin, the Joe Gibbs Racing teammates who have won eight of the past 11 races and collected 11 checkered flags.

Heading into the Chase opener Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Gordon has fewer top-five finishes (three) than Johnson, Kenseth and Busch have victories (four) this season.

Gordon is seeded 13th, ahead of only Ryan Newman, who hasn't won since July 2013; Eau Claire, Wis., native Paul Menard, a Chase rookie; and Clint Bowyer, whose team will shut down when the season ends.

"It's possible," Gordon said of going out with another title. "I think anything's possible in this format."

Indeed, the Chase is the Chase, a whole different animal from the season-long championship format that served NASCAR through 2003, and since last year significantly different from the previous decade.

Three times after three-race segments, four drivers are knocked out of contention, cutting the field of hopefuls from 16 to 12 to eight and finally four for the season finale in Homestead, Fla.

There will be surprises. Busch and Johnson failed to make it out of the second round last year. Newman, who recorded only three-top five finishes in the 10 Chase races, finished in the championship one spot behind Harvick, who won three of them, including the final two.

"It's so easy each round when you play out these brackets to just take, 'Well, the bottom guys now are going to be eliminated and the next bottom are going to get eliminated,'" Hamlin said. "This thing is going to get mixed up and there will be two of your top 10 seeds miss the first round."

There will be trash talk. Harvick is the champion of that, too, and he came out swinging Thursday, saying of the Gibbs cars: "I think we're going to pound them into the ground."

And just as last year, animosity that builds with the pressure could come as a bump on the track, punches on pit road or an outright chase through the garage the way the usually restrained Kenseth went after Keselowski last year.

"It got that way last year it seemed like in those cutoff races," said Kurt Busch, who bowed out in the first round last year after contact on the track punctured a tire. "It was mainly Brad, was the common denominator last year. He put on his aggressive helmet and was bulldozing through some guys and ruffled the feathers of guys like Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon."

Beyond those certainties -- surprises, mind games and emotion -- predicting what happens in NASCAR over the next 10 weeks lies somewhere between challenging and futile.

Momentum says an all-Gibbs final is possible. History would point to Johnson peaking at the right time. Confidence is on Harvick's side.

And then there's the guy who 23 years ago made it OK for owners to put 20-somethings in top rides, a practice that would serve the Busch brothers, Logano and others. The guy who put a polish of professionalism on his sport. Who bridged generations.

The greybeard hoping to beat the odds.

"All year long, I don't feel like we've lived up to our full potential," Gordon said. "If we do that in the Chase, there's no doubt in my mind that we can turn it around. And it'll look like it just got turned around, but really, we're just doing what we should be doing at the beginning of the year."

 It’s just business

I don't know how to say this any more clearly: It's all about business.

The lack of a Milwaukee Mile date on the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule isn't personal. It's not about a sport that isn't given its due. It's not about disrespect for history. It's not about a State Fair Park board that doesn't like racing.

Again (for the umpteenth time).

It's.

About.

Business.

Racing is a business. Promotion is a business. And they're tough, tough businesses. They're businesses smart people, well-intentioned people and rich people try and, more often than they'd like to admit, fail.

The latest promoter group, headed by Michael Andretti — the one with the most name recognition and best industry contacts — never saw the return it expected. Oh, every single handshake and "thank you" was nice, but none of those paid the rent or the sanction fee.

Try to count the number of organizations since Carl Haas' that have tried to make a solid business venture. It takes a whole hand of fingers.

Certainly there have been obstacles, many of them complications of the state being the landlord. All of these former promoters, though, still thought it was worth trying. And all are gone.

People will argue the reason recent races failed to fill the stands is insufficient or poorly planned promotion. "They should have had billboards everywhere." "I saw nothing in the paper." "Heard nothing on the radio." "Saw nothing on TV."

Think about the costs, though, too. For every additional $10,000 a promoter would spend, he'd have to sell 200 more $50 tickets just to break even. And every one sold makes the next one more difficult. Hard to believe all of those promoters made exactly the same mistake. Tough business.

Could IndyCar have done more? Sure. The sanctioning body, though, faces similar business issues. It takes staff and stuff to move the show up and down the road for 15 weekends a year. I haven't seen the books but doubt loose cash is tumbling out of them. It's a business.

Which brings us to State Fair Park, itself.

It's easy — and accurate — to blame management for the overpriced grandstand project that has a been a drag on finances. That makes putting together a beneficial deal tougher. But the seats were needed, the project was done and it won't be paid off for another 17 years.

What anyone likes or doesn't like is immaterial. What is most beneficial to State Fair is to derive revenue from the racetrack through use. The cost to rent it isn't cheap, but it's not the deal-breaker either.

Forget about government propping up the track like various countries have with Formula One events. Things don't generally work that way here. Sit on a bar stool or log into Facebook and you'll encounter countless complaints about state and local waste. Any leader's suggestion to spend that way would come at a price.

A comparison can be drawn between the racetrack and the new downtown arena. Remember, though, the arena will attract a half-million more people each year for the Milwaukee Bucks alone. That doesn't count other sporting events and concerts. You can argue whether the public should fund such projects in the first place, but you can't argue that the arena will affect more people than the Mile does.

Yes, someone who wanted to make the century-old speedway his or her legacy could come along, take the risk and make the deals and make it. But to suggest someone else spend his money that way out of the goodness of his heart is presumptuous, at best.

That's a losing proposition. It's bad business.