Multiple times in each of the past six years they have looked each other straight in the eye, looked in the mirror, then posed the point-blank question: Is this going to work?
Will the race track that they have spent too many hours, too much labor, too much money, too much of their heart and soul, too much of nearly everything, pay off?
After six racing seasons and nearly seven years of ownership, there is no simple answer, no black-and-white reasoning to steer them one way or the other.
So they keep turning left.
When you have a passion for something, as these four people — and their families — do, it is hard to let go, to even think of doing something else.
Bob and Paula Timm, along with Tom and Tina Lochner, knew they were in for an uphill climb when they formed an ownership group to purchase what was known as Tri-Oval Speedway in the fall of 2008, then began building what they named Mississippi Thunder Speedway.
When the gates open for the seventh season on April 24, 46-year-old Bob Timm — who is the main “hands-on” man or manager of the fledgling dirt track near Fountain City — can smile.
In a day and age when race tracks — dirt and asphalt — seem to be closing each week, Mississippi Thunder Speedway has beaten the odds.
That is why Timm, a highly successful racer himself, has been named the Winona Daily News Sportsperson of the Year. He has taken a dirt track, leveled it, rebuilt it, and turned it into one of the top dirt racing facilities in the state.
In racing lingo, it’s a track that averages “car count” of more than 100 each Friday night, meaning there are at least 100 or more cars competing in the seven different divisions, and has an attendance that ranges from 650 to 1,000, depending on the particular racing program.
Sponsorship has grown significantly, Timm said, and remains solid in a challenging economy.
Nothing, however, has come easy.
“It has been hard, I am not going to lie to you. There has been a lot of stress and a lot of heavy conversations with my wife and my family,” Timm said. “Where are we at? Where is our ‘out’ eventually? When do we get to enjoy all of the effort we have put in? There have been a lot of conversations like that.
“I am lucky, my whole family loves racing, all the way down to my daughter. We talk about if we were to sell the race track, she immediately jumps in and says, ‘I don’t want to sell the race track. I don’t want to sell it.’ They are all very supportive and they all pitch in.”
That, more than anything, has kept Bob Timm plugging away, working long hours doing everything from rebuilding the track to adding a VIP area that overlooks the high-banked oval turns to expanding pit stalls from 75 to having room for the record 242 cars that raced this past October.
It has taken more waking hours than any of the ownership group expected, but Bob Timm said he and Tom talked about what it would take to make it work before they purchased Tri-Oval and the 50 acres of land that came with it.
“When we did it, we both — Tom wanted to have something else to be involved in to kind of pull him away from the office a little bit — thought we could kind of turn it around and make it a viable business,” Bob Timm said.
“One of the things he (Tom) told me is you have to make sure you are making a commitment to it for at least five years to get it turned around. That was kind of our plan.
“I think it has taken a little bit longer than that. I would say we would like to be where we are at now probably three years in, not seven years in. Probably the biggest surprise is the amount of capital that it has required.”
Timm declined to name specific numbers, but did say the ownership group has invested more than $1 million in the facility over the past six years. They have built one of the Upper Midwest’s premier dirt track facilities, and have hosted touring series and national events.
There have been many memorable races, nights filled with more than 1,200 people in the stands that once saw just a few hundred. There are businesses that have banners around the outside of the track, a big scoreboard with a key sponsor.
With that said, however, Timm was candid about where the track is at financially and where it needs to go.
“We figured it would take $50,000 to $100,000 and we thought we could turn this thing into a pretty decent facility. Not even close. ... That is really where we fell short,” Bob Timm said.
“It has required money every year. I think maybe this year will be the first year it didn’t require an influx of cash.”
This is where those point-blank conversations took place between the ownership group, the families, one whether to continue or not. Just when they were about to throw in the towel, there would be signs. Good signs.
“I think right at the point where we were about ready to say — and we have taken honest looks at it last year and the year before, we said, ‘OK we have already invested way more capital than we ever wanted to and every year that we open up our investment grows, and we are not making a profit.
"About the time our patience was running out is about the time where we started to see, this is getting very close to working.”
It is working because Bob Timm, a racer who never gave up when he was behind the wheel, wasn't going to give up as a track owner/operator. It is working because Tom Lochner, a Minneapolis attorney and CPA, along with his wife, Tina, were willing to continue to invest in a track, and a hands-on operator, like Bob Timm and his wife, Paula.
“If we can do what we have done the first six years over the next five years, we can see that same level of improvement on a yearly basis, and we can keep the racers coming, I think over the next few years it can become a very viable business,” Bob Timm said.
“That is really where it needs to get to.”
And standing pat is not the way to get there, said Bob Timm, who also is a co-owner and operator of Oak Ridge Manufacturing in Winona. That is why he is introducing different ways — even different racing classes — in order to keep racers coming back and entice new ones to give the track a shot.
Once such way is by introducing a Limited Late Model class this spring. A class that is an affordable version of the hard-charging Late Model class.
“I would say right now we have commitments from around a dozen cars. I would think that, maybe I am being optimistic, but I really think people like Late Models. I think they have just been priced out of existence,” Bob Timm said.
“It wouldn’t be unreasonable for us to think that we could maybe see 18 to 20 of these cars here this year on a weekly basis.
“When you compare us to other tracks around, I think that is one thing we are doing that has helped, at a time when all tracks are seeing car counts go down, our car counts are going up. I think it is a direct result of offering more affordable classes.”