Winter Heat at Cocopah canceled for 2017; return not imminent
By Randy Hoeft
Turn out the lights, the party’s over.
The global racing community will no longer be focusing its attention on this corner of the world in January with the cancellation of the Winter Heat Sprint Car Showdown.
The announcement was made Thursday by Tom Dalen, the new director of operations at Cocopah Speedway, home of the Winter Heat in 2015 and 2016, which attracted some of the world’s best open-wheel racers, including NASCAR Sprint Cup stars Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson.
The two-weekend, five-race winter season event originated as the brainchild of three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart.
Dalen sited the cost of the event and a delay in announcing the 2017 event as reasons for dropping it from the schedule.
“We are not doing Winter Heat,” said Dalen. “Without a major sponsor, it’s an expensive program, it’s a lot of money, it’s just a ton of money and I don’t feel comfortable at this point.
“It took Mr. Burgess (former Cocopah Speedway director of operations Greg Burgess) a year and half to plan his first one. What makes me think I can get it done in six months? It’s a lot of work and a lot of things to do.
“Not only that, but being that it’s got to be this late in the year, a lot of those marquee drivers that we depend on to bring in the fans, they’ve made other plans. They are full-time drivers, this is their job, they race cars and when we didn’t announce right away in February and March, they made other plans
“So those marquee drivers, they’re going to New Zealand, Australia. Not that we couldn’t put on a good show with our local guys and the California guys, I’m not saying that. But still, if we want to draw that extra to get us over the hump, those are the people we need, we need the Kasey Kahnes, the Kyle Larsons, they bring people into the stands, those are the people we need, you know.”
The Winter Heat was proposed by Stewart when Stewart raced for the first time at Cocopah Speedway in 2013 with the Lucas Oil American Sprint Car Series. He told Burgess he was impressed with the track and asked about starting a winter racing series for sprint cars to give teams an alternative to making the trip to Australia and New Zealand in the off season.
And the Winter Heat was a hit, attracting teams from as far away as the east coast, along with drivers like Kahne and Larson, as well as up-and-coming NASCAR star Christopher Bell, World of Outlaws legend Steve Kinser, two-time USAC National Sprint Car Champion Bryan Clauson, who also qualified for the 2016 Indy 500, and a who’s who of other top open-wheel talent. The event also attracted pay-per-view television coverage, and put the Yuma area on the global map.
Dalen said he hopes the event will return in the future, but it will require a major sponsor to come on board.
“We need somebody to help us put the show on; that’s what we need,” said Dalen.
“It’s a pretty good size payout, when you’re paying $12,000 to win, that’s a lot of money. By the time it’s all said and done, you’re talking about two weekends of racing and about $250,000.
“There is no way you can do it without sponsorship and that’s something I need to work on, and that’s what I plan on working on, getting some sponsorship.
“I would love to have it come back, and if we can do that, I’m all for doing it, I love sprint car racing, and we’re not going away from sprint car racing.”
While announcing the end of the Winter Heat, Dalen pointed out that the Lucas Oil American Sprint Car Series National Tour will return to Cocopah Speedway in November, and he said he’s talked to the USAC Southwest Sprint Car Series about racing at Cocopah Speedway multiple times in 2017, as well as the World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series.
“I’ve talked to the World of Outlaws, I’m trying to put a show together for them,” said Dalen. “So we’re not giving up on sprint car racing, it’s just we’re changing a little bit and retooling and regearing and that’s where we are right now.
“This (Cocopah Speedway) is an enterprise just like anything else, and nobody goes into business to lose money,” continued Dalen. “It’s got to support itself. So that’s my goal, to make it support itself.”