Published May 10. 2014 4:00AM Updated May 10. 2014 2:25PM
Waterford - On an overcast Wednesday in late April, Terry Eames stood sawing wood near one of the entrances to the grandstand at the Waterford Speedbowl. He was working with a group of paid staff and volunteers to fix the stands, many sections of which the town of Waterford had barred from use pending repairs.
"He's very persistent," said Eames' wife, Yocasta, who also works as general manager of the Speedbowl.
Eames, the racetrack's owner since 2000, is known for last-minute miracles - pulling rabbits out of hats, as one creditor puts it. His tenure as owner of the three-eighths-mile track has been marked by unpaid debts, foreclosures and late payments on property taxes. Eames estimated his total debt at about $1.9 million.
But members of the 63-year-old track's entrenched community are quick to note that Eames has kept the track open when he could sell it for other uses and take home a profit.
Eames said he originally purchased the track for $1.85 million. It's now listed for sale at $3.3 million as part of foreclosure proceedings. And with a foreclosure auction date set for Oct. 18, the race is on to keep late model and modified stock cars moving on the track.
Fans and racers - some of whom double as Eames' creditors - are mixed in their levels of confidence that the Speedbowl's tradition of fast, loud cars will continue.
Concern is far from palpable, according to track historian Tom "Sid" DiMaggio, a self-employed video producer who is making a documentary about the Speedbowl. "It's almost like we're immune to this," he said, referring to the recent history of financial problems and also to times before Eames' ownership when the track almost disappeared. "Nobody's talking about really the foreclosure that much, everyone's really just talking about the racing."
Among those who think the track can be saved, some aren't sure they see Eames as its future owner.
Yet Eames has continually expressed optimism that he will find new financing to buy out his creditors and continue running the track. He said at least one party has expressed interest in financing the track, provided new uses could be added.
"I'm not certain that if you sold it, it would stay as a racetrack," Eames said.
At the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Street Stock Showdown on May 3, Bill Lewick of Pawcatuck sat with a friend in the same spot high in the grandstands where he remembers sitting with his parents in the 1950s. He saw his first race on opening day in 1951, when he was about 6. The races that day packed an estimated 7,900 people into the stands. Lewick still comes just about every Saturday, when the track does NASCAR races, and also some Wednesdays.
Speedbowl Director of Marketing Brian Darling, who also grew up at the Speedbowl, said a peak crowd these days for special events would be 6,000, and a small crowd would be 2,000. Wild and Wacky Wednesdays - a less competitive racing series with cheaper tickets - can draw up to about 3,000 during the summer when kids are out of school, he said.
Lewick said he was confused by the financial situation of the Speedbowl. He believed there was money to be made on the track and that Eames seemed to be trying, but "something's wrong."
"I think it would be an absolute sin if this track goes down," Lewick said, apologizing for the emotion in his voice, as cars whizzed around the oval beneath the stadium lights like a horde of mechanical bees.
On the other side of the arena, in the cordoned-off walkway sandwiched between the track and the area where idling cars line up, stood veteran racer Shawn Monahan of Waterford, who has won a championship at the track and has 50 feature wins to his name.
Eames owes Monahan around $40,000, which Monahan said he lent Eames "to help keep the track in operation." He said he maintains "a professional working relationship" with Eames, whose management style he calls "unique."
"There's been a few rabbits," Monahan said. "Rabbits - you ever seen one of those get pulled out of a hat?"
Monahan doesn't let debts get in the way of his love for racing. Though he was taking a break from the pits on this particular Saturday, he's normally working the shoreline oval, thinking about "beating everyone on the track."
"Some people say it's a disease; I think they might be right," he said.
Monahan is listed as a subsequent mortgage lender in the current foreclosure suit against Eames. The decorated racer said he doesn't want to see the track used for anything other than racing, and that he's confident racers will outbid other potential buyers should the track go to auction in October.
"I'd like to see a racetrack, and my money," he said.
From spokesman to owner
Eames came on to the track in his mid-30s in 1989, when Waterford Sports Center Inc. purchased it. The Groton native, who still lives there, said he worked as a business consultant for the company, which he said was incorporated expressly to purchase the track.
In 1994 Eames began working for track Manager Dan Korteweg as director of public relations. Day archives show he worked as spokesman for the track as early as 1993. By 2000, he had bought the track.
"I only intended to be here a couple of years," Eames said in April while sitting at a table in the office trailer where he and his wife had been spending occasional nights on the track. "Somewhere along the line, I fell in love with the place. I fell in love with the people."
In 1994 Eames worked to rebrand the track after leading it through years of controversy over noise levels in the early 1990s. He restored the track's NASCAR-sanctioning, which had fallen by the wayside in the 1980s, in 2000.
DiMaggio, the video producer, said Eames in those times was "breathing new life into the place."
Eames has been behind on property taxes throughout his ownership of the Speedbowl, something he blames on the seasonal nature of cash flow from the Speedbowl. Though Eames said he always paid the taxes soon after they were due, Waterford Tax Collector Mark Burnham pointed out that Eames didn't pay a portion of taxes due in 2003 until 2007.
The Speedbowl slipped into foreclosure for the first time in 2006. Eames attributed his financial struggles at the time in part to a rough period in his life; his divorce overlapped with the foreclosure suit. At the time, he said, he considered selling the Speedbowl. He leased the track to someone who he said was considering buying it.
"I was at a point in my life where I wasn't sure I wanted to do it forever," Eames said.
It was Yocasta, whom he married in 2010, who convinced him to keep the track. After taking her there on a date, she said, "Why would you want to sell this?" Eames recalled.
Speedbowl fan Rocco Arbitell and business partner Peter Borrelli dug Eames out of foreclosure with a $750,000 loan. Arbitell and Borrelli filed for foreclosure against Eames in 2008 and the Speedbowl was slated for sale at auction on Halloween in 2009. The auction was canceled when Eames filed for bankruptcy.
Eames lost his bankruptcy status in 2013 due to not following the payment plan set down in bankruptcy proceedings, allowing the Arbitell suit to again proceed to foreclosure. Eames has until the auction in October of this year to find financing or sell the track at asking price.
The Arbitell suit lists seven additional secured creditors - six individuals, including Monahan, and the company of one of those individuals.
Then there are the unsecured creditors listed in Eames' bankruptcy filings, at least some of whom he has paid back. Burnham, the Waterford tax collector, said Eames is now current on his property taxes. First Selectman Daniel Steward said Eames now has an agreement with the police department that requires him to prepay costs of police services at the track.
Creditor Edward DeMuzzio alleged in a 2009 filing in the Arbitell suit that "Eames has misused company assets for his own personal benefit." The filing predates the 2009 scheduled foreclosure auction, and DeMuzzio's lawyer, Mike Bonnano, said the filing is not pertinent to the current foreclosure. Eames owed DeMuzzio and his company CCI Inc. $162,000 in 2010, according to bankruptcy filings.
Eames said last week that the grandstands were fully repaired, which he said satisfied the town's request. Steward said last week that maintenance of the stands is critical to ensuring the safety of the Speedbowl audience.
Eames and others say the challenge of turning a profit at a racetrack is a factor in financial struggles. Fewer people attend races than in the past, in part because cars have lost the cache they had half a decade ago and in part because of how the economy has affected Speedbowl fans, many of whom work in construction.
"It's very hard to run as a track anymore," said former track historian John Brouwer Sr., who co-wrote a book about the Speedbowl in the 1970s titled "A Racing History of the New London-Waterford Speed Bowl." Brouwer said he imagines the track will go to another use unless someone who doesn't need to make money at the track and who can afford to lose money for five to 10 years takes over.
Fans are hopeful that by showing support, they can play a role in swinging the odds in their favor.
On the April day when Eames and others were working on the stands, a fan and former racer with deep roots in the track volunteered his time to replace grandstand seats and firm up reinforcements in the stands' structures. Dennis Savage, a born-again Christian from Norwich with long, gray hair tied in a ponytail under his bandana, first came to the track as a 3-year-old in 1951. He said he views volunteering for the Speedbowl as a sort of missionary work. He said he wanted to help both Eames and the track, which he said holds significance for the whole region in the wake of other local tracks closing and cutting back on races over the years.
"When I see somebody trying, working that hard to save something," he said, "I have no problem helping."