Despite delays, Waterford Speedbowl drives forward
Waterford — For more than a year, a large sign at the entrance to New London-Waterford Speedbowl has shown the message: "GREAT THINGS ARE HAPPENING SEE YOU SOON!"
The Speedbowl, closed since the conclusion of the 2018 season, didn't reopen as promised in 2019. Construction delays, as well as high-profile legal issues with its owner — wealthy businessman Bruce Bemer, who's appealing his conviction in human trafficking-related crimes — have plagued the popular local attraction.
April 15 will mark the Speedbowl's 69th anniversary. In a recent interview with The Day, General Manager Mike Serluca promised racing would return. The exact timeframe, though, is in question.
A false start
Serluca said he regrets having told the public the Speedbowl would hold races in 2019. He declined to give an approximate opening date, especially considering the question of how the COVID-19 pandemic could impact work schedules. But he's hopeful.
"We're making real progress every day to get the place open for racing," Serluca said. "My goal is to, like I said last year, be racing at the Speedbowl in 2020, and I do believe that we are going to race there again this year barring any major catastrophe."
So far, Serluca said, there has been no interruption to the project due to the coronavirus, but, he added, that could change in an instant. He said he's in constant contact with the company the Speedbowl purchased the grandstands from, National Equipment & Facility Solutions in Mystic, to check on the status.
Serluca detailed numerous renovation objectives and obstacles, which he blames for the delay. The chief challenge has been tearing down the original wood grandstands and putting up aluminum ones that are handicapped accessible
The new grandstands will reduce the track's capacity from around 6,000 to closer to 3,500.
Waterford Planning Director Abby Piersall described the Speedbowl's current regulatory status.
"They received permits last year for updating the bleachers and tearing down old bleachers, where it wasn't a good idea for folks to be," Piersall said. "So, right now they have that permit, they have authorization to do work, and we're just waiting to hear from them when they're ready for inspections."
Another issue at the track has been drainage.
"How are we going to get rid of the water? We can't pump it into the brook — it's 2020, we need to be more eco-friendly," Serluca said.
Piersall also commented on the drainage problem.
"They were doing some limited drainage work in the area around the bleachers to make sure they didn't have any pooling water," Piersall said. "I know they have worked with DEEP (the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection) in the past around the drainage in the center of the track."
Serluca thanked the town for answering questions and being open in telling the track what it needs to do to begin operating again.
"For any property that has a vested right to conduct a business, we're here to help," Piersall said. "We want folks to be operating with the right information. I know there has been talk from some who are not as excited about noise or other issues, but we're trying to make sure the Speedbowl has everything it needs to continue operating the way they have the right to."
The first race season under Bemer's ownership was 2015. In 2019, he was convicted on sex trafficking charges. He arranged for sex trafficker Robert King to bring mentally disabled and drug-addicted young men to racing events in a Winnebago, according to testimony at his trial. He posted $750,000 for bail to be free while he appeals his conviction.
The controversy surrounding Bemer also surrounds the Speedbowl.
"He gets a bad rap. Whether you support the guy or don't support the guy, he loves the racing community, he loves the racetrack, he would dump every last dollar he could into it to make it great for people to come race," Serluca said. "At first, some people were understandably negative, but some have started to come around again; the racetrack is an important place. His passion for racing and his passion to keep the Speedbowl going is remarkable with everything he has going on."
Serluca said Bemer is the "decision-maker" for major moves at the track, such as the construction of the grandstands, the drainage work, the tower design, the concession design and the demolition. Per Serluca, Bemer is hands-on with the business, and has been legally permitted to be so.
If Bemer does end up incarcerated, Serluca said he doesn't know how the Speedbowl would be affected.
"I'm assuming there's a plan in place. As far as what that plan is, I'm not privy to it," Serluca said.
Due to his association with Bemer and the construction delays, Serluca said he has faced backlash from people who used to be involved with the track.
Serluca said people who come to the track are like "one big family" — he's been going to the Speedbowl since he was 3 years old, and he knows most of the fans in the stands as well as the racers.
Charles Canfield, 2017 and 2018 Mini Stock Champion, has had experiences similar to Serluca's at the track. His father first brought him there when he was 5 years old or younger, and he'd been racing at the Speedbowl for 12 years before it shut down.
He's eager to be behind the wheel again.
"I'm really hoping it's ready," Canfield said. "I guess we can only be let down so much. But I think they've made a lot of progress. It might be at a little standstill now because of what's going on with the coronavirus, but Mike's still pushing, saying the stands will get built. I've got some confidence there will be a 2020 season. My car's just sitting, waiting."
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