Mid Ohio reconnecting

Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, born in north central Ohio by a team of north central Ohioans more than 50 years ago, seems to be reaching out to the community once again.

Presenting a $5,000 check to a local institution like the Friendly House is a nice gesture. Enticing a locally owned bank to be a title sponsor for an event weekend is a nice sign. Holding a preseason open house is a nice move. Facilitating pro motorcycle rider autograph sessions at Mansfield businesses is a nice touch.

Hopefully, more will follow.

“We have to be a good community business partner,” track president Craig Rust said. “It’s a balance for us because we need to take care of the residents of Richland and Morrow County so they feel welcome at the race track and feel that it is their race track.”

That feeling has slowly ebbed over the last 15 years for whatever reason.

Maybe the locals felt the track was big-timing them. Maybe the track didn’t reach out as frequently as it once did. Maybe the greater Mansfield area couldn’t get with an out-of-town family running the track in an aloof manner. Maybe Mid-Ohio took the locals for granted. Maybe area hotels went too far in jacking up prices on big race weekends. Maybe track ownership didn’t communicate its displeasure at the practice in the right way.

Grains of truth run through all the maybes.

Nevertheless, the biggest truth is this: Mid-Ohio can’t support world-class racing with just the locals coming through the gates. It has to reach out to Columbus, Cleveland and beyond.

In making that reach, the disconnect happens. Rust knows as much.

“We also have to make sure we’re drawing people from Cleveland and drawing people from Columbus and that’s no different than any race track in this country,” he said. “You have to make sure you are taking care of your own community where you physically operate, while making sure you’re inviting folks from the outside, and that people in Richland and Morrow communities are proud people are coming to visit Mid-Ohio.”

Maybe, just maybe, the disconnect was inevitable. Maybe the Truemans aren’t to blame for the hard feelings. Maybe the world changed and motor sports changed along with it.

Big-time drivers no longer hang out at Rocky’s Pub or stay at the Holiday Inn or eat at Bucks or the Brown Derby Roadhouse anymore. If a local wants to see somebody famous — and feel good about the community he or she lives in — a ticket is in order.

The boys and girls of summer aren’t leaving the friendly confines of the paddock until it’s time to hit the airport. The money is so big in racing the stars don’t have to slum it at the L&K like Paul Newman used to. They can eat at the team’s hospitality hauler and sleep in a million dollar luxury coach. And if they aren’t in a top tier series, they’re likely staying at Polaris or Easton and making the hour drive.

To combat the changes, it’s time for Mid-Ohio to make itself more accessible to the locals, especially the youngsters in our midst. While the track has done some outreach in the past, it can do a lot more.

“The kids we serve most of the time don’t get opportunities to do those types of things,” Friendly House Executive Director Terry Conard said of going to something like a race weekend at Mid-Ohio. “Those are the kind of things we try to encourage other business to allow us to do — bring our kids there so they get an opportunity.”

The best way to make a new fan is take one to the track for the first time.

“When they’re older, they’re going to remember that and start doing those things with their families. It’s a great collaborative,” Conard said.

Maybe it’s time for Mid-Ohio to reach out to places like the Friendly House, the Mansfield YMCA, local scout troops and area church groups to bring kids and teens out to the track. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt if a driver or rider showed up at one of these places for a show-and-tell. Maybe our hospital or one of our dealerships is worthy of an appearance like so many are granted in the big cities.

Because there’s no maybe about it: Mid-Ohio and north central Ohio need to reconnect.

Rob McCurdy covers motor sports for the News Journal. Reach him at 419-521-7241 or rmccurdy@gannett.com.On Twitter follow him