Who Owns Greenville Pickens Speedway? [Solved!]

Last year, I wrote a piece for the Chicago Tribune on the topic of “the decline of the American race track.” In it, I discussed the challenges that today’s tracks face–namely, how to remain relevant in an era of increased television coverage and online streaming of sports events. Many of the issues I raised (such as who is responsible for the upkeep of the track and who holds the right to exploit its intellectual property) remain unresolved to this day.

Now, Greenville Pickens Speedway is in the news for a different reason. According to a civil lawsuit filed in December, the NASCAR sanctioning body apparently does not recognize the track as an official NASCAR racing facility. The lawsuit, filed by an attorney representing Mark Green, alleges that NASCAR “breached its contract with the plaintiffs” when it “failed to give them proper notice of the cancellation of the Grand National race.”

As a lawyer who has practiced in the area of business litigation for more than 20 years, I can’t help but wonder what is motivating the plaintiffs in this case. Why are they deciding to go to court over this issue? What is the source of their frustration? How much damage does this suit seek to remedy? Let’s examine these questions in turn.

The Civil Lawsuit Will Test The Merits Of Greenville Pickens’ Claim

The plaintiffs in this case are Richard Petty Enterprises and Mark Green. According to the lawsuit, Green is the CEO of Richard Petty Enterprises and the grandson of one of NASCAR’s all-time greats, Richard Petty. For many years, Petty Enterprises promoted and organized various racing events at Greenville Pickens, including the Grand National race that is the subject of this lawsuit. (Greenville Pickens and Richard Petty Enterprises are two separate legal entities.)

The track is now 40 years old. During that time, it has arguably remained one of the sport’s most significant facilities, known for drawing some of the biggest names in auto racing. The lawsuit alleges that NASCAR has “consciously and deliberately” chosen to “disregard and ignore” the track because it is “owned and controlled by members of the Black community.” In its answer to the lawsuit, NASCAR denies that it has “deliberately and consciously” chosen to “disregard” Greenville Pickens. Instead, the answer asserts that as the “sole evaluator and registrar of tracks,” it made the decision that the track was “unable to operate under [NASCAR’s] rules and regulations.” In other words, the suit states that Greenville Pickens is essentially claiming that NASCAR’s actions were based on its race track ownership and control over the intellectual property created in connection with the track. The answer also denies that Greenville Pickens is actually one of NASCAR’s three sanctioned tracks (along with Motorcraft and Darlington).

The reason that we are learning about this case now is that, a few weeks ago, Richard Petty Enterprises and Green filed a suit in Florida state court against NASCAR, the Charlotte Bobcats, and the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. This is the third lawsuit that Richard Petty Enterprises has filed against NASCAR and other sports organizations in the last two years. (Petty Enterprises also filed a lawsuit against the NHL’s Florida Panthers and the Miami Heat, and an antitrust lawsuit against the Major League Baseball league.) Like the previous two suits, this one centers on the topic of race-related intellectual property. (You can find out more about these cases at forbes.com.)

What Is NASCAR’s Role In All Of This?

NASCAR, of course, is the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing. It is the sanctioning body for the sport of stock car racing in the United States. It was founded in 1949 and is headquartered in Daytona Beach, Florida. (It is worth noting that even though this is a NASCAR-related lawsuit, it is actually being filed in North Carolina. The Track Is In Greenville, But The Lawsuit Is In Charlotte.)

NASCAR has a long and complicated history with the topic of race tracks. In 1968, it began experimenting with a concept it called “integrated circuits,” which was an effort to combat perceived “unfair advantages” that certain tracks had over others. The integrated circuit system was a way for NASCAR to level the playing field for the sake of promoting greater competition rather than have separate rules governing each of its three yearly stock car racing circuits. (The system was eventually abandoned.)

To this day, none of the plaintiff’s claims in this lawsuit have been tested in court. (The Charlotte Bobcats and the Charlotte Hornets did not respond to inquiries about this suit.) What is more, even if the plaintiffs do ultimately succeed on their claims, it might not necessarily mean that they will gain control of Greenville Pickens. Richard Petty Enterprises is also asking the court to award it compensation for “the value of lost profits on ticket sales,” as well as “the cost of goods and services purchased for the operation of the track.” These are basically two different ways of measuring the damage that it has suffered due to NASCAR’s alleged breach of contract. For the sake of comparison, let’s assume that the plaintiffs’ allegations are true and that NASCAR has been deliberately choosing to disregard Greenville Pickens because of its race track ownership and control over the intellectual property created in connection with the track. Even in that case, it is far from clear that the plaintiffs would emerge from this legal dispute with full control of the race track. Many lawyers–including myself–would advise them to settle this case quickly for the sake of their own financial interests. The reality is that none of this will ever be resolved unless the plaintiffs decide to settle this case for an amount that they consider to be acceptable. (This is one area where it is essential that they retain the services of an experienced trial lawyer.)

Why Is This The Right Time For Richard Petty Enterprises To Sue NASCAR?

This is a particularly frustrating case for NASCAR because, for over 70 years, it has been the sport’s de facto bank. (The company has also previously invested in and lent money to Richard Petty Enterprises and other entities associated with the sport.) More importantly, the plaintiffs are seeking to hold NASCAR accountable for its actions rather than allow it to simply disregard its obligations. Here are a few more reasons why this is a good time for Richard Petty Enterprises to pursue this action:

The NCAA Has Its Eye On The Future

For years, Richard Petty Enterprises has been the exclusive promoter of the prestigious Heisman Trophy. (This year, the award will be given to the North Carolina Tar Heels’ Trevarthenious Mann.) The company also organizes and promotes various academic and athletic events that are associated with colleges and universities across the country. Many of these events, including the annual Bedsole Footwear Collegiate Bowl, are being held at venues that are either owned or controlled by NASCAR. (These are the type of venues that Richard Petty Enterprises typically promotes on behalf of the academic community.)

In other words, there is growing convergence between the worlds of professional sports and higher education. (This convergence is especially true when it comes to major university and academic athletic events.) The NCAA, in particular, is interested in the future of intercollegiate athletics. As part of that initiative, the organization has been exploring the “modernization and diversification” of the sport. Last year, the NCAA established the Division of Sport Stewardship, aimed at combating “equipment, rule, and policy” violations as well as “improper conduct” in college sports. (According to the organization, these are all issues that “pose a serious threat to the long-term health of the sport.”) For its part, Richard Petty Enterprises is hoping that its lawsuit will help the sport continue to evolve and provide additional benefits to academic and athletic institutions that are its member-stations.

The Need For Greater Diversity

Another important issue that Richard Petty Enterprises is bringing up in this lawsuit is the need for greater diversity in the sport. (It is worth noting that even though this is a lawsuit that is related to the business of NASCAR, it is actually being filed in North Carolina.) For years, the company has promoted and conducted various events at venues that are disproportionately white-owned. (Last year, for example, the company held its annual Christmas party and sale at the South Carolina Aquarium, which is owned by a black businessman.) This is also the case for many of the venues that it uses for its academic events. Richard Petty Enterprises is alleging, in a nutshell, that NASCAR, which is overwhelmingly dominated by white members, has chosen to ignore the track because it wants to “limit access to persons of a particular race or culture.” (This is not to say, however, that all of the venues and organizations mentioned in the lawsuit are engaged in intentional discrimination against minorities. Many, if not most, of them, are simply not aware of the issues that Richard Petty Enterprises is raising in this case.)

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