Wayne County Speedway Victorious In Court Battle
By Ken Cunningham
Orrville OH - It all started back in 1964 when plans came about for a new race track, the reason a simple one. “To give competitors a fair and equal place to race.” After taking the brunt of bad decisions and losing many races not to faster cars but to local favoritism, Mr. N. E. Jacobs began to shape his own race track in an empty field across from his family farm near Orrville Ohio. Today it is not unusual to see a fourth generation Jacobs coaching a fifth generation family member around the high speed “thrill a minute” dirt race track known as Wayne County Speedway. This much of the story can be repeated many times over using any number of familiar names; this sport has become as much a lifestyle as it has tradition drawing fans and racers alike from all across the country.
Other than technological advances in race cars and safety equipment dirt track racing hasn’t changed much since 1964, however the one that most effects our beloved sport is an ever growing population moving from urban areas into the countryside where auto racing remained hidden through the years. Although some like to argue who was there first, the real question should be how can we get along with each other and be good neighbors. With the obvious noise and dust, living next door to a dirt track would be a challenge for all but the most avid race fan and a real test of patience for both sides. Many legendary speedways have already been lost due to legal actions, government pressure, and urban sprawl. Coupled with a struggling economy many track owners would simply throw in the towel. This is not the case for Ernie Coffman, present owner of Wayne County Speedway, and the family who supported him during a difficult time.
Legal issues began in 1987 when several residents, all within one mile of what was then known as Buckeye Speedway, brought suit claiming the race track as a nuisance. All parties soon reached an agreement the following year that limited the number of practices and races that could be held at the speedway, along with the days of week and hours of the day during which those practices and races could be held. This became known as the stipulated judgment entry filed on May 9, 1988 and contains four provisions aimed toward regulating operations at the speedway. Paragraph one required the owner of the speedway “to make a good faith effort to complete all racing events by no later than 12:00 midnight”. In that same paragraph, racing past midnight “shall occur only in the event of rain or accident delay, and in no event shall racing continue past 2:00 a.m.” Paragraph two prohibits the owner from holding “more than six special events per racing season in addition to its normal once a week racing schedule.” Paragraph three prohibits the owner from permitting “more than one practice session per week, and it shall be on a Tuesday or Wednesday and be concluded no later than 10:00 p.m.” Finally, paragraph four states, during weeks when the owner “hosts two racing events (one special in addition to its regular race night), no practice session shall be held except that the owner may hold such a practice session twice during the racing season, but said practice is to be concluded no later than 8:00 p.m.” These paragraph entries were taken directly from court documents and public record. This court session also found the speedway not to be a nuisance, but in good faith, speedway operations would attempt to follow these rules.
On occasion Wayne County Speedway returned to court facing minor violations of this agreement and just never put up much of a fight. Fines and suspensions were levied but often waived leaving only court costs and lawyer fees to be paid. As the 2003 racing season neared the end Ernie Coffman entered into a partnership with the Hess family then obtained sole ownership of the speedway in 2005. Arriving at troubled times amid great controversy Coffman had great task at hand but soon had the speedway operating with efficiency when legal woes would surface again. In October of that year two of the original plaintiffs filed a complaint alleging Wayne County Speedway once again violated court stipulations. The Court of Common Pleas, with Judge Robert Brown presiding, found the present owners of Wayne County Speedway in contempt and ordered them to pay a fine of $1100 along with a 30 day suspension of operations. In addition, the courts held Coffman responsible for previous violations occurring in 1991 and 1993, under previous ownership, for a total of $3300 and 90 days.
Race fans were left questioning who was right and wrong, their weekly racing fix now in jeopardy. In following years Coffman continued to fight for what he believed was right but further distress was near. The 2007 racing season opened to great acclaim but a devastating fire destroyed the concession and office buildings as fans watched in horror. With little choice, this season came to an abrupt end. As the track sat idle race fans would turn against the historic facility while message boards came alive with rumors, often receiving thousands of views and outlandish responses, especially with the addition of one new member. Whether real or an imposter, someone using the name of the plaintiff’s attorney joined the debate in October 2007 and fueled the controversy. Very untypical of a highly educated lawyer, misspelled words typed with a hillbilly drawl the alleged “Marie Moore” led rabid race fans to frenzy in search of answers. The gossip unflattering and an embarrassment to track owner Ernie Coffman, the once great and knowledgeable fan base began to disappear along with sponsors and revenue. Soon the effects of stress would consume Coffman’s daily life and his health now became an issue. Most of the 2007 and all but the final month of the 2008 racing season was scrapped in order to concentrate on Coffman’s primary business, well being, and his ongoing legal battle.
That battle came to an end on September 22, 2008 with a court decision in favor of Wayne County Speedway almost one month after championship racer Ryan Markham closed an all too short season by winning the annual “Freedom Fighters 50”. This event is named to honor civic and military heroes and certainly now carries added meaning; Ernie Coffman won his legal battle and in his own right, also gained newfound freedom. Time and space would prevent me from posting all events that have transpired; full court transcripts can be found and printed from the 9th District Court of Appeals website located on the web at www.ninth.courts.state.oh.us , case number 07CA0027. To clarify, I must include a few key paragraphs taken directly from this court document.
- For a person to be held in contempt for disobeying a court decree, the decree must spell out the details of compliance in clear, specific, and unambiguous terms so that such person will readily know exactly what duties or obligations are imposed on him.
The 1988 stipulated judgment entry does not spell out in clear, specific, and unambiguous terms that the speedway is prohibited from holding more than two racing events in a single week.
- There was insufficient evidence before the trial court to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the owner of Wayne County Speedway violated the 1988 stipulated judgement entry during the 2005 racing season. The trial court incorrectly imposed criminal sanctions on the owner for the claimed violations.
- The trial court incorrectly, in 2006, re-imposed the sanctions that it had originally imposed and suspended in 1991 and 1993.
-The trial court incorrectly awarded plaintiffs attorney’s fees. In view of the Courts sustaining the owner’s first and fourth assignments of error, it must sustain this assignment of error as well.
- The trial court incorrectly held him (Mr. Coffman) in civil contempt and incorrectly imposed criminal sanctions on the basis of a vague and ambiguous order.
- The owners first, fourth, and fifth assignment of error are sustained. His second and third assignments of error are moot, and are overruled on that basis. This matter is remanded to the Wayne County Common Pleas Court for entry of judgment in favor of defendant (Mr. Coffman).
Needless to say, Mr. Coffman is delighted with this judgment, his faith in the judicial system has been restored albeit the high price paid, and there are no hard feelings. It is time to move on and put this nightmare behind him. I believe an even more difficult task lies ahead for Wayne County Speedway, one that cannot be solved with money and lawyers, and that is trying to restore a severely tarnished reputation. Only the upcoming racing season will substantiate success with the ability to put fans in the grandstands and racers on the track. Equally as difficult, trying to restore good relations with sponsors who have been slighted during this ordeal. Mr. Coffman states in a recent interview: “You have a choice where to race, or watch the races every week. We face great competition in that department but I feel regardless, your going to see a great show every week at Wayne County Speedway. Most importantly, it still means something to win here because it shows you are among the best.” To all concerned, 2009 will see a full season of top quality dirt track racing featuring 410 Sprints, Late Models, Pure Stocks, and Mini Stocks. No one takes track preparation more seriously, Tim Myers will return to provide the ultimate racing surface along with many key employees who have stayed during this terrible ordeal. Ideas are being discussed to provide the most exciting and rapid paced racing program in Ohio along with better customer and sponsor relations. At the top of this list, more ways to be “a good neighbor”.
This writer has been critical of operations at times and may continue to do so in the future, but watching recent events unfold I have come to a few conclusions. A race car driver would never pull over and surrender the lead, why would you ever expect the race track itself to do so. I have gained a certain respect for the Coffman family, for standing up to insurmountable odds and fight for not only what is right, but for the rights of many race tracks across the country who face this same difficult situation. “Don’t back down”.
I’m out of space with much more to say. I hope to see you at Wayne County Speedway on opening day. Thank you.
All I've got to say is this is great news for WCS, and if some other news I've heard about the place is true, things could really be looking up for 2009. I'll cover that other news once it's been confirmed.