Common Tread

Steal Shoe Nationals? A failed upstart race series leaves racers unpaid

Nov 16, 2017

Cory Texter is a prototypical flat-track privateer. He runs his own team and his main focus is the American Flat Track Twins class national championship, but on weekends AFT’s not racing, he’ll race anywhere, in any class, where he stands to turn a profit.

In mid-September, the upstart Steel Shoe Nationals series promoted a race in Cortland, Ohio. Cory considered the impressive purse on offer, even though he already had reservations about the series, which seemed to be taking a long time to pay racers their winnings. But when Dave Atherton sweetened the deal even further by offering Cory a fast and well sorted Harley-Davidson XR750 to race, he decided to go.

Texter thought he could win on Atherton’s XR. He’d ride his own Honda CRF450R, too. A $10,000 night was not out of the question. So, he left his wife and newborn son in Pennsylvania and drove his rig to Ohio.

In the 450 class, he finished second in the Dash for Cash and third in the main, so he was off to a good start. Atherton’s XR was fast, too. Cory qualified second which — both by tradition and according to Steel Shoe’s printed rules — earned him the right to choose the top or bottom of the track in his heat. That can be a huge advantage in flat track, so he was dismayed when the referee, Kevin Snyder, told him he had to start from the bottom of the track.

Cory Texter
Cory Texter left his wife and two-week-old baby to drive to Ohio to race in the Steel Shoe Nationals but he never got the payday he expected. Photo provided by Cory Texter.

“It was very unorganized,” Cory recalled. “People were yelling at each other. [Fast qualifier] Chad Cose complained so much that they put him in the Dash for Cash as a seventh rider. By the end of the day, Kevin Snyder and [CEO] Christy Cottrell were coming to me asking what they should do. I was like, ‘I’m just a rider’.”

Distracted and starting from a bad line in the main, Cory went backwards off the start. However, he worked his borrowed XR back up to third.

“I thought I had a good chance to win,” he told me. “But then my steel shoe broke in half! I ended up finishing 14th. Even at that, I made $2,425 in purse. I told Christy that [fellow racer] Jarod Vanderkooi would collect my payout, and headed home. I didn’t want to wait around, because my son was only two weeks old.”

Vanderkooi did, indeed, collect a check for Texter’s winnings from Christy Cottrell. But by the time it got into Texter’s hands, he’d already seen dozens of Facebook messages and texts, and listened to phone messages from other riders, complaining that the checks were NSF.

“I didn’t even bother trying to cash it,” Cory told me. “By then, 30 or 40 guys ahead of me had theirs bounce.”

What happened to the upstart Steel Shoe Nationals series?

To answer that question, I spoke with, emailed, and messaged several racers and other people familiar with the situation, some of whom were willing to speak only “on background,” not for attribution. Not surprisingly, some people who’ve been scammed don’t want to publicize that fact.

Why, indeed, would anyone launch a new professional flat-track series? Race promotion’s not an easy business, but maybe the previous few AMA Pro Racing flat track seasons provided some motivation. Riders and teams were frustrated. There was a cheating scandal and cover-up in 2015. And flat track racers are grunts who, if it’s up to them, will race every weekend — they wanted more events, and more track time, ideally with fewer transcontinental drives between Nationals.

In 2016, I spoke to riders who felt they were sent out on tracks that needed more prep, which hurt competition, at best, and made the tracks unnecessarily dangerous, at worst. AMA Pro instituted some rule and homologation changes that made privateers think it was all about the handful of factory teams with 40-foot transporters. That discontent played into the hands of Christy Cottrell, a former sprint car racer who envisioned a new pro flat-track series. She didn’t overtly position her series as a rival to AMA Pro’s championship — there were, after all, only four races on her initial calendar. But just between the lines, I thought Steel Shoe had AMA Pro in its sights.

“Our goal is to bring the most exciting, handlebar banging motorcycle racing to the mainstream,” read a description of the new series on Cottrell’s Octane Sports Management web site. It promised “tough, raw, gritty, hard core racing so action packed you will wear out the edge of your seat! Our focus is to bring fans, families and FUN back to Professional Flat Track Racing.”

Beyond the talk, what got riders’ and teams’ attention was the announced purse structure. To put it in perspective, Steel Shoe Nationals’ claimed $44,000 per event payout was a lot more than other second-tier series, such as Steve Nace’s well-run All-Star Series. In fact, it easily compared to the payout at some AMA Pro Nationals.

That was attractive to privateer pros. They swallowed hard when they learned a license and paddock pass cost $200… each! It cost more to register for the Steel Shoe series than it did to register for AFT. And entry fees were $80 per class. Still, except for the handful of salaried factory riders, just about every top pro licensed up, including known fast guys like Chad Cose, Jake Shoemaker and Sammy Halbert.

Cottrell needed expert assistance to mount an ambitious new series. She recruited Gina Harrington, who was known on the west coast flat track scene, as chief operating officer. Kevin Snyder agreed to be the series' referee. Dan Johnson agreed to serve as race director but excused himself shortly thereafter. He did not work any of the races, and has told me, “I didn’t agree with the way she was doing business.”

Harrington explained that Steel Shoe Nationals was acting as both a sanctioning body and a co-promoter; the plan was to team with an experienced local promoter at each event. By all accounts, the inaugural Steel Shoe National, at Hagerstown, Maryland, had a normal amount of teething problems, but came off reasonably well. The crowd was smaller than the promoters would’ve liked, but perhaps not out of line for a new series.

Then, riders noticed that Cottrell took a lot longer to pay out purses than they were used to.

I began looking into the Steel Shoe Nationals situation after getting a Facebook message from Jeremy Orr, a young pro racing in the AFT Singles class as well Steel Shoe Nationals. Jeremy raced Hagerstown and told me that after waiting weeks for payment he emailed and called Cottrell and was given the old “The check’s in the mail” line.

Jeremy Orr
Jeremy Orr says at least $40,000 is owed to racers who competed in the last two Steel Shoe Nationals events. Photo provided by Jeremy Orr.
Finally, Orr confronted Cottrell at the next race in Michigan, where she wrote him a check for his Hagerstown winnings.

“I told her that I wanted to get paid for Michigan at Michigan,” he recalled. “But she said that it had to go through her tax guy first, so no one could get paid at the race.”

Most if not all of the riders were stiffed at Michigan, although most of them showed up and raced in Ohio. After that event, riders were handed checks for their Michigan and Ohio winnings, but as far as I can determine, they all bounced. (A handful of riders — guys who were only owed $100 to $200 — were paid in cash after at least one event.)

“When I first started a group chat with everyone who hadn’t been paid, I had 27 people on it,” Orr told me. “Ten people told me how much they were owed; Sammy Halbert was owed more than $10,000, Davis Fisher and Chad Cose are both over $5,000. Those 10 and me — I’m owed $1,700 — total over $40,000.”

Then, the racers got an email from Steel Shoe Nationals that read (in part and with typos preserved):

“We are saddens to type this to you all. We never got into to promoting races to get rich nor did we ever feel this was a full time career path for any of our staff. We knew it wasn't going to be easy and We knew without major sponsorship or backing,the road for this series would be very difficult. At the start of the series there were many who said we had their backing and they were with us 100% They never stepped up as promised and wrote a check. We soldiered on, and worked to talk with sponsors and investors. We found out a lot about what corporations think of Professional Flat Track. They think very little of it.

“The losses have been too much to overcome. There were many system break downs at this last event that weren't 100% avoidable or foreseen. As a result, that will be the last event held by Steel Shoe Nationals, Ltd or Octane Sports Management, LLC.

“We can not continue to do this. What started out as a great idea sadly comes to a close. We will continue to keep riders updated on further developments. In the meantime, Our Facebook accounts have been removed as it was reported we have inappropriate content or were spammers to Facebook. We did not removed these."

Christy Cottrell’s side of the story

After many attempts to reach Cottrell by email, text, and phone, I gave up. But then she did call, and we spoke for 20 minutes.

Her description of the series’ inception was consistent with what I heard from other people who were involved in those early days. One thing I hadn’t heard from anyone else was that sponsors were pressured by AFT stay away from Steel Shoe Nationals. She named factory riders, from both the Indian and Harley-Davidson teams who, she claimed, told her they wanted to run their own motorcycles at her events. But then they too were pressured to stay away. She seemed to place a significant share of the blame for her series’ collapse on AFT. (I contacted AFT to give them an opportunity to respond to Cottrell's statements, but they did not reply.)

“I did it for the riders,” she told me. “I mean Jesus Christ… We bought air-fence! I guess we shouldn’t have offered $44,000, but once you’ve put it out there, it’s hard to retract.”  

Hagerstown and Michigan both lost money, she told me.

“Hagerstown provided about three-fourths of the purse and we made up the rest, Michigan provided about three-fourths. There’s a lot of expenses over and above the purses. There’s insurance, emergency crews, advertising, planes and hotels.”

“In hindsight, it [the Ohio race] should’ve been canceled,” she said. “And then three days after the race we learned that a lot more tickets were sold than we received money for. Someone on the gate crew kept a bunch of money but was too stupid to remove the ticket stubs.”

“I feel terrible,” she said, adding, “I never took any money in salary.”

As we were winding up the call, I asked her if she had any plans to make good on the checks she signed, and pay the riders the purses they’d been promised. She told me she didn’t have the money. The riders’ only hope, as she saw it, was for someone to buy her series and make good on those past liabilities. She claimed that she had talked to someone about doing that very thing, although she didn’t tell me who that was. It’s certainly not obvious to me that the series, in its current condition, is worth anywhere near the $40,000 or more that is owed to the riders.

An ‘outlaw’ series is supposed to be a figure of speech

Steel Shoe Nationals was always a so-called "outlaw" series, not sanctioned by the AMA, but a year ago, it seemed legit to Gina Harrington. She was one of the people dissatisfied with the way AMA Pro Racing (a separate entity from the AMA) was handling the national series, and actually resigned from her position with the Santa Rosa Mile before the event.

Gina Harrington
"I feel that the riders counted on me to get their money, and I feel horrible that I couldn’t do that," said Gina Harrington. Photo provided by Gina Harrington.
“It seemed like a great time to promote an alternative series,” Harrington told me. “Not in the sense of driving AMA Pro out of business, but to give riders a way to make more money and get more experience on their weekends off.”

“[Christy] told everybody that she had financial support that was never really promised. It was more, ‘I support what you’re doing’. But even without that, it could’ve gone well but it was mishandled, and a big part of that was that [Christy] controlled every aspect of every event,” Harrington said.

“I know at Hagerstown, there was money to pay it out. I tried to get her to hand it over to me so I could get the riders paid out, and there were so many excuses why it didn’t happen. Ultimately that’s why we split,” she said. Harrington told me that she resigned mid-season and is owed money herself.

“I’m told she made money at Michigan but not at Ohio,” Gina said. “Staff hasn’t been paid, and riders weren’t paid, except those that demanded cash. Vendors weren’t paid. The ultimate question is, ‘Where did that money go?’ A lot of people would like to know.”

Some riders grumbled about filing a lawsuit or even pushing Ohio prosecutors to consider criminal charges. It’s hard to believe Cottrell didn’t know she was issuing bad checks. Just during the time I’ve been working on this story, however, I get the feeling more and more of the racers are ready to chalk it up to experience and move on.

Still, it’ll be a while before Cory Texter forgets his experience with Steel Shoe Nationals.

“I never thought about where the money was going to come from,” Texter told me. “As a racer, it’s better if more fans come to watch, but if you’re a promoter, and you advertise a purse, you pay it. I run my own team, and I spent my own money to race in Ohio. When I didn’t get that purse, I couldn’t afford to drive across the country to the AFT final at Perris [California].”

If Texter had raced at Perris, he likely would’ve finished in the top 20 Experts on the season.