EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON
MARBLE FALLS — When it comes to LakeFest, Ken Dollar had a front-row seat. He was on the Marble Falls/Lake LBJ Chamber of Commerce board of directors when Barry Burton and John Kemper first pitched the idea of hosting drag boat races on Lake Marble Falls more than 25 years ago.
Dollar served on the first LakeFest committee and several more in the years following the inaugural event.
“I fell in love with the sport, grew a tremendous passion for it,” Dollar said. “I just enjoyed the people and every part of drag boat racing.”
In 2009, when Lucas Oil expanded its motor sports division to include drag boat racing and unified the rules under which racers from across the country compete, it hired Dollar to be its series race director and his wife, Patti, as the administrative director. As race director, Ken Dollar was responsible for just about every facet of Lucas Oil Drag Boat Racing Series events, including coordinating on-site staffing, setting up and tearing down events, and even negotiating contracts with promotors.
“We’d have to bring in just shy of 40 people (from Lucas) for each of the races,” Dollar said. “It’s a tremendous operation to organize and pull off a drag boat race.”
His experience, both as a former chamber director and Lucas Oil series director, gives Dollar a unique perspective on the recent cancellation of the 2018 LakeFest. He and his wife retired from Lucas in January before negotiations between the Marble Falls chamber and Lucas Oil came to a close with no agreement.
He’s been dismayed over some of the comments and accusations following the decision to cancel LakeFest, particularly on social media. Even though he wasn’t part of the negotiations this year, he shared some insights on what led up to the cancellation.
Dollar pointed out that, last year, Lucas Oil began restructuring how it handles its motor sports division, which includes drag boat racing, drag racing, off-road racing, motocross, and more.
“It was time to starting budgeting, and that means looking at costs, cutting expenses where possible, and looking at renegotiating contracts with promoters,” Dollar said.
The contract Lucas Oil presented to the chamber was an entirely new one. (Lucas Oil only entered into annual contracts with the chamber, not long-term ones.)
While Lucas Oil owns the series, they rely on promoters such as the chamber to host the events. Dollar described it as if the chamber was looking to put on a circus. It would get a place to hold the event then contract with a circus to “provide the elephants, lions, and tigers.”
In the case of drag boat racing, Dollar said the promoter is responsible for racers’ purse (payout) and production costs.
“There’s a minimum purse you have to agree to,” he said. “Production costs is everything the sanctioning body brings to town: timers, rescue crew, set-up, insurance, and all the equipment it takes to put on a race.”
In the case of LakeFest, the Marble Falls chamber was the promoter, while Lucas Oil Drag Boat Racing Series was the sanctioning body. The promoter pays a sanctioning fee, one Dollar describes as being quite a bit of money.
To cover the costs associated with the sanctioning body, Dollar said the promoter must weigh that against possible income such as boat entries, ticket sales, and sponsorships. After 25 years of hosting LakeFest, Dollar said chamber officials have a good idea what the event brings in as far as revenue versus costs.
Since 2009, when Lucas Oil became the LakeFest sanctioning organization, the chamber and the company enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. It was more than that, though.
“It was an extremely good relationship,” Dollar said.
But when Lucas Oil and the Marble Falls chamber sat down earlier this year to hammer out details for LakeFest 2018 with the restructuring by Lucas Oil, the two sides just couldn’t reach an agreement, Dollar said.
“Lucas Oil came to the Marble Falls chamber with changes in production costs and revenue sharing. It was deemed just unacceptable for the chamber,” Dollar said. “Plain and simple: It was a business deal. I’ve never seen from my part any personal agenda or financial agenda. It’s just they couldn’t reach an agreement.”
He pointed out that the chamber is not part of the city of Marble Falls or Marble Falls Economic Development Corp., but a membership organization.
As a chamber, it can’t operate in the red or take on a venture that would lose money. Though something like LakeFest benefits more than chamber members, in the end, chamber leaders must look at what’s best for the financial health of the organization. Sometimes, such as in the case of canceling the 2018 LakeFest, those can be agonizing decisions.
The cancellation of the 2018 event didn’t have anything to do with the proposed hotel/conference center on Lake Marble Falls and improvement to Lakeside and Johnson parks, according to Dollar. The city of Marble Falls and Marble Falls EDC have plans to, with a private partner, develop a hotel/conference center in the Lakeside Park area.
“I had sat in meetings with the (Marble Falls) EDC, the city of Marble Falls, the chamber of commerce as plans for the development began taking shape. It was possible that this could really hurt LakeFest,” Dollar said. “But I never saw anything or experienced anything that there was desire to see it go or any attitude like, ‘to heck with LakeFest.’ It was more like, ‘How can we do this to not affect LakeFest.’”
City, EDC, and chamber officials asked Dollar for his input and expertise on the downtown park plans with regard to how it might impact the boat races. In cases where it might negatively affect LakeFest, Dollar pointed it out and offered suggestions, or planners came up with other options.
“When I came out of the last meeting (regarding the downtown parks plan), I told (my wife) Patti that I was encouraged,” Dollar said. “I felt this plan not only preserved LakeFest but enhanced LakeFest for now and the future.”
He also left open the possibility that LakeFest could return in the future.
“It’s not necessarily dead,” Dollar stated.
Since the announcement about the cancellation of this year’s event, Dollar saw the often harsh and undeserved criticism directed toward city, EDC, and chamber leaders.
“I have seen many things stated by many people on social media and elsewhere that are just flat wrong and very harmful to the reputations of some very good people,” he added through a written statement. “These people are our civic leaders, friends, and fellow citizens. They deserve more than personal attacks and accusations based on incorrect facts, rumors, and innuendos.”
While Dollar is no longer associated with Lucas Oil or the chamber, both remain special to him. One introduced him to the sport of drag boat racing and fostered his love for it, while the other opened a door that allowed him to make a career out of the sport. In fact, he looks back on the past 8½ years with Lucas Oil as extremely good ones.
“One of the things I am most proud of is the sport of drag boat racing was very regional. There were six or eight organizations across the water, and nobody interacted with the other. Everybody was operating under different rulebooks, which made it so hard on racers if they wanted to race in different organization races,” he said. “When Mr. Lucas decided to add drag boat racing to his motor sports division, we were able to bring all the other organizations together in one room and unify the rulebook. It took the sport from a regional footprint to a national one. Lucas Oil changed the sport for the better.”
Though the chamber and Lucas couldn’t reach an agreement for 2018, it doesn’t necessarily mean the end for LakeFest and it’s not something the community can’t get over. But, Dollar pointed out, attacking people over what, in the end, was a business decision doesn’t help anyone.
“I’ve worked with so many people about LakeFest — (Marble Falls Mayor) John Packer, council members, (Marble Falls EDC executive director) Christian Fletcher, the chamber, and so many others,” Dollar said. “Not once did I hear any of them say they wanted to get rid of LakeFest. I’ve seen just the opposite when it came to LakeFest and how they wanted to work to keep it.”