August 4, 2007 in City

County explores buying raceway

By The Spokesman-Review
Photos by Christopher ANDERSON photo

Racers line up behind the starting line at Spokane Raceway Park on Friday as they wait for their turn on the dragstrip.
(Full-size photo)

A group of racing enthusiasts, determined that there should be no checkered flag for Spokane Raceway Park, has persuaded Spokane County commissioners to consider buying the speedway.

The motor sports complex faces sale in court-ordered receivership and “if it got turned into a mini-storage, that would be a sad end,” said former Spokane City Attorney Jim Sloane.

Sloane is the informal leader of a group of amateur race car drivers who convinced county commissioners to get an appraisal of the West Plains racing complex. Others include car dealer Paul Jaremko, Sullivan Homes owner Jim Sullivan and accountant Bill Simer.

“We get together every Sunday morning up at Huckleberry’s and lie about how fast we used to be,” Sloane said.

Although wary, county commissioners have gotten an appraisal of the 592-acre complex at 101 N. Hayford Road, which includes surplus land, a gravel pit and commercial frontage near Northern Quest Casino. Some of the surplus land adjoins a county off-road-vehicle park near Airway Heights.

“We all agreed that we should take a look,” Commissioner Todd Mielke said. “I think we all agreed that it is a unique facility, and they are difficult to replace.”

A motorcycle rider, Mielke is concerned about protecting the county’s off-road-vehicle park from residential encroachment. Still, he would want any purchase to have little or no effect on the general fund.

“If it can pay for itself, I think it’s a great idea,” Commissioner Bonnie Mager said.

Commission Chairman Mark Richard, whose priorities are roads and public safety, also doesn’t want to spend general fund money. But he likes the idea of pumping up the economy while preserving recreational opportunities.

So does Harry Sladich, president and chief executive of the Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“My job is to put heads in beds, and these racers come from all over the place,” he said. “They will be staying in hotels and they will be eating in restaurants.”

Sladich, who races motorcycles, said Spokane Raceway Park has been “very inconsistently run,” but he is “excited” about the prospect of promoting a well-managed speedway.

Richard declined to discuss an appraisal that was delivered last week, but said commissioners remain interested in acquiring the raceway.

He said commissioners might consider a bond measure if they can work out a nearly risk-free plan to recover the money and operate the speedway on a self-sustaining basis. Exploiting some of the property’s other assets could offset acquisition costs, he said.

Some commercial frontage might be sold to developers while the county Road Division might buy gravel from the raceway park quarry. Also, Richard said, county engineers are studying the possibility of a user-supported project in which a permeable “paleochannel” would absorb storm runoff that hampers development on the rocky West Plains.

Richard said the county’s appraisal considered the market for racing events as well as for real estate in trying to determine the race park’s value.

An unsupported estimate of $26 million has been bandied in court hearings, but Sloane said a recent sale of nearby land would suggest a $9.5 million value for the raceway land. Of course, the nearby land didn’t have a 2 1/2-mile road course, a half-mile oval course, a 3/4-mile drag strip or grandstand seating for 15,000 to 20,000 spectators.

The raceway likely will be sold by court order to pay dividends that a judge said former track operator Orville Moe improperly withheld from investors.

Court-appointed receiver Barry Davidson said revenues have sustained Spokane Raceway Park for 35 years, but are insufficient to pay off investors or their heirs and successors.

Moe collected $2.5 million from 500 “limited partners” in the early 1970s, and they have yet to receive a dime in return.

Raceway Park is in its second season under receivership, but Davidson said the ongoing operation “is conducted primarily for the benefit of the racing community.” It doesn’t generate enough money “to be material for the recovery of the investors.,” he said.

“It’s not a profitable operation; you could say that clearly enough,” Davidson said, declining to be more specific.

With needed improvements, though, the speedway could be profitable, according to businessman Chuck Little, who is a retired amateur stock car racer and the father of 15-year NASCAR driver Chad Little.

“They’d probably have to spend well over $1 million to improve it,” Chuck Little estimated.

He owns Watt’s Automotive and used to own the Northwest Speedway at Stateline, Idaho. He also operated the stock car track at the Spokane County fairgrounds for a dozen years, until the track closed in 1988.

Even without improvements, Spokane Raceway Park lures thousands of people and tens of thousands of dollars to Spokane. Just one event – the sixth annual Spokane Grand Prix on July 13-15 – drew 130 cars and about 1,000 people, according to Scott Adare, vice president of the sponsoring Northwest Motorsports club.

“It’s an easy $200,000 in economic impact,” Adare said.

He arrived at that figure by multiplying the number of cars by the $1,500 to $2,000 he spends on race fees, food, lodging and the like when he travels to out-of-town races. And many cars are driven by additional drivers who also come from out of town, Adare said.

Drag racing draws even larger crowds.

Larry Taylor, the raceway’s drag race director, said this weekend’s Summer Nitro Extravaganza may draw 40,000 people.

There’s “a ton of money” in drag-racing events, Spokane businessman and drag racer Todd Hoerner said. For a standing-room-only crowd, one has only to mix alcohol jet cars with free admission for women, he said.

Mike Rice, a regional director in the National Hot Rod Association, said he is “pretty confident” the association would establish a Northwest Division event at Spokane Raceway Park if the track were brought up to the group’s standards.

“Someone probably could easily spend $5 million, but basic improvements would be less than $1 million,” he said.

Because of Spokane’s central location in the division, Rice believes an event here could become larger than any of the current six. A divisional event in Woodburn, Ore., is usually the largest with 400 to 420 top alcohol dragsters and “funny cars,” but Rice can “easily see” Spokane attracting 500 cars.

“Anything above 350 cars and they’re making money,” he said.

After NHRA charges and insurance, a drag strip might clear $30,000 to $40,000 on racer entry fees, Rice said. Public admission and concession revenue would be “free and clear,” he said.

Sloane believes the key to success is public ownership – allowing revenues to be reinvested, not siphoned away. He points to Portland International Raceway, which operates as a self-sustaining division of Portland’s municipal Parks and Recreation Bureau.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, Portland International Raceway spent about $1.5 million and collected about $1.8 million, according to track manager Mark Wigginton.

“Absolutely it can hold its own,” Wigginton said of Spokane Raceway Park. “You’re never going to make lots and lots of money. … You could certainly make it pay for itself if you didn’t burden it with debt service.”

A 2004 study by the Portland-based ECONorthwest consulting firm indicates the real payout is in economic development. The study found Portland International Raceway contributed $45.3 million to the Multnomah County economy in 2004, including 690 full- and part-time jobs paying $16.9 million in wages.

Sloane’s group believes Spokane Raceway Park may come up for sale this fall. Davidson declined to comment on the timing, but said he won’t seek permission to sell the property until he has adequate information on its value.

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