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Raceway needs pit stop

Fri., May 16, 2008

The run-down raceway purchased by Spokane County likely can reopen this year, with some paint, elbow grease and safety improvements.

That’s the initial conclusion of three consultants hired by the county to determine what work can be done quickly – and at what cost – to allow an opening this summer. Although the specific cost still is being tabulated, earlier estimates indicate it could be at least half a million dollars in the first year.

But the consultants believe that with proper management, Spokane Raceway Park should be able to cover its operating expenses.

The group was at the Airway Heights raceway Thursday examining the condition of the half-mile oval track, 2.5-mile road course and quarter-mile drag strip, as well as the concession stands and other structures.

“A lot of love needs to be put in, but I’ll tell you, when it’s done, it will be an asset to the community,” said Andy Vertrees, vice president of operations for Bluegrass Motorsports Club in Kentucky and one of the consultants. “It’s got a lot of character to it and a lot of following.”

The same group of consultants studied the possible purchase of the tracks last year, calling the raceway a “diamond in the rough.”

The new study will be ready in about a month and will cost $38,500, said county parks director Doug Chase.

Thursday’s gathering was unrelated to a meeting at the raceway a day earlier involving a National Hot Rod Association official and representatives of a group that wants to lease the raceway from the county. Commissioners Todd Mielke and Mark Richard, two of the three Spokane County commissioners, attended the Wednesday session without notifying the public – possibly a violation of the state’s open meeting law.

The county’s purchase of the raceway last month has become a hot topic. Mielke and Richard argue that county taxpayers needed to save the track, which provides recreational opportunities to thousands of people and could become an engine for economic growth. But Commissioner Bonnie Mager has argued that significant public interest in the course indicates that private investors could have saved the track without the need to spend tax money.

If the sale of the land at last month’s auction is approved by a judge, the county will spend $4.4 million for the raceway and additional acreage that might be converted to a park and law enforcement training center.

All three consultants criticized the track’s upkeep.

“I’ve determined that the facility has never been run properly,” said Don Schumacher, a member of the consulting team at the raceway Thursday.

To open the raceway this year, Schumacher said, the county will need to clear out garbage, including abandoned cars, ambulances, a railroad freight car and other vehicles. It will need to extend a wall along the full length of the quarter-mile drag strip. Other changes could include a lot of painting and erecting a taller fence to protect spectators from debris that could detach from cars, Schumacher said.

Schumacher said the oval track might not open this year. The grandstands for the oval are in worse shape, and the road is bumpy.

“Of all the facilities here, it appears that the oval is going to take more money,” he said.

Schumacher said the group hadn’t determined a cost for the improvements needed for this year, but last year’s study guessed they would cost $500,000 this year and another $300,000 next year. The same report said about $500,000 might be needed for equipment.

After a short racing season this year, the county should consider building a concrete surface for the first 660 feet of the drag strip and rerouting the road course so that it no longer is part of the drag strip, Schumacher said.

County officials say they may ask for proposals from groups that want to lease the raceway to run it.

One of the interested groups brought National Hot Road Association official Jonathan Adams to the raceway Wednesday to recommend changes so that NHRA-sanctioned events can be held.

Schumacher said an NHRA division race could bring 400 racers and about 2,000 other people to town.

On Wednesday, longtime racing enthusiast Don Wilbur, who attended the meeting with Adams and commissioners, told a reporter he was not involved in a group that wanted to lease the track. On Thursday, he acknowledged he’s part of the four-person group that brought Adams to town, though he is not providing financial backing.

Stan Canter, owner of Canter Electric, said the group includes himself, Wilbur and two other people from Eastern Washington, whom he declined to name. He said the group likely will be willing to pay for some upgrades at the track.

Wilbur said he knows of four other groups considering plans to lease the track, including Pacific Raceways in Kent, Wash.

Mark Lindsey, an architect specializing in raceways, drove the tracks Thursday in a midsize rental car.

He had general praise for the road course for turns and small hills that increase the challenge for drivers.

“This is what separates the men from the boys,” he said, as he took one of the course’s sharpest turns.

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