October 19, 2008 in City

Driver in the lead to run racing park

Panel says Bucky Austin made the best proposal
By The Spokesman-Review
 

A race car driver who owns a chain of auto repair shops in Western Washington is in the lead position to win a contract to oversee Spokane County’s new raceway.

A committee formed to analyze the two bids to run Spokane County Motorsports Park in Airway Heights decided Monday that Midway Muffler & Radiator, which is owned by driver Bucky Austin, has the best plan for the raceway. Midway does business as Bucky’s Complete Auto Repair, headquartered in Fife, Wash.

County commissioners will decide on Tuesday if they will negotiate with Austin to finalize an agreement.

“We will make the county proud of this facility,” Austin, 59, said in a phone interview. “This is going to be family entertainment.”

The county asked for proposals from groups that would run the raceway for at least 10 years and invest $2 million to make improvements.

Austin has proposed running the park for 25 years. He also agreed to the $2 million in improvements and offered to pay the county $10,000 a month, said county parks Special Projects Manager John Bottelli. Austin would put $5 from every ticket sold into a county fund that could be used to reimburse him the $2 million and for other track-related expenses. Austin said he will be responsible for all maintenance, operations and improvement costs.

Park officials said the committee’s recommendation was unanimous.

“They have a long-term vision,” said Doug Chase, the county park director. “I believe they will work well with Spokane County and the community.”

The county purchased the former Spokane Raceway Park at an auction in April. Besides maintaining the drag strip, road-racing course and oval track, the county is considering using some of the acreage to build a park with soccer and ball fields, and a law enforcement training center.

Officials say negotiations will help determine if and how much revenue from the track may help repay the $4.5 million the county borrowed to buy the 315 acres of the former Spokane Raceway Park.

The county likely will have a bill for environmental cleanup. Chase estimates it will cost $40,000 to dispose of numerous barrels and their contents left on the site. That amount could decline because the county expects to earn money from recycling scrap metal on the property.

Bottelli said the state plans to evaluate the site for other possible environmental contamination. He added that the receivership in charge of auctioning the site remains responsible for cleaning up groundwater pollution.

Critics, including Spokane County Commissioner Bonnie Mager, have argued the county has more important things to spend money on and the private sector could have saved the raceway. She also has expressed concerns about the costs of environmental cleanup.

Commissioners Mark Richard and Todd Mielke say it was far from certain that private interests could have kept it open. They also say that if run properly, it could generate important tourism and tax revenue.

The county recently reported that four days of drag racing held recently generated about $268,000, using a Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau formula.

After a delay in the final sale to the county, officials opened the track in August. Chase said the county spent about $20,000 in operations and maintenance during that time and raised about $100,000 in fees paid by racing groups and others to rent the complex.

The county also authorized spending about $250,000 in August for studies and other raceway expenses.

The raceway has been a top issue facing Mielke and Richard in their bids for re-election.

Richard said this week that with officials from NASCAR expressing interest in holding events at the raceway, the project likely will recoup at least some of the purchase cost and bring in racers from throughout the region who will stay the night and spend money.

But his opponent, Liberty Lake City Councilman Brian Sayrs, said track revenue is a sign that the purchase was foolish.

“It shows that it doesn’t need to be in public ownership in order to be successful,” Sayrs said.

Mielke’s opponent, Dr. Kim Thorburn, said that while she wouldn’t have voted to buy the track, she is impressed with the enthusiasm she’s seen in the racing community and supports moving ahead with a long-term operating contract.

Mielke said Austin’s bid and the revenue generated this year help debunk those who have described the raceway as a money pit. He added that the county bought 315 acres for less than it would have expected to pay for the 80 acres it likely will use for sports fields.

Austin said he would have bid on the raceway if he had known it would sell for the price it did.

“I should have been there,” he said. “I thought it would go for much more.”

Still, he said the county’s purchase of the track will allow him to use money for improvements that he would have spent buying the property. If he is awarded a contract, Austin said, the raceway would be managed by Jay Livingston, former manager of Pacific Raceways in Kent, Wash., who also has run Woodburn Dragstrip in Woodburn, Ore. The Oregon strip is owned by Livingston’s father, Austin said.

Austin, who has raced cars for about 35 years, called his bid “a flip of the coin,” but said he wasn’t gambling anything he can’t afford to lose. It may take a decade before the raceway pulls a profit, he said.

Austin raced at Spokane Raceway Park in the 1980s and ’90s, but stopped because he believed the former operator, Orville Moe, had let safety lapse. He vows to run a quality speedway.

“This has been my passion,” Austin said. “Most of the operators take and take and wouldn’t put anything back.”

Jonathan Brunt can be reached at jonathanb@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5442.


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