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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Kalispel Tribe offers $4.75 million to buy Spokane County Raceway

UPDATED: Thu., May 6, 2021

Spokane County could soon be out of the race car business.

After a dozen years of owning the Spokane County Raceway and dealing with numerous legal, financial and operating obstacles, the Kalispel Tribe of Indians has offered the county $4.75 million to buy the raceway.

And county commissioners appear ready to take the offer.

Spokane County commissioners announced the offer during a special meeting Wednesday. Commissioner Josh Kerns said that, because the tribe is a sovereign nation, the county is able to sell the property directly, as opposed to putting it through a competitive bidding process.

The county purchased the raceway in 2008 for $4 million at an auction and has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars improving the track.

The purchase was controversial from the beginning. Supporters said it would generate economic development and tax revenue, while opponents argued it was a waste of taxpayer money and would never be profitable enough to be worth the investment.

The raceway was opened in 1974 as Spokane Raceway Park by Orville Moe. He was later ousted as the manager of the raceway by those who had invested $2.5 million in the track. They claimed they hadn’t been properly compensated. A Superior Court judge ruled Moe, who died in 2015, failed to pay dividends, and the raceway was put up for auction in 2008 to help pay the investors.

Commissioner Al French said he has never wanted the county to own the raceway.

“I made a commitment early on in my career at the county to do what I can to get this sold and back into the private sector,” French said. “I’m very pleased that that’s going to happen and exceptionally pleased that the Kalispel Tribe is going to be the new owner.”

French said he believes the tribe can run the raceway better than the county.

“I’ve never thought it was a good idea for the county to engage in these kinds of endeavors,” he said. “The private sector can do a much better job at it.”

In a June 4, 2018, aerial photo, Spokane Raceway Park oval, dragstrip and road course can be seen behind the Northern Quest Casino Resort in Airway Heights.  (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
In a June 4, 2018, aerial photo, Spokane Raceway Park oval, dragstrip and road course can be seen behind the Northern Quest Casino Resort in Airway Heights. (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Past its heyday?

Longtime Spokane racing enthusiast Paul Delaney said the racetrack got off to a good start when it opened in 1974.

In the 1970s and 1980s, some of the most famous drivers in the country raced there. Don “Big Daddy” Garlits, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen and John “Brute Force” Force raced at the Spokane track.

Those big names, plus Spokane racing legend Tom Sneva – who won the 1983 Indianapolis 500 – helped drive racing’s popularity in the Inland Northwest.

By the time the county bought the racetrack in 2008, the track’s popularity had waned.

“That was another generation that went to the racetrack every Saturday or every Sunday,” Delaney said.

Delaney was at the auction in which the county made the purchase.

“It was pretty controversial,” he said. “There was interest in the private sector, so there were some hurt feelings I think when the county – which has pretty much unlimited amounts of money – ran the bidding up and squashed out the private sector.”

Todd Mielke, who served as a Spokane County commissioner in 2008, pushed for the county to buy the track. He said the property was available at a good price but added that the county never found the right operator .

Mielke, a self-described motorhead, said buying the raceway was akin to buying a baseball field or a park – it wasn’t supposed to be a cash cow, it was for the public’s enjoyment.

“The county never purchased it thinking we were going to make money off of it,” Mielke said.

Bonnie Mager, who also served on the county commission in 2008, opposed the acquisition. She said she’s not surprised the county’s selling it to the Kalispel Tribe.

“I could have predicted that,” Mager said. “I think it was a bad idea from the beginning and proved to be a bad idea. … It became really clear that it was not going to be a moneymaker and that it was basically going to end up costing the county a lot of revenue. It was basically a money sink.”

Mager said she never thought the county had any business getting involved in the racing industry.

“It’s not like a swimming pool where you’re teaching children a life skill,” she said. “It was ridiculous, the whole thing.”

Will racing return?

Government officials and racing enthusiasts alike said they’re glad the Kalispel Tribe plans to buy the property. Many said the Tribe is better equipped to properly market racing, in contrast to the county, which never had the business expertise to do the job.

“I think they have – no pun intended – a great track record,” Kerns said. “They’ve been very successful in recreation and entertainment.”

Kerns said he believes the Tribe will bring racing back to the track.

Tim Nydegger, the executive director of corporate strategy for the Kalispel Tribe Economic Authority, did not say definitively that the Tribe intends to use the racetrack for racing, though.

“We’re going through our due diligence,” Nydegger said. “(Racing) is definitely part of the prospective plan, as well as looking at other recreational uses.”

Todd Havens, owner of the Killer B Racing Team, said the tribe is the track’s last hope. He noted, while drag racing was happening at the track before the pandemic, the oval has been mostly quiet for about five years.

“I’m very excited, because if they do decide to invest the money, it’s going to be successful,” said Havens, who has raced at the track since he was a kid. “Everything they touch is successful.”

The Pacific Northwest has lost a lot of its racetracks over the years, Delaney said.

“To lose the Spokane track would be tragic,” he said. “Once they’re done, they don’t come back. We’re in a different world these days. All of these tracks were built when we had all these old motorheads.”

Delaney, who has been a regular at the racetrack for more than 40 years, said he hopes the Kalispel Tribe can bring back some of the track’s former glory.

“We have this tremendous history of autoracing, motorsports in Spokane,” he said. “Heck, we’ve got an Indy 500 champion in Tom Sneva. We did have this great history that allowed this facility to be built. Hopefully the Tribe can move and rekindle some of that.”

In this June 8, 2014 photo, Mark Jaremko races his 1975 March 75B Formula Atlantic race car as he wins the Group 4 race during the 2014 Spokane Festival of Speed Historic Races at Spokane County Raceway in Airway Heights.   (TYLER TJOMSLAND/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
In this June 8, 2014 photo, Mark Jaremko races his 1975 March 75B Formula Atlantic race car as he wins the Group 4 race during the 2014 Spokane Festival of Speed Historic Races at Spokane County Raceway in Airway Heights.  (TYLER TJOMSLAND/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
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