The tracks that managed to survive through the toughest times of drag racing history still have a tough row to hoe, because politics, safety, and the economy still determine the livelihood of most tracks. Large or small, drag strip owners are sitting on pins and needles because of all the rules and regulations required to do business, while also fighting a slump in the economy and the ongoing evolution of the cars. The fact that the NHRA fuel classes shortened the racing distance to 1,000 feet is enough to show that the history of the sport doesn’t hold a candle to the safety of the drivers and fans. Racing organizations, track owners, and racers will do whatever it takes to keep the sport going, even if it means doing away with standard quarter-mile racing. Eighth-mile racing has become popular because it’s the only accessible track for many racers, so they just have to deal with it; the same goes for those who are forced to race 1,000 feet instead of the full 1,320.
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Modern-day drag strips, regardless of whether they are historic or brand-new facilities, face the same challenges that most tracks have faced over the years. Even state-of-the-art tracks can be forced to close if enough people are involved with the complaints or surrounding property development.
Since the turn of the century, many tracks have bitten the dust and the coming years aren’t looking any better for the sport. Drag cars aren’t exactly “green” so they definitely don’t sit well with environmentalists, who have an alarming amount of pull in the automotive world. Luckily, organizations such as the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) go to bat for the automotive aftermarket industry and have been quite successful in keeping the hot rod and drag racing community on good terms with government regulations.
Regardless of SEMA’s efforts, tracks are closing at a shocking rate. At the end of 2011, a number of tracks faced certain death, while others closed temporarily and returned under new ownership or management. One of them was Tulsa Raceway Park, but a last-minute agreement from Todd Martin and Keith Haney resulted in the formation of T&K Management Group, which promised to keep Tulsa Raceway Park alive for several more years.
Another track in turmoil was in Los Angeles, Irwindale Raceway, which filed for bankruptcy in early 2012. A change of hands is always touchy with noise ordinances, which are particularly strict in Southern California, but it was possible to continue under different ownership.
Auto Club Dragway in Fontana, California, was not so lucky. In early 2012, its website read, “A Superior Court has suspended operation of the Auto Club Dragway.” The statement continued, “The suspension results from a successful challenge of a San Bernardino County sound standard by a group of concerned residents.” In other words, the track was forced to close because of noise complaints.
Sunshine Drag Strip, Lakeland Drag Strip, and Emerald Coast Dragway, all located in Florida, closed their gates temporarily during late 2011 and early 2012. However, ownership changes gave hope to many Florida racers who thought they would no longer have a place to race.
Several hundred racers in the Midwest didn’t have that luxury, as the city of Kansas City struck a deal to buy their Kansas City International Raceway (KCIR), with plans to turn it into a park immediately. This drag racing facility had been in business since 1967. The longtime track underwent this unfortunate exchange in late 2011, and it has already been dismantled in preparation for the city park development. Even with a successful NHRA sanction, as well as great support from its racers the track couldn’t fight the local government any longer. KCIR ran its final race on November 27, 2011.
On the Rebound
With hundreds of drag strips going out of business in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the push for a triumphant comeback was inevitable. Drag racers wanted a safe place to race, and many of them got together hoping to reopen some of the tracks had that closed due to the bad economy. And while the effort was tremendous, most abandoned drag strips had little-to-no option for reopening, regardless of the number of improvements to the facility.
In most cases, it wasn’t a matter of the track condition—it was the local government that simply didn’t want the complaints, or it came down to the property being sold to a developer who had no interest in drag racing. Many drag strips were destroyed in favor of a park, a housing subdivision, or an industrial park before a group could step in to revive the track.
A select few racers were lucky enough to succeed in bringing back their home track. In the 1980s, several tracks reopened after only a couple years of closure, but the tracks included in this list never really looked like they were truly abandoned.
When it comes to reviving an abandoned drag strip, especially a track that has been vacant for more than a few years, it’s no simple task. Lots of paperwork is involved and if the property changed ownership during the down time, there isn’t much hope unless the facility is not under the firm grasp of noise and other strict ordinances. A few tracks have been thoughtfully revived after sitting vacant for several years, so there’s something to be said about the perseverance of drag racers.
There aren’t very many tracks that made it out of abandonment, especially in areas where real estate values far surpassed the value of a racing facility. That’s why the success stories with tracks such as 75-80 Dragway in Monrovia, Maryland, are so great. The track opened in 1960, had a successful run as one of the premier tracks on the East Coast, and was known specifically for its “Run What Ya Brung” headsup events. A lack of maintenance caused a continuous drop in attendance, until it all came crumbling down in 2005, when the track finally closed its doors.
And while most folks thought they’d never have another world-renowned chili dog from Monrovia, Maryland’s 75-80 Dragway, rumors floated around the Internet about new activity at the track. Some doubted the reality of the track reopening, but it was happening—75-80 was being reborn, thanks to a few fresh faces. Roy Stanley, along with his son, Kevin, and daughter, Lisa Stanley-Willis, reached an agreement with property owner Bill Wilcom to manage the track. Wilcom still served as a consultant, but left the big decisions to the Stanley family.
During the down time, the track had really gone downhill, but the Stanley family did a lot to bring it back to life. New roofs for the buildings, new concrete barriers to replace the steel guardrails, and a thorough cleanup did wonders to wake up the sleepy drag strip. October 2009 was the grand reopening of 75-80 Dragway and it has been one of the biggest success stories for abandoned track revival.
Another notable track that has seen a major rejuvenation is Lassiter Mountain Dragway in Mount Olive, Alabama. It was one of Alabama’s first drag strips, opening its doors in 1958, and it was certainly one of the most recognizable tracks in the country, with its carved-out racing surface and huge vertical rock walls on both sides of the track. Spectators had an interesting view of the racing action, and the cliffs meant that guardrails were not necessary to protect the crowd. The track saw lots of success over the years, but a laundry list of upgrades was necessary to keep it alive. Lassiter Mountain, which also operated as Birmingham Dragway, closed in 2006 and the property sat vacant for a few years, until new owners completely renovated it and reopened in 2010. The cliffs are gone, new concrete guard walls are in place, and the tower has been completely rebuilt.
Onondaga Dragway in Michigan is yet another track that sat abandoned, and gets the award for most years in abandonment. It sat unused from its closure 1978 until 2009, when a group of racers held a reunion event on the old track. This involvement sparked an interest in reviving the track, and thousands of dollars and countless hours resulted in a greatlooking race track. The racers installed new guardrails and completely revamped the racing surface, only to be held up by local politics. At the time of print, the track had been complete for more than a year, but had not seen its first official day of use. However, that’s not to say it hasn’t seen a few passes by racers such as Jeff Cook, who devoted lots of time and money to reviving the historic Michigan track.
Without question, there are lots of tracks that could be revived if the opportunity presented itself. Generally, the racing surface can be redone, but that’s the easiest part of the equation. It’s always the final details that give the most trouble, and they involve paperwork to obtain proper insurance, ordinances, and regulations. Even though many drag strips continue to sit in an abandoned state, it isn’t for the lack of trying.
Written by Tommy Lee Byrd and Posted with Permission of CarTechBooks