Jason Fiorito, president of Pacific Raceways, could have taken the easy way out.
“I’m sitting on the last large, undeveloped, industrially zoned piece of property in King County [home to Washington State’s Seattle]. A year ago, I easily could have taken an obnoxiously large check for the property by a big, multi-billion-dollar commercial-development company,” he said.
“And I told them, ‘Listen, you’re talking about hallowed ground here,” Fiorito said of the 320-acre facility southeast of Seattle. “Dale Earnhardt won the last NASCAR event here in 1985. This is a place that Mario Andretti and Phil Hill and Al Unser raced on the road course. This is a place that Don Garlits and Shirley Muldowney and Kenny Bernstein and all the big names in drag racing have raced. You’re talking about something I’ve been walking around on since I was a little kid. Not all returns on investments are monetary. I know you don’t understand me telling you no, but the answer is not just no but **** no. Not on my watch. Take your money and spend it somewhere else. This is a regional asset.’ And they left, shaking their heads, going, ‘I just don’t understand how this guy thinks.’”
How he thinks is clear. He said, “We don’t want to be another track that drops off the map.” And that is the challenge in the Camping World Drag Racing Series, which since 2018, has lost tracks at Englishtown, N.J.; Commerce, Ga.; and Baytown, Texas – all in major markets (New York, Atlanta, Houston). The Chicago market was empty for three years. Virginia Motorsports Park won’t be back in 2023. And next February, Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Chandler, Ariz., will host its final race. So the Phoenix market is set to go away, too, by 2024.
Sporty Bandimere told Dragzine in an April 24 email that the latest rumor that Bandimere Speedway, on the outskirts of Denver, also will disappear to commercial development “is simply a rumor.” He wrote, “What I can tell you is that Bandimere Speedway gets inquiries of this type every month or two and has for years. Development in Jefferson County [Colorado] and specifically a stone’s throw away from the track is quickly changing the landscape. We have always strived to be proactive to control our own destiny, and we will continue to do that in the future. Our focus has always remained the same: to operate and run America’s premier track to serve our loyal racers and spectators. As such, we intend to run the NHRA Mile High Nationals for many decades to come.”
According to reporter Paul Albani-Burgio, in a May 12, 2021, article in the Arvada [Colo.] Press, the Bandimere family is “looking to rezone the property to a more permissive zoning that would allow them to build, say, a grocery store, restaurants, or even houses on the site. A planning manager for the Baseline Engineering Corporation that is working with the Bandimeres on their rezoning application, said the goal of the rezoning is not to close or remove the speedway.
“There is no plan to close the track or redevelop the property. I think that is a good point to make,” Albani-Burgio quoted Baseline planning manager Ethan Watel as saying. “But if the track did close for some reason, financially or whatever – it could be any reason – the only thing the property is allowed to be is a racetrack, and there is no fallback plan. So it is sort of like an insurance policy to know what could go on the property if it’s not a track.”
Corporate investors are coming in and pricing us out of the market. That’s why we had to go [to] commercial development linked to a racetrack – or our future was written in stone. – Json Fiorito, Pacific Raceways
The published article said Watel revealed that “the new zoning could also help support the track, as it would allow for ‘accessory uses to the track that would support the track, like hotels, restaurants, and retail that could be on the property with the track.” An Official Development Plan, filed as early as 1994, “permits mostly speedway-related uses. It also permits telecommunications facilities. Two parcels on the far north end of the speedway property are also zoned for agriculture.”
For Fiorito at Seattle, his decision has come at a price. “We spend an entire year getting ready for the national event that at the end of the day doesn’t justify the amount of effort we put into it. We partnered with the NHRA on the risk that goes into these events, but we really have no say as to what the show is. I have no control over their show. If everything remains constant and we remain on the route we’re going, drag racing is in jeopardy at Pacific Raceways. It just is.”
To combat the temptation to sell – to preserve the road course and dragstrip for racers from Montana, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, and Canada’s next-door-neighbor British Columbia and beyond – Fiorito is carrying out plans to build an on-site tech campus that will increase his revenue stream. Already finished in the first of three phases are buildings with a total of 80,000 square feet of space. The campus will provide warehouse space for race-car operations, as well as for small- to medium-sized auto, aerospace, and industrial-sector businesses who may use the dragstrip and road course in product testing.
“Over the long run, those buildings will keep the industry alive [in the Pacific Northwest],” Fiorito said. “If it was relying on drag racing or even renting the road course to do it, it would never pencil out. Corporate investors are coming in and pricing us out of the market. That’s why we had to go [to] commercial development linked to a racetrack – or our future was written in stone, just like the rest of the tracks that have been eaten by urban sprawl and underlying land values.”
He said he knows full well that “commercial development and urban sprawl drive the price of the underlying value up to the point you can’t justify the return produced by racetracks. You just can’t. We’re watching it across the country: the underlying land value is pricing racetracks out of their venues. It’s a fact.” But his plan is to keep the 62-year-old racetrack open so events such as the Flav-R-Pac NHRA Northwest Nationals each summer has a place to come back to for many years.
For financial reasons, Virginia Motorsports Park made the opposite decision. After the NHRA released its 2023 Camping World Drag Racing Series schedule, it became public knowledge that the race south of Richmond will not return. Like Seattle, it was a venue that lost not one but two consecutive NHRA national events for pandemic-related reasons. But Virginia Motorsports Park operators Tommy and Judy Franklin, who hosted a 2022 national event, learned during the previous two years they could stage non-NHRA events that yielded a better bottom line.
We’re looking at four facilities right now. We want facilities that are going to evolve. [We’ve] looked at some of these other tracks before they were in trouble, but it’s a little hard to jump into the middle of something that is a mess already. – Mike Salinas
The Franklins issued a Sept. 6 statement that said Virginia Motorsports Park and the NHRA were unable to agree to terms for another Virginia Nationals, at least for now. The press release said that “with our resources, it just does not make financial sense to continue.”
Route 66 Raceway, in the Chicago suburb of Joliet, Ill., which had been off the national-event schedule in 2020, 2021, and 2022, is included in the 2023 mix. However, it’s unclear if that return is for more than one year.
Too many rumors coming from Southern California, the cradle of drag racing, prompted some digging and produced reassurances from Los Angeles County Fairplex officials that Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif. – the site of the NHRA season opener and finale – is not going away. Fairplex president and CEO Walter Marquez said publicly that the 100-year-old property, which is set to undergo an overhaul, will include the Winternationals and Finals site and will be incorporated into whatever designs the Fairplex considers. Both Fairplex communications director Renee Hernandez and Jeffrey Young, the NHRA’s vice president of communications, discredited the rumor that the Pomona dragstrip will not be in the NHRA’s future. “Pomona is not going away,” Young said. “We have a multi-year contract with the Fairplex. The L.A. market is very important to us.”
A continent away, former Pro Stock racer and Philadelphia-area business mogul Kenny Koretsky rescued the for-sale Maple Grove Raceway this April, guaranteeing that drag racing, and this storied racetrack near Reading, Pa., in particular, will remain a Northeast staple on the tour and for local racers.
Without an inch of the property overlooked, Koretsky and sons Kenny and Kyle (who competes in the Pro Stock class for KB Racing) have poured millions of dollars and man-hours into renovating and modernizing the facility to enhance the user experience. They did it all while presenting “Street Outlaws No Prep Kings,” the PDRA Northern Nationals, Chevy Showdown, the Keystone Truckin’ Nationals, and a Lucas Oil Series divisional event, as well as E.T. series, nostalgia racing, Test & Tune nights, Rugged Maniac 5K Obstacle Race, and Night Lights Lantern Festival. After the NHRA Countdown to the Championship starts with the Pep Boys Nationals, country music star Jimmie Allen will headline the Fallfest concert. So the Koretsky family – KPK Enterprises – has turned a rather weary facility into a vibrant and beautiful hub of activity in Berks County.
Top Fuel racer Mike Salinas has expressed interest in owning a racetrack, too. Earlier this summer, the San Francisco-area businessman said he had inquired about buying Florida’s Palm Beach International Raceway. That didn’t work out, but he said, “We’re looking at four facilities right now. We want facilities that are going to evolve. They’re all on the East Coast.” However, Salinas said he recognized the perils of trying to get all parties involved on the same page: “To find people that are like-minded, it’s almost impossible.” He also said he “looked at some of these other tracks before they were in trouble, but it’s a little hard to jump into the middle of something that is a mess already.”
Nevertheless, he still is entertaining the notion. “There is a solution for doing this,” he said. “We have a lot on our plates as individuals and business owners and racers to find the right people. So we have to find those tracks. I think it is out there. I think it can be done. But we just have to get together as a group and collaborate and make sure we all have the same goal: racing and success and happiness for the community of racing.”
Funny Car superstar John Force said he has had his eye on two racetracks he’d like to purchase, but he said he has abandoned the idea now after learning he can’t have either of the two he wanted. He said he has “talked to them [NHRA executives] about it for years, but they won’t sell. There are only two places that interest me: California, because that’s my home, and Indy. But they’re not going to sell Indy. Right now, I’m not doing anything, [opting to] just wait and see what happens.”
For now, the NHRA has secured 18 racetracks that will host 21 events next year. Beyond that, the landscape is uncertain.