Photos courtesy WV Department of Environmental Protection
Pending negotiations that are ongoing this week, West Virginia could be home to a sanctioned drag strip again as early as March of next year.
Florida drag strip entrepreneur Pete Scalzo, who most recently operated the Green Cove Dragway near Jacksonville, is hopeful he can assume operation of the new Twin Branch Drag Strip, which was built on former coal mining property and currently under the ownership of Mingo County, West Virginia.
The Twin Branch strip was conceived as part of a land-recovery agreement in the state of West Virginia, wherein mining companies are required to return land to its pre-mining state or provide it for the use of civic projects. Massey Energy, which previously owned and operated a surface coal mining site on the land, donated it to the county as part of this post-mining land use after its operations were idled. According to local media sources, Consol Energy, a competitor to Massey Energy, was operating on an adjacent site, and become involved in the project as part of a plan to maintain their mining permit and save some 300 jobs. The county gained permission from the Economic Development Administration to allow Consol to use the donated and yet-to-be-developed site for dumping of materials from its own mining operations. In return, Consol donated labor, materials, and equipment for the construction of a drag strip, which the county had determined would be an economically-lucrative use of the land (according to Scalzo, a stock car track was the initial plan, but was later scrapped).
The county and Consol Energy consulted early on with the IHRA and its Special Advisor For Track Development, Phil Gingerich, to kickstart the project.
“I was originally contacted by the county commissioners and the company that owned the mining property to assist them in developing the track. I worked with the architects and the coal company to give them direction on things they needed to do. I met with the commissioners and went over and what needed to be done to complete the dragstrip and provide approximate costs,” Gingerich shares.
Reported figures ranging from $1 million to $2.5 million were spent constructing the all-concrete track surface, concrete guardrails, and the pit area and return road, along with the service road into the property. According to Gingerich, once that work was complete, the project ran into political red tape and sat unfinished for more than a year.
That was when Gingerich contacted Scalzo, who had recently been displaced from Green Cove.
Scalzo, a longtime track operator and promoter who has overseen four other IHRA-sanctioned tracks, in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida, lost his lease at Green Cove for at least the next two years when Volkswagen outbid him, needing a location to store their recalled diesel vehicles as part of the “DieselGate” emissions scandal.
Scalzo owned much of the infrastructure used at Green Cove, including the lights, scoreboards, PA, and timing system. The Mingo County Commissioners had a track that lacked that very equipment. It was, and may be, the perfect marriage.
I met with 19 people from both counties (Mingo and Logan), very nice people, and their intent is, they have this track sitting there, and they want it to be up and running. – Pete Scalzo
“I own all of the equipment from Green Cove. I had just bought new scoreboards in January. So I’m bringing all of my equipment up with me. I’m not asking them for any money — I’m coming in with all of my equipment, my expertise, and I’m aiming to have it open in the latter part of March of next year.”
Scalzo says the agreement hasn’t been finalized, and once a deal is in place, it will take 30 to 45 days to complete all the necessary approvals and paperwork to allow him to move forward.
“I’m hoping to be get started on completing the construction in the mid to late part of November. I just met today with Ray Lewis of Kanawha Valley (previously the only sanctioned dragway in West Virginia before it was closed and sold) to purchase their grandstands.”
Scalzo says the city and the taxpayers “don’t know anything about the drag racing business. They won’t want anything to do with it, but what they see, rightfully so, is tremendous economic development. And I’m excited, because our President is behind coal, so all of these folks in this area that have been suffering for years, I’m hoping that they’re all going to get excited and that the coal industry might come back and these guys will become our racers and our spectators.”
Scalzo will lease the track from the county, and his requirement will include bringing all of the equipment to get the track operational. In addition, per IHRA guidelines, he will be required to install a safety net in the sand trap, at an estimated cost of $15,000 — a price he says is “just the cost of doing business. I have the track-working equipment, electronics, radios, and everything. He adds, “we will not be opening right away with a full-blown concession building, nor will we have permanent restrooms.
The told me ‘we don’t want to be in the drag racing business, but we do want this as an engine for economic development’ … that’s what they’re interested in. I believe this is a win-win situation for them. – Pete Scalzo
Once operational, Scalzo hopes to quickly prove the merits of the track, and thereby secure a longer-term lease, saying he “doesn’t want to do this for nothing.”
“The told me ‘we don’t want to be in the drag racing business, but we do want this as an engine for economic development’ … that’s what they’re interested in. I believe this is a win-win situation for them.”
As he did at Green Cove, Scalzo will concentrate his program on the younger crowd and street cars with test-and-tune nights, sharing that “that’s really where the money is.” An opponent of illegal street racing, he says he will also utilize the strip for the “Beat the Heat” program, which his tracks have been partnered with since 2007. A regular IHRA Summit SuperSeries bracket racing program will also be contested throughout the season.