West Texas Dragstrip Suffers Second Major Fire Since 2016

They say lightning never strikes the same place twice. For Penwell Knights Raceway at the Caprock Motorplex. That old truism may not be technically correct; the Texas track’s expansive tower burnt once again on October 6, 2018, as the result of a late night lightning strike.

The Western Texas track was still recovering from another electrical-based fire that happened in May of 2016. At that time, a fire resulted from a power feed problem via the area electrical grid. The power feed problem subsequently caught the PA system on fire and completely engulfed the tower.

“We had plans to move forward with expanding Caprock Motorplex with a dirt drag, mud bog, tractor pulling arena,” General Manager Gary Gardenhire says. “The first fire stopped that progress. We put a lot of work into the dragstrip over the past couple of years. Not just to repair, but to make the facility first class.”

Ironically, the following weekend, the track was scheduled to be closed due to their attendance at the IHRA Bracket Finals at Xtreme Raceway Park in Ferris, Texas. Penwell Knights Raceway was presented with the IHRA 2018 Division 4 Track of the Year award during the event.

"We were just about to break ground on our new dirt sport arena again when this happened.” - Gary Gardenhire

“We hope to be back in operation by February 2019,” Gardenhire continues. “We had to cancel some upcoming Radial Tire Racing Association and Dirty South No Prep Racing Series events that are always good for us.”

The heads-up racing community has always been especially kind to the track. Street Outlaws personalities like Kayla Morton, Chris Hamilton (Boosted GT), Mike Murillo, and Scott Taylor helped them with benefit races and special appearances that enabled them to financially rebuild after the first fire.

The track again lost all the “expensive stuff” it takes to operate. Caprock lost the timing system computers; their Accutime system had just been updated to a new system a few months prior. The track was also equipped with a state-of-the-art PA system, which is a total loss. Gardenhire adds, “There are a ton of incidentals such as a closed circuit TV system in the suites and the employee communication radios that are just gone.”

The track was lacking in insurance during the first fire. Now with a policy in-hand, they still have hurdles to rebuilding. Gardenhire predicts, “Right now, we’re in the middle of a big oil boom here in West Texas, so construction contractors are six months out on upcoming projects. We’re hoping and praying that we can find contractors that will actually squeeze us in. That will be our biggest battle besides the insurance company.”

Gardenhire and his staff have put a huge amount of improvements into the track on top of rebuilding from the initial fire.

The tower is currently gutted down to the steel building uprights. They are waiting for the insurance company and a structural engineer to determine if they can rebuild from this point or will need to start over with a new structure. “I am really frustrated over our policy to cover business losses. which includes our 30 part-time employees who are out of work,” Gardenhire says. “They claim we need to show profits over the last three years, and that was tough to do with the fire of 2016.”

Keeping his employees is very crucial to Gardenhire. He noted his concerns about Desert Thunder Raceway previously located nearby in Odessa, Texas which closed in 2015. The defunct track emphasized a lack of available employees. “It comes down to the area oil boom I mentioned before,” Gardenhire says. “Good help is at a premium. We don’t want to lose any of our good operations staff who are currently unemployed during this time.”

This is the time of year that the ‘strip typically offers many street racing events. Gardenhire tells us, “In the last six weeks, we’ve had four deaths occur from racing on the streets. We’re pretty disappointed that we don’t have a place for them to race now.”

About the author

Todd Silvey

Todd has been a hardcore drag racing journalist since 1987. He is constantly on both sides of the guardwall from racing photography and editorship to drag racing cars of every shape and class.
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