A year and a half ago, Spokane County announced that the controversial Spokane County Raceway would have two new operators to revitalize it, including Charlie Allen, the man who’s run the Firebird International Speedway in Arizona since 1983. The new operators sought to distance themselves from the track’s colored 35-year history, using phrases like, “It’s a new day.”
Last Friday was yet another new day. Raceway representatives used similar language to announce yet another change in management. Charlie Allen has pulled out, and Spokane local Craig Smith — boat racer, plane flyer, and one-time successful World Champion dragster — has stepped into his place.
“The track does have a bit of a tarnished image out there,” Smith says. “We will work to re-brand that.”
After years of making headlines, the raceway — and the drag strip, in particular — has a problematic reputation.
“I think seven cars bumped into the wall,” Smith says of the drag strip’s slick surface. “That’s not good.”
Smith has spent $100,000 to buy a customized tractor he plans to use to grind up the surface of the strip.
The track, he says, is still “deep in the red.” He plans to get rid of money-losing events — no more Super Chevy or NASCAR series — but also plans to lower ticket prices, hoping to draw more families.
“One thing that Charlie [Allen] did — he wanted to keep the prices high,” Smith says. “It worked for the Phoenix area, but it doesn’t work here.”
He’d like the track to be more family-friendly — no more bikini contests, no more allowing the Déja Vu strip club to sponsor cars. “If my priest wants to come out there, I want to be comfortable with him sitting in the stands,” he says.
County Commissioner Todd Mielke says that he was “surprised with the tone of the press conference.” To him, the changes at the raceway in the last year and a half, including the rebuilding of the road course for safety reasons, have been largely positive.
After Mielke and fellow Commissioner Mark Richard voted to pay $4.5 million for the raceway in 2008, some worried it would be a boondoggle. After Charlie Allen came on, former Commissioner Bonnie Mager called the track a “money pit.” During his 2010 race against Mager, Al French suggested selling the track.
While the operators pay for basic operation funding, the county still has to pay for debt service.
“Every year that goes by we lose more money,” Mager says.
“Thumbs down, still.”
But Mielke says the impact of the course has to be considered.
Buying Antoine Peak Spokane cost $10 million, but fewer than 200 hikers visit it a year, he says.
Yet when those bleachers at the track really get full, he says, they’re packed with over 5,000 racing fans.