In the 1960s and ’70s, stock-car racers at the Yakima Speedway were small-town heroes and fans packed the stands every Saturday night. But tastes have changed, and now the track is up for sale. Locals know this could be the last season.
The crowds have been pretty good lately at Yakima Speedway — though maybe not quite like they were back in its 1960s and ’70s golden era. Back then, stock-car racers were small-town heroes and fans packed the stands every Saturday night.
This year’s midseason races have been busy, though. Local fans, both hard-core and casual, know this could be the track’s last year in operation. They don’t want to take it for granted.
“The response from the community has been overwhelming,” said Ron Bennett, an Ellensburg-based racing lifer who has been overseeing this year’s shortened Yakima Speedway season with Yakima businessman Doug Betteral. “Word-of-mouth has been awesome.”
As recently as this spring, it looked as if there wouldn’t even be a 2018 season.
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Owner Ted Pollock, 84, of Vancouver, Washington, had an agreement in place last year to sell the 46-acre property adjacent to Interstate 82 for mixed-use development. But that deal fell apart and in May he leased the property to Bennett and Betteral so they could operate it for a shortened season this summer and fall.
That gave the track a stay of execution, but its future is still in doubt. The property remains on the market, with an asking price Pollock said is now less than $9 million, down from the initial $10.1 million.
Pollock, who has owned the 62-year-old track for more than half a century, said he’s proud of its history and success over the years, but it doesn’t draw as many people as it used to. Also, he’s not a young man anymore and can’t put in the travel and the labor required to keep it operating.
“I made a lot of good friends in Yakima and a lot of good relationships that are ongoing,” he said. “It’s been a fun deal, a good deal. And I’ve enjoyed it terribly. But I have to let it go.”
Investors and innovation
Although he’s yet to find a buyer, he’s got an agreement with Betteral and Bennett that would allow them to operate the track next season if there’s no new owner in place by November. Whether the two will be up for another go-round in 2019 is a different matter.
Neither of them has made any money running it this year, they say, and it’s a big commitment. Bennett’s kids and grandkids have followed his footsteps into racing, and he’d like more time to follow them around the country, watching them drive.
“That said, I’ve very much enjoyed what I’m doing,” he said. “I feel very good that we’ve resurrected the track, so to speak. Doug and I will have some serious talk about it.”
Ideally, some deep-pocketed investor or investors would step in and buy the speedway.
“Our hope is that we’ll get some investors that realize the potential of keeping it as a racetrack,” Bennett said. “It does make financial sense when it’s managed properly.
“It needs to be utilized many, many more times per year than it has been in the past. And it lends itself to a lot of things. It lends itself to concerts, to other motor-racing types rather than just stock cars — autocross, drifting — there are just a lot of different things the facility could and should be used for.”
If it’s run well, the audience for racing still exists in Yakima, Betteral said. This season’s races, which have drawn between 1,300 and 5,000 fans, lend credence to that theory, as does the gratitude Betteral and Bennett get from speedway regulars.
“Thousands and thousands of people have gone to the speedway over the years,” Betteral said. “Many of them have grown up at the speedway. I’ve had hundreds of people come up to me and hug me and shake my hand.”
Bennett is one of those who grew up there. He was 13 when it opened in 1956. But by then he’d already fallen in love with racing, sneaking away from church-group meetings to watch drivers at the Yakima Dirt Track, which predated the paved speedway.
“They were my heroes,” he said. “Then when the track got built, I’d beg, borrow and steal a way to get down here.”
The next year, in 1957 at age 14, he bought his first car, a 1940 Chevy, for $40. He kept racing in Yakima and elsewhere for the next 50 years. He saw the rise of stock-car racing’s popularity in the 1960s and into the ’70s and its move toward the mainstream a decade after that.
“I would say the golden era was back in the ’60s,” Bennett said. “Every service station and auto-parts store had a race car sitting in their shop, and the racers that were there were local heroes. Then in the ’70s and up into the early ’80s, that was the modern time — more sophisticated cars, drivers that didn’t fit the mold of the old-time, beer-drinking, fist-fighting guy.”
Towns of all sizes had tracks back then. But most of them have since been shuttered as stock-car racing has waned in prominence and new ways for families to spend their entertainment dollars have emerged. The track in Soap Lake closed decades ago. That was followed by the closure of tracks in Spanaway, Portland, Ephrata, the Tri-Cities and Othello.
Hard work and charm
As fan interest faltered, the schedule at the Yakima Speedway was reduced from every Saturday night to just about a dozen races from April to October. In recent years, only the bigger events — the Apple Cup in the spring and the Fall Classic in October — have reliably drawn well.
“It’s the same with NASCAR,” Pollock said. “They’re having the same problem: The following’s just not there anymore.”
That decline has left Yakima Speedway as the only paved half-mile track in the Northwest. It has survived through hard work, luck and charm.
“The track is just kind of a throwback to when stock-car racing was a real moving force in the sports world,” Bennett said. “People like that. We are not a modern, up-to-date facility like you see with some of the other professional sports. It makes people feel comfortable. It makes people feel like they belong, like they are a part of it. It just kind of adds to the ambience …
“You cannot beat the sights and sounds and smells of stock-car racing. You just cannot. It’s exciting to watch, and you smell the burned rubber, you smell the gasoline. It’s just part of the fan experience.”
The Fourth of July race drew about 5,000 people, and they were on their feet plenty.
“They were just jumping up and yelling and cheering for the driver they’re rooting for,” he said. “The excitement in the stands was crazy.”
He and Bennett expect similar energy at the season-ending Fall Classic in October, which they think will draw around 6,000 people.
“Looking forward to a huge crowd, because let’s face it, this may be the last one,” Bennett said.