20 July 2012

Willamette Speedway

On the 4th, I made my first trip of the year down to Lebanon to Willamette Speedway, the closest dirt track racing venue to Salem. Time and money (or more correctly, the lack thereof) had conspired against me all summer, so this was my first visit after the extensive, and I’m sure expensive, renovations made to the facility over the winter. A completely new configuration removed the pits from the infield, new concrete wall all the way around and removal of the old Armco barriers, the kart track is now in the infield, new fencing all around, new aluminum bleacher seats, new concession and admission booths, and an added lineup scoreboard. It’s a completely different track.

Which begs the question: Is this truly an upgrade?

On the whole…

I don’t like it.

There’s no question the track is safer. For fans as well as drivers. Much of anything a car could hit in a spin has been removed. The inside “wall” of the track is now little more than taller dirt. This can still be problematic, as the driver of the #98 sprint car Wednesday night can tell you. He was leading the race when he cut a little too low between 3 & 4, dipped his front tire over the lip and broke something in the left front suspension. That wheel flopped about for the last few laps, allowing Roger Crockett in the #11 to pass him for the win.

In my humble opinion, the fence upgrade is the most annoying. The chain link mesh is too shiny. When viewing the track from an acute angle, low in the stands where I usually sit, the fence reflects the lights that now light up both the track and the stands. You either need to paint the fence some non reflecting color, primer gray, perhaps, or turn the lights down in the stands. Viewed from about 30 feet to the turn 4 side of the flagstand, any car running high going into 1 is completely blocked from view. The lights are a big upgrade from before, which had a series of poles lighting mostly just the track, all of which required some dude to climb up the pole and flip a switch to turn them on one by one.

The fence also curves inward more, toward the track at the top, which is probably the best upgrade for the safety of the fans. Once, last season, I saw something fly over the fence, over the netting that keeps people away from the fence, and land at some guy’s feet, smoking. It turned out to be a full-size exhaust header! But the large concrete open area between the wall and the stands was constantly full of little bitty kids, some barely able to walk, all night long. I got pelted once or twice by a hunk of mud off the track, a hazard that comes with the territory of watching dirt track racing. But if one of those clods pings off the head of a 2 year old, it’s gonna do more than smudge his/her clothes. Or if he/she is leaning against the wall when a car hits, the force may be transmitted through the concrete. You need a barrier, like the old net-fence that used to keep people at least 4 feet from the wall.

The outside wall is taller now, too. Unfortunately, while the wall was raised some 12-24”, the stands were not. If a late model, modified, or sportsman car is right up against the front stretch wall, you can’t see more than just the top of the cockpit. The track and wall should have been lowered or the stands raised. I understand the need for a taller wall, but if the stands had been raised, you could see more of the cars and still have a taller, safer wall for the drivers. It reminds me of the trip I took to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the 1992 spring race of what was then the Winston Cup. The view I had of the high banked oval from the exit of turn 4 was significantly obscured by the wall. From the middle of 3-4 almost to the start/finish line, I couldn’t even see the roof of any of the cars.

To me, the scoring tower is the worst “upgrade.” It cannot display 3 digit numbers and has a very hard time displaying letters. Dirt track cars often have 3 digits: 24w; 111; 357 (my number if I win the lottery and can buy a car), 99j; etc. The LEDs display an “N” as basically an upside down “U,” and would have no way to display an “X” at all. It took me a while to figure out that the “24c” was displayed as “4c.” And I don’t know what the red number on top is. I expected it to be the lap counter, but during the ISCS A-Main, it showed “5” and didn’t change.

I don’t know how much, if anything, this had anything to do with the visiting series officials, but way too often the announcers didn’t know what was going to happen next. There were long lulls in the evening’s proceedings. The fans like me couldn’t see what was going on in the pits, and I assume the announcers couldn’t, either. In the “old days,” you could see the cars queuing up in the pits, so you knew what was up next. The resultant delays caused both A-Mains to be shortened (I think the ISCS race was shortened from 40 to 30 laps), allowing time for a fireworks display (which I didn’t stay for) and still make curfew.
Fewer delays, earlier time trials, a tighter ship would have left more time for racing. And I know they’re trying to get the mini-trucks off the ground, and that it’s a much more affordable alternative for folks who can afford several thousand dollars but not several tens of thousands, but a 4banger on a 3/8th mile oval times in with a calendar. You had 4 trucks. Draw for positions then have one heat. Invert them for a trophy dash and start ‘em by the dash results for their A-Main.

I’m not a driver (don’t I wish), so I won’t pass judgment on the track surface. I know earlier in the season, many drivers complained of ruts and bumps. As near as I could tell from the stands, it looked pretty good, although there was basically two “lines,” one all the way down at the bottom and one nearly into the wall up top. The middle groove was nearly impossible to drive.

I will not pass judgment on the concessions, as I did not partake. Both the variety and quality seem to be better.

Again, I don’t deny that the track is safer. And that the upgrades have allowed the venue to attract drivers and series that normally wouldn’t race here, as evidenced by Wednesday’s ISCS race and, most notably, the World of Outlaws visit coming up on Labor Day weekend. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure they haven’t raised ticket prices (Wednesday was a special event, $15 rather than the usual $14). This despite what must have been hundreds of thousands of dollars spent over the winter. Virtually the only thing recognizable is the sub-structure of the stands.

I’ll admit it’s not the most logical complaint, but the track just doesn’t “feel” the same. The old wooden bleachers that needed painting, the tractor tires painted white guarding the pit entry/exit, pitting in the infield. Being able to see who was working on their cars, who they were arguing with, who was lending a hand to who, etc. The only way you could tell that someone was broke was their absence from the track. “Jeff” the flagman is still there, and I like watching him. He does a good job of giving the driver clear instructions I don’t know who the announcers are, but I miss “Steve,” the bearded feller that used to announce. The two guys there now are play-by-play and color commentary. And you can hear them for a change, thanks to the new sound system, which works pretty well. But I got a little weary of hearing every sponsor from every car; seven, eight, ten sponsors each. But, most of these guys & girls couldn’t race without their sponsors, and I view these lists sort of like TV commercials.

All of these things gave the track character, made it feel like what it is (or was): a bunch of good ole boys & girls working for a living and taking off from their day jobs on Saturday nights to play in the mud. A trip back in time to watching at Riverside Speedway in West Memphis with my Dad. Back when the local king was Hooker Hood, and the feature winner got $50. The “stock” cars were just that: cars that began life as passenger cars, that have been stripped of their interior & glass, had a roll cage welded in, and not much more. No traveling series, no “professional” drivers, no 8x10 glossies to autograph, and concession stands that sold hamburgers, hot dogs, cokes and beer, both in cans. Maybe popcorn.

I’ll keep going, as often as I can afford. I still owe my daughter a trip there from last year when she stayed home with Tim so I could take William. And it’s still closer than Banks and way closer than Cottage Grove. But half a season in, some of these things should already have been addressed. Or perhaps they have been, but the track decided they couldn’t (or just wouldn’t) implement additional changes. I’ll be watching, hopefully often.

No comments: