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Speedway sees huge upgrades as new group takes over

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneFrom left, Travis Snyder, Travis Hoppes and Dane Smith on the west side turns at the Southern Oregon Speedway a couple weeks ago.
Former promoter bailed; racing to start next Saturday at resplendent facility

Southern Oregon Speedway was in a dire way.

The dirt-track oval near White City, for decades a mecca that attracted thrill seekers and the speed enthusiasts who loved to watch them, found itself a victim of inactivity and abandonment as this spring’s start of the race season approached.

It was drowning, having bobbed under when the coronavirus hit in the spring of 2020, then going under again when race promoter Mike McCann pulled anchor, yarding out equipment and other items essential to running the facility.

It needed resuscitation, someone to breathe life into it, get it back on its feet. Time was short.

Travis Hoppes, an Eagle Point contractor, was in Idaho conducting business. He has deep roots in West Coast racing, sponsoring dozens upon dozens of teams over the years, staging events, generally keeping wheels turning in a variety of ways.

As connected as he is, Hoppes was unaware a catastrophe was brewing at the speedway until the racing community’s version of an emergency alarm system sounded. An SOS for SOS.

“All of a sudden, my phone just started blowing up,” said Hoppes, owner of Hoppes Construction and Millworks. “I was getting text messages, I was getting Facebook messages, and all these people are going, ‘Hey, where’s Hoppes? We need Hoppes to save the track.’ And I’m going, ‘What in the world is going on here?’”

One would have thought the sky was falling. For race car drivers and fans, it appeared so.

The blitz of messages set in motion a series of events that has led to a new promotional group, track and facility improvements unlike any since its construction in the mid-1990s and an opening date for next Saturday.

After Hoppes was inundated with urgent messages, an associate of his went to the track to investigate. He found it bereft of equipment. They checked with Jackson County, which owns the facility, and learned the previous promoter, McCann, had bailed out of the 10-year lease he signed in 2016.

“At that point, I was done with out-of-town promoters,” said Hoppes. “I was tired of these promoters who show up in our town, and they don’t care about our drivers, they don’t care about our fans, they just come in here to make what they can and they leave.”

He put together a committee intent on running the speedway. The proposal his group, Southern Oregon Motorsports, submitted to the county won out over three others. It was awarded March 24, and the track has been abuzz with activity in the two months since, a procession of volunteers pitching in with heavy machinery and other tools to bring vibrancy back to the venue.

Overgrowth was so bad, said Dane Smith, a local racing icon and who is listed as a co-promoter with Hoppes, one could “barely” tell there was a dirt oval there.

“The walls and fences were falling down,” he said. “All those guys with dozers and cats, it’s going to be amazing. It’ll probably look better than it’s ever looked.”

Asked what changes fans can expect to see, Hoppes was at a loss.

“I don’t even know where to start on that one,” he said. “Everything has changed.”

The biggest improvement is to the track itself. Over the years, it had shrunk from the original three-eighths of a mile to less than a quarter mile. It’s now back to its original size, with banked turns, colorfully-painted red, white and blue concrete walls and a catch fence in place. There also will be large sponsor signs on the walls to enhance the enclosed look.

The pit area was redone, new speakers and lights installed, the stands have been power washed, plumbing and concrete repairs have been made around the restrooms and an upgrade in concession offerings is planned.

The first thing fixed was the access road to the speedway, mending potholes that, over a quarter century, had grown from teacup size to gaping maws capable of swallowing tires.

“The track has just been through the wringer for so many years,” said Hoppes. “Nobody’s ever fixed nothing.”

The new digs will be on display Saturday with IMCA modifieds, IMCA sport mods, late models and hornets.

Tickets can be purchased at the gate or on the speedway’s new website, southernoregonmotorsports.com. They are $10 for general admission and $5 for seniors and veterans. Admission is free for children 6 and under.

Gates open at 5 p.m. and racing begins at 7.

A car-racing culture

Racing has long been a part of Southern Oregon culture.

Medford Raceway, otherwise known as the Posse Grounds, was located on Sage Road and operated from 1951-89. Even before that, in 1948, the first post-war junk car endurance event was staged on Cherry Lane.

A Mail Tribune clipping from August 1952 previews hardtop races at the raceway, with 30 drivers going 60 laps. Another article details drag racing on a private road in White City, Avenue G, that was overseen by the Southern Oregon Timing Association.

Articles from 1967, displayed on a Facebook page devoted to the Posse Grounds, tell of Markey James’ track record of 18.85 seconds and points-leader Harold Hardesty’s one-week suspension for an oversized intake manifold.

Over the years, racing evolved. Dennis Huth became the promoter of Medford Raceway in 1973. He operated the track until 1985 and eventually became a vice president of administration with NASCAR.

When the old track was razed to make way for a housing development, it took a half dozen years for another to surface. Medford auto dealer John Skinner signed an agreement with the county to build a dirt track at the sports park in 1995.

He operated the facility until McCann took over five years ago.

Now, it’s changed hands again, but the new promoters are hardly newbies to Rogue Valley racing.

When Hoppes put together a seven-member board to revitalize the speedway, he did so with purpose. He wanted “like-minded” individuals, he said. Passionate about racing; astute, successful businessmen.

Such people are often competitive, looking out for number one, their own interests the priority. However, Hoppes wanted another quality: selflessness.

The speedway operation was established as a nonprofit.

”They knew going in that we’re not going to make money on this for a while,” said Hoppes. “We need to put our money in, make this track what it should have been. I told them it’s going to cost some dollars to bring it up to date and fix what’s never been fixed out here. And if we do it, I guarantee you the fans are going to come back, the drivers are going to come back, and they’re going to fall in love with the place.”

The recruits for the board needed little convincing, so consumed are they by the sport.

Smith, for instance, the proprietor of Mr. Smith’s Sports Bar & Grill. A Medford High standout who started three years at linebacker for the University of Oregon, he got into racing in his early 20s when he tagged along to the speedway with his ex-father-in-law, who sponsored a car.

While at the track, he was offered a chance by Dick Henry to drive in a heat race, and lo and behold, Smith won.

“I’ll never forget,” he said. “I got out and I was shaking so bad. I didn’t even know what the flags were. I’d never been around racing. God, that was it. I started racing in 1971 and quit about three years ago.”

Smith, who is the board president, won hundreds of races and held track records at six raceways.

One of Smith’s rivals was Bruce Rayburn, Hoppes’ uncle. Hoppes’ indoctrination came at the Posse Grounds as well, but he didn’t dive headlong into racing until he returned from the Marines in the late 1990s and sponsored his cousin, Bruce Rayburn Jr.

Hoppes has never raced, but his name has been on many cars.

Another board member, Travis Snyder, was a tagalong, too. He followed his father, the late track announcer R. Charles Snyder, to Southern Oregon Speedway.

“My parents were divorced when I was young,” he said, “so every other weekend I got to hang out with my dad, and every Friday night it was at the speedway.”

R. Charles actually began announcing at the Posse Grounds in 1976. His first night, he was to observe the process and serve as a fill-in for the regular announcer — who didn’t show up that evening.

“Dad immediately jumped in, not knowing anything about racing or race cars, nothing,” said Snyder. “He took over, but he had that great personality that everybody loved, and that turned into him literally doing it for 40 years.”

Snyder, an owner of Precision Electric and Snyder Creek Development, has raced dragsters and go-karts but never a stock car.

“Oh, yes, I love the thrill,” he said. “My wife is scared to death I’m going to come home with a new race car because of this.”

“This” being immersion in Southern Oregon Speedway, along with the other four board members: Brian Bowman, general manager of Gage-It Construction; Jon DeBenedetti, a longtime racer; Albert Gill, owner of A.G. Auto and Repair; and James Anderson, owner of Anderson’s Concrete & Construction.

None likely would have this opportunity had COVID-19 not hit and resulted in wide-spread shutdowns, including the race track.

Changing hands

In early February, Steve Lambert, Jackson County Parks program manager, received the phone call that ignited operational change at Southern Oregon Speedway.

On the other end was McCann, backing out of his obligation.

“He basically said he couldn’t financially run the facility anymore,” said Lambert, “and that the closure last year was kind of the nail in the coffin.”

While other tracks in the region operated on some level, the speedway remained on lockdown.

The county was willing to work with all the operators at Jackson County Sports Park, said Lambert, and encouraged them to open however possible, as long as they remained compliant with pandemic health guidelines.

McCann, said Snyder, “flat out refused.”

When he partnered with the county five years ago, McCann had more than 30 years of motorsports promotion and owned or leased facilities a good portion of that time.

Among the tracks he operated were Riverside Speedway in Cottage Grove, Twin Cities Raceway Park in Marysville, California, Eugene Speedway and Sunset Speedway in Banks.

A call to McCann was not returned.

The county doesn’t plan to pursue action against McCann for not honoring his contract, said Lambert. Rather, it will focus on supporting the new operators.

“We feel these guys have their heart in the facility,” said Lambert. “They grew up racing there, and we’ve got local business owners helping them out, so we’re here to support them as much as we can, and we’re going to move forward with that crew.”

Southern Oregon Motorsports has a five-year contract with the county, with two 10-year options to renew based on mutual consent. Under the agreement, the county receives 5% of attendance fees over $100,000, and a COVID clause this year lessens the promoters’ out-of-pocket burden, said Snyder.

In addition to operating the speedway, Southern Oregon Motorsports will work with and promote two other tracks at the sports park: the go-kart oval and the motocross track.

“We’re thrilled they’re forming a nonprofit,” said Lambert. “The fact of the matter is, there’s just not a lot of money to be made in the racing end of things out there. Folks who have gone out there to run these facilities and get rich, we’ve seen time after time have not been successful.”

From the moment the county issued a request for proposals, said Snyder, it was clear making money was not the primary goal.

“It was, ‘Who’s going to come in here and fix this up?’” he said. “That was very clear in the RFP. What is your promotional group going to do to bring this thing up to standard?”

Southern Oregon Motorsports took its marching orders to heart.

No time to waste

Opening the speedway this year was crucial, the new operators believed, for the long-term health of the track.

“That track being vacant last year,” said Hoppes, “it’s already done damage that is going to take a long time to fix. When you don’t have a track for these drivers to go to, they go elsewhere. They want to race. Racing’s in their blood. They’re going to travel and race, and last year, which was the weirdest year ever because of COVID, I had guys going all the way to Iowa to race.”

Even before the track closed in 2020, some locals opted to tow to Cottage Grove or Yreka, California, said Hoppes, over discontent with McCann’s operation. They weren’t treated well, weren’t made to feel welcome, he said.

Another year of inactivity might have caused others to sell their equipment in lieu of traveling.

“You’ve got to take care of your race car drivers,” said Snyder, “because they are the ones who bring the fans in. Our immediate focus was, what can we do to retain the drivers we have, bring them back.”

Nonstop work on the facility the past two months is testament to the group’s desire to enhance the driver and fan experience.

“We want to give them the best track we can on the West Coast,” said Snyder.

The lighting, the sound system, the brightly colored walls around the track, the spruced-up pit area.

Another concept popular with drivers is that Southern Oregon Speedway will communicate with other tracks and try to run classes that don’t compete with other venues on given nights, providing options for more racing.

Increased driver purses and lower admission prices are in the blueprint as well, pending COVID-19 gathering limits.

And, of course, there’s the renovation of the track itself.

As the oval shrunk over the years, the racers’ driving skills were constricted. Turns 1 and 2 assumed different shapes than Turns 3 and 4.

“The drivers felt like they were never getting out of a corner,” said Hoppes. “They’d come out of the last corner, which is Turn 4, and they were already turning going back into Turn 1.”

Pushing the track out “gives them the straightaway they’ve been looking for to straighten out their cars and get momentum going into the next corner,” he added. “A lot of passing happens on the straight stretches, and they set themselves up on the corners.”

More than lengthening the track, widening and banking the turns will allow more drivers to gain momentum in the middle and high side of the track and entice two- and three-wide racing.

“There are drivers that love to race the bottom, there are drivers that love to race the top,” said Hoppes.

Their time is coming soon, with a test and tune session Wednesday in advance of Saturday’s opening.

“I think people will be pretty impressed with what we’ve done,” said Smith.

In other words, the emergency alarm system has been turned off.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com.