Spokane Journal of Business

Spokane Super Oval could turn corner, owner says

Racetrack operator hopes to capitalize on Airway Heights activity

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Spokane Super Oval track operator Rick Nelson (right) and general manager Jim Moore are banking on profitability in 2018.
-—Kevin Blocker

After nearly four years of work and having spent $700,000 of his own money, Rick Nelson, the owner of Spokane Super Oval LLC, thinks the half-mile auto racing track in Airway Heights could finish this racing season in the black.

“We’ve struggled every year,” Nelson says, just days before the scheduled start of the 2018 racing season, set for April 21. “But this year, next (year), it feels like it could be really different out here.”

Nelson, Spokane Super Oval general manager Jim Moore, and marketing manager Tom Glithero say they see an opportunity for the park that they say it’s never had before. And that is to be a part of a flourishing Airway Heights entertainment scene.

“We hope to be profitable this year,” Nelson says.

It’s not hard to see why Nelson is optimistic given all of the construction activity taking place near the Spokane County Raceway complex. New construction that’s well underway at Northern Quest Resort Casino has created new streets and thoroughfares, making the park more accessible and easier to find.

Nelson recently brought on Moore and Glithero for this season as Spokane Super Oval LLC is making a more concerted effort to secure sponsors while boosting advertising.

Though the racetrack isn’t immediately visible from the road, the raceway complex is located at 750 N. Hayford, just west of Northern Quest and north of Airway Heights Corrections Center. The complex also has a quarter-mile drag racing strip and a 2.3-mile road course. The history of the complex dates back to the early 1970s when racing enthusiast Orville Moe raised $2.5 million to build the complex.

Nelson operates the Super Oval track, while Craig Smith, Nelson’s leaseholder, holds the lease with Spokane County to operate the drag-racing strip and road course.

Since taking over ownership of the oval track, average attendance has been anywhere between 1,000 to 1,200 spectators per race. The seating capacity of the track’s grandstands is 5,000, Nelson says.

Visible from the grandstands nearby, the Kalispel Development Co., the real estate arm of the Kalispel Tribal Economic Authority, has a handful of new projects under construction at the casino that border the raceway park.

A renovation of the hotel’s top floor, a makeover at the Impulse night club, and the addition of grandstand seating at its outdoor concert venue, are underway in addition to the $27 million resort expansion and RV park development that started in early 2017.

Nelson hopes he can capitalize on more visitors to Northern Quest, as well as capture patrons from the Spokane Tribe of Indians’ $40 million casino that opened in January, which is a five-minute drive from the track.

Adds Glithero, “We’re working on lots of things to try and make the racetrack a viable part of Airway Heights, then we’re going to go after the Spokane market.”

Moore says he’s met with representatives from the city of Airway Heights, the Spokane Tribe, the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, and Fairchild Air Force Base in an effort to generate interest in auto racing there this season.

Nelson already has an existing business relationship with the Kalispel Development Co. He’s also the owner  of Spokane Valley-based Park Model Homes Inc., which specializes in building custom-designed manufactured homes.

“That’s the job that pays the bills and allows me to do this,” Nelson says of operating the circular racetrack. “Without the mobile home business I wouldn’t have been able to spend a half-million dollars to re-do the pit areas,” he says while laughing.

The Kalispel Development Co. selected Park Model Homes to construct the 18 cottages at Northern Quest’s RV park.

Nelson says he’s under no financial obligation to improve the track. A racing enthusiast himself, Nelson says, “I just want to do this for the racers to improve the quality of the track.”

Spokane County purchased the 640-acre Spokane Raceway Park in 2008 when the track fell into financial disarray. Moe’s early investors never received a return on the collective $2.5 million they placed into the park’s startup. Investors sued Moe in 2003, and it wasn’t until the track sold in 2014 that investors began getting paid, according to Spokane County court records.

Moe died three years ago, at age 78.

Spokane Super Oval’s representatives believe the track can be a part of a more comprehensive entertainment package.

In recent years, similar half-mile tracks in Portland, Tri-Cities, and Yakima have been shuttered. 

“We’re down to basically two big racetracks left, the half-mile track here and the 5/8ths (track) out at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe (Wash.),” Glithero says.

Unlike the track here, the others that failed tended to be in more remote locations.

“You can do more than sit in a parking lot in a motor home,” says Glithero, who makes his full-time home in Western Washington. “The track now is sandwiched between two casinos and is 10, 15 minutes away from downtown Spokane, which is as vibrant as ever.”

At the end of 2017, after nearly 60 years, the longtime owners of the Yakima Speedway sold the 43-acre speedway there to a group of Yakima investors who plan a mixed-use development, including a hotel, offices, shops and an ice arena, Glithero says.

Yakima Speedway hosted the annual Fall Classic race, considered one of the largest racing events in the Pacific Northwest, for 30 years.

Recently, Spokane Super Oval got permission from Ted Pollack, who owned Yakima Speedway for 51 years, to use the Fall Classic name and run the race here later this year.

“We’re going to pick it up and move it into Spokane,” Glithero says. “I think it should really be a good event.”

A walk along the track reveals years of wear, however, the surface can still host racing, he says.

“From a participant’s standpoint, the asphalt’s a little worn out, but it’s got great banking to it,” Glithero says. “I’ve had a couple of drivers tell me they can feel the speed at Spokane Oval more than they can at Evergreen.”

Moore says 20 races are currently scheduled for the 2018 season, starting with next week’s Lilac Cup. The Northwest Late Model Super Series will be held in May, and for the second year in a row, NASCAR’s K&N Series, the equivalent of semi-professional driving, will be held July 14 and 15.

“We’re now the biggest track in our region and we think we can do a lot of things to capitalize on that,” Moore says.

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