Drag Illustrated Issue 176, May / June 2022 - Page 64

D . I . COLUMNIST

On the Road with Van Abernethy

When I heard that Memphis International Raceway was going to shutter its doors and then be demolished in short order to make way for a warehouse project , I honestly can ’ t say I was surprised . Saddened , most definitely , but not exactly surprised .

It seems this year more than ever , successful corporations are targeting racing facilities because of their existing infrastructure that ’ s suitable for everything from outdoor concerts , erecting warehouses or simply having a sprawling surface on which to park a fleet of vehicles . Many dragstrips operate under short-term leases , and the owners of these properties are being offered obscene amounts of money by potential tenants who are willing to pony up massive capital for the space .
Mega cash offers aren ’ t just pouring in for nationally known facilities such as Memphis either , as I was likewise saddened when a tiny dragstrip in Florida called Green Cove Dragway suffered the same fate a few years ago when a highly financed tenant wanted the property and was willing to pay huge sums of money to get it . Realizing “ it ’ s only business ” hardly takes away the sting of losing racing complexes for those of us who truly love and treasure these venues .
As for the future of Memphis , unless some unforeseen , totally unexpected factor comes into play , the track will hold its last event soon , as early as May , some are saying . I couldn ’ t hardly let the opportunity slip by without visiting the track one last time , and the 35th annual Memphis Chevy Show in April was the perfect opportunity .
From the moment I pulled through the gate , it was starting to hit home that this weekend would likely be the last time I ’ d ever step foot on this property . Even
the stern-faced security guard working in the pits let down his guard long enough to tell me , “ I can ’ t believe this place is really closing ... my family grew up racing here .”
As the cars began to fire up that weekend , it was a carnival-type atmosphere among spectators as they walked through the pits , intent on savoring what would be the last race that many of them would ever attend here . And with a stellar line up of Pro Mods , Funny Cars , Nitro Harleys , Top Sportsman cars , and
Top Dragsters from the Mid-West Drag Racing Series , and show cars lining the pits , it ’ s no wonder the attendance was overwhelming .
Memphis has indeed hosted more than a few massive crowds over the years , most notably in 1992 at a NHRA national event , when John Force humorously claimed , “ I saw Elvis at 1,000 feet ,” after crashing his Funny Car in spectacular fashion .
On another race weekend ( much more recent ) another “ Elvis ” sighting
comes to memory , which actually set in motion one of the greatest inspirations in drag racing . In 2009 , Kenny Nowling sat on the wall of Memphis , dejected after a horrendously poor showing of his fledgling ADRL racing series . The race had attracted a grand total of just 112 fans , many of whom were Elvis impersonators in town for some sort of convention . True story . It was there on the wall as Nowling stared into the crowd ( or lack thereof ) that an ADRL employee walked up and uttered something to the effect , “ We might as well give the tickets away for free .”
Nowling was outraged initially at the thought of this idea , but later saw brilliant potential from simply getting people through the gate . The free ticket giveaway was put in motion shortly thereafter in Rockingham , and they ended up having to close the gates after 27,000 spectators showed up ... with likely more on the way .
This became an incredibly successful business model for the racing series that was on the verge of folding up roughly a month earlier . “ I ’ m not sure we ’ ll ever see anything like ADRL again ,” commented Rockingham Dragway owner Steve Earwood as he spoke of the defining turnaround idea that was hatched in Memphis .
All these memories and many more were flooding through my mind throughout the entire weekend . I kept wishing I ’ d have some sort of defining “ Elvis ” encounter of my own ... something to adequately punctuate my last weekend in Memphis , but it seems he ’ d already left the building .
So , I joined the masses in quietly slipping out the gate , and with Memphis now in my rearview mirror , I bid farewell to yet another beloved facility that by all accounts will be gone way too soon . DI
64 | Drag Illustrated | DragIllustrated . com Issue 176