Willamette putting final touches on renovations
By Kevin KovacDIRTcar Racing
When the first green flag of 2012 flies at Willamette Speedway, the venerable Lebanon, Ore., track will boast a completely new look and — for the first time ever — a DIRTcar sanction for its headline Late Model division.
A third-mile oval widely regarded as the epicenter of Dirt Late Model racing in the Great Northwest, Willamette will fly the DIRTcar banner on a weekly basis this season. The sanctioning will allow its full-fender drivers to battle for a share of over $70,000 in points-fund awards available through the DIRTcar UMP program, including $5,860 for the Northwestern States points race and $65,000 for the national standings.
Willamette’s 2012 racing schedule was originally scheduled to kick off on April 14, but track officials have announced a new tentative opening night of May 5 so construction crews will have a few more weeks to complete an aggressive off-season refurbishment of virtually the entire 46-year-old facility.
“We’re very proud to have Willamette Speedway as the flagship track for DIRTcar UMP Late Model racing in the Northwest in 2012,” said Chris Morgan, DIRTcar's director of Western operations. “Willamette Speedway is well known for its strong fields and spectacular Late Model racing, and DIRTcar is looking forward to being part of that excitement and bringing more attention and prestige to the track’s weekly competitors.”
Willamette Speedway is entering its second season under the ownership of brothers Jerry and Jimmy Schram, who purchased the track from longtime promoter Bill Arnold. The siblings have overseen a major renovation project over the past six months that will be on full display when fans and racers make their first visits of 2012.
“We’ve basically rebuilt this whole speedway from one end to the other,” said Chris Nofziger, who manages Willamette for the Schram brothers. “There’s really not one thing involved with the track that we haven’t touched and changed. We’re really excited about everything that’s been done.”
With a goal of improving safety for race teams and fans and creating a more enjoyable weekly experience for customers on both sides of the fence, the Schram brothers started rebuilding the facility as soon as the 2011 season ended last October.
The facility improvements include a slight change in the track layout (it’s been reshaped from a D-shape to a more perfect oval that will provide more racing room); relocation of the pit area from the infield to outside the backstretch (where teams previously parked their haulers after unloading in the infield) in order to give spectators an unobstructed view of the speedway; replacement of the wooden bleachers with aluminum seating and the old track guardrail with a 4-foot-high concrete wall; erection of new VIP boxes atop the grandstands, 14-foot-high catch-fencing around the track and a scoreboard; installation of a bright new lighting system to illuminate the racing action; a reworked parking lot for fans; and a remodeled entrance and concession area that features a new men’s restroom, picnic tables and a family area.
“Everyone is going to see a new Willamette Speedway this year,” said Nofziger. “We want to make this a place that fans and racers will enjoy coming to.”
Willamette’s fresh look also includes DIRTcar sanctioning for its Late Model division, which historically draws the biggest weekly fields in the Northwest. The track has hosted special DIRTcar-sanctioned events in the past, including the DIRTcar Northwest I-5 Late Model Tour, but has never been a full participant in the DIRTcar UMP program.
“Willamette Speedway under the Arnolds was always anti-outside sanctioning bodies,” said Nofziger. “That’s basically because they felt the track never needed (a sanction). They had huge Late Model car counts and the fans without it.
“Now, though, the drivers are wanting to be recognized more nationally and regionally, and that’s something DIRTcar brings. The extra points fund is also going to be great for the racers. You also can’t go wrong with the insurance package that DIRTcar offers, and it’s nice to have a uniform rule package for all the Late Models.”
Willamette, which runs regularly on Saturday nights, is set to host nearly two dozen DIRTcar sanctioned Late Model events this season, including the $5,000-to-win Clair Cup on May 26-27. All the races will count toward the DIRTcar UMP Northwest States points fund, which offers a $2,000 prize to its champion and pays back 15 spots, and the DIRTcar circuit’s national points battle, which boasts a $20,000 champion’s check and cash points-fund awards to the top 50 drivers in the final standings.