In 1995, more than 80,000 fans came to Portland International Raceway to watch Al Unser Jr., finish first in the the Budweiser/G.I. Joe's 200.
It was the highest attended sporting event in Oregon that year.
This year, the largest crowd for a race in Oregon may top out at 2,000 people, and that may be more because the race is being followed by fireworks than the on-track product.
The major touring series like CART, NASCAR and NHRA – the kind that would bring drivers even casual racing fans would know such as Jimmy Vasser, Mark Martin, Mike Skinner, Steve Kinser and Warren Johnson (all of whom won races in Oregon in 1995) – have left and aren’t coming back, at least not any time soon.
The best Oregon gets now are third-tier regional touring series or national series with what is best described as cult status among racing fans.
“They would love to race in the northwest, I get calls all the time from racing series,” said E.C. Mueller, racetrack manager for Portland International Raceway. “The problem is there’s no local promoter anymore.”
CART and the ill-fated ChampCar World Series raced at P.I.R. every year between 1984 and 2007, and those races were promoted by the Rose Festival.
Portland Speedway held races for what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 1956 and 1957 – seven times in those two years – and much later that track held races for many national and regional NASCAR touring series, but the track closed for good in 2001.
Mueller estimates there are still 20,000 seats at P.I.R., but for the track to host major racing series, it would need safety upgrades like higher fences.
P.I.R. also lacks permanent garages, something nearly every major road course in the world has now, even remote Oregon Raceway Park in Grass Valley.
When Mueller started as the track’s racetrack manager, it was something he added into the track’s 10-year master plan.
“The challenge now is it’s been approved, how are you going to fund it?” he said.
Mueller cited a study that says Portland International Raceway draws about 300,000 people to the track a year. In its heyday of the mid 1990s, the track also drew about that many, but those who came were there to watch races.
These days, those crowds are at P.I.R. for events like color runs, bicycle races and car shows. The track draws people who want to participate in things more than sit on an aluminum bleacher for two hours and watch a race.
The rest of the tracks in Oregon are smaller with comparatively little seating.
The only national touring series that come to the state are the World of Outlaws (Sept. 6 at Willamette Speedway) and the Rally America series (in April at P.I.R. and roads around Dufur).
The World of Outlaws lives up to the “Greatest Show On Dirt” nickname, but that series has more of a cult status than a national profile – if you don’t know that Donny Schatz is the greatest active sprint car driver chances are you’re not going to go to the race.
Races for series like the Trans Am West Championship (Sunday, July 30 at P.I.R.), the NASCAR K and N Pro Series West (August 26 at Douglas County Speedway in Roseburg) and the NHRA West Region (which raced July 16 at Woodburn Dragstrip and returns to the track Sept. 17) are regional series with drivers only known to the most die-hard racing fans.
It’s not a coincidence that all of the major racing series stopped coming to Oregon about the time the recession hit in 2007.
None of it came back.
The Rose Cup – billed as the largest amateur road race on the West Coast – almost immediately became the biggest event at P.I.R. after Indy Cars left after 2007.
That race fell off, too, to having 84 total cars in 2015, but it has seen a resurgence with 225 cars in 2016 and 175 this year.
“Rose Cup was a blast, people loved it,” Mueller said. “We’ve kind of taken a major part of our schedule and revitalized it.
“The next step is to try to find professional racing at a smaller level.”
Many professional series charge a sanctioning fee to host a race, and those fees in the tens of thousands of dollars don’t include the purse the promoter has to pay.
But tastes have changed, too.
Major races are no longer just about a bunch of big-named race car drivers showing up and racing. There have to be fan experiences (such as driving simulators), concerts and trendy food carts to keep the fans engaged for the duration of an event.
The truth is people, most notably millennials, want to experience events more than watch them. It explains why the entry-level events at P.I.R. like track days and the 24 Hours of LeMons have succeeded.
And it also demonstrates why the big-time series aren’t coming back soon.
bpoehler@StatesmanJournal.com or Twitter.com/bpoehler
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