Memories and Farewell of Rocky Mountain Raceway 1968-2018
written by Kirk Walton
In December of 2017 Rocky Mountain Raceways Announced that 2018 would be the final season of racing, click here to read the announcement.
As I sit here waiting for the next storm to roll in, I realize there is not ever going to be a next big race to roll in at Rocky Mountain Raceway.
Now I know how the ‘old timers’ feel about losing their beloved tracks. I was a young fan when we lost the Salt Lake Valley Racing Association races at the old 1/4 mile oval racetrack at the Utah State Fairgrounds. They started racing there in 1903 and lasted until 1972. Some of the biggest names on the west coast would come in and race the “Copper Cup Classic” because it was part of the Canadian American Modified Racing Association (CAMRA). Future IndyCar drivers like Billy Foster, Art Pollard, Jim Malloy, Salt Lake’s own Dick Simon and some teacher from Spokane named Tom Sneva all raced there. It was tough losing that racetrack even as a kid.
I really didn’t want to go see the oval track races at the ‘new track’ Bonneville Raceways.
Built in 1968 by a group that thought Salt Lake deserved a better dragstrip and oval, Dick Godfrey, Bob Gee, Jim Campbell and Dr. Howard Haynes pulled it off. It was a tough start with the weather and funding delays pushing back the opening day but eventually on July 23, 1968 the $250,000 facility was opened. Original seating plans were for 7,000 that grew over the years. More than 3,000 were there on a Tuesday night (the day before a state holiday) to watch some match races. Salt Lake Tribune motorsports reporter and later sports editor, Dick Rosetta was there and reported Roger Guzman’s “The Assassination” beat the “Tijuana Taxi” of Dean Hofheinz in two races running 8.49 at 166.30mph and later a 8.34 at 168.16mph. The next night would be the Top Fuel show. July 24, 1968 saw 5,000 standing room only, had the “Want Bird” of Harry Allen winning over the Johnson Bros. entry (Dan and Dave). 7.30 at 195.99mph and 7.34 at 194.31mph in a 392 supercharged Hemi on the green racing surface. He won $500. The racing was delayed by a power outage when a truck “hit a guide wire”, but the fans stayed and watched the rest of the program. The next month was the first of many NHRA ‘regionals’. Back then the pro categories would race these since there wasn’t as many national events as today. I looked at the newspaper accounts and had a laugh when the first day of the event was rained out. Seems like the tradition was started at the very beginning. But they got all the races done and began a long tradition.
I’d never been out there before since we’d always just go to the oval races at the Fairgrounds. That was close to downtown and only took a few minutes to get there. Bonneville was almost to Magna on the very west of Salt Lake County. SO far away! But I got interested in the drag races through the radio ads on the local rock stations (AM still) in August 1971. You know the typical ones from the late 60’s/early 70’s, “Sunday, Sunday, SUNDAY!” (Note, I just had a neighbor ask me if I remembered these ads. He said Mel Remy did the first ones. He’s a local radio legend). I wanted to see these Top Fuel dragster flames in person I’d seen on TV. I talked my Dad into dragging my little brother and me out there. Usually he’d just drop us off at the Fairgrounds and then we’d call to come and pick us up. It was hot and my brother and Dad wanted to leave as soon as possible. I didn’t get to stay until dark to see the nighttime flames but did see them during the day. It was still the coolest thing I’d ever seen. What I wasn’t expecting was to see the Pro Stock cars. I couldn’t believe full-bodied cars could be that quick! “Dandy Dick” Landy was an instant hero.
Fast forward to 1978. I’m 16 years old and have been riding dirtbikes for 4 years. I couldn’t get my Dad or anyone else to help me buy a MX bike and race. I figured that would be the cheapest way to go since I wasn’t able to even think about racing cars and becoming the next F1 or USAC champ car star. Then I got the brilliant idea to go to “grudge night” at Bonneville. It was cheap and now that I had my drivers license, I could do it. I went and have been going off and on for the last 40 years! I had one of the slowest cars (1966 Impala with a 283 and powerglide) but it was so much fun. Some of those guys and gals I raced in 1978 are still around racing too. I won’t name names to protect their ages.
And I will admit it, I loved the big races having everyone laugh at how slow I was and wanting the quicker car to beat me. By then, they could cram 10,000 in there. My best race was getting to the semifinals at one of the big races in 1980. But of course, winning wasn’t the main focus. It was hanging out with 10,000 of your closest friends and having a great time. I eventually bought another car, found a hemi to put in it but didn’t have enough money to finish it. By the 80’s, the emission/inspection program was in full swing in Salt Lake and I couldn’t drive it (legally) on the street. So it sat for 15 years. I would race anything I could.
Finally in 1996, I had my first streetbike for two years already, a 1994 ninja 250 and decided to take it out to see would it would really do at the high altitude (4,225ft). The bike guys were SO COOL! I thought they were crazy for going over 100mph on theirs back when I started. I thought anything over 40mph and not on dirt was insane. Little did I know my future plans. So I had a great time running my mid to high 17’s at 75 or so mph. I was hooked. Later in the year, I came back for the last race of the year. I ended up in the final! Matt Spencer beat me on his Harley, which I would get very used to over the years, and it turns out that was the very last race for Bonneville Raceway. It was being sold to the Young Automotive Group.
In 1997, to my amazement, they tore everything but the tower down and rebuilt both the dragstrip and oval. The oval was now banked more and there was grandstands on both tracks next to each other. Later Rocky Mountain would have races where both tracks ran the same night and fans could just walk up the stairs and down the other side to the other track. The track was great. I ended up racing both the Street Legal Motorcycle series and the (then) Sears Craftsman ET series. We had lost a lot of bikes from the high point of the Bonneville days. But it was still a lot of fun for me. In 1998, I stepped up to a 1992 ZX-7 I’d bought from Rick Newport. Great bike and wish I still had it. I went to my first ET finals in Palmdale, CA at LACR. Again, hooked! I didn’t do too well but did a monster wheelie and a good picture.
We ended up getting the NHRA divisionals back and had some future Pro Stock Motorcycle racers with us. Karen Stoffer, Craig Treble, Chris Rivas, Sean Conner, Jay Matthews just to name a few. Those were a lot of fun.
In 1999 and 2000, we also had the AMA/Prostar West series at RMR. We had over 125 show up from all over the country. I know that doesn’t sound like very much for you east coast racers with ten times as many but for us in the west, that’s a great number. Some of my favorite memories were meeting Rob Muzzy (1993 World Superbike championship owner and multi-time AMA winner), racing against the 600 Supersport bikes in the street class. Rickey Gadson, Chip Ellis. And I regret not entering the SS class just so I could have said I also raced Marty Ladwig and Traci Farr and the rest of the class. John Noonan’s epic wheelie and sparks from the oil pan on his ‘Busa, and not spilling oil all over the track! Freddie Camarena and Marty Kane sharing laughs at registration and tech at the motel. Local racers doing well against the best. Rickey doing a full wheelie on the ZX-11 quicker than my 600. Then hopping on the SS750 turbocharged ZX-7R running 8.13 at 166mph in the 100 deg heat and being mad it wasn’t quicker. The only bad memory was Susie Wells fatal crash in her Top Alcohol Dragster. She was remembered yesterday in a tribute by friend and fellow TAD driver Mike Reynolds.
2002 was a great year, I ended up winning on the very last race of the season going down to the semifinals to win the Street Legal Motorcycle championship. That might not sound too impressive until you figure my competition was Rick Newport (multi-time NHRA D7 champion), Ron Gledhill (Top Fuel Harley), and Troy Buchanan (former director of schools at the Utah Sport Bike Association).
2003, was ok until the ET finals in Tucson. I ended up winning, well getting lucky most rounds including the final. It was great to have my RMR teammates stay and cheer me on to the win. You might have to double check me on this but I believe I was the first street bike to make it to Pomona in the Summit ET finals. It was fun to meet all the PSM riders and having Reggie Showers and Karen Stoffer come out and watch our runs. RMR employees were also there as part of the safety crew. Another great experience with meeting some of the best riders in North America and my first national event as a fan too! My parents came and watched. As well as some friends. My Mom hadn’t been to a race since the 1970’s and literally fall off the bench when the Top Fuel cars ran! I’m hoping to make it back one day to race for the Summit ET championship.
I have to mention Steve Johnson here. He took time out of his busy schedule a couple of years to come to our “Nationals” and run against the local racers in a bracket-style race. I know it was one of their highlights and fun for the fans too. Thanks for being such a great ambassador for the sport over the years Steve.
We later had to a sanctioning body switch to IHRA. Which was tough with no real viable option for the motorcycles. But we did have our own class at RMR still. Nitro Jam was a fun event for the fans and racers. I ended up winning against Jeff Zogg in front of a full house in 2011. Since no other tracks besides Tucson went to IHRA, RMR went back to the NHRA.
At one point, we were afraid of losing the bike class. We were only averaging 7 or 8 per race. But the RMR staff gave us time to rebuild. In 2017, we were back up averaging 22 bikes per race. With a high of 29. We have to thank Harley-Davidson of Salt Lake City, not only for sponsoring us the last few years but also for “Harley Fun Drags”. They brought a lot of people in to try the racetrack out and it was always great fun. Last month we had about 75 bikes!
We also had a bunch of bike at the “Midnight Drags” over the years. Some of which are racing today with us in the Summit ET series. It really did help get the kids (and adults) off the street and racing on the track. It was also a success for attendance. 4,200 was the average a couple of years ago. This year will be higher with it being the last year and nearly sold out every race.
This weekend, were the final two “fun” races. Racer appreciation on Friday night. One time trial, three runs and whoever had the most round wins won the money or split it with those that went 3-0. In the motorcycle/snowmobile class it was Wayne Taylor on his snowmobile. He was a little surprised since he hasn’t won a race. Some of our racers haven’t ever won at RMR. They win other places but not RMR. It’s been that tough of competition over the years. Saturday they just ran us for time trials and had to be cut down because of the wind to 1/8th mile. My last run was against a Harley of Kelly Queensberry. They let us dial in like eliminations. I had a .009 light and ran a 10.421 at 137.82mph. Just about where I thought I’d run in the heat and wind. Yeah, I ran it out to the 1/4 in the wind. Later it died down and back to the 1/4 but I figured that was a great run for me to end it on.
Then it started to hit me, this was it. Over, done, kaput. I went to the stands to watch some others final runs. Then I went back to the pits and got ready for the “parade lap”. I was ok until we finally got moving, both lanes going very slowly. Turning into the water box from the staging lanes was where it hit. Both sides of the walls were covered by RMR employees. Waving goodbye. There’s no crying in racing right? I got a hug from Ralph Perea and Carrie Perea and tried to thank as many employees as I could. Then followed the line of cars going about 10mph, some filled with family and revving my engine to the fans left in the stands. I should have probably kept my helmet on. But I had it off to soak it all in. After it was done, RMR invited all the racer families and fans in for some food at the convention center. There I ran into a guy I see at work once in a while. We had no idea each other loved racing. I went back outside, walked the track a bit, it was dark, no lights down the track just the neon glow from the building lights. I talked to a few for doing the same thing for a while.
I went back to the pits to load ‘Maria’, my 2012 ZX-14R for the last time at RMR. Waving to as many as I could, even the oval track drivers I didn’t know at all. I think, just trying to thank as many people as I could. I hugged those remaining, racers, staff and their families, knowing that some it might be the last I ever see of them. I never thought as that 9-year old that I’d ever be in this spot. I never thought I’d drag race a motorcycle. Never thought I’d be able to visit different parts of the country racing the motorcycle. Never thought I’d be this old racing. Never thought I’d meet so many of my heroes and Hall of Fame drivers/riders in all disciplines of racing. Never thought people would ever say, “Oh yeah, I saw you race, I know your bike!”. Never thought we’d have people from all over the world share in this crazy passion instantly with our computers. Never thought I’d know the kids at the track now having kids. And never thought I’d meet so many people being the shy kid I was growing up. As Ted Simon said in “Why We Ride”, “Motorcycles have put me in touch with wonderful people. As a result of that, I have an elevated idea about how good everyone in the world is.” I can add all the racers I’ve met no matter what they race.
I will remember the way everyone jumps to help out someone in need. Even direct competitors. It’s happened so many times, and to me personally, I wanted to thank you too.
As I left, the sign that you see from the freeway was still all lit, those neon lights around the top of the buildings, dark race tracks, people leaving, the sign didn’t have anything about closing. Nothing about being there for 50 years. All it said in a black background with white lettering was THANK YOU. I thought “No, THANK YOU!”
– Kirk Walton
Salt Lake City, Utah