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Pacific Raceways asks King County for help
By ROBERT WHALE, Auburn Reporter
J. Dan Fiorito graded and paved a racetrack east of Auburn for a band of cash-poor investors in 1960 in exchange for a share of stock.
If his grandson, Jason Fiorito, is to expand Pacific Raceways, he’ll have to go through the King County Council over the angry and organized opposition of neighbors who say it’ll be too noisy and harm the environment.
Fiorito addressed the Auburn City Council to enlist the City’s support.
“I’m not asking King County to approve this site plan,” he said. “I’m asking it to amend the code in terms of the wetlands and the steep slopes to allow upgrades that are specifically tied to safety improvements on the road course and set forth a development agreement requirement between us and the county executive that would start the environmental review process.
“This is not an attempt to circumvent environmental review,” Fiorito added.
Council members listened but took no action.
Fiorito’s problem is that the operation of the current road course and drag strip don’t support the maintenance of the racing surface, neither do they support the debt service payments the family has been making on the $5 million loan it took out to pull the venue back from the brink of ruin in 2000 to where it can operate at a club racing level on the road course and a professional level on the drag strip.
Fiorito traced the track’s decline to a series of unfortunate lease agreements the then-operator of then-Seattle International Raceway entered into with lessees from the 1970s to the late ‘90s.
“By the end of the ‘90s, either my family was going to take over operations, or it would go away,” Fiorito said. “Thankfully, I was able to convince my family it was an important community asset.”
The family tore down buildings, replaced bathrooms, began a deferred maintenance program to establish some safety-runout areas around the road course, rebuilt the grandstands, replaced many of the wooden seats with aluminum seats, paved some pit areas and cleaned up the property.
Present features are:
• A quarter-mile dragstrip
• A shifter-kart track amounting to a smaller version of the road course that caters to drifting cars, Go-Karts and motorcycles
• A permitted motocross track, dormant for now
• A permitted-and-under-construction, relocated drag strip.
Nearly 700,000 people set foot on the property every year, almost 100,000 of them showing up on just one weekend during the NHRA Nationals. But it is the club activities throughout the week that kick up most of the economic impact. Some of the larger events are on weekends, the track hosting close to 300 event days a year and operational seven days a week, May through August.
Pacific Raceways has worked with King County over recent years to relocate some of the racing surfaces, including the kart course, moving it “as far away from the neighborhood as we could get it, and then lowering it 30 feet into the ground, leaving an earthen berm between the noise generator and the neighborhood. This is the first racing surface to employ that technology, and it’s worked wonderfully,” Fiorito said.
The problem is that road courses and drag strips aren’t big money makers. If Pacific Raceways is to remain competitive, things will have to change. Looking for a sustainable business model outside of the impossible scenario of hosting a NASCAR event, Fiorito decided to do as other track owners in his situation had done — build an associated industrial park. By building and renting out industrial and commercial space for businesses tied to the racing industries, he said, he can keep things rolling and make the venue a world-class facility once again.
Fiorito’s plan calls for an industrial park capable of generating 1,000 jobs, with an estimated economic impact on the local economy of about $30 million per year. By surrounding the track with those buildings, he said, he can cut the noise. The plan also calls for replacing a grass field with a regional-size oval, which is the one additional racing surface proposed in the master plan.
His vision is to have five racing surfaces that can be operated on a regional level. In the event the raceway has a professionally-sanctioned road course or drag strip event, it can shut down the other four spectator-driven events and use their parking lots.
A lack of safety runout areas, he said, constrains the present road course. In 1960, there were few trees alongside the racing surface. Because of 30 years of lack of maintenance, trees have grown up right alongside the track, so that if a car leaves the racing surface, it will hit a tree. The solution is to remove trees, and that means getting into sensitive areas and removing vegetation to provide flat runoff areas, so that if a car going 150 mph plus leaves the track, it won’t hit a tree, and safety crews can get there quickly.
Fiorito claims his plan efficiently cuts but does not eliminate noise leaving the property.
“My ask is to be recognized as a community asset in terms of our ability to get kids off the streets and provide a safe alternative,” Fiorito told the Council. “An asset in terms of being an economic engine that supports an entire industry, that survives because of the racing industry, and to be recognized as someone who is trying to self-finance a $130 million upgrade to a facility that already exists, to get credit for the noise, the traffic and the water impacts and credit for the improvements that will be made, and send a message to the King County Council that as a City, Auburn supports this development plan,” Fiorito said.