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"Under New Management"
An interview with Pacific Raceway's Jason Fiorito and Jay Livingston by Simon-Pierre Smith
For 25 years Seattle International Raceway has been operating as a functional, if rough-around-the-edges, racetrack. The layout is exceptional, with plenty of challenge for the motorcycle racer. Long straights and tight corners test the balance of stability and agility. Gearing for top speed vies with gearing for acceleration. Combinations of corners challenge the mind as speed gained in one location is stolen from speed in another. Elevation changes tax one's motor and patience on the climb, while taxing brakes and courage on the descent. The rough-around-the-edges part isn't the layout. It's the execution. Old pavement is left to crumble. Rough transitions feed into slick surfaces. Vegetation encroaches on the crash zones, and dismal facilities give a dated, hick-town feel to the track. That is destined to change. On the first of January 2002, the former manager, Jim Rockstad, departed. The new manager, Jay Livingston, guided closely by track owner Jason Fiorito, stepped in. With a new vision for the track comes a new name, Pacific Raceways. Imagine your old familiar burnt burger joint with limp greasy fries. One day you walk in to find new linoleum, a friendly waitress, and fresh lettuce on the Double Bacon. Seattle's only road course is "Under New Management".
SR. Do you have a map of the new track layout?
Fiorito: Right now the only change to the layout is the separation of the road course front straight from the actual drag strip. We've utilized the existing hot pit lane, moved some barriers, and are repaving the hot pit lane. There aren't enough changes to justify a new map.
SR. Several years ago a chicane was added just before the front straight, commonly called the Bus Stop. This was a safety addition to reduce the speeds entering the front straight, which has a wall on the runoff area. With the proposed changes to the entrance to the front straight, do you envision that the Bus Stop will still be used?
Fiorito: Yes. If the entrance speeds to the front straight are too high, then the speeds at the end of the front straight become unmanageable. We intend to leave the Bus Stop, though it will be repaved this year. The angle to the new front straight entrance will be straightened a bit, and the metal railing on the left will be removed and placed further from the racing line.
SR. You have made the road course run through a portion of the old hot pit. Will there still be a hot pit for endurance racing?
Fiorito: Yes. New hot pits will be created just north of turn 9. Access to the hot pits will be through the existing track exit. The hot pits will run around the outside of the existing wall area. The return to the track will be at the exit of the Bus Stop. Racers leaving the hot pits will bypass the Bus Stop and blend in with the racing line entering the new front straight.
SR. Will the drag strip be run in the opposite direction?
Fiorito: Not this year. Eventually we hope to turn the drag strip around. That is contingent on working with the county to acquire the necessary entitlements. We're attempting to mitigate some of the noise issues that the neighbors have, and mitigate some of the issues with the sun that the racers have. Right now we are generating the majority of the noise as close to the neighbors as you could possibly design it. If we're trying to appease some of the neighbors, mitigate some of the noise issues, I think redirecting the drag strip is an excellent idea. It also has benefits of parking most of the transporters and fans closer to the drag strip.
SR. There are lots of rumors about improvements flying around. I'd like confirmation about one of the more important ones. Are you going to have toilets that actually flush?
Fiorito: Quality bathrooms were #1 on people's wish list aside from the safety issues. We decided to raise the image of the place to a level that would coincide with a world class facility. The old bathrooms have been gutted to bare walls and are being rebuilt.
SR. I've heard you plan to design the track to meet safety standards that will attract SCCA and CART. This requires significant widening of the track. How will you complete safety changes to the satisfaction of the car clubs with a cliff on the outside of turn 7 and an embankment on the inside of turn 6?
Fiorito: There are some alignment issues that have to be addressed down in the 5-6-7 area. We have Dick Lee out of Monterey Ca. He's involved with SCRAMP and Laguna Seca, he's done engineering for tracks all around the world, he's well versed in FIA rules. He's got some concerns about the lower section of the track, but he feels they can be addressed.
SR. I've seen a lot of track maps and a lot of photographs of happy businessmen standing around bulldozers, but most new tracks run out of money before the pavement is put down. Do you have full funding for these proposed changes?
Fiorito: There is some uncertainty in the market in the Seattle area. A world-class road course hasn't been tested around here for 30 years. We're going after the improvements that we can afford right now, that we feel the users are going to be willing to pay for. I'm not in a position to come in here and dump 10 or 20 million into the place and hope that "if we build it, they will come." There's a difference between an upstart facility and one that's been established. There is a model for the drag racing side of things. We feel very comfortable with the association with the NHRA and the improvements that they feel are necessary. We're doing things that we know we can afford and will be absorbed by the operating income of the facility this year. We've been telling people that it took 25 years for this facility to degrade. The upgrades aren't going to happen overnight. We are tying the improvements to what we can pay for along the way.
SR. What's your greatest obstacle?
Fiorito: The entitlement process. We feel we're working very well with the county right now. We're working with the neighbors and taking their concerns into consideration and applying the mitigation measures that we can afford. To a certain degree, our success will be tied to how efficiently we can interact with our neighbors.
SR. Does your past experience operating a gravel company help or hurt relationships with the neighbors?
Fiorito: I think it helps because I've been a neighbor in a notoriously unpopular industry and coexisted very well. I think to a certain extent Jay and I have the same background. Jay has been involved in a racetrack down in Woodburn his entire life; he's coexisted well with his neighbors. I've been involved with gravel pits and worked well with my neighbors. We both have enough experience at appeasing and mitigating problems and are proactive at addressing issues before they become problems.
SR. The previous manager, Jim Rockstad, was not the easiest person for many of the road course users to get along with and often made decisions for the benefit of the drag strip at the detriment of the road course. Many people believed this was partially due to the fact that he was a drag racer at heart and didn't really understand the road course users. Now you've announced your new manager is Jay Livingston with a strong background in drag racing. What can you say to put us at ease that we aren't in for more of the same treatment?
Livingston: True, my background is drag racing, but I have raced go-karts for a number of years. I did very well, at the time we had a Kart track at the Woodburn track, and I won one of the IKF (International Karting Federation) events. I view roadracing as pumped up Karting. I'm not going to be anti roadracing.
SR. Are there any plans to host a motorcycle specific drag race event?
Livingston: We do have the All Harley Drag Racing Association. Other than that there's really not a big demand on the West Coast. I think there's one event in Palmdale and that's it. It wouldn't draw enough participants to justify the event. Fiorito: That doesn't preclude an event in the future if the market changed, but it just isn't here right now.
SR. Will motocross continue at Pacific Raceways?
Fiorito: Clem at Enumclaw Suzuki has entered into a one year lease agreement on the motocross side. He will continue to run the motocross through 2002 on the existing motocross course. We do intend to keep a motocross facility on premises for the duration of our stay here. With tracks disappearing all across the country, it makes sense to preserve the ones that are left and have no chance of being gobbled up by condominiums. Clem is thinking about expanding to Saturday nights as well. We want to give him a chance to show his colors and if that works well, we'll continue in that direction. We also don't want to destroy the ability to have conversations with other promoters or even run it ourselves.
SR. There is one event, "The Nasty Wench", that runs on both the road course and the motocross track in supermotard style. With separate management of these two courses, will this event continue?
Fiorito: The Nasty Wench has got some explaining to do if they ever want to be back in here again. They did significant damage to the property with little or no attempt to clean it up on their way out. I'm not really happy with Team Crutch right now and unless someone can justify that event economically and environmentally, it just isn't going to happen here anymore.
SR. 2002 is the best schedule for motorcycle roadracing in a long time with 7 race days. When car racing returns, dates will likely get tighter. What's the expected minimum # of days the Washington Motorcycle Road Racing Association would get?
Fiorito: It is hard to gauge a minimum number of race days. We're taking some steps to utilize the road course for many more hours than it's being utilized now. The first step is the separation of the drag strip from the road course. When we do ultimately flip the drag strip around it makes logistical sense to put the drag strip outside of the road course. That would allow us to free up Friday, Saturday, and Wednesday nights on the road course. Of the other clubs, BMW club, Porsche club, SOVREN, folks will get dates based on how many times they use it. WMRRA sits on the top of the list of smaller clubs based on dates being used. That's why they get preferential dates on the schedule.
SR: Rockstad's operating procedure was to invest very little money into the track to keep overhead low and maintain profits at relatively constant rental fees. Now you're spending considerable money on improvements, keeping rental fees constant for 2002, and giving a free mid summer day to SOVREN for Children's Hospital. Who's going to pay to recoup your expenses?
Fiorito: We felt we needed to show our commitment to the racing community by installing improvements right away. There's going to be some construction activities happening through the duration of this year and we've anticipated some logistical difficulties. In an effort to accommodate users during the construction period, we've left the rental rates exactly as they are. That is not to say that as we upgrade the facilities we won't be looking to increase cash flow. Some of that will come from increased activities; some will come from increasing prices. A lot of what we're doing now is sorely needed maintenance that would have been covered by the previous operator had he chosen to maintain the facility. Our prices are a little bit under some of the more premier facilities and a little bit over some of the smaller facilities. As we gravitate more towards a more world-class facility our prices will naturally encroach on similar facilities in similar markets.
SR. On the local level, Pacific Raceway has little competition, there's drag racing at Bremerton and a track in Spokane. As PR tries to move into the national level, what tracks do you view as your main competition?
Fiorito: The tracks in this area don't necessarily compete. Racers in this area want to compete at Portland, Bremerton, and Spokane. We have a symbiotic relationship. The whole racing community is excited about what we have on the horizon, and I think that has a positive effect on the other tracks in the area. SR!
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