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Driving in circles: Alaska Raceway Park debuts NASCAR-approved oval

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: July 14, 2016
  • Published May 27, 2016

The new oval track at Alaska Raceway Park is Alaska’s only NASCAR-certified track. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

BUTTE — Earl Lackey's banana-yellow 2003 Chevrolet Monte Carlo dawdled at 10 mph through the banked turns earlier this week at Alaska Raceway Park's new paved oval.

The cars that circle what's now the only operating NASCAR-certified track in Alaska will go just a little faster.

"The late-model cars should be pushing 100 miles an hour on the straightaways," said Lackey, the raceway's 76-year-old patriarch.

First established in 1964, the motor-sports destination just off the Old Glenn Highway boasts a stunning Pioneer Peak backdrop. Raceway Park already draws several thousand fans to summer weekend drag races.

Lackey, who runs the track with his wife, Karen, and daughter, Michelle Lackey Maynor, hopes the new oval will draw a few thousand more.

"There's a big following for NASCAR short tracks, for NASCAR itself," he said.

The oval officially debuts June 4.

Aubrey Equevillex, from Mt. McKinley Fence, strings wire for the cyclone fence as the Alaska Raceway Park’s new oval racetrack this week. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

It's one of 60 tracks in NASCAR's Whelen All American Series, NASCAR's national championship program for short-track racing.

The designation recognizes local short tracks with regular — usually weekly — races, according to Kevin Nevalainen, NASCAR's director of weekly racing operations.

Drivers earn NASCAR points and access to sponsors and racing connections; plus, they get a shot at regional races and compete for a national championship and a trip to the national banquet in North Carolina.

Current NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray trace their racing legacy to the NASCAR Whelen All American Series.

Nevalainen said the All American Series can help new drivers expand their horizons.

"They can use the brand to develop a portfolio," he said. "They may have a better chance of getting recognized and developing their career."

Stock car racing doesn't start until next weekend but the oval is already seeing plenty of activity.

Drivers did test runs last weekend and more practice runs were scheduled for this weekend, including Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. Event classes are street stocks, mini stocks, legends, baby grands and late model.

Dana Pruhs, a contractor who helped build the oval, got the chance to be the first driver on it on May 21. Pruhs has raced for 15 years in California and at the now-closed oval at North Star Speedway near Wasilla.

"It was pretty special, actually," he said of his first run. "You go out and use it the first time, you hope it's right. It's actually a very smooth and a very fast track."

Lackey said the new circle track was built to the requirements of his insurance company. He and Pruhs also spent years negotiating the Matanuska-Susitna Borough planning process. A related gravel pit and asphalt operation at the track drew censure from nearby residents.

The oval is surrounded by a white wall at least 42 inches tall, with a tall chain-link "crash wall" fence at least 12 feet above the track. It can handle up to 25 cars at a time.

Lackey says races at the drag strip and the oval will never run at the same time. Race fans will enter each side through separate gates. Admission is $20 for the drag strip and $20 for the oval. The oval may take away from the dragster crowds but Lackey hopes it doesn't cause much of a dip.

It's unusual that new tracks are built anymore — especially in Alaska, said Nevalainen, who visited Alaska Raceway Park in early spring. It was light until 9 p.m., although the sun disappeared fast behind 6,398-foot Pioneer Peak.

Racing fans from around the country raved about visiting the track and Alaska when Nevalainen posted track progress updates on Twitter.

"For people in Alaska that live there, you see the mountains and the view on a regular basis, maybe you're immune to it, I don't know," he said. "I think the track will get a lot more national notoriety out of being part of the program for some of these things. The view at the track is spectacular with the backdrop."

Pioneer Peak provides a stunning backdrop for the new oval track at Alaska Raceway Park. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

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