BUTTE -- Karen Lackey thinks Alaska Raceway Park may have attracted one of its biggest crowds in 20 years this Fourth of July, but on the following day she was too busy to figure out exactly how many showed.
"I do know they ate all the ice cream and drank all the water, and we're replenishing today," she said.
Karen, who co-owns the drag strip with her husband, Earl Lackey, and daughter, Michelle Maynor, hasn't had time to look at the books. At age 72, she also directs racers to their parking spots, sells tickets, oversees the gift shop, paints, empties trash and, well, you name it. Perhaps the only thing she doesn't do there is work on cars and burn rubber.
"I do not turn wrenches for a very good reason. I would turn them the wrong direction," she said.
Those who do know the Lackeys operate Alaska's premier drag racing destination and carry on a tradition that began in the 1960s. This year, Alaska Raceway Park celebrates its 50th anniversary.
The Raceway's track -- a quarter-mile for racing and a half-mile for slowing -- is the only venue in the state sanctioned by the International Hot Rod Association, and the only permanent home for drag racing. (Fairbanks Racing Lions, which used to host races on Fort Wainwright, is working on plans to build another track in North Pole.) Alaska Raceway Park holds races in several classes, grouping together cars and drivers of similar capabilities, most weekends from Mother's Day to Labor Day.
Over the years, with incremental improvements and a loyal base of racers and fans, Maynor and the Lackeys have created what for many is a weekend tradition in the Valley, a place even some Outside racers call one of their favorite drag racing venues.
Five decades ago
On Labor Day 1964, Governor Bill Egan cut the ribbon to open what was then called Polar Dragway.
This summer, Pam Cousins took in the view from the top of the grandstand and saw just how far the park has come since then.
Cousins, now 63, remembered riding in the grader as her father, Harold Forslund, leveled the land north of the Knik River for the raceway. Lee Nelson leased that land to build a place that would take drag racing off Alaska streets and frozen lakes.
Cousins said people were skeptical the project would succeed. "Everybody thought he must have a whole lot of money to waste," she said. At the time, she was happy to have earned a few dollars babysitting Nelson's kids on opening day.
But the Nelsons owned the park for 30 years.
In July, Cousins visited Alaska from her home in British Columbia. Curious if that park was still operating, she said she searched the Internet for a drag racing strip near her childhood home. She said it felt surreal to see it in full swing, and wished her dad, who died in 1974, was there to share the moment.
"If he knew it was still going like this, he'd just be tickled," she said.
Safety comes first
On a Saturday morning last month, a few dozen RVs parked in the pit. Activity and noise began building at about 10 a.m. as inspectors looked at cars and drivers chatted with each other and prepared for the day's first "test and tune" runs down the track.
It's a community several described as family. The usual suspects get to know each other, and each other's cars, pretty well. They help each other and compare notes.
"Anybody who races here more than once or twice, we know them," Karen said.
Karen said the Raceway tries to strike a balance between friendly and professional, and the staff aims to keep safety standards high. Earl credits the work of tech inspector Dan Collins. Each car that races gets examined beforehand.
"We've had accidents," Karen said, "but nothing that the driver hasn't walked away from."
In 2010, a jet truck burst into flames a moment after it launched. The driver escaped uninjured. The track's fire suppression systems worked that day, Earl said.
"Our guy had that fire out in one minute, 20 seconds," Earl said.
"Fans talk about the excitement if a car has an accident, burns, whatever," Karen said. "I'd hate to see that, because the people in those cars are my friends."
75 regular racers
Drivers say Alaska Raceway Park provides a professional experience at a community level. After all, no one is drawn to drag racing in Alaska hoping for a big payday.
Mike Mihalka, 65, of Anchorage, has been racing here since 1987, and traveled across the Lower 48 to compete in races years ago. Nowadays, if he can take home $240 competing in the Raceway's most competitive division, as he did one day this summer, he'll call it a good day. Every little bit helps keep his 1966 Chevy Chevelle in top form.
"I probably have $50,000 in my car," Mihalka said. That's to say nothing, he says, of the motor home, the trailer, the support gear, spare engines and other spare parts.
"It's a passion," he explained, and it's fun to be with people who share it. There are more and more of those people.
Earl said the sport was in decline 20 years ago. He had trouble convincing drivers to get their cars out of the garage and on the track. Major upgrades in 2000 -- new pavement and a heated launch area -- helped reverse the trend.
These days, about 75 regular racers show up to race for points. That number can swell to 125 on a big holiday weekend. "It's definitely been growing every year," Earl says.
This summer, Mike Mihalka took a rookie under his wing. Anchorage resident Curt Crocker recently bought a race-ready 1965 Chevy Chevelle and got his license to compete.
"I've been wanting to do it for years," he said a few hours before his first start. The sport seems safer and more organized than what he remembers from his teen years, he said. Now that his kids are grown, he decided it was time to live the dream.
"I told my oldest son, 'If you want an attitude adjustment in life, just take this down the track a few times.' It gets your adrenaline pumping. It puts a smile on your face."
"It makes me feel good to mentor guys like that," Mihalka said.
That camaraderie extends to the fastest, noisiest class of cars that occasionally race here, the nitromethane-burning, fire-breathing "Fuel Altered" beasts. Shaped like a rocket tipped on its side, a Fuel Altered car shakes the earth and explodes down the track. When they race in Alaska, organizers call it the special event of the season: the Nitro Blast.
One such car, the Fairbanks-based Alaskan Grizzly, holds the track speed record, a frightening 279.5 miles per hour. This year, the Grizzly's Bodenstadt family faced the Ruiz crew from Reno. The Nevada Rattler Nitro team has made the journey north from Reno six times.
Over the course of the weekend, the cars traded wins, Karen said.
Jesse Ruiz, who represents the middle of a three-generation Ruiz family of drag racers visiting Alaska, says the competitors are good family friends. They barbecue together when the day is done.
"This is my favorite track in the world," he said in July, before escorting his son Ryan and his junior dragster to the launch area. "There's nowhere else you can have this scenery and these people."
Step by step
To the casual observer, drag racing is a simple sport: Go straight, go fast, go for a quarter-mile. Harder to see from the stands are the tiny details that make all the difference in how a car and driver perform. I asked Mike Mihalka to walk me through the racing experience, step by step, for a Top Sportsman competitor:
• From his spot in the pit, Mihalka hears the announcement on the radio that it's time to "qualify" the car. "Mighty Mike" waits in the staging lanes with other cars in his class, carrying such names as Mid-Life Crisis, Killer Tomato and Memory Maker.
• When it's his turn, he pulls up into the water box. The rear tires come to a stop just past it. He sets the "line lock" -- a brake for the front tires -- revs the engine to about 5,000 rpm and shifts into high gear. He releases the line lock. Rear tires spin in place until they billow white smoke. This "burnout" heats the rubber and makes the surface sticky. That's important to help him launch from the starting line. When his tires "bite" the track surface, he lurches forward.
• Which light drivers leave on depends on the class. In a Top Sportsman rig like Mihalka's, drivers try to leave on the first yellow light. Other classes wait until the third yellow, trying to cut it as close to the green light as possible without jumping the gun and disqualifying.
• The first 60 feet is where drivers get the rush that keeps them coming back, he says. "It's kind of like getting shot out of a cannon."
• At 7,400 rpm, his car shifts into high gear automatically. This happens just shy of the halfway point on the track.
• At the finish line, he puts it in neutral and uses the brakes. For any car capable of going faster than 150 mph, drivers are required to deploy a parachute to slow down. After crossing the line, drivers may have a seat-of-the-pants sense of how well they did, but often they don't. In elimination rounds, a win light on the guardrail will indicate if Mihalka is on to the next round or if he's a spectator for the rest of the day.
• Returning to the starting area, he is handed a time ticket that gives him precise information about his reaction time -- the time it takes a driver to respond to the go signal -- and how fast he traveled in several increments. Mihalka's personal best in this 3,400-pound car: 9.07 seconds and 147 miles per hour.
• If he hasn't been eliminated, he heads back to the pit to check the tire pressure, top off the fuel, take a peek under the hood and get ready for the next round.
More women racing
It's a sequence that plays out weekend after weekend, summer after summer, generation after generation.
Alicia Mayo is half of a veteran father-daughter racing team. She said as a teen, her father, Jim Mayo, told her she could drive if she kept her grades up. "That was my motivation," she said.
Now a mechanical engineer in Fairbanks, she's been making the trip to Butte for 18 years. She drives Troublemaker now, a small-block missile with yellow and blue stripes.
"We've got three generations of racing, not just in my family, but in lots of families," Karen said.
If Pam VanDenBerg has her way, more wives will get involved.
VanDenBerg, of Eagle River, spent years supporting her husband at the Raceway. Four years ago, she decided to get behind the wheel herself. Now she races a purple and black 1972 Dodge Demon and encourages other women to race every chance she gets, she said.
"There's so many wives out there cheering," she said. "I don't think they realize the fun is in the car."
Last season, VanDenBerg finished with the second-highest point total in the Super ET division.
After five decades of straight racing, a new tradition is taking shape, and that shape is an oval. Plans are in place to build a third-of-a-mile oval track, Earl said. He said he hopes it will satisfy demand pent up since North Star Speedway, an oval track in Wasilla, stopped holding regular races a few years ago.
If all goes as planned, the oval will open in 2015, bringing new drivers, new cars and new spectators to Alaska Raceway.
As busy as the Lackeys are now, Karen said she can't help but wonder what will become of Alaska Raceway Park when she and her husband can no longer keep up. Earl is 74; Karen is 72.
"That's been a topic of discussion for the last couple years," Karen said. "I don't want this to become a subdivision."
As racers lined up at the gate to enter the pit, most of whom she knew by name, Karen said there are many races left to run.
"I would like Alaska Raceway Park to have its 100th anniversary."
Contact Alaska Dispatch News photographer Marc Lester at mlester(at)adn.com.
What's racing at Alaska Raceway Park?
Drag racing vehicles can be divided and sub-divided into dozens of classes based on body style, the fuel they burn and their performance capabilities. Cars that compete in points races at Alaska Raceway fall into one of just a few, no matter whether they are "door cars," which look like they drive the streets, or "dragsters," which have that classic thin, pointed appearance.
Super ET: These are modified street cars likely to be driven by novice racers. They are capable of running the quarter-mile track in a time greater than 11.5 seconds. ET stands for "elapsed time."
Modified ET: A slightly more sophisticated car than a Super. These cars can travel a quarter-mile faster than 11.49 seconds without the use of electronic timers.
Top Sportsman: Race-only vehicles that compete in the Raceway's most competitive division -- also for cars capable of an 11.49-second run and faster. It's the only bracket racing division that allows the use of a "delay box," a timer which helps the driver synchronize the launch to the start signal.
Trophy: Often the sport's newcomers.
Open Air: Refers to motorcycles and snowmachines.
Junior Dragster: For youths 8 to 17 years old, this is a stepping stone into bracket racing. Cars look like full-size dragsters but are smaller and use lawn mower-type engines.
Special Events: These cars generally appear in one-off races to showcase their high performance. Top Eliminators and Pro-Nostalgia vehicles run 6-8 times a year; Fuel Altered just once or twice.