Saturday, December 17, 2011

Red light. Auction brings an end to KCIR's 44-year history

The hot rodding hobby is a respected facet of American culture, but it wasn’t always that way. If you read articles, or even watch movies from the 1940s through the early ‘50s, anyone who owned a fast car was depicted as a hooligan set on destroying all that was good and pure in the world. Legend has it, these scofflaws were racing through city streets in unsafe, cobbled together death heaps, mowing down innocent people, and destroying the lives of every teenage boy and their unlucky girlfriends who were along for the ride.

Organized drag racing at sanctioned facilities did a lot to change that perception. People were still able to satisfy their primal needs for speed-based competition, but suddenly there were rules. The cars had to meet certain safety requirements. The risk of plowing down an innocent grandmother pushing a baby stroller across the street was eliminated. People were able to foster and perfect their mechanical abilities, and it all happened without the fear of jail time … or worse. Some of our most prolific engineers started on America’s drag strips.

Race tracks became social hubs. These were places where people could have all the fun they could handle, but still be bound by the rules and regulations of the track. Everything from alcohol consumption to curfew were controlled, but people were having so much fun, they were happy to abide by the rules. Through the years, lifelong friendships emerged, and in many cases, this moved from being just a way to pass the time, to a complete way of life.

One place that has been a major part of Kansas City’s racing fabric is Kansas City International Raceway (KCIR). Opened in 1967, Kansas City’s only permanent drag strip has hosted everything from weekly, local racing, to the biggest names in motorsports. To a large and active subset of Kansas City, KCIR is hallowed ground.

But 44 years of history, good memories, and passion weren’t enough to save KCIR from the fickle tidal wave of “progress.” No matter how important racing or other automotive endeavors are to some people, there will always be others who refuse to tolerate it. Some people that live near KCIR, a majority of whom moved in after 1967, do not like the noise generated at the track. For several years, these neighbors have tried to get the track condemned and/or closed down permanently. It’s the same battle that has been waging against the “hot-rodder” and the “do-gooder” for as long as fast cars have existed. It’s not much different than what was discussed in the first paragraph, except this time the race fan is the big loser.

The true facts of how this all went down are not clear. There is a lot of he-said/she-said type information swirling around right now. Did track owners ask the city to make an offer to buy the 93-acre plot of land? That’s what the Assistant City Attorney claims. Was the track pressured into selling because it was going to be condemned by the city? That’s what track supporters are saying, citing a letter from the city written to the owners in May.

There are some very prominent people who live or own property near the track that do not seem to care for drag racing. Certainly, their political clout helped lead to the track's demise. I've read quite a bit of stuff, but I'm not going to get into things I don't know about first hand. Suffice to say, KCIR fans are harboring some bad feelings toward a couple of Kansas City's most well-known families right now.

Dad and I went out on a cool December morning to take one last look at KCIR, as they auctioned off all the maintenance equipment, old trophies, and anything else that wasn't nailed down. What struck us was that for such a low-budget operation, everything seemed very neat, clean, and well-maintained.

The inset picture here is of my dad and me during an event at KCIR in about 1987. Look at all that glorious hair! I'm still wearing that watch, too.  Anyway, when you think back on all the great times at a place like this, the sun shining down, the smell of racing fuel and burnt rubber, the announcer echoing through the loud speakers, it just makes the whole thing suck even more.

The next question is; will the owners build a new track in another location? Time will tell. On one hand, there is currently a strong fan base in Kansas City. Cars are plentiful, and enthusiasm is high. A new facility may actually draw more high-profile events, which could make interest even higher.

On the other hand, it will be hard to buy a suitable location and build a modern facility for whatever KCIR is supposedly worth. Plus, what is to say this scenario won’t play out again in a few years as the city continues to expand? When the current track was built in 1967, these issues were probably not as prevalent either. Meanwhile, as people are deciding, negotiating, and rebuilding, cars will be sold to out-of-town buyers, drag racing will cease to be the topic-de-jour, and interest will wane.

Whatever happens, losing KCIR is another blow to Kansas City car enthusiasts and race fans. Many of the city’s circle tracks have been closed, leveled, or fallen into disrepair. Closing Kansas City’s only drag racing facility is a serious loss to the area’s automotive heritage.

The slideshow below has a few pictures from the auction.  It wasn't the happiest scene I've ever been around.


  1. This blows. I am sick of yuppie clowns moving close to a track and then stomping their feet and holding their breath until they get their way and have it closed. The track was there first, and contrary to what these asshats think, we have just as much, and often MUCH MORE right to be there, as they. This is happening all over - relatively recently in my home town. The track [a dirt oval] had been there since before WWII - way before any of the complainers were born, much less lived nearby. And it ran one whole night a week. Somehow, no one thought about the fact that they KNEW it was there when they bought the house...
    I hope the jerks that killed KCIR choke on their latte from the starbucks that will inevitably be built in the area...

  2. influential people want to make a ton of money by closing kcir. nobody talks about the people who live on the east side of town because thats where the track is. city council is bought and payed for, the only recourse left for us is to boycott companies connected to these people and end political careers of same people. there are many gear heads together we are powerful!

  3. C,
    Thanks for the memories !

    Basehor Boys

  4. Craig:
    Like the once venerable DRIVE-INs, many of these classic tracks are falling by the wayside...terrible way to put an end to something totally AMERICAN.

    People need to preserve what is OURS in this country.

    Roll safe.

  5. I haven't lived in KC for almost thirty years, but have lots of fond memories involving KCIR. For several seasons, it was my home away from home as I spent most every Wednesday evening testing my latest attempt to make my bike go fast. I got to see Shirley Muldowney and Don Garlits in their prime and Dickie Harrell shortly before his final run. I got to know lots of great folks and got addicted to racing fuel and burning rubber. It was fun while it lasted...

  6. I think it is a shame that such a storied racetrack would be closed. I went to the Nostalgia Nats there this summer. I am glad I got to see it before it dies.