Raceway hanging by a thread

What began as a territorial dispute between two racing organizations at the Bremerton Raceway has reached the point where landowner Port of Bremerton is ready to pull the plug on the whole enterprise.

Although the fight ostensibly started over two conflicting ticket booths at the site, Handlers Racing Association president Gordon Howell said years of frustration lie just below the surface.

The Handlers have used the raceway — an abandoned runway immediately adjacent to Bremerton National Airport — since the mid-1950s, and Howell said they built most of the infrastructure now on the site, including a small ticket booth at the front gate.

Because none of the other car clubs that use the facility charge for entry, the ticket booth has always been wholly under the Handlers’ domain. And, until recently, the arrangement was never questioned.

In March, however, Bremerton Motorsports Parks — the organization tasked with managing the racetrack for the port — decided the other clubs needed something more than card tables to check in racers.

BMP board chair Ken Mahan said the group had been getting complaints from club leaders who said visitors would see the empty ticket booth and assume no check-in was required, creating a security and liability risk.

Mahan said all racers must fill out paperwork and sign waivers in order to race and, without an obvious place to do it, club volunteers were reduced to chasing people down to get the necessary signatures.

“It’s very, very important for the port to have security,” he said, pointing out the track’s close proximity to the working airport runway.

Mahan said he asked Howell to open the Handlers’ booth up to general use, but he refused. Howell said he didn’t have anything against people using the booth, per se, but in the past anyone who had been allowed in it had left the place a mess.

In the end, BMP decided to build its own booth and placed it on the same spot the Handlers’ booth had been, first moving the Handlers’ booth out of the way. Mahan said they were only trying to get access to the power hookup there and the Handlers were welcome to use the new facility, but on the Handlers’ next racing weekend, everything soured.

Howell moved the Handlers’ booth back in front of the new booth and had an attorney send a letter to BMP telling the board members they were forbidden to touch or move it.

BMP then lawyered up, and the matter has remained there, in limbo, ever since.

The port is not amused. It gave up managerial control of the racetrack three years ago because it was sick of dealing with problems such as these, said Port Commissioner Mary Ann Huntington. She said the port has tried to limit its involvement in this dispute, having the organizations’ attorneys deal directly with the port attorney. But the commissioners won’t let this go on forever.

“If this continues, we may just say, ‘You all just go away,’ ” Huntington said. “We don’t need this. This is an airport.”

All three players — the port, the Handlers and BMP — are aware the facility doesn’t have much time left anyway. Huntington said the FAA has never liked the idea of having a racetrack so close to an airport and, until now, has been willing to look the other way. However, with increased security concerns, she said, the clock is ticking.

“They haven’t given us a date (to shut it down), but they’ve told us to be prepared,” Huntington said.

Both the Handlers and BMP are aware of this and, as a result, have been looking for another place to race. The Handlers at one point even contemplated buying land from McCormick Land Co. to build their own facility, but the deal fell through and no new ones have surfaced.

“We are looking desperately to do this,” Howell said. “(But the land) needs to be away from people and it needs to be a zoned a certain way, and there’s not a lot of choice.”

BMP is facing even greater difficulties because it does not have the financial resources of the Handlers and will have to convince a corporate partner to foot most of the expense.

In addition, Mahan said, if racing at the airport shuts down before they can build a new facility, chances are any deal they try to strike will fall through.

It’s a lot harder to convince people the area needs a new racetrack, Mahan said, when there’s no current one to rally support around.

On paper, the dispute looks easy to settle — Howell said the only reason he doesn’t want to use the new booth is because BMP never bothered to wire it and the Handlers need outlets to plug their cash registers into. The rift between BMP and the Handlers, however, may be harder to fix.

Howell was kicked off the BMP board of directors for alleged conflict of interest issues. In return, Howell has accused the entire board of being in the pocket of Port Commissioner Bill Mahan because, among other reasons, Ken Mahan is his brother.

BMP has said the Handlers have too much influence at the race track; the Handlers have said they have no representation whatsoever; and so on.

The port’s Board of Commissioners has still not decided what it plans to do about the standoff. Huntington said the board would wait for a report from its attorney and decide at that point. She said she would be sorry to see the racing go, since it brings in major tourism dollars on the weekends.

“We were hoping everyone could get along,” Huntington said.

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