Start your engines

It may not be Las Vegas, but an old airplane runway in south Bremerton quickly is becoming the hottest strip around.

The quarter-mile-long track called Bremerton Raceway sits on the backside of Bremerton National Airport and is host to auto, drag and motorcycle racing.

Races and events are held in three-day intervals 12 times per year. Cash prizes vary but go up to $8,000 for the fastest cars and bikes.

The drag strip usually is open only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. But during the week, it is a serene stretch of asphalt that stretches east from Highway 3 near Belfair out into the woods, where bears, deer and birds can be glimpsed.

The Port of Bremerton was given the land after World War II and the port leases out the rectangular track to different auto groups that use it for racing and test driving.

August will be the most popular time of the year at the track according Gordon Howell, president of the Handlers Racing Association, where usually150 to 300 people show up each day of racing.

The Handlers Racing Association puts on the racing events at the track and pays $33,000 per year to lease the space, said Barbara Howell, secretary and treasurer at the Raceway.

“It’s picking up more now that we have longer days,” she said.

On this year’s opening day, April 11, 1,500 people showed up to watch Chevies, Fords, Subarus, Hondas and motorcycles run down the lanes.

On Aug. 7, the 10th Annual Nostalgia Drags, Car Show and Swap Meet will visit Bremerton Raceway, followed by two days of racing. Aug. 22 will be the 11th annual Day Fire Nationals, with a payout of $8,000.

Winners of the four different brackets get 50 percent of the cash prizes, and finalists split the rest.

Howell said Bremerton Raceway is successful because he keeps the prices low and the payoffs for the racers big.

Anyone can race if they their car passes an inspection. Requirements are having good tires, battery securely held down, functional seatbelts and no cracks in the windshield.

There is a $25 fee, which includes gate admission and a tech card.

Racing can be an expensive hobby.

“Just for tires on a superpro car it is $500 per tire,” Howell said.

Howell’s own fire engine red, ’57 Chevy with a 478-cubic-inch engine uses a gallon of gas just getting from the beginning to the end of the track.

“We’re trying to bring in really fast cars,” Howell said.

The fastest recorded speed at Bremerton Raceway was 203 miles per hour, set by a motorcycle two years ago.

Although motorcycle riders have survived crashes at such speeds, some wear bulletproof vests to keep themselves safe.

“To me, it’s just the speed thing,” said Milo Bennett, who’s raced bikes for the past five years. “It’s just such a rush. You have to get tucked in. You can just feel it.”

Bennett calls Bremerton Raceway home because he said it has a great community among the racers.

“There’s a lot of racers that come there almost exclusively,” he said. “You meet a lot of people. It’s a place where you have no enemies.”

Bennett had his own scare on a bike when he tapped the front breaks a little too hard and flipped off it at 60 mph two years ago. Fortunately, he escaped with just a couple of burns on his arms. But he didn’t let even a small injury keep him down — he fixed his bike, came back the next day and won his bracket of the competition.

Accidents aside, the track takes measures to ensure riders’ safety. To get enough traction for the riders, Howell puts on a rubber surface that looks like melted tire on the asphalt. He goes through dozens of gallons of the substance every year.

Entry to the Bremerton Raceway is $10 per day for adults, $8 for seniors and active military and free for children 12 and under.

To race a car on the straightaway, racers are required to pay between $20 and $30. Cars are put into different classifications by how fast they generally travel across the finish line.

Bennett can charge his motorcycle across in about nine seconds, at a top speed of 147 mph.

He praised Howell and his wife, Barbara, for the hard work they’ve done for the track during the eight years since Howell became president. They’ve bought new signs, public-address equipment and they even purchased benches from the Kingdome in Seattle before it was demolished.

“The handlers have been doing this for 45 years, and we’ve progressively grown,” he said. “They didn’t have guardrails when we started. We’re trying to be very safety contentious and make it very family oriented.”

For more information about watching or racing at Bremerton Raceway, call Gordon Howell at (360) 674-2280.

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