I-30 Speedway veterans sorry to see track’s closure

FILE — Fans file into the front gates for an event at Little Rock’s I-30 Speedway in 1998. The quarter-mile, high-banked dirt oval, in its 66th year of operation, appears set for development and is expected to close permanently after this season. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)

About 50 years ago, Emmett Lawson was in his second season driving a race car at the Benton Speedbowl, which is now I-30 Speedway.

One night at the track, as he raced into turn 2, his car hit a hole and rolled over. Lawson crawled from his overturned car unhurt.

“A couple of years ago, I rolled over again in the same place,” Lawson said Wednesday. “It was the same hole, same place on the track. That track just hasn’t changed over the years. Things outside the track have some. They moved the pits around a few years ago, and they’ve built some things around there. But that track, it hasn’t changed.” All indications are that I-30 Speedway will close after this season, its 66th. Track officials have not confirmed the closure, but they were granted a rezoning request at a meeting of the Little Rock Board of Directors on Aug.

16. On the ordinance, developers of the 66-acre property are listed as Copart, Inc., which specializes in online auto auctions.

The race at the track is expected to be next week’s 35th annual Short Track Nationals, a two-day sprint car event that draws drivers from across the nation each fall.

But Saturday night’s regular race card will the last for dozens of weekend racers who turned laps at the quarter-mile clay oval for years — some in families who have raced there for generations.

Lawson, 74, began racing at the track in 1971 and has been a regular competitor nearly every season since, including this season in the IMCA stock car division.

“I started out in the six-cylinder class,” he said. “You just knocked out the glass, put in a roll cage and raced. We started racing the modifieds some time in the 90s and stayed with those until this year.

“I know a lot of people are going to miss that place. I know I will.” That goes for racers and fans as well. The track, which is situated a few hundred feet north of the Pulaski-Saline county line, has drawn large groups of fans throughout its existence.

“That’s one of the things that I was thinking about,” said Chuck Sanders, a 53-year-old modified driver from East End, who has been an I-30 regular since 1993. “I have friends and lots of people I know who are sitting in those stands every Saturday. I mean, what are they going to do on their Saturday nights now? It’s really going to affect a lot of people.” Randy Weaver, 57, of Little Rock, started racing at I-30 in 1984 at age 19.

“I had been coming to the races since I was a little kid,” he said. “I always said, ‘That what I want to do.’ As soon as I was old enough to get a job and buy a race car, that’s what I did.

“It is one big family out there. The drivers, the fans, the workers … we all know each other and have for years. For me, it’s just a great place to race that’s 15 minutes from the house.” Sanders said he recently ran into a couple of friends from the track at a restaurant.

“One of them is a big sprint car fan, but he said he wouldn’t be going to the Short Track Nationals, couldn’t bring himself to do it,” Sanders said. “He said he had made his peace with it and had said his good-bye, so to speak.” All three drivers said they will continue to race. Sanders said he has some Texas tracks that he has raced at in the past, as well as Tri-State Speedway in Pocola, Okla., and other in-state tracks.

“I’m sure I will race somewhere,” Lawson said. “I’ve done it too long to stop now.” Driving in the street stock and IMCA modified divisions, Weaver has won several I-30 track championships — “I know I should know how many, but I don’t.” He is hoping against hope that Saturday night will not be his final laps at his home track.

“They haven’t made an official announcement yet, right?” he said, referring to I-30 officials. “Maybe we can get another year out of the place. I think I got one more year in me.”