Speedway offering racing this summer – just not to live crowd

Scott Swanson

Loren Kruesi stands outside the Willamette Speedway racetrack on a hot early-September summer afternoon.

It’s a couple days until the next Race Day and he’s been tweaking some things – on his two personal race cars, parked beside his trailer, and for the track, which he’s managed since last December.

The track has been in operation for nearly a month now, sans spectators.

But racers have responded with enthusiasm, Kruesi said. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, participation is limited to 250 people – but the number of racers and crew members on Labor Day weekend totaled just about that, he said.

“It’s been really exciting racing. People are saying it’s fun again. Last race, we had 23 street stockers and it was one of the best races I’ve seen in years. As a partner and manager, as a potential buyer, those are the things I want to hear.”

Kruesi, who grew up in Lebanon and got back into dirt track racing himself in 2010 after a decades-long hiatus, acknowledges that recent years at the track have been a bit tumultuous.

Longtime owner Clair Arnold, who had begun building the one-third-mile race oval in 1966, died in 2009. His family sold the track the next year to Jerry and Jimmy Schram, who operate Trophy Motorsports as well as running a large Vancouver, Wash.-based excavating firm.

Kruesi acknowledged that he has sentimental memories of the Arnold-era track, where he remembers being lifted into a race car as a “little kid” by local legend George Waters and “my brother, Wayne Poor, raced here in the late 70s.”

He said his family moved to Lebanon from the High Deck area of Cascadia, where he was born. He was involved in athletics at Lebanon High School in the late 1970s and then served in the military.

“I went off and did other things,” he said.

Currently, Kruesi owns a cannabis distribution business, Nature Quest, in Salem.

When he started getting interested in racing again, he and a friend, Todd Sieg, put together a late-model race car “one piece at a time,” Kruesi said, noting the title of the Johnny Cash song.

“We were like privateers. We flew the privateer flag,” he said. “We built our own engine.”

Those were the good old days, he said.

“Drivers were packed together into the midfield. Everybody was elbow to elbow.”

The Schrams started upgrading things at the track in 2011, moving the pits from the center to the north side of the oval, installing improved lighting and a catch fence, and adding aluminum bleachers and suites on the south side of the stadium.

Kruesi said some locals “had issues” with the changes early on, “but look at it now – it’s world-class.”

After a management change last year, issues arose with the county and the Lebanon Fire District over missing deadlines for fire, health and safety code requirements, and for what the county said was non-permitted construction. The Board of Commissioners authorized the shutting down of power to the track.

The speedway was shut down for nearly two weeks before reopening in time for the Labor Day schedule, which included the World of Outlaws.

“It was really convoluted,” said Kruesi, adding that he got involved in negotiations with the county and LFD. “I told Jerry (Schram) I would help out, though I’d never run a racetrack before. I’ve had 20 years of experience dealing with county and state bureaucracies after my military career. I started working with Jerry on these things. There was a lot of stuff being fired at the Schram brothers and I could tell there were two sides to the story.”

The upshot of negotiations was that Willamette Speedway got a temporary operating permit to finish the season, he said.

“It was a great meeting. I was really impressed.”

The season was completed, but the traditional awards banquet didn’t happen, so Kruesi put one on himself, on Dec. 28, including a performance by the Donny Thorp band.

“I figured that was the last hurrah for the track.”

But no, the speedway still had a temporary operating permit and Jerry Schram decided to get back on the track.

“On Aug. 19 Jerry said, ‘Open that thing up.’ Three days later we had races. No timing, no nothing. We ran with hand scoring. The first race, it was 103 degrees.”

But the racers came, and so did the crews.

“The crew members are all volunteers,” Kruesi said. “They love the drivers. They love the sport.”

The stands, which seat close to 4,000 spectators, are empty. There are no concessions, no beer sales, as a result of the temporary operating agreement. The picnic tables that used to occupy the space underneath the stands are piled in a corner.

“We can’t have any occupancy under the bleachers. That’s why we shut down the kitchen,” he said, noting that officials have had concerns about fire risks.

He said that he is working on getting some food trucks to provide concessions for the racing crowd.

And in the absence of live spectators, Dirt Oval TV is broadcasting the races.

Banners on the fences promote a variety of area companies that have stepped up as sponsors.

“I’ve been overwhelmed at the sponsor support,” Kruesi said.

He said he’s just happy to be running, as Sunset Speedway in Banks is closed and dirt track racing around the state has been limited.

“The hard part is when I get calls from people who say, ‘I’m 78 years old. I live through the winter so I can go out there and see the few friends I have, at the track.’ But we have to be in compliance. We have to do what the county and the fire department tell us to do.

“The racers here are a rough and rugged independent nation. The kids who come out here are the ones who would have been flying bombers with my dad.”

Kruesi said the speedway track is in as good shape as he can remember and he plans to stick it out.

“I was a Lebanon Warrior. Donnie Carroll and all those guys taught us how to compete. We lost a lot of football games by three points, but Lebanon was not a place where you wanted to be the visiting team.”

He says he has ideas that he thinks might further improve the racing at Willamette. One is to run later, with a final show this year on Halloween.

“Why do we dedicate so much of the season to April? Fall is just so good for cars” – particularly with the condition the track is in currently.

“The racing surface is hard and fast and smooth. This is the greatest show on dirt. This is where everybody wants to go to race. We’ve always had that reputation.”

Now, he said, he’s focusing on re-establishing ties with the general population.

“We have to get back to where we’re endearing ourselves to fans, to the community,” he said, adding that he opened the Speedway to fire evacuees in the past week.

“It’s a historical place and it needs to re-insert its place in the hearts of the whole community.”