Motorsports

Friday, May 17 2013 11:30 PM

Kern County Raceway Park set to open today

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Some of the young racers line up to take their turn getting in some practice laps on the track Saturday at the Kern County Raceway Park.

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  2. 2 of 5

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Kern County Raceway Park owner James Vernon stands half way up a 14-degree banked curve. He says the straights have an 8-degree bank, which all together should make a fast track.

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  3. 3 of 5

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Race fans had their pick of seats Saturday at the Kern County Raceway Park to watch drivers put in some practice time.

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  4. 4 of 5

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Scott Reese gives his driver Rick Lewis, 14, of Ventura County a push at the start of the practice time for the Bandelero's division Saturday at the Kern County Raceway Park.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Some of the young racers line up to take their turn getting in some practice laps on the track Saturday at the Kern County Raceway Park.

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BY MIKE GRIFFITH Californian staff writer mgriffith@bakersfield.com

Days turned into weeks, weeks to months and months to years. And there it sat, a partially finished half-mile pavement track adjacent to Interstate 5 and Enos lanes.

Light towers rose from the infield and motorists crossing Enos Lane over I-5 could see portions of the track as well as grandstands along the front straight.

Bankruptcy and foreclosure had derailed what was supposed to be the shining crown of short tracks on the West Coast, and the partially finished project seemed frozen in time. The longer it sat, the more Bakersfield businessmen James Vernon and Daniel Smith lamented the fact the project had died because of the economic downturn.

Both wondered why somebody couldn't bring it back to life, and along with it, short-track pavement racing.

Both were heavily involved in the Bakersfield racing scene in the past. Vernon drove at the old Mesa Marin Raceway as did his son, Kevin. Smith built cars and even ran the track, with another partner, for a couple of years.

Mesa Marin held its last race in October of 2005, and racing enthusiasts reveled in early 2007 when ground was broken on a new facility on the other side of town that would have engines roaring one more.

Instead, there was the sound of silence.

"Me and Daniel probably talked about 100 times and wondered if anybody was ever going to finish it," Vernon said.

As it turns out, those two were the ones who brought the property out of foreclosure and, along with Charlie Beard, and put in the resources necessary to complete the multi-million dollar project.

Tonight, engines will finally roar again -- more than six years after dirt was first moved to begin building the facility.

"Brain fade," chuckled Vernon, the track's vice president, when asked why he headed a group of investors who announced they had purchased the property Feb., 1, 2012.

But it was far from a brain fade, it was a love of racing that got the project back on track.

And then reality hit hard.

The first task was just getting to the track itself. Years of inactivity allowed bumper crops of tumbleweeds to take over. Vernon used an old pickup truck to literally plow a path to the track. Four solid weeks of tumbleweed clearing then allowed Smith and Vernon to delve deeper into what they had purchased.

“We thought a lot more of the underground work was finished than was actually finished,” Vernon said. 

“I had nightmares of tumbleweeds,” Smith said. “It seemed like they were in every crack and crevice.”

The track itself was in good shape as one layer of paving had been put down before work halted. But no electrical wires had been run and much of the drainage
system was incomplete. In addition to that, drain pipes were clogged with dirt and debris.

On top of that, there was plenty of construction to do — the final two layers of pavement had to go down on the racetrack, parking lot grading and paving needed to be done, a nursery of landscape plants needed planting and two infield buildings as well as the four-story superstructure looming over the front straight needed to be erected.

Smith and Vernon figured there would be no problem getting the place up and running by March of 2013 and, with luck, looked to maybe get a race in by October of 2012. 

As it turned out, there was just too much to accomplish, as the project was much larger than Vernon initially thought.

The track first set its opener for April 20, pushed that back to May 4 and then to today.

“The track has been done for a long time, it’s just been getting the suites done and all the cement work done,” Vernon said.

But had it not been for Beard and the money and energy he brought to the project, the track would still not be open.

“The biggest surprise has been how much everything costs,” Vernon said. “My idea wasn’t even in the game. There was so much stuff you don’t think about that you actually have to do.”

Beard, owner of General Production Services in Taft, dropped by the project early in the construction phase — before work had started on the four-story superstructure that houses concessions, offices and suites.

“I did not get involved in this to be a race guy, I got involved in the dang thing by buying that suite up there and then started building buildings here (the race car shops adjacent to the track) then got to seeing how slow it was going,” said Beard, the track president and CEO. “I said, ‘This can go a lot better.’

“I saw right off money had to be put into it, a big influx. There’s a lot more money (needed) out here to build something like this than people really realize, with all the infrastructure and stuff. What’s underground and all the stuff it takes to make a facility like this.”

Beard would not say what the total project cost is — “my wife told me a long time ago, don’t talk about money. Since she’s got the credit cards, I try not to talk about it,” he said.

When first announced in 2007, the Raceway Park was billed as a $30-35 million project.

“I can say it has nothing to do with General Production, but if it wasn’t for General Production this track would not be here, because that's what gave us the money to come in here and do what we've done,” said Beard, whose general manager at GPS, Rusty Risi, has also been heavily involved in the project.

Since buying into the project, Beard has been a hands-on guy at the site.

“Charlie is not only an investor, he's a guy who works and gets it done,” Vernon said. “He doesn’t sit back and watch. He works and gets it done. We never could have finished it without him, for sure. Not in this time. It would have definitely taken a lot longer.”

As it was, it still took longer than anticipated just due to the scope and magnitude of the project.

“I think, honestly, you’ll never finish,” Vernon said. “It will be an ongoing project. Every week there's always something else you can do to make it better, so that’s what you work on. We want to have the nicest track there is. That’s what our goal is.”

Beard concurs that the track and the surrounding acreage will be an ongoing project.

“We sold off the farm land (about 360 acres) and we have around a 120, 128-acre facility,” he said. “There’s so much that can be done. We can have rodeos, we can have concerts, we can have car shows.

“We’re going to keep working on it in phases,” he said. “You can look and say, ‘I can do this better.’ That’s sorta the kind of guy I am. I want to look at the future and what we can make of something.

“This is something that’s going to be great for all of us.”

One thing there won't be, however, is a drag strip.

“People have asked me, because in the original plans they said they were going to put a (eighth mile) drag strip out here,” he said. “As long as I’m involved in this, there will never be a drag strip because when I was a kid, five or six years ago, I raced out at Famoso.

“Kern County has a good drag strip, one of the best in the nation, and that’s where I want to leave it.”

And while, at 75, Beard still enjoys hopping on a tractor, driving a truck or even picking up a shovel, he has no desire to manage a racetrack on a day-to-day basis.

“I’m a builder, I’m not a general manager of this,” he said. “I want to sit back and it will probably be a couple or two or three more months before I can sit back. But I want to sit back, and my wife has built us a suite up here that we can go sit in and enjoy it.”

But before then, there’s a race to be run, then a lot more work to do.

Beard hopes everyone who shows up tonight will be pleased with what they see. 

“This is something the people of Bakersfield can be proud of,” he said. “We have worked real hard, put our heart and soul into everything we're doing here to make it a first-class facility. I think when people come out here and get acquainted to what we've done here, they’re going to feel the same way I do.”

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