By Rich Myhre Herald Writer
If horse racing had caught on, the future for auto racing in Snohomish County might have been very different.
But there was apparently not much interest in horse racing around here back in the early 1950s. So a man named Jimmie Collier, who was looking for a place to race his roadster, proposed turning an old horse racing site on the outskirts of Monroe into an oval for auto racing. He approached county officials with the idea, they agreed, and in 1954 the 5/8-mile track that would come to be known as Evergreen Speedway was born.
Sixty years later, legions of auto racing fans in the county and throughout the Pacific Northwest can thank Collier for his foresight.
The track has been modified many times over the years — most notably, the dirt surface was paved in the 1960s, which was about the same time the wooden bleachers used for spectator seating gave way to a larger grandstand — but what remains unchanged is Evergreen Speedway’s unique place among the region’s racing community.
For drivers from Washington and beyond, “it’s where you aspire to be,” said LeAnne Tanner, the daughter of a onetime Evergreen Speedway driver who became a driver herself, and whose son now drives at the track. “It’s kind of the pinnacle (of racing) in the Pacific Northwest. It’s where everybody wants to be and where everybody wants to run well.
“People from all over the state, and really from all over the country, come here (to race),” she said. “And even though they might not all come on a weekly basis, Evergreen has been a home for a lot of them.”
“It’s the No. 1 track (in the Northwest), no question,” said Scott Ellsworth, who is in his 27th season as the speedway announcer. “That’s because we’re in the Seattle market, but also because it’s the largest track in the Northwest. And if you combine those two things, it makes Evergreen the one track that everybody looks up to and everybody wants to race at.”
“Racing is important in the Northwest, and this is the biggest race track with the most history and the most heritage,” added Doug Hobbs, the president of Evergreen Speedway and High Road Promotions, which has a 25-year contract to operate the county-owned track. It is, he went on, “a great venue, and whether you’re 5 years old or 65 years old, it’s just a great place to go and have fun.”
Evergreen Speedway, which celebrates its 60th anniversary on Saturday, has hosted some of the most familiar names in racing over the years. Several NASCAR stars have visited the track, including Geoff Bodine, Derrike Cope, Bill Elliott and David Pearson, all winners of the Daytona 500. Spokane native Tom Sneva, who would go on to win the Indianapolis 500, also raced in Monroe.
“Most of those guys were from the South and they’d never been in this area,” said Mickey Beadle, whose family operated the speedway from 1978 to 2008. “But here they were coming to our little track in the Northwest. And that was huge because these guys were superstars.
“All the top drivers ever to come out of the Northwest raced there, too, with the exception of one. I think Kasey Kahne (a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver from Enumclaw) is the only one who never raced there.”
But for all the hoopla of an occasional celebrity appearance, the staple for racers and fans alike has always been the weekly menu of races for Puget Sound-area drivers in classes such as late models, mini stocks, street stocks, super stocks, stingers, hornets and even go-karts. Likewise, the Figure 8s are very popular, and fans can also check out drag racing and motocross.
The speedway pretty much “covers everything,” said Tom Moriarity of Monroe, a nine-time champion in mini stocks and late models from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s. “There’s something out there for everybody.”
“The variety they put out there is really cool,” Tanner said. “We’ve invited people to come out and watch us race (in stocks and late models), and then they fall in love with the Figure 8s. I think it’s the variety of the classes that keeps people coming back.”
Special events are sometimes scheduled, too, with some being more special than others. Like the time back in the early 1970s that world-renowned daredevil Evel Knievel showed up to jump his motorcycle over a bunch of side-by-side cars.
From the beginning, the speedway has been a gathering place for “a great, great group of people, and some great drivers,” said Vern Dietz of Arlington, who raced at Evergreen Speedway from 1971 to 1994, and won Figure 8 championships in 1982, 1984 and 1985. “It’s a beautiful facility and I enjoyed the heck out of it. I’m just glad it’s here. So many of these facilities are going away, and I can’t thank the county enough for keeping us there and letting us race.”
Interest in the speedway has sometimes waned over the years, often because of economic downturns.
Similarly, county officials have not always been fully supportive over the track’s 60-year history. In large part, Beadle said, that was because residents living nearby kept complaining about the noise.
In the years his family operated the track, “it was like a political football in Snohomish County,” Beadle said. “Half our time was spent fighting just to keep auto racing there.”
Back in the early 1980s, and no doubt to appease the noise-conscious neighbors, there was even a suggestion of turning the speedway into a harness racing facility. In response, drivers staged a massive protest, parading their race cars through downtown Everett.
In 2000, Beadle said, the county commissioned an economic study that determined “the track was a very viable part of the fairgrounds and needed to be enhanced.” Still, he said, “it was always a cycle, from car talent to the fan base. We were always trying to find out what was going to work. Everything gets stale after a while, so we were always changing, always evolving.”
In 2008, Beadle sold his company, International Productions Inc., and the remaining three years of his management contract with the county to Lex and Danni Johnson, owners of Johnson Productions. They managed the track until 2011, when a new contract was awarded to Hobbs and his company, High Road Productions, which he operates with his wife, Traci.
Going forward, Doug Hobbs said, the goal “is for us to be the best short-track speedway that we can, and to put ourselves in high esteem across America. We think we’re doing a pretty good job of that, but we’re never satisfied and we’re going to keep trying to do it better every year.”
If attendance is a decent measuring stick, the plan seems to be working. Crowds have grown every year since 2011, and more people in the stands generally translates to more drivers and better races on the track.
There are frequent challenges, Hobbs said, beginning with structural issues at “a facility that’s 60 years old.” Racing surfaces need to be re-paved and fan amenities improved with the aim of “cleaning the place up and getting it to be a more family-friendly place to come to,” he said.
The overriding priority, Hobbs went on, is that “you have to add fun. The only reason for drivers to come back and the only reason for fans to come back is if they’re having fun. So that’s the key ingredient.”
Another goal, Hobbs said, is to bring the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race back to the speedway. The series, which was then called the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, raced in Monroe from 1995 to 2000.
“We’ve been lobbying very heavily to get (the truck series) back to Evergreen Speedway,” he said. “We’ve had some serious talks over the last few seasons. … We’re definitely on the radar screen, I’ll say that.”
No one can predict with certainty what the coming years will bring, but most folks with ties to the speedway are optimistic. Doug and Traci Hobbs get high marks for their efforts to improve and promote the track, supporters say, and there is every reason to think that racing at Evergreen Speedway will continue to grow and prosper.
“For the people that love the sport, that’s a great facility and it’s in excellent shape because the county keeps it up,” said Ted Pollock, who managed the track in the 1970s before the Beadle family took over. The speedway “means a lot to a lot of people,” he added. “There are some great supporters of that race track and it’s an important part of keeping racing continuing in the Northwest.”
“I think Evergreen Speedway is going to be on the map for a long time,” Moriarity agreed.
For Doug and Traci Hobbs, their efforts at the track were initially spelled out in a series of yearly objectives. “When we came into this,” Doug Hobbs explained, “our one-year goal was just to re-establish ourselves and to win back drivers, fans and sponsors.
“Now we’re past our third year and everything is well on track,” he said. “So we think there’s a very bright future here, and it’s getting better every year.”