Race fans protest plan to put KC park on drag-strip site

It takes a passionate cause to get almost 100 people to rally outside City Hall in a cold rain.

Like drag racing.

The proposed sale of the Kansas City International Raceway to build a park on the East Side has quickly become one of the hottest issues facing the city, and it drew scores of protesters downtown late Monday afternoon.

Their complaints were clear — that the city moved too quickly, that the owners were pressured to sell and that fans and racers had no say in the deal.

“We have a right to an open and transparent legislative process. We need to have our voices heard,” said Todd Bridges, who is the raceway’s general manager and not an owner involved in the sale.

But some people who live near the raceway say they’ve wanted to replace the track with a park for years, and city officials deny any pressure on the owners.

The City Council last Thursday authorized the Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners to purchase the 93-acre raceway at 82nd and Noland Road and convert it to a park. The vote came one day after a council committee considered the deal in closed session with no public comment.

News of the proposed sale prompted a flood of email and phone calls to City Hall from longtime raceway supporters. They say the raceway is the only safe place to hold drag races in the area and warn that closing it could lead to more illegal street racing.

Some opponents are convinced the sale is only occurring because the city had threatened to condemn the property. They pointed to a May 26 letter from the city to the raceway’s owners, informing them about the city’s condemnation process.

But Assistant City Attorney Ted Anderson said Monday that the raceway’s owners approached the city in January and wanted to sell.

“They approached us and made us an offer, and we started negotiating,” Anderson said, adding that the negotiations were going smoothly and the deal is expected to close before Nov. 25.

The purchase price has not yet been disclosed. Missouri law does not require it until after a sale is completed.

Anderson said the city’s letter to the owners was a routine formality and it goes to most people who sell property to the city. The letter is intended to inform the sellers of their rights as property owners and is not a threat to condemn, he said.

Anderson also noted that before the city can proceed to condemnation, it needs City Council approval. That has not happened in this case.

But fans at Monday’s rally were skeptical. Mark Epstein, a lawyer and a racer, said the letter was very clear that the city could proceed to condemnation.

The raceway’s owners did not respond Monday to requests for comment.

The ordinance lists the raceway’s owners as NP3 Racing LLC and Robert Park as the registered agent. His office said Park was unavailable Monday, and he did not respond to an email seeking comment. The group’s lawyer, Wesley Carrillo, could not be reached for comment.

Fifth District at-large Councilwoman Cindy Circo, whose district includes the raceway, said creating a park in the Little Blue Valley area was a priority even before she was first elected in 2007. She said a city park would complement a nearby county park and scenic trails.

Circo denied that the city pressured the raceway’s owners to sell.

“There’s been no doubt that property has been looked at for a park. That’s not been a secret,” Circo said Monday. “Because it’s not a secret, the property owners then came to the city.”

Circo said she did not know whether the owners planned to relocate the raceway, but she said that would be fine if they find an appropriate property in the city limits.

“We’re completely open to racing in Kansas City,” she said.

Parks officials said the Little Blue Valley area has not had sufficient public parkland ever since it was annexed in the mid-1960s. They said they had looked at other possible park parcels, but Noland Road and 82nd Street was very accessible and was viewed as the preferred location.

The city has tried in the past to buy the raceway, said former City Councilwoman Becky Nace. She remembers efforts from 2003 to 2007, when the council also offered to help the owners move the raceway.

“We never could settle on a price,” Nace said, recalling that the city had offered to pay the owners about $1.3 million for the land.

The track runs drag races from 6 to 10 p.m. on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, except in the winter.

“We average 120 scheduled races a year,” said Bridges, who has worked at the track off and on since 1980.

Bridges said the races draw hundreds of racers and spectators each night. Last weekend, 200 people entered races, driving everything from compact cars to SUVs, he said.

“People don’t understand this is not just a few redneck long-bearded outlaws out here drag racing,” Bridges said. “We have kids who start racing at 8 years old on our track. We have people from one end of the economic spectrum to the other and from one end of the age spectrum to the other. … We serve the whole Midwest region.”

Bridges said that when the track opened in 1967, “there were not a lot of people living around here. But we have had a peaceful coexistence with the majority of those who live around here since we opened.”

Not so, said Wanda Buehre, who has lived about two miles from the track since her parents bought property in the Little Blue Valley neighborhood in the 1950s. She raised her six children at 87th Street and Rhinehart Road and has been opposed to the track more than 40 years.

“Many of us have been here for years, long before the track moved in,” Buehre said. “We are not in any upper echelon. If anything, we are very hardworking people.”

She called the noise coming from the track four nights a week “loud, obnoxious and intolerable.”

“It is so loud you can’t even speak to someone on you own lawn and hear what they are saying,” Bjuehre said. “You can hear it clear up to Chipman Road and Blue Parkway” in Lee’s Summit.

Buehre said she and other neighbors had complained at City Hall for years about the noise and supported turning the space into a park and moving the raceway.

“This is not a new thing that just spouted up,” Buehre said. “This did not happen overnight.”