Heartland Park Topeka quickly built a reputation as one of the fastest drag strips on the National Hot Rod Association circuit when it was built in 1989.
It’s been a staple of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series ever since.
Those credentials were burnished again Friday when track records in the Pro Stock, Funny Car and Top Fuel divisions were broken during qualifying for the NHRA Kansas Nationals.
But Heartland Park also faces an uncertain future amid ownership issues that could make this weekend’s races the last for the series at the facility during the foreseeable future.
CoreFirst Bank & Trust has yet to foreclose on the 26-year-old facility, but track owner Raymond Irwin has been in default for several months after the financially-strapped facility didn’t open for the 2015 racing season.
The city of Topeka voted May 5 against issuing STAR bonds to purchase the raceway and spur commercial development around the raceway, leaving the ownership situation in continued limbo.
The NHRA stepped up to stage the Kansas Nationals even though the facility, which also includes a 3/8-mile dirt track and road/off-road race courses, technically remains closed.
“It’s certainly not normal, but we knew that there was some local ownership discussions,” NHRA senior vice president for racing operations Graham Light said. “The event had been on our calendar. It’s been on our calendar for 27 years. We’ve been here since the facility was built. … We really had no option other than to work with the ownership group and the city of Topeka to have the event here this year.”
The NHRA won’t commit to staging the event solo again if the ownership situation remains unresolved, but hopes it won’t come to that.
Heartland Park also is used for regional races as part of the NHRA’s developmental series, the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, and as a hub for Division V events, such as the annual ET Finals.
“It’s a critical track and a crucial area within this division,” Light said. “It’s the center of the country. … We fully understand there will probably be some ownership changes or operational changes for next year, but we’re anxious to work with the new group and willing to work with the new group. It’s penciled in on the calendar for next year and we’ve been here 27 years, and I see no reason why we can’t continue.”
The NHRA won’t release its 2016 schedule until September, but the drivers hope Heartland Park remains a race destination.
“The fan base here is unbelievable and, with the history of the race track, I think NHRA, the fans and the drivers know how important it is to keep this track on the circuit …,” said Courtney Force, the reigning Funny Car winner at Heartland Park. “There’s time to get things turned around and get this race back on its feet, get this track back on its feet and have many more races here to come.”
Chuck Etchells became the first Funny Car driver to run a sub-5-second quarter-mile in NHRA history in 1993 at Heartland Park and two days later Jim Epler became the first to top 300 mph in a Funny Car.
Last May, Force recorded the 100th professional victory for women on the NHRA circuit on the 1,000-yard drag strip at Heartland Park, where fans hope they haven’t seen the last race.
“We enjoy coming out here and bring the family out here, so it would be sad to see it go,” Lenexa resident Matt Deever said.
He and his wife, Jennifer, have brought their sons — Jack, 8, and Henry, 6 — to the races for several years.
Deever said his family wouldn’t travel to St. Louis or points beyond for a race if Heartland Park closed, but he hopes it doesn’t come to that.
“My boys would be sad if it wasn’t here,” Deever said. “They enjoy coming probably more than I do.”