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August 14, 2012

News & Features

Sand drag strip draws racers to Oregon dunes

The Associated Press

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Drag racers compete at Oregon Dunes Raceway's Sand Jam 6 in July. (The Associated Press)

The light switches to green, motors roar and two ATVs take off, kicking up sand behind them.
But they could be old pickups, Jeeps or bikes. Or any rig ready to race on sand. Whatever's racing, though, is going to be loud and fast.

The 300-foot sand drag strip at the Oregon Dunes Raceway in North Bend has been packed with competitors this year, growing in popularity since its opening race on New Year's Eve. A recent weekend was Sand Jam 6, where rainy weather slowed activity on Saturday but cleared up enough for racers on Sunday.

Owners Richard and Pam Palmer opened the drag strip at Boxcar Hill in December in hopes of offering a unique experience on the sand dunes, where dunes lovers can race at top speeds.

They stress that they're not out-of-town promoters in it to make money -- the couple is in the process of moving to North Bend from Central Oregon -- they just want to share their love of racing while giving riders the chance to race more than once or twice per year at special events.

"I just wanted a place where we could do it, and we could do it more often," Richard Palmer says. "Everything here is pretty much volunteer. It's just a passion, and I want to keep it going."

He says they discovered the dunes about 13 years ago, and fell in love with racing. But given the lack of drag-strip tracks outside of annual events such as DuneFest, the Palmers feel they can fill a hole at Boxcar Hill.

From the feedback they've heard, he says it's obvious the area deserves a track of its own.

A new place to play

Palmer says the older guys who grew up running the dunes had become disheartened after so many closures in the open riding areas.

"Over the years, things kind of died out and got shut down, and they told me, 'We needed this,'" he says.

The kids love it, too.

"I want to get more things out for the kids," he says. "We have kids who are 5 or 6 years old, who race these little fancy bikes that go pretty fast."

Pam Palmer says the riders are relieved to finally have a space where they can either race or just test and tune. They also host drivers who want to see what their rigs can do.
"There's no place people can go to run the lights," she says, pointing to the light tree as racers ran tests one recent Sunday morning.

For spectators, this isn't like watching asphalt races.

The instant you step out of your car, the rumble of souped-up vehicles fills your ears. The racers line up in pairs, revving their engines. The light tree -- the Palmers just got a new one -- flickers from yellow to green, and both drivers take off like rockets as a rooster tail of sand trails behind.

And just like that, they reach the end of the track, which seems so short.
Later in the day, the competition shifts to barrel racing. "Which is a riot. Everybody loves that," Richard Palmer says.

That's usually followed by a family-friendly potluck, a bonfire and a raffle of any items local businesses donate. He just wants it to feel like a big family camping at night and enjoying the dunes by day.

Expansion plans

The Palmers have big hopes for the track, including expansion, running ATV training for children, and even helping out local fundraising efforts with things like canned-food donations as part of an entry fee. They've also partnered with Barnyard Toyz Racing, a local group that hosts mud-running obstacle events.

Word is starting to spread about the track, Richard Palmer says, as racers from all over the Pacific Northwest and as far as Colorado and Utah have found the raceway.

"We have people clear from back East seeing our stuff on the Internet and YouTube and getting really excited about it," he says.

They're still putting a lot of their own money to make Sand Jams happen, but it's a labor of love for them.

"Just to watch people run up and down the track and see the smiles on their faces -- that makes it worth it," Richard Palmer says.

"It's quite an experience to feel that rush," he adds. "It's something to feel."

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