Most people know Portland as the city where barbeques reign supreme and the New England clam chowder is considered a national treasure. But Portland also has a storied past as the home of a world-class racetrack. Known as “The Speedway,” the historic 1.954-mile oval once graced by stock car legends like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt drew crowds of over 100,000 people per year during its heyday in the 1960s and 70s.
For years, the track remained dormant as various attempts to redevelop the property failed. Finally, in 2015, the Portland City Council approved a plan to bring the classic track back to life with an $18 million mixed-use development. The project, called “Carriage Return” after the iconic black and gold NASCAR race cars, will feature a 6,500-seat stadium, shops, residences, and a 500-room hotel.
The Need For Speed
When NASCAR legend Curtis “Hollywood” Hales died in September 2016, he left a hole in the hearts of millions of NASCAR fans around the world. A pioneer in television production and advertising, Hales brought professional standards and integrity to what was then called “television entertainment.” His family-owned company, Hollywood Production Studio, produced the first-ever televised NASCAR race in 1947. At the time, most races were only available live to those in the race track’s vicinity. Hales’ innovation made it possible for fans to follow races from anywhere.
Bringing back the track was vital for the city. In 2016, Portland was the 12th-largest city in the U.S. without an active NASCAR racing venue. While the Portland International Raceway had reopened in 1992 after an absence of 26 years, it had fallen into severe disrepair. “It’s not an easy site to get to and there are a lot of hills,” Portland International Raceway General Manager Bill Spencer told the press at the time. “It’s not designed for Formula One cars.”
The redevelopment of “The Speedway” was part of a larger plan to transform the city’s Midtown district. The project will be remembered for its distinctive yellow and green paint job, which pays homage to the area’s former sports and outdoor advertising businesses. In 2019, construction is expected to be complete and the track will begin operations for the first time in over 40 years.
Located in a suburb of Portland, the Oregon Live Festival Plaza is one of the city’s two largest annual events, along with the Rose Festival. The plaza is home to the Portland Japanese Garden, the Oregon Veterans Memorial, the Historic Portland Building, and the Multicultural Center of Oregon, which provides space to over 150 museums and cultural institutions.
The festival district is accessible via the MAX Light Rail line or the downtown Portland bus network. Buses also run from the nearby airport and downtown Portland, making it easy for visitors to find their way around the historic heart of the city. Since 1986, the district has been host to the Hollywood Film Festival, a celebration of all things “Hollywood.” The festival grounds feature a large open area with grassy banks popular with families. In 2021, the 58th annual festival will be held in Portland.
Another one of Portland’s distinctive features is its World’s Fair Park. The crown jewel of the park is the Oregonian Building, which was constructed in 1915 and designed by the architect Irving S. Gilmore. The 10-story building, which has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was one of the first examples of Commercial Art Deco architecture in the U.S. Gilmore designed the structure after he had won the right to design a building for the Portland World’s Fair of 1915. The architect also designed the adjacent Powell Building, which was constructed the following year.
The two-million-square-foot exposition, which was dubbed the “World’s Fair of San Francisco,” attracted over 400,000 visitors during its six-month run. The World’s Fair was a “celebration of the human spirit” featuring the work of over 120 architects and artists, as well as displays on music, food, and transportation. The site also boasted an amusement park, zoo, gardens, and fountains. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the World’s Fair was the way it combined the best of established technologies with the promise of the future. People from all over the world traveled to Portland to see the innovative ideas that were on display.
The Portland Development Commission, which is responsible for the revitalization of the city, owns and operates the World’s Fair Park. Over the years, the agency has raised the profile of the district as an arts and culture destination with annual events like the Portland Jazz Festival and the Festival of Lights. In 2021, the 62nd annual Portland Jazz Festival will take place at the district.
What Happened To Portland Speedway?
It’s not easy to evolve a city as it grows and changes around you. Portland’s Midtown district experienced quite a shift in the latter half of the 20th century, as the area grew rapidly and became a hub for commerce and cultural activity.
In the 1960s, the city’s population grew by over 70,000 people, as a result of which the need for housing increased. In order to make room for new homes, businesses had to move out, leaving a large gap in the city’s infrastructure. While the area still features some iconic buildings from the district’s heyday, over the years, many have fallen into disrepair.
That is, until the city decided to transform the area into a hub for motorsports. In 2015, they approved a master plan to redevelop the district into a world-class oval, which will serve as the home of the Portland Dark Ages Motorcycle Club, a chapter of the international Varsity Rover organization. The plan called for the construction of a $13.3 million, 220,000-square-foot multi-purpose arena, named “Jungle Theater.” The arena will host sporting events, trade shows, concerts, and other community activities.
The idea to bring back racing to the city came from legendary driver Richard Petty, who grew up racing in nearby Turner. When news of the proposal broke, fans and drivers alike responded with nostalgia, comparing it to a time when the track was the center of the automotive universe.
“I watched NASCAR for years as a kid and grew up dreaming about racing at The Speedway. It’s amazing how technology has made it possible for us to be able to bring back something that used to be,” said Carl Hudson, a lifelong fan of NASCAR and one of the original investors in the project. “With all of the advances that have been made in safety for cars and drivers, I imagine the atmosphere at the track will be a lot like it was in the old days. Racing is timeless and will never go out of style.”
A City That Walks The Walk
As a result of the team’s hard work and a dedicated community, the Historic Speedway site was fully funded and construction began in early 2019. The developer behind the project is Vancouver-based Catellier Associates Inc., which is committed to “green” standards and energy efficiency. “The building is super-efficient and does a lot to reduce our ecological footprint,” Catellier Associates president Frank Catellier said. “We have taken great care in designing an environmentally-sound building that is also visually pleasing and harmonious with the surrounding area.
Once completed, the facility will be the largest motorsports stadium in the city. The six-lane track will be able to accommodate up to twenty-six race cars, as it did during its glory days. The grandstands will be able to hold 12,000 fans, with some areas featuring individual seats for patrons. The stadium’s roof will host a retractable grandstand that can hold up to 7,500 people for concerts and other large gatherings.
Proud Of Our City
With construction complete, the public is invited to visit the newly-opened Portland Motor Speedway. The track is the product of dedicated citizens, local business leaders, and government officials who wanted to bring back one of Portland’s most historic icons. “We’re thrilled to have the Historic Speedway open for business,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said. “This is a testament to the power of local collaboration and the desire of our community to see some of Portland’s greatest treasures remain intact.