Kansas City International Raceway sits empty under an exhaust-gray sky on a blustery late-November afternoon. No spectators fill the grandstands. A chain wraps around the entrance gate. Signs on chain-link fences implore fans not to bring glass bottles or alcohol onto the grounds. A stool is overturned in the tiny ticket-taker stand, and an empty ashtray sits on the desk. A few drab buildings — one with a sketchy-looking roof — dot the property, located across the street from a quarry and near the Little Blue River, on a strand of Noland Road near Raytown.
If not for the still newish-looking scoreboard, it would be easy to imagine that the track had been abandoned for more than a week and a half.
The track closed permanently November 27, ending the three-nights-a-week races that had been held at the track from spring through fall. (KCIR hosted a moment of pure Americana in 1974 when 10,000 people witnessed Evel Knievel jump his motorcycle over the cabs of 10 semitrailers.)
On November 21, the 93-acre land parcel that opened in 1967 became the city of Kansas City's newest real-estate acquisition. Next year, the city will begin converting the site into a park.
Six days after the sale, the temperatures hung in the 40s that windy last race day. It was too cold for dragsters to function properly, but more than 200 drivers took their street-legal rides for final passes down the quarter-mile strip.
KCIR manager Todd Bridges, who took his first job at the track in 1980, says the mood among racers was more celebratory than somber.
"There was just a lot of talk about memories and development of friendships and hopes that there will be a [new] track built soon," he says.
The races lasted from noon to around 5 p.m. "It was starting to get dark and cold, and everybody had gotten their runs in and paid their respects," Bridges says.
Racer Kyle Marcum drove his mint-green 1986 Ford Mustang to the starting line, did a burnout and idled down the strip.
"The last pass down the track, I think it was really the epitome of the last four years," Bridges says. "It's the only 47-second pass I'll ever remember. It was respectful and done with a lot of dignity."
With the racers now banished from the track, the only life left on the property are geese meandering in a muddy patch.
The demise of Kansas City's only drag strip can be traced to last January. City officials say attorneys representing Rob Park, a longtime player in the local race scene and former KCIR owner, offered to sell the track to the city for $2.95 million and proposed an agreement that would allow 36 more months of racing.
"We found it to be a little weird," says Ted Anderson, an assistant city attorney who negotiated the deal.
The proposal was odd, given that Park didn't own the track when he made the offer.
In 2008, Park sold the track to real-estate developer John Uhlmann for an undisclosed price. Park went on to work as a consultant to Uhlmann until the developer's death in August 2009. The track fell into foreclosure in 2010 while it was stuck in probate court, and a bank took possession.
In March 2011, Park swooped in and bought the track from the bank's holding company for $950,000 with the help of fewer than a half-dozen investors in a company called NP3 Racing LLC. (Park declined to name his investors or the exact number of stakeholders, or how much he has in NP3.)
Kansas City began negotiating with Park and agreed on November 21 to buy the track for $1.55 million. The city has already begun drawing up plans to convert what it disparagingly referred to as a "sea of asphalt" into a park, with ballfields and picnic shelters in place of the strip and grandstand.
A $600,000 profit in eight months looks like a good deal for Park and his investors. But the sale and the way it was handled have led some race fans and dragster hobbyists to say the transaction was nothing more than Park and NP3 flipping the track to line their pockets — and selling out 44 years of racing heritage.
Park repeatedly told race fans and reporters over the last month that his attorney had advised him against speaking with media. He ignored that advice to tell The Pitch that neither city officials nor the frustrated race enthusiasts are telling the full story. Park insists that KCIR had to be sold.
The sale of the raceway has become a finger-pointing mess.
KCIR fans blame Park for selling them out and fault the city for pressuring him to sell.
City officials say they didn't force Park to sell, and fans shouldn't blame them for buying the track.
Park says blame shouldn't lie with him but with the city, which he says gave him an ultimatum to either sell the track or lose it through eminent domain.
"When they [city officials] say we approached them, that is correct," Park says. "We did approach them. They told us to."
Park, who has been involved with the track since 1979, says the city's timeline of negotiation is correct with one omission: The city asked him to put together a plan to sell the track while Park and his investors developed a new race site. Park says the city told him that the first step was to name his price. So he did.
Park claims, however, that the city ignored his offer and sent him a letter in May outlining his rights under condemnation proceedings. He says KC also gave him a counteroffer.
"They sent us a letter offering $1 million, or they will take it via eminent domain," Park says. "They didn't say they could. They didn't say they might. They said they will take it."
The city had a history of trying to buy the raceway. Former City Councilwoman Becky Nace told The Kansas City Star in early November that the City Council tried to buy the track between 2003 and 2007 but never struck a deal.
Neighbors have long complained of the noise. Dan Porrevecchio, a former president of the Little Blue Valley Homes Association, told The Pitch a year ago that getting the track out of the area was the neighborhood's top priority.
This history along with Park's few public comments made it easy for the racing community to cast City Hall as the villain when word leaked in early November that the city was on the verge of buying the track and turning it into a park. A decidedly anti-City Hall narrative emerged.
"I don't think they want us," Park says of city officials. "I think they've made that very clear."
More than 50 race fans rallied in support of the track on the steps of City Hall November 7. As a persistent rain fell, parka-clad racers and their children held signs demanding, "Save Our Racetrack" and "Save KCIR."
Lawyer and racer Mark Epstein (who isn't representing anyone involved) emerged as a de facto spokesman, telling reporters that the city was strong-arming Park and the racers.
Epstein noted that neighbors had complained for years about the noise, fearing that it lowered their property values. But he and the race fans contended that the track wasn't at fault.
"You don't get to move next to a pig farm and then complain about the smell," Epstein told the crowd to cheers and applause.
KCIR supporters pointed to the letter sent to Park outlining condemnation proceedings as proof that the city was planning to take possession of the track regardless of NP3's move to sell.
"So that begs the question of whether this was truly voluntary," Epstein told the demonstrators. "When you're given something with all of their rights under a condemnation lawsuit, I don't know how else you're supposed to take that."
City officials, including Mayor Sly James, refute these claims. Anderson, who has negotiated city deals for land for several years, says the process was relatively routine. He doesn't understand why the City Council is the target of race fans' rancor.
"I really don't know why there's been a war when we just really negotiated this thing out. And other than an argument or two about maybe certain things that happen in every negotiation, we've gotten along really well," he says.
On November 9, race fans posted to the "Save KCIR" Facebook page a letter that they attributed to the mayor.
In the letter, James wrote: "In short, the facts as I know them are that in January 2011, the owner of the property approached the city with an offer to sell. The owner and the city then entered into negotiations. A fair price was agreed upon. The City Council and I were asked to agree to the negotiated terms at last week's session. We unanimously voted to purchase the property from the owner. Agreeing to the negotiated price has been the only action the City Council has taken on this issue. Condemnation requires public hearings and a Council vote. The Council was never approached nor asked to consider condemnation of this property. The bottom line is the owner wanted to sell, the city wanted to buy, terms were mutually agreed to, and the transaction occurred."
Anderson also says condemnation was a nonissue. The city never moved to, or had plans to, condemn.
Patrick Ferguson, the city's right-of-way agent who sent the letter to NP3, says a similar letter is sent to property owners in 99 percent of cases in which Kansas City is negotiating to buy a piece of land.
Anderson adds: "I don't think they [Park and NP3] were afraid of condemnation anyway."
Park has a different take on his mindset during negotiations: "The old adage that it's hard to fight city hall or it's impossible to fight city hall, it's pretty true."
Park says he and his investors weren't in a position to take on Kansas City in a legal battle. He claims that they were left with only one choice: sell.
"The city keeps on saying, 'We didn't condemn the property.' That's true," he says. "They absolutely didn't condemn it. But it was absolutely under the threat of condemnation."
Park says his and the city's original plan was for him to run the track while developing a new location. He says that plan would have worked, and he insists that NP3 offered to sell the land for less than the price it received in exchange for the chance to operate the track for five more years. Selling this fast was not his plan.
"Things came together a lot quicker than we thought," he says. But Park says the city played hardball. "It was pretty much that [deal] or nothing."
Park has heard the attacks from the race community. He says nobody had a bigger emotional and financial investment in KCIR than he did.
"I've spent more hours there, I've got more blood, sweat and tears there than you can ever even think about imagining," he says.
Park says his plan just didn't work out. "I didn't necessarily want to leave the place that's been my home for 32 years. But sometimes you have to do that."
A faction within the racing community remains unconvinced that Park wanted to save the raceway. They cite uncorrected code violations at the track, Park's silence during the negotiations and his decision not to release the letter about condemnation proceedings until the deal was nearly completed. They contend that Park had only his own interests at heart. They say the sale is particularly painful because Park also serves as director of the National Hot Rod Association's West Central Division.
"It's a devastating deal, because we thought we were in hog heaven with him owning the track," says Mike Colvin, who has been racing at the track since the 1970s.
Selling the city's only drag strip runs contrary to Park's work with the NHRA, where he's charged with growing the sport. (The NHRA did not respond to a request for comment.)
Several sources told The Pitch that a couple of local racers wanted to buy the track from Park.
"Why didn't he contact other racers to make a deal on this rather than sell it out to the city?" Colvin asks.
Park says he did try to find buyers and called dozens of people in an effort to find a pro-KCIR buyer. But he couldn't find one willing to pony up the cash.
"All these people that say they wanted to, nobody made a legitimate offer," a frustrated Park tells The Pitch.
"People talk a lot," Park adds. "But when it comes down to writing checks, very few people will do that."
Park says the lone winner in the deal is the city.
"Everybody thinks we made a bunch of money. I can assure you that's not much money to the people that I'm involved with. It's just not," he says. "People have the wrong impression."
In the weeks after the City Hall rally, support for Park eroded. Several bitter comments have been left on the "Save KCIR" Facebook page.
"We were definitely used," one fan wrote.
"They will have to carry the fact they sold so many out," another wrote. "In time they will have deep, deep regrets when inflation catches up to their thirty pieces of silver. The problem is we were never addressed to the facts and it appears we were just used to bump the price from $1.1 million to $1.55 million. That's betrayal."
The fact that the track is gone is beginning to set in with racers. When drag racer Tim White talks about Park and the track's sale, his voice veers from sad to angry to confused within a few sentences.
White warmly recalls his first run at KCIR. It was 1977. White and his brother drove his Harley-Davidson Sportster to the track. On a whim, White entered a race — and won. On the ride home, he clung to his 3-foot trophy. He was hooked and bought an Austin Bantam dragster with his brother.
"I tested that car at every stoplight," he remembers.
It paid off with plenty of wins at KCIR.
"They hated us down there," White says, beaming.
Now he's on his 11th, and last, dragster. White says driving to strips in Topeka or to the one that broke ground this fall in Montgomery City (between Columbia and St. Louis) isn't an option because of the distance and the price of gas. He's giving up his hobby, in which he has invested about $60,000, he estimates.
"I think I'm going to cash in my chips," White says.
Park and his investors are also cashing out. They're liquidating the track's equipment at an auction December 17 to boost the NP3 investors' payday before they have to vacate the property on January 31, 2012.
Todd Bridges, the track's manager, says the blame game that has erupted in the wake of the sale is pointless.
"It's just beating a dead horse to worry about that," he says.
Bridges has a more pressing concern: finding a new job. He says the racers won't feel the full impact of KCIR's closing until next spring. That's when they would have been prepping their cars for the races.
Park says his focus has shifted to finding a new site for a track. He's confident that he and his partners will find a replacement, but it won't be in KC. Park says they're looking for a racing-friendly city or county.
"We're not even looking inside the Kansas City limits," Park says.
Park claims that he's already considering several pieces of land to rebuild the shattered racing community.
"Whether any of them pan out, I don't know," he says.
During the last week of November, Park says he met with Cass County officials to discuss three potential sites.
"They want us to come there," he says. "There are a lot of places that want us. Just not Kansas City."