Auto racing, auto crawl

September 28, 1997|By Elise Armacost

I WENT to the big NASCAR race at Delaware's Dover Downs International Speedway last Sunday, an experience comparable to Wild Bill Hagy enjoying an afternoon of chamber music.

Here is all you need to know about my knowledge of motor sports: I had to ask somebody how you tell which driver is in the lead.

But then, I didn't go for fun. I went to the Winston Cup Series MBNA 400 to learn what a motor speedway might mean for Baltimore County, where a group of people who call themselves the Middle River Racing Association want to open a privately funded, 54,800-seat track in Middle River by 1999, then expand it to to 87,000 seats in 2002 and 109,600 seats in 2004.

What I learned is this: The issue is traffic.

Not noise. Sure, it's deafening inside the track, but one-quarter of a mile from Dover Downs the only cars I heard were the ones driving up and down U.S. 13.

Not pollution. The Middle River site is zoned for industry. If the track idea dies, commuters one day will drive to and from the site at least five days a week. Races are only held a few times a year. Guess whose cars are going to dump more dirt into the air and water?

Not economic impact. Everyone argues over how many jobs the track will generate and to what extent the benefits will spill over to other east side businesses. But whatever benefits the track brings would be more than exist now and more than is expected out of this property for a long time.

The issue isn't the fans, either. The latest articles on NASCAR's popularity boom say this blue-collar sport is now the domain of white-collar professionals and CEOs, but all those folks sitting in the grandstands and camping in the infield looked the way you expect racing fans to look. They drank Bud and wore caps emblazoned with Tide and Valvoline. I felt like the only one of 100,000 without some type of printed matter on my clothes or body.

They were the nicest, most orderly fans I've seen. The infield bore no resemblance to the drunken orgy of the Preakness.

During the horrendous traffic tie-up before the race, people politely let each other switch lanes. When my car stalled a quarter-mile from the gate -- an experience that ranks next only

TC to abduction by a homicidal maniac as my worst nightmare -- nobody laid on the horn, cursed or yelled.

Nobody yelled, period. For a beginner it's very odd, watching thousands of people sit for three hours with foam rubber stuffed in their ears, saying nothing. These people definitely go to watch.

No, the problem is not the fans. It's how they're supposed to get to the track.

The entrance to Dover Downs is right off U.S. 13, a four-lane highway that widens to six near the raceway. It's a big road. Yet race day morning, it took me two hours to travel the last two miles to the track, which I'm told is typical.

The Essex International Speedway would be less than two miles east of Interstate 95. The trouble is, there is no access to I-95 or any of the other substantial roads in that area. The extension of Route 43 to Eastern Boulevard -- essential for any development of the site because it would provide a link to I-95 -- will not be built until 2004.

No one expects the Essex speedway to attract a race as big as the MBNA 400 for a long time, and perhaps not ever. Still, even with minor-league events Middle River Racing is talking about bringing in tens of thousands of people years before access to I-95 is built.

Its plan for Phase I calls for heavy reliance on mass transit and shuttles. Even if that works, it still leaves 10,500 cars and countless bus trips.

It is hard to see how the proponents' proposal to add a lane or two to existing minor roads and upgrade Eastern Boulevard -- a worthless improvement unless a bridge is built across the railroad tracks between the boulevard and the site -- will manage all that.

The second phase, which adds 8,500 cars, calls for construction of a five-lane extension of Campbell Boulevard that is only in the planning stage. Rights of way would have to be purchased, an Army Corps of Engineers review completed and a myriad other hoops jumped through -- all within four years.

The odds of that happening are, I fear, about the same as my chances of some day becoming president of the Dale Earnhardt Fan Club.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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