March 29, 2016
The Stephen Cox Blog is Presented by McGunegill Engine Performance
PHOTOS BELOW (hover mouse over each picture for captions)
Many years ago near the small town of Portland, Indiana, there was a popular go kart track that drew competitors from around the Midwest. For a short time I was among them.
Today the track is a cow pasture, covered in fertilizer and new farm construction, largely forgotten by the world. The remaining asphalt is broken and sinking back into the earth. No track signage remains. Track records are lost and Internet searches turn up nothing.
Rather than risk allowing the memory of Portland Raceway to fade into nothingness, I made a few phone calls and came up with the number of John LaRue, a Muncie attorney who once operated the track under lease from long-time owner and Indycar racer Mark Dismore, whose family owned a major karting supply shop nearby.
Portland Raceway opened in the early 1970's. The seven-turn, one quarter mile surface was lengthy by karting standards and offered a tremendous amount of elevation change on natural, rolling terrain. There was nothing else like it in the area.
“Dismore bought the track and made some minor improvements,” LaRue recalled. “They didn't do anything to the racing surface, but they put some billboards up along the back straightaway. Dismore allowed the go kart clubs to come up and use it free of charge if they would maintain it. When he bought it he just wanted a place for guys to go wear out go karts so they'd buy more stuff. I thought it was a good idea.”
Despite being a great track available rent-free, it eventually became idle in the late 1980's and the Portland city council threatened to destroy the track by zoning it out of existence. That's when LaRue and his partners stepped forward to save it.
“I was up in Jay County at a hearing,” LaRue remembered. “The judge asked me if I was still racing karts. He mentioned to me, 'You should be aware that they're looking to yank the zoning for the go kart track if it doesn't stay in use.' So I went and checked into it and sure enough, that was going to happen if it didn't become active in the next six months or so.”
“So a friend of mine and I formed a corporation and we leased the track from Dismore. We began promoting some races up there. That was probably in 1990. We did that for 4 or 5 years.”
“I think it was successful. We kept the track going. We had some major World Karting Association events up there that were very successful. We made some safety improvements. It was certainly nothing like what you see today, but it still was an enjoyable place to go. We had a blast doing it. It was pretty rewarding.”
“It wasn't anything that really made money, but it wasn't really meant to. Everything we got out of it we poured back into drainage tiles, fencing and things like that. We wanted to put lights up and get the whole thing back together. It was a labor of love more than anything. But eventually we just couldn't spend the time on it any more.”
LaRue began racing sports cars and lost interest in the karting scene. Portland Raceway fell back into the hands of Mark Dismore, who once again lent it out to local kart clubs. The track struggled along for a few more seasons but by the late 1990's the writing was on the wall. Dismore planned a major new outdoor karting facility just 50 miles south of Portland off Interstate 70 near New Castle, Indiana. The new facility was completed and exists to this day.
Meanwhile, old Portland Raceway was put up for sale. “Dismore was asking like 15 or 20 thousand dollars if anybody wanted to buy it,” LaRue said. “At the end I imagine he would have given it away. The last time I went by it looked like (the new owners) stuck a pole barn out near the race track and pretty much destroyed the asphalt.”
Back in my karting days I had raced at Portland on August 16, 1992. It was a blistering hot Sunday afternoon. My kart was old, poorly maintained (because I was the mechanic) and mostly uncompetitive. I drove that kart for four seasons and never had a single set of new tires. The only advantage I had was an Ed Keller-built four cycle engine that produced plenty of reliable power.
My last experience at Portland Raceway was, by my standards at the time, very successful. We were competitive in the middle of the pack, moved forward throughout the event and finished 11th. I have good memories of the day. So when I decided to write this article I had a personal interest in revisiting the track.
The property is now controlled by Shawver Auctioneering and Real Estate of Portland. To find it, take US Route 27 south of Portland to County Road E 300 S. Turn east and travel just over half a mile and be aware that a private residence has recently been built on the same plot of land. The old track is located on the north side of the road, and parts of the track are visible as you drive past. And that may be the only look you get.
After repeatedly asking the owners for permission to photograph and film the old track and receiving no response, I finally showed up in person and was told that it was “not a public facility.” Doing my best nice-guy act, I persisted and received permission to walk the property briefly on a one-time only basis.
The owners did not open any gates or unlock any of the old buildings. I was on my own to take whatever photos I could manage on my cell phone in five minutes. That's not much time to preserve the history of an old race facility, but I did my best under the circumstances.
You can help preserve the memory of Portland Raceway by sharing this article. The photos below are copyright free; if more people have them, they are likely to last longer. Hover your mouse over each photo for the full caption. The vintage photos were taken at my last race there in August 1992. The new photos were taken in December 2015. Here is a Google map of the facility today.
The track is quickly turning back into farmland. The likelihood of anyone else being granted permission to photograph it is virtually zero. This blog may be its only legacy.
John LaRue wrote the epitaph of Portland Raceway when he told me, “It was a fast little race track. It was a lot of fun. I always enjoyed running up there and I think most other people did.”
“But it probably would have failed anyway once the big track in New Castle came along.”
Sopwith Motorsports Television Productions
Co-host, Mecum Auctions on NBCSN
Driver, Boschett Timepieces/McGunegill Engines #21