The checkered flag has waved at Kalispell’s quarter-mile oval for the final time.
Montana Raceway Park, which has held stock car races including the prestigious Montana 200 every summer since 1991, announced on May 26 that the track’s 2019 season was its last. In a message posted on the racetrack’s website, MRP said “this is not an easy decision … (and) we know there will be heavy hearts.” In March, track owners announced the 2020 season would not be held in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The statement posted May 26 also cited “constant vandalism, declining fan bases and support” as reasons for the closure.
The news has sparked an outpouring of remembrances from fans and members of the local racing community on social media, where one driver said “a giant funeral” was underway in a private Facebook group titled “Montana Raceway Park Memories” that had gathered more than 660 members within hours of the closure. Nearly a week later, the page was still filling with photos, videos and other tributes to the track and the local motorsports community.
“We feel a big loss,” Agni Howell, who began racing at MRP in its inaugural season, said. “This has been a part of our community; it’s been a favorite, important activity for local residents for years.”
The Thornton family has owned the track since 2007 and the facility has been beset by misfortune in recent years, including a rash of vandalism and a string of thefts last summer that Howell said caused thousands of dollars in damage. The track was also not immune to a nationwide trend of declining attendance and participation in motorsports.
“So it was one blow after another,” Howell said. “I had a feeling (the thefts) were going to be the straws that broke the camel’s back.”
The history of stock car racing in Kalispell dates back to the early 1950s, and this summer will mark the first time in 67 years that no races will be held in town. For years, drivers competed at a handful of dirt and asphalt tracks, including Big Sky Speedway, before John and Sharon Slack built Montana Raceway Park and held the first season of racing at their sparkling new facility in 1991. The Slacks and their daughters, Marie AuClaire and Michelle Siderius Moore, ran MRP for most of its history and the family released a statement to the Beacon in the wake of the closure.
“Raceway Park was built for family entertainment. We had a dream, a goal, a vision, a commitment to the sponsors, race fans, racers, crews, employees, the race family and the community, and we thank all of you for your support and the many memories that we will forever hold because of all the people that we were able to have in our lives,” the Slacks wrote.
Under the Slack family’s ownership, Montana Raceway Park was one of the most successful stock car tracks in the Northwest and was cited as one of the nation’s top short tracks in the early 2000s. The facility’s signature event, the Montana 200, would bring in some of the top drivers from the region to compete for tens of thousands of dollars in prize money. The 200 regularly drew thousands of spectators as well, and for local racers who had a chance to reach the starting line, like Mike Thoennes, the experience of spinning laps at that race is unforgettable.
“They were introducing (the racers) and you looked up in those stands and there was not an empty spot to be found,” Thoennes, who ran the race in 1995, said. “It was big time … for this little guy, it was unbelievable.”
Like Howell, Thoennes said in recent years it seemed to be a matter of when not if Raceway Park would close its doors. The number of drivers and fans had been steadily declining, and while both Theonnes and Howell refused to blame the track’s current owners for the situation, there was a noticeable change in recent years, a sense echoed by many posters on the MRP memories Facebook page.
“The track closing down was really heartbreaking,” Thoennes said. “I don’t want to throw a lot of hate and discontent out there, because I don’t feel that, but the track (after) John and Sharon, when they and the kids were running it, it changed. It just got different. It wasn’t reflective of the things they had done and proved to work.”
In 2017, Thornton Motorsports LLC proposed rezoning the land on which Montana Raceway Park is located to make way for a 57-lot residential development. The proposal was approved by the Flathead County Planning Board but rejected by the Flathead County Commission, which cited infrastructure and safety concerns. Thornton Motorsports later sued the county in an attempt to reverse that decision. The land is not currently zoned for residential development.
Representatives of Thornton Motorsports LLC did not respond to requests to comment for this story.