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Racers bid sad adieu to Rocky Mountain Raceways after 50 years

WEST VALLEY CITY — The marquee board in front of the racetracks that have provided a place for thousands of races, experiences and memories had two simple words on it Saturday.

THANK YOU.

After a half-century, dating back to the old Bonneville Raceway days, Utah's only drag strip, small oval racing track and one of the few motocross venues officially hosted its last event.

This weekend — and the entire 2018 season, really — acted as a farewell celebration and grand finale for Rocky Mountain Raceways. The racing complex, which has been around in some form since July 23, 1968, will be demolished and replaced by an industrial park. Racers will have to travel to Idaho and Nevada for the closest tracks if they plan to continue this sport.

Gentlemen — and ladies — stop your engines.

"It's been a lot of fun," RMR general manager Mike Eames said.

Hundreds of current and former racers and fans, friends and family attended the Raceways' checkered-flag celebration, which was capped by one final slow, ceremonial drive on the drag strip and oval.

Dragsters sped down the strip for the last time, including junior racers, weekend hobbyists in their Corvettes, Camaros and Mustangs, and tire-screeching, speed-demon machines like the beautiful yellow Top Alcohol car that gave one final tribute to the beloved racer — the late Suzy Wells — who died in a tragic accident on the track in 1999.

Sprint cars, yellow and black Hornets, late models, trucks, modified stock cars, quarter midgets (like souped-up go-karts), an employee's small passenger vehicle with three Ute flags waving from the windows and even a tow truck took some final laps on the small oval that spans three-eighths of a mile.

“This is all I’ve ever done, growing up out there, watching all of my family race. I’m trying to keep the emotions down for right now because I’m going to start crying. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Levi Ryder

Tears were shed. Hugs were given. Standing ovations were made. Smiles and gloomy looks were prevalent. And a racing community shared one final moment together in this soon-to-be-much-quieter spot in the northwestern corner of Salt Lake County.

"It hasn't hit me yet," one employee said, somberly.

Newlyweds Levi and Kylie Rider were trying to hold back tears after they zipped around the oval in their Mini Cup modified stock cars (half-scale NASCAR) for the last time.

Levi, 21, has been coming to RMR events as a fan and racer since he was 2 months old and has raced for 8½ years. Kylie, 22, has been racing on the oval for five years.

This place is more than just a racetrack to them.

"It's been my second home," Levi said. "This is all I've ever done, growing up out there, watching all of my family race. I'm trying to keep the emotions down for right now because I'm going to start crying. I don't know what I'm going to do."

At least he has an empathetic racer to console him and with whom to figure that out. He and Kylie are thinking of buying bigger cars to race elsewhere.

"It's sad it has to go," Kylie said.

One of the couple's fondest memories — perhaps after getting engaged at the Raceways — was when Kylie beat Levi for her first racing win. That's no small feat. Levi is a two-time-defending Mini Cup champion.

Levi laughed that it was "a little bit" hard to lose to his future wife — the race was a year ago — but he quickly got over that.

"I was more excited because it was her first (win)," he said. "I knew the feeling of what it was to win my first race, so to get to experience that with her just pushed it over the top."

Kylie, who said they enjoy competing against each other but try to not smash into each other's car, smiled at the memory, and added, "He was out of the car faster than I was."

Former RMR general manager Doug Binstock, who most recently oversaw concessions sales, said he fondly remembers how the raceway became a racing outlet and a safe place for local youths, including gang members, through a midnight drag racing series held throughout the summer.

At its peak, anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 teenagers — perhaps an adult or two, too — packed the place to test their souped-up cars, cheer on friends and just hang out.

"It did a lot to take kids off the street," Binstock said. "That's going to be a big miss. We gave something to kids that's going to be taken away — something to do on a Friday night."

Eames joked that his favorite stories probably aren't fit to print.

"Even though the track will go," he said, "the memories and the friendships and the relationships that have been made here over the past 22 years of the facility, all that stuff will carry on for a long time."

Eames shared one fun story about one of the young quarter-midget competitors. In the track's first race several years ago, two of the small cars bumped against each other and one of the quarter-midget vehicles tipped over and did a bunch of barrel rolls. The racer's dad — a champion modified rider — and officials hurried to help him out and asked if he was OK (and he was).

The racer was a bit shaken up but unflinchingly asked one question that revealed something about his competitive spirit.

"He looked up at his dad and said, 'Dad, what car did that to me?'" Eames said. "I'm like, really!?"

Eames laughed, recalling how the small racer wanted to exact some revenge.

"I had to walk away," Eames said, "because I was laughing so hard."

On Saturday night, Eames and the rest of his racing friends walked away — after laughing hard, racing hard and experiencing hard emotions — for one last time.

"It is bittersweet because today is the last deal," Eames said, "but overall I'm walking with my head held high and so is a lot of our crew."