HERMISTON — The three-eighths-mile paved oval racetrack that sits off Highway 395 just north of Hermiston has been known by several different names in its existence, from Umatilla Speedway and Race City USA to Columbia Motor Speedway and Hermiston Super Oval.
This year the aging track has yet another new name — Hermiston Raceway — and another chance at life with the help of former racer and Tri-Cities native Greg Walden.
And no, not the U.S. Representative from Oregon.
This Greg Walden, 55, signed a three-year lease with an option to buy to operate the track in February, aiming to make Hermiston Raceway a destination again for race fans at the same time that similar tracks have closed down around the region. He had interest in leasing the Yakima Speedway this winter, but turned his focus to Hermiston when Yakima was sold and closed.
“This track was available so we were like, ‘Well, let’s see what we can do,’” Walden said during an interview inside the track’s office on Saturday. “And we’re only two races in now, but there’s hope and there’s early signs of life.”
Walden brings nearly four decades of experience in the local racing world as a driver, a promoter, and a fan. He got his start in the sport in the late 1970s when he started driving at the age of 16. Over the course of his career, which he ended in 2006, Walden raced at Hermiston several times. He got into the sport through his father Wayne Walden, who also drove race cars at an early age.
Wayne was a businessman that “was always looking for ways to make money,” Greg said, and partnered with three other individuals to take on their hometown Tri-City Raceway when it became available in 1982. Within three years, Wayne became the sole operator of the track. And along with business acumen and a passion for racing, he developed a knack for promotion and grew the fast half-mile track into a popular one in the Northwest.
Greg was in line to take over what had become the family business until the track was sold in 1998. Greg and his family then started a screenprinting and embroidery business in Kennewick that year, and he used his business as a reason to remain involved at racetracks in the region, selling souvenir T-shirts at many of them. Being around the track each summer while holding onto his passion for the sport, Greg knew he wanted to get back into track operations. He just had to wait for an opportunity.
In only four months operating the Hermiston Raceway, Walden has already made plenty of upgrades to the track that benefit both drivers and fans. Most significantly, more than $12,000 was spent on fixing the wooden grandstands and making them safe for spectators. Upgrades were also made to lighting on the concourse and in the pits, to make the experience better for race teams.
Walden has also revamped the racing schedule at the track. Races are held every other Saturday night now instead of weekly, in hopes of attracting more cars each night to create a better product. He also aims to keep the races moving quickly, limiting the downtime and creating constant action. Pre-race qualifying was eliminated, and the races will line up based on points standings. And trophy dashes are replaced with heat races prior to the main events.
“As long as it’s entertaining and fast-paced,” Walden said. “We’re a form of entertainment, and if we think we’re just in the racing business, then it doesn’t work. We’re in the entertainment business, it’s got to be exciting. We want to deliver a good program for the fans and racers, and with that we’re able to sell it to businesses to bring their people out.”
Hermiston Raceway has been open for two races now following Saturday’s West Coast Late Model Series headliner, and Walden is impressed with the early results. The attendance has been solid, with the grandstands being nearly at capacity on Saturday. And the few dozen cars competing has made for good entertainment for the fans.
Walden also credits numerous track employees — from pit crew to the flagger to the scorers — that remained from previous regimes as a big part of the early success, too.
“The team I inherited want to see it thrive,” Walden said. “They want to be proud of the place where they spend their time and that’s important.”
Racing returns to Hermiston on May 19 with Northwest Pro 4 Alliance stock cars, as well as the typical late models, street stocks, super mini and mini stocks, legends, bombers and hornet classes.
“I’m just excited there’s hope,” Walden said. “Last night we camped in Hermiston, in my motor home at (former) Umatilla Speedway and I told my wife, ‘How in the world did I end up here running this race track?’ I never thought that, but it came available and somebody had to so why not me?”