COOS BAY — When the Coos Bay Speedway racing season opens on the oval dirt track next weekend, the drivers will be racing under the NASCAR banner for the first time.
The speedway joined the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series for the first time this season. The national grassroots series is for tracks similar to the dirt track at Coos Bay Speedway, a .387-mile high-banked oval.
“Coos Bay is a tremendous place to race and joining the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series is a great opportunity for fans and competitors,” said Drake Nelson, the track’s new owner and operator. Nelson and his wife, Kimberly, recently purchased the track, located along Highway 42 about halfway between Coos Bay and Coquille.
The drivers and pit crew members who buy into the program will be provided an outstanding insurance policy and also be part of a year-end prize pool, Nelson said.
“The main thing for me and Kimberly is that it provides our drivers with the best insurance possible,” Nelson said. “It gives the drivers 1 million, 50,000 dollars in insurance.
“For us, the insurance is a really, really big deal,” he said, calling the coverage “second to none.”
The other benefits for the drivers are that it “creates the NASCAR stigma” and gives them an opportunity to win more money.
The top division in the program this year is the Super Late Model class. At the end of the year, the top 10 drivers in that division’s point standings will split a $10,000 prize fund, with the winner receiving $3,000.
The NASCAR Whelen All-American Series also honors a rookie of the year at each sanctioned track and a state champion for each state. Since Coos Bay Speedway is the only track in Oregon that is part of the series, the champion at the speedway also is, by default, the state champion. And since this is the first year the speedway has been part of the series, all the drivers are technically rookies, so the champion also is the rookie of the year, meaning the winner of the division will receive a total of $6,000 in prizes.
That driver also will be invited by NASCAR to its year-end banquet in Charlotte, N.C.
“In the first year, it’s worth a lot of money,” Nelson said. “In the past, drivers were racing for a little prize money each night, but at the end of the year, all they’d get is a trophy and a pat on the back (at the local banquet).”
Coos Bay Speedway is one of a few new tracks being sanctioned by the series this year.
“Drake Nelson and his family bring a wealth of short-track experience to Coos Bay and NASCAR is pleased to welcome the track into the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series,” said Kevin Nevalainen, NASCAR director of weekly racing, in a news release. “The opportunity is now there for drivers to compete for the track championship, as well as bragging rights in Oregon with the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series state championship.”
The series sanctions about 70 tracks nationwide, including only about 10 dirt tracks, Nelson said.
“It’s grass-roots level,” he said. “This is the breeding ground (for top drivers).
“Dale Earnhardt Jr. started racing in Saturday night home tracks. There’s a whole list of people, that’s where they got to start.”
Nelson said he’s not suggesting the next Dale Earnhardt Jr. would come from Coos Bay, calling that concept a long shot.
“Austin Dillon, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards — they all started on a little track just like ours in the home track division,” Nelson said.
Nelson picked the super late models for Coos Bay Speedway’s top division this year because it is a division that draws fans.
“Super late models are the fastest, nicest cars,” he said, adding that he hopes to boost the number of drivers who compete in the division at the speedway. That’s possible, since drivers up and down the Interstate-5 corridor are talking about coming to Coos Bay on a regular basis to race in the series, including some who compete regularly at Willamette Speedway in Lebanon, Nelson said.
“Some of the drivers who have been going to Lebanon will be coming down here now,” he said.
The people racing in the speedway’s other divisions also will have an expanded prize pool at the end of the year, just not as big as for the super late models.
Nelson also hopes having the NASCAR name associated with the speedway will help draw more fans for the Saturday races.
“It’s going to help with the fan base,” he said. “People know what NASCAR is.”
To be part of the program, drivers have to become a member with the NASCAR series, with a one-time yearly fee. For the super late models, the fee is $200. The other divisions have a $100 fee, as do members of the pit crews who choose to take part.
Once they pay, they are entitled to the insurance program.
“If something happens on the track, they’re covered,” he said, adding that the coverage extends to incidents in the pit area.
To help offset the cost of joining, Nelson is giving drivers and pit crew members who are part of the program a price break for each weekend at the track, ultimately covering the cost of the registration if they participate in enough weekends.
“If they are planning on coming to 10 or 11 races, they are going to save money as they check in at the gate,” he said.
“People who don’t participate will take a little bigger hit at the gate. We want to drive them to be a member.”
Nelson’s brother Adam is part of the ownership group that operates Meridian Speedway in Idaho, which joined the series last year and saw benefits.
“With Meridian being part of the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, we were able to really see up close the value of having the track be part of the program,” Drake Nelson said.
For the speedway, that also includes special lighting from Whelen Engineering, the sponsor of the national series. The company is a leading manufacturer of automotive, aviation, industrial and emergency vehicle lighting, Nelson said.
As a member of the series, Coos Bay Speedway will receive new caution lights produced by Whelen.
“(They will be) just like you see on TV, the bright, flashy, strobe lights,” Nelson said. “That will be a great upgrade to the facility. The old stuff worked. We are stepping up. It’s going to be newer and better.”
Nelson also now has access to NASCAR leaders in Daytona, Fla., for advice on any of a number of track issues.
“Having those guys at my fingertips is a big deal,” he said.
In future years, Coos Bay Speedway also will be eligible to apply for capital improvements — the series helps fund projects at 10 tracks a year.
“It’s a good program all the way around,” Nelson said. “There’s a lot of pluses about it.”
Coos Bay Speedway is early in its first year with the Nelsons in charge.
The speedway has hosted mud drags the past two Saturdays and has another mud drag evening this Saturday. In the past, that program then has taken the summer off before two dates in October, but Nelson has added mud drag events on the first Sunday in May and June and also on July 23.
The speedway had its first test-and-tune session for oval track drivers last Sunday and has another one this Sunday, if the weather cooperates, with the track opener on April 1.
From that date, the oval track will see races several weekends each month, while the speedway’s quarter-mile drag strip will have races one weekend a month.
The oval track season continues into September, with the highlight for the super late models the Super Late Model Tidal Wave 50 on July 29.
For more information on the speedway, including the complete calendar, visit its website at www.coosbayspeedway.us.