66-year-old Speedway helped shape Meridian’s legacy
66-year-old Speedway helped shape Meridian’s legacy
On a Saturday night in the 1950
s, the Meridian Speedway was the happening place to be.
“Drive-in movies and racetracks, I mean, what else did you do?” Speedway General Manager Adam Nelson said.
Sixty-six years and a whole lot of growth later, the racetrack still attracts an average crowd of 2,500 people during racing season, Nelson said.
“That’s very good in the racing industry,” he said. “A lot of racetracks in the Pacific Northwest, they struggle to get 300 to 400 people to come watch a race.”
Entertainment options in Meridian have skyrocketed since the Speedway opened on a rural two-lane road in 1951.
The racetrack has seen ups and downs in attendance over the years, but it still offers an appeal that can’t be found in most other venues.
“Just the fact that something exciting or something dangerous can happen at any second, that’s really the allure,” Nelson said.
The Speedway sells out — all 4,600 or so seats — at least one night a year: on the Eve of Destruction. A favorite feature of this night is when cars and trucks barrel around the racetrack with old, decrepit boats in tow that smash into each other.
“A lot of people don’t want to see anybody hurt,” Nelson said, “but they want to see stuff get destroyed.”
Then there are
the purist fans in the crowd, he said, who keep coming back because they follow the racers and get into the competition.
“A good race to those people is no cars touch each other and they just pass each other and finish,” Nelson said.
Races at the Speedway have enough of each — the destruction and the clean runs — to attract both types of fans, he said.
For a few local families in the area, including Nelson’s, racing is a passion that’s passed down for generations.
“What’s fun is that from the ’50s through these six decades, you can go pick out 10 or 12 families in the pits who have a fourth or fifth generation of racers,” Nelson said. “Like my son races, and he’s 20 now. … He’s a fourth-generation race car driver here.”
Nelson’s grandfather, Bill Crow, was a racing legend in his day. He was the Speedway’s first paid promoter in the 1960s, Nelson sai
d, and he ran The Frontier Club in downtown Meridian with his wife, Ruth, until he died in 1975.
Nelson’s father, LeeRoy Nelson, became the Speedway operator in 1981, taking on a role previously held by the Meridian Athletic Association for three decades.
Later on, Kenny Hamilton operated the track. His son — Indianapolis 500 star Davey Hamilton — would race at the Speedway and help with promotions.
“I think when I was cleaning the grandstands at 8 or 9, he was 16, 17, racing cars,” Adam Nelson said.
Nelson managed a few other tracks with his wife, Kelly, before joining the Speedway in 2009, along with his current business partner, Al Russell.
Russell, a member of the Western Idaho Racing Association Hall of Fame, last raced in 2015 at the age of 81.
“He’s on record as the oldest man to ever win a main event at Meridian Speedway,” Nelson said.
The Meridian Speedway was built on land that was and is still owned by the Meridian Dairy & Stock Show, Inc., also known as the Meridian Dairy Board.
The Meridian Athletic Association operated the track from 1951 to 1981. The association used Speedway revenue to support youth sports programs, said Meridian City Council President Keith Bird, who was part of the athletic association and still serves on the dairy board.
“A whole bunch of stuff that you’ve got in the city of Meridian is because of the Speedway,” Bird said.
Along with sponsoring youth sports programs, the association donated land for baseball fields behind the racetrack and donated the clock tower at Generations Plaza.
The Meridian Dairy Board donated the land for the Storey Park next the racetrack, where the community pool is now — another amenity that was built with help from the Speedway, Bird said.
Back when there were few ot her attractions in town, the Speedway attracted out-of-town customers to Meridian’s gas stations and restaurants. The track continues to draw fans from across the Treasure Valley, who bring with them dollars to spend at Meridian establishments, Bird said.
Beyond youth sports and its economic impact, the Speedway has another legacy — serving as part of the set for the 1980 Western film “Bronco Billy” starring Clint Eastwood. The carnival scene in the movie, including the dramatic big top fire, was shot on the Speedway grounds, Nelson said.
“It’s really cool,” Nelson said. “You can see Farmers & Merchants State Bank, you can see the Hungry Onion. If you’re from Meridian, you can stop that frame by frame and see everything.”
Legacy is also passed down at the Speedway when accomplished competitors inspire young racers.
For example, champion street stock racer Melissa Weaver-Arte from Nampa started racing in the early 1990s, when few other women competed, Nelson said.
These days, Nelson estimates that 30 percent of the racers at the Speedway are women. The Speedway’s High School Tuners class for 14- to 18-year-olds has more girls in it than boys, he said.
“Those girls are moving up, and you know, they all look up to Melissa,” Nelson said.
THE RACE TRACK
The Meridian Speedway is sanctioned by the American Speed Association and by the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), a distinction earned two years ago.
More than 350 racers compete at the Speedway on a given year, Nelson said.
“The younger racers, they have aspirations of being the next Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson,” he said. “But most of the folks who race here are hobby racers. We’ve got a couple of big shows that pay a bigger purse, and you know there’s some fame and glory in winning money.”
Racing can be a dangerous sport, and on few occasions, a racer or a participant in the pits has died during a race, Nelson said.
There has not been a death in more than two decades, he said.
Since 2009, the Speedway has invested in major capital projects to improve the facility and bring it up to industry standards, Nelson said, including rebuilding catch fences and the north grandstands and repaving the racetrack and pit area.
“We’ve done a ton of upgrades,” Nelson said.
When the Meridian Speedway opened, there was a racetrack near the Boise Airport, another one on Fairview Avenue, one in Ontario and one in Caldwell.
Now, the Speedway is one of the just four asphalt racetracks in Idaho, with the others being in Twin Falls, Pocatello and Idaho Falls, Nelson said.
Local tracks shut down likely because of competition from other tracks and challenges with property use, Nelson said. He credits the Speedway’s success to the Meridian Dairy Board’s commitment and to the track’s operators over the years, who sought to maximize the track’s positive impacts — such as the entertainment and economic value — and minimize the track’s negative impacts, such as light and noise.
“I won’t say it’s been easy, but, you know, we’re fortunate here in Meridian because we do have such a big following,” Nelson said.