Mention “Drag Race” to a lot of people these days and the main point of reference will be a glamorous reality show contest. But, among the elderly and motorheads of all ages, the term perhaps conjures up the most democratic and cheapest form of motor racing.
It’s so democratic, in fact, that drag races too often take place on straight stretches of unauthorized city streets among owners of standard – or slightly inflated – production cars with spectators sitting perilously close. Unfortunately, speed kills when Pattison Avenue in South Philly or even Ben Franklin Parkway in Center City turn into makeshift trails overnight. These streets are not designed for this purpose.
This is why the apparent preservation of the Atco Dragway in the Township of Waterford is applauded by many fans of drag racing and aficionados of fun cars, motorcycle daredevils and demolition derbies. The action takes place away from public streets and homeowners with noise complaints, and most observers are seated a safe distance away in bleachers.
But the days of establishment can be numbered; it owes its continuity, for now, to the township’s land use council last week’s refusal of a zoning waiver that would have allowed the dragstrip property to become the newest location in a chain of auto auctions. The applicant, Insurance Auto Auctions, has 190 locations in North America and has already converted the old Englishtown Raceway into one of its locations.
The IAA has 45 days to appeal Atco’s denial if it wishes; It is not clear whether the pending sale of the 180-acre site to the auction company by track owner Leonard Capone Jr. is dependent on zoning approval.
It has been a long and difficult road lately for dragstrips as their property becomes more valuable for other uses. The same phenomenon befell several rinks and even golf courses. Recreational properties, when not owned by government or a nonprofit organization, are subject to a best use and highest value theory. Few courts are prepared to dismiss homeowner rights in order to preserve nostalgic views of the way things once were.
Atco has its fans, who stubbornly monitor developments and oppose the closure of the track. This is the oldest such track in the state and evokes those days when frantic commercials were frequently aired for weekend cards (“Sunday, SUNDAY, SUNDAY!) … on the top 40 radio stations in every big city.
There are a few relevant details that should influence the final decisions of local zoners and the courts.
First of all, if the enthusiasts own these cars, they will drive them. Somewhere. South Jersey hasn’t had the problem with the illegal street racing Philly does, but could an Atco Dragway shutdown cause one?
The situation is similar to those of ATV riders who say they wouldn’t tear up farm fields or disturb the Pinelands if they had a dedicated park, presumably provided by the government. It remains to be seen, but the idea is not so far-fetched that the State Department of Environmental Protection has not considered it.
A second point about the Atco site is that it is also mainly located in the Pinelands protected area. The railway line, established in 1960, is probably protected as a pre-existing use. Drag racing is in many ways incompatible with maintaining native trees and pristine groundwater. There is a crowd, noise and above all a lot of oil pollution. Then again, it’s hard to imagine that a bustling auto auction, with dealers, brokers and vehicle jockeys everywhere, would have less of an impact on flora and fauna.
For reasons of trade and quality of life, it would be good to have both the dragway and the auction in less sensitive locations. IAA, with its global resources, could likely find a similar sized plot for its auction in South Jersey. It would not be so easy to move a drag strip that could accommodate spectators, given the financial limitations and related issues. So maybe he can stay put.
The ad hoc Save Atco Raceway group has been working to collect signatures to stop the change and raise awareness about the facility, but it may be necessary to look to fundraising for some sort of buyout instead. Good luck.
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