Jim Johnson used to drive this funny car on tracks around the country – back in an old life – and now he’s working on a plan to bring a permanent racing facility to Vancouver Island.

Still looking for a place to race

Vancouver Island Motorsports Association the latest group to put forward a plan for a local drag racing facility

When Jim Johnson retired to his new Island life from the prairies in 2005, there was one thing he found himself missing.

“I used to drag race when I was a kid, probably all the way up to 1983 or so,” he says. “I actually made my living at it for a little while, so I guess you could say I was fairly serious at it.”

He had both a funny car and a roadster – and he traveled around the country racing them.

That was a past life, though.

At least, that’s what he thought.

After Johnson had gotten his new home in Campbell River fixed up, he found himself with some spare time, so he joined the Campbell River Airport Authority as a way to get more involved with his community. He served on that board for five years before stepping down last year.

He stepped down not because he didn’t think he had anything more to offer the board, but because he thought there could be a perceived conflict of interest between sitting on that board and the project he was starting to have ideas for.

You see, because he was on the Airport Authority, some of his car-enthusiast buddies had been bugging him about the possibility of getting a race on a runway out there.

“Port Alberni does it,” they’d say. “Why can’t we?”

“Well, Port Alberni doesn’t have scheduled flights,” Johnson says. “Port Alberni doesn’t have grooved runways. That’s not an ideal racing surface. There are a lot of issues involved (in racing on our runway), compared to Port Alberni.”

But it got him thinking: How great would it be to use some of the surplus, under-utilized land at the airport for a drag racing facility? It’s flat, it’s away from residents that the noise might bother, and there isn’t a place anywhere on the Island that is dedicated to the sport. It could be a huge economic driver for a community that needs one, Johnson thought.

Thunder in the Valley, the annual event held in Port Alberni, attracts between 240 and 260 cars that race over the course of one weekend. This year, they will be holding it on a municipal street – with the blessing of the city – instead of the runway of the airport, because the facility is going through an expansion.

“The only reason (the city of Port Alberni) would even consider pursuing something like (having it on a municipal street) is because they know what it does for the community. In their council meeting a couple of weeks back, they said, in 2009 the estimate was that it brought $2.5 million into the community – over just the one weekend.”

While Johnson was researching models for how a facility like this could be created here, he found the business model for the Portland International Raceway (PIR), which is owned and operated by the City of Portland.

In 2004, the PIR hosted 650 days of events.

You read that correctly. With numerous events being booked on the site on the same day during peak season, the racetrack held 650 “days-worth” of events. PIR estimates that 420,000 visits to the raceway were made that year.

And an economic impact study of the PIR in 2006 contained a survey of those who attended events at the raceway, the responses to which revealed approximately 87 per cent of those not from the area would not have come to the region if not for the event(s) they attended at the facility.

That same economic impact study says the area saw an increase of 690 full and part-time jobs equating to $16.9 million in annual wages and an increase in revenues for state and local tax jurisdictions of $2.6 million because of the PIR.

While Johnson doesn’t claim the economic impact of a facility in Campbell River would necessarily be that huge, the PIR isn’t anywhere near the only facility in Oregon – nor is it even the largest in the Pacific Northwest – whereas a Campbell River facility would be the only one on Vancouver Island, so he says the economic impact would be “significant.”

“Guys are paying, like, $600 – at least – just to bring their cars across on the ferry and back to race at Mission,” he says, which is a city about the same size as Campbell River. “I’m sure they’d much rather come up Island and spend some of that money here.”

Besides the economic benefit, Johnson says, there’s a safety factor involved, as well.

“We’re starting to get some pretty fast cars,” Johnson says. “You can go down to the dealership and buy a car off the lot that’s pretty damn fast, and people are getting their cars seized because they’re going too fast on the highway, so they’re going off the beaten path onto side roads … and it’s not safe.”

He feels that a dedicated racing facility where they could put their cars to the test in a safe area away from the public, would relieve some pent-up need-for-speed and keep them from doing it on the streets.

So he’s got an association formed – the Vancouver Island Motorsports Association (VIMSA) has more and more members joining every day, he says – the pitch is ready, and now he just needs a receptive audience with some sway. He’s presented his proposal to the Airport Authority, who he says, “seemed warm to the idea,” and he’s planning to present it to the City of Campbell River, as well. They own the land he’s currently looking at, after all.

He’s confident he’ll be able to sell someone on the plan. There’s some community on this Island, he says, who wants this type of facility bringing people into their area to spend money – he just has to find out which one that is.

But this isn’t the first time someone has raised this idea and pursued the creation such a place. Previous efforts to put a facility out by the airport for this purpose – as recently as 2011 – didn’t pan out.

Riverites Andy DeRoover and business partner Eric Harper were trying to get a multi-sport facility out by the airport for years without the project coming to fruition.

Harper and DeRoover’s proposed facility involved more than just drag racing, however. It was to include an amphitheater for both local acts and attracting big-name concerts. It was also to be home to a drive-in theatre, a state-of-the-art go-cart track, a motorcycle road race course, a small water/amusement park for kids with a possible drop off and daycare centre, along with a dirt oval track, a BMX/motocross track, rock climbing for 4x4s and more. It was a grand vision with a $25-million price tag.

There were also issues with the parcels of land Harper and DeRoover were looking at. One was 400 acres of Agricultural Land Reserve owned by Timberwest, while another was an area known as Discovery Bay north of town, which was zoned for residential and resort use in the municipality’s Official Community Plan.

Maybe a smaller, simpler, dialled-back plan that focuses just on the drag racing aspect – one that would make use of surplus unused land already owned by the city in a place where being a little loud wouldn’t matter – could work. As Harper told the Mirror back in 2011 when his plan was pitched to city council, Vancouver Island had more National Hot Road Association license holders per capita in North America, and they didn’t – and still don’t – have a facility to service them.

For more on VIMSA’s plans, head over to vimsa.ca