Ranchers hope to block auto racing complex

Times Staff Writer

When he's not busy branding his cattle or herding them across a lazy country road to pasture, Martin Machado gazes forlornly at the vast swath of farmland cater-corner to his spread. He sees a future he dreads.

That 1,200-acre expanse of almond trees and row crops is poised to become one of the West's premier motor-sports facilities, eight racetracks for everything from motocross to top-fuel dragsters and, perhaps eventually, a bona fide NASCAR event.

Backed by the chamber of commerce and other local boosters, the $250-million project is slated for a Merced County Board of Supervisors vote this evening. Foes like Machado fear they're about to be run down.

"This is the place I want to get old on," Machado, 41, said of his cattle ranch with its antique red barn and cozy farmhouse. "Now there's going to be a stoplight right at the corner of my place, and some days 50,000 people will be coming through here."

The battle over Riverside Motorsports Park has riven this agrarian county in the heart of the Central Valley.

The track promises to bring jobs, tax dollars and entertainment to a region of flat spaces, seasonal unemployment troubles and nothing much to do on a Friday night. But some locals contend a high-octane attraction devoted to the NASCAR Nation is the wrong way to grow.

On the back roads, folks are eager to hold onto the region's agrarian past. Closer to town, foes say the proposed raceway represents a hairpin turn from the clean industry and highbrow housing that the new UC Merced campus should help attract as it matures.

"We need to be patient and encourage the growth of industries that are cleaner and high-tech," said Tom Grave, a retired educator who helped form Citizens Against the Racetrack.

But this is a region awash in motor racing fans who say warnings of noise and traffic are overblown and contend that a track can bring jobs and entertainment to a region sadly in need of both.

John Condren, the smooth and affable former Silicon Valley executive steering the project, has doggedly pushed his vision of a world-class venue that would put Merced on the map.

For the silver-haired marketing entrepreneur, this is about a sport he loves. He began on motorcycles 35 years ago, moved on to race cars, and now drives in the GT American Roadracing Series (his current ride: a souped-up Monte Carlo stock car).

Condren, 54, said the idea of building a racetrack came in August 2000 while he was sweating away the evening at a Las Vegas track. As he swigged Gatorade with buddies, talk turned to how the number of tracks had dwindled even as the sport had grown.

When Condren proposed a new track, "They looked at me like I was nuts," he recalled.

Over the next few years, he put together an investors group and narrowed his search to the Merced County site, next to the decommissioned Castle Air Force Base, now a private airfield. Nearly 10 million potential fans live within 100 miles of the spot, he said.

From the start, Condren envisioned a multipurpose facility giving fans more than just fast cars. Plans call for shopping, restaurants, an arcade and 650,000 square feet of garages and office buildings for race teams and trackside businesses.

So far, the partnership has spent $4 million navigating environmental reviews and $12.5 million buying the property, for generations a family farm.

They plan to spend $34 million widening nearby roads as well as installing traffic signals, adding signs and putting in new turn lanes. Most of the projected 39 annual race events are projected to draw crowds of up to 10,000, but a couple of the biggest events could lure upward of 50,000 people.

Planners predict the conga line of spectator cars would clog narrow farm roads and exceed county limits for traffic congestion.

Facing high costs to improve the roads enough to avoid what he says would be just a few bad days, Condren is seeking an exemption from county congestion rules, prompting irate foes to cry foul.

On the flip side, Condren said, are the track's "significant economic and social benefits": $180 million in annual business, 1,250 jobs, hundreds more in new businesses spurred by the operation, a new entertainment motif of racing and rock concerts, and more than $16 million in annual state and local tax revenue.

He predicted that the track would "by far be the largest revenue source in Merced County."

The Merced Sun-Star newspaper backed the raceway in a recent editorial that declared "it's time to start our engines," saying in part that the racetrack would produce less noise and pollution than the howling B-52 bombers of the former base.

Though supervisors haven't tipped their hands, most seem bullish.

"There are pros and cons to everything," said board Chairman Mike Nelson. "But we can't say we're business-friendly then say we don't want that kind of business, we don't want those kinds of jobs. You either want economic development or you don't."

As the project wended its way through the county review process, most of the opposition came from environmentally conscious residents long opposed to big development.

But recent weeks have seen the region's agribusiness join the protest, in no small part because changes in traffic plans would route thousands of cars onto quiet back roads now dominated by farm tractors and cattle trucks.

"There's an entire culture out there steeped in agriculture," said Supervisor Deirdre Kelsey, the only lawmaker to voice reservations. "What's being proposed is for them the equivalent of a foreign invasion."

The county farm bureau voted to oppose the track. Meanwhile, executives at Merced County's signature business -- Foster Farms -- appear poised to sue if the racetrack goes forward. One of its poultry operations, a collection of chicken sheds, sits across a narrow road from the southeast corner of the proposed complex.

Aside from worries about air pollution and traffic, company officials object to a boost in noise. The racing promoters vow to pay for double-pane windows and erect 10-foot-high earthen berms to muffle race car roar, but Foster Farms officials have concluded that the racetrack -- particularly the deafening howl of top-fuel dragsters during a four-second blitz down the quarter-mile strip -- would make life unbearable for both man and fowl.

"This project will make it very difficult to continue our operation," Beth Kelly, the company's assistant manager of environmental affairs, told supervisors during a recent meeting.

Air pollution, meanwhile, remains "the elephant in the living room," said track opponent Grave. The San Joaquin Valley is one of the most sullied air basins in the country, with frequent spare-the-air days and a disturbing number of asthmatic children.

To mitigate the impact on air quality, raceway operators would pay for emission-reduction projects and offer a shuttle service to ease congestion. Those promises don't placate foes, who believe Riverside's promoters would be profiting at the expense of their health.

Over at his ranch, Machado spent a recent morning working at his cattle operation before heading off to his other job, as a livestock auctioneer.

He bought his ranch a couple years back, but worries that raceway traffic will make it impossible to operate. He also fears losing land to eminent domain if roads are widened.

"I've got a place now that I've always dreamed about," he said. "I don't want it to turn into a nightmare."

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eric.bailey@latimes.com

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