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Originally published September 3, 2012 at 6:17 PM | Page modified September 4, 2012 at 2:59 PM

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Ridge Motorsports Park is new on the radar with fast crowd

The Shelton track hosts car clubs, defensive driving schools for people who love to drive fast.

Seattle Times business reporter

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SHELTON, Mason County -- Rod Powell is a self-described drug enabler, pushing a cocktail of endorphins and adrenaline he has been hooked on since he was a teen.

Joe Manke is a lifelong timber and tug businessman who has dreamed of owning a serious track since he was a boy.

The pair joined forces three years ago to develop The Ridge Motorsports Park in Shelton, 90 minutes southwest of Seattle. Flanked by a prison and a State Patrol academy, the racetrack is designed to attract other speed demons.

"You come out to the track and start doing laps, it's like a drug," said Powell as he calmly guides his bright red truck around the track at 90 mph.

"It starts releasing all these endorphins, and you get hooked on it. I started racing when I was 14 years old."

The 170-acre facility boasts a 2.47-mile track laid out on two tabletops with an elevation change of more than 300 feet.

Since opening in March, the track has hosted races, commercial photo shoots and car-club meetings for thousands of cars and motorcycles. It is most often used by driving schools for education and training.

Even so, drivers are topping 130 mph on straightaways and slamming on the brakes to drop to highway speeds on turns.

"Driving at speed requires all of your attention, and when you put all of your attention into one single object, everything else goes away," Powell said.

"For 20 to 30 minutes it disappears," Powell said.

The Ridge began out of boredom. In 2006, Powell sold his medical-device manufacturing companies in Tumwater, Thurston County, and retired at 45.

He quickly realized he needed to get back into business.

"For four months, I played. I Jet Skied, I went snow-skiing, I went car racing and then I went 'God I'm bored. I am bored out of my skull,' " Powell recalled.

He searched for a business he could get into for fun, not necessarily to make money.

Raised in Olympia, Powell raced motorcycles for eight years around tracks, through deserts and on back roads, continuing to ride even after he stopped racing at 22.

He was reintroduced to racing in 2005 and a friend told him about Thunderhill Raceway Park outside Willows, Calif.

After going to the track several times and speaking with a member of its board about the business side, Powell decided to try to give it a shot in the Northwest.

Word spread in the racing community that Powell was looking for space for his track.

That is how, in 2009, he met Joe Manke of Manke Tug and Barge and Manke Lumber.

Manke's son, Joel, suggested they look at some land Manke Lumber owned in Shelton.

His love for motorsports began when he was 6, riding around on dirt bikes on back roads and trails. He got hooked on racing.

"I'll watch turtles race," Manke said.

Attracting car clubs

Powell and Manke rent the track to car clubs, driving schools and other organizations for between $4,000 and $7,000 per day.

The season runs through mid-October and the schedule has been full for months.

"It's a very nuanced track. There's a lot of ways you can drive it," said Greg Erickson, registrar for the Pacific Northwest Region Porsche Club of America, which met at the track in July. "It's a real challenge to get around and do it really well without too much wasted effort or energy."

The cars are surprisingly quiet from the paddock until they hit the main straightaway. Then it's tough to hear yourself think when several cars fly by at once.

This is also where riders tend to get pinned to their seat.

Before the longest straightaway, drivers maneuver through a three-turn corkscrew that drops 80 feet of elevation in 378 feet of track. At its steepest, the namesake of The Ridge is a 40 percent slope.

More than 200 cars -- including BMWs, Porsches, Mustangs and at least one Subaru -- were at The Ridge on July 6-7; a school day through Turn 2 Lapping and the Porsche Club meeting the following day.

During "lapping days," drivers aren't trying to beat each other, so they tend to stay within their ability level, said Tom Pritchett, owner of Turn 2 Lapping, an advanced driving program in the Northwest that uses The Ridge.

As a result, fewer vehicles slide off during lapping, attitudes are kept in check and drivers don't get what Pritchett calls "red mist" -- a competitive impulse that can push them to race beyond their skill level.

Focus on education

"No one out here goes home with a trophy," Pritchett said. "You might get some bragging rights, but there's no placement. So it's more focused on education."

The track is ideal for newer drivers, Powell said, because it is 4 feet wider than usual and has a lot of space cleared of trees around the track -- called runoff -- so drivers won't hit anything immediately if they slide off.

Powell said people start driving their new, powerful cars on the highways without taking advanced driving courses and tend to lose control. The majority of drivers who sign up for courses have received several speeding tickets, he said.

"They come out and learn to drive safely in a controlled environment; everybody's going the same direction; there's no kids, no dogs, no oncoming traffic," Powell said.

Track competition

The Ridge joins two other speedways in the Greater Seattle area.

Evergreen Speedway hosts NASCAR races at its facility inside the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe. It also has a drag strip and figure-eight track with room for 12,500 spectators.

The other track in the area is Pacific Raceways in Kent. The facility includes four racing surfaces -- a road course, drag strip, motocross course and cart track -- as well as grandstands that seat more than 20,000 people.

Pacific Raceways owner Jason Fiorito said he is in the process of improving his road course to professional grade in five years.

The improvements include widening the track to 40 feet throughout, adding runoff, redesigning sections of the course and building concrete barriers, Fiorito said.

If the track is professionally sanctioned, national events will be able to use it, including IndyCar, SuperBike and the Nationwide series.

That means, Fiorito said, the club events Pacific currently hosts will need to use another track nearby, which is where The Ridge fits in.

"In the long term, it's a benefit to everybody to have more racing surfaces and a robust motorsports industry, and we look at (The Ridge) very kindly, actually," Fiorito said.

Fiorito added that, as a racer, he is looking forward to driving at The Ridge.

At 2 1/4 miles, Pacific's track is a little shorter than The Ridge's track and has less of an elevation change -- only around 130 feet.

It also runs faster; a good lap time is around 1 minute 25 seconds, compared with 1 minute 50 seconds for The Ridge.

It costs organizations between $2,000 and $9,500 to rent Pacific Raceways' track for the day, facility spokesman John Ramsey said.

The track upgrade is a part of a major construction project at Pacific Raceways that includes adding an oval racing surface, buildings for motorsports-related businesses, extra parking and other upgrades across the complex, Fiorito said.

The project will cost an estimated $130 million over 15 years.

Future unclear

Since The Ridge opened, Powell and Manke have had a falling out, and the future ownership of the track is uncertain.

Powell said he hopes to add a quarter-mile drag strip, fueling stations, garages, bathrooms, showers and a 20-acre campground and fire pits to the facility by next season.

Currently, The Ridge has a paved staging area that can hold 250 cars and their gear and the road course.

All the upgrades and the current road course will cost "well into eight figures," Powell said.

The facility is also zoned for motorsports-oriented commercial retail and a hotel, which could be built in five years.

"I (drive) in a controlled environment and I'm blessed with the opportunity of providing a controlled environment to other who are just like me," Powell said. "I've always been the addict. And now I'm the dealer."

Connor Radnovich: 206-464-2718 or cradnovich@seattletimes.com

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