Sand drag racing: 'It's quite an experience to feel that rush'

COOS BAY, Ore. (AP) — The light switches to green, motors roar and two ATVs take off, kicking up sand behind them.

But they could be old pickups, Jeeps or bikes. Or any rig ready to race on sand. Whatever's racing, though, is going to be loud and fast.

The 300-foot sand drag strip at the Oregon Dunes Raceway has been packed with competitors this year, growing in popularity since its opening race on New Year's Eve. A recent weekend was Sand Jam 6, where rainy weather slowed activity on Saturday, but cleared up enough for racers on Sunday.

Owners Richard and Pam Palmer opened the drag strip at Boxcar Hill last December in hopes of offering a unique experience on the sand dunes where dunes lovers can race at top speeds.

They stressed that they're not out-of-town promoters in it to make money — the couple is in the process of moving here from Central Oregon — they just want to share their love of racing while giving riders the chance to race more than once or twice per year at special events.

"I just wanted a place where we could do it, and we could do it more often," Richard Palmer said. "Everything here is pretty much volunteer. It's just a passion and I want to keep it going."

He said they discovered the dunes about 13 years ago, and fell in love with racing. But with a lack of drag strip tracks outside of annual events such as DuneFest, the Palmers felt they could fill a hole at Boxcar Hill.

With the feedback they've heard, he said it's obvious this area deserved a track of its own.

Richard Palmer said the older guys who grew up running the dunes had become disheartened with so many closures in the open riding areas.

"Over the years, things have kind of died out and got shut down, and they told me, 'We needed this,'" Richard Palmer said.

The kids love it, too.

"I want to get more things out for the kids," he said. "We have kids who are five or six years old, who race these little fancy bikes that go pretty fast."

Pam Palmer said the riders are relieved to finally have a space where they can either race or just test and tune, which they also host for drivers who want to see what their rig can do.

"There's no place people can go to run the lights," she said, pointing to the light tree as racers ran tests Sunday morning.

For spectators, this isn't like watching asphalt races.

The instant you step out of your car, the rumble of souped-up vehicles fills your ears. The racers line up in pairs, revving their engines. The light tree — they just got a new one last weekend — flickers from yellow to green, and both drivers take off like rockets as a rooster tail of sand trails behind.

And just like that, they reach the end of the track, which seems so short with how fast these rigs run.

Later in the day, the competition shifts to barrel racing.

"Which is a riot. Everybody loves that," Richard Palmer said.

And that's usually followed by a family-friendly potluck, bonfire and a raffle of any items local businesses donate. He just wants it to feel like a big family camping at night, and enjoying the dunes by day.

The Palmers have big hopes for the track, including expansion, running ATV training for children, and even helping out local fundraising efforts with things like food can donations as part of an entry fee. They've also partnered with Barnyard Toyz Racing, a local group that hosts mud-running obstacle events.

Word is starting to spread about the track, Richard Palmer said, as racers from all over the Pacific Northwest and as far as Colorado and Utah have found the raceway.

"We have people clear from back east seeing our stuff on the Internet and YouTube and getting really excited about it," he said.

They're still putting a lot of their own money to make Sand Jams happen, but it's a labor of love for them.

"Just to watch people run up and down the track and see the smiles on their faces — that makes it worth it," Richard Palmer said.

"It's quite an experience to feel that rush," he added. "It's something to feel."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press

>>> Visit the Oregon Dunes Raceway website