Nestled in the center of Rainier, population 1,826, in south Thurston County, a community tradition spanning four decades continues with a roar.
Families have gathered for friendly racing competition at the Rainier Sportsman’s Club Flat Track since the late 1960s.
The site will be packed this weekend as several hundred motorcycle, quad and go-cart racers converge for Saturday’s annual Dixie Cup race, featuring an $8,000 purse that will attract many of the Pacific Northwest’s best professional riders, said event promoter Danny Cooley. The Dixie Cup event is named for longtime track supporter Dixie LeMay-Archer, who died of cancer in March.
Events at the nonprofit Sportsman’s Club property benefit a variety of community programs, including the annual Easter egg hunt, haunted house and Rainier High School scholarship program. The club also gives access to its property for baseball, cross country and other athletic events.
“We’d be in a bad spot without them,” said Rainier High Athletic Director John Beckman. “They’ve always been really supportive.”
Trucks and trailers began arriving Wednesday, as families staked out their favorite free camping spots. On “Hollywood Hill” overlooking the track from the west, former Rainier High cheerleader and Class of ’93 student body president Tami Stancil was getting her family’s camp set up.
The mother of four now lives in Olympia, but makes the trip to Rainier for her 14-year-old son, James White, to race and volunteer at the track. She says motorcycle riding is a great way to keep her whole family active. “James loves (computer) gaming. But if I tell him he can go out and ride, he’ll shut that down every time.”
Located on the site of the former Bob White Lumber Co., the one-eighth-mile dirt oval sits in a 15-foot-deep bowl that was the old mill pond. By 1941, the mill was gone, and a rodeo arena was later built on the site. The rodeo grounds became a community gathering place for all kinds of events.
Lifelong Rainier resident Mike Harritt, a Rainier High Class of 1980 alum, remembers going to the rodeo grounds as a young boy to watch everything from turkey shoots to chariot races. “There used to be a 40-foot-tall Daniel Boone statue out front,” he said with a laugh. “I won a Thanksgiving turkey one year in the turkey shoot.”
Someone eventually scraped out a black-dirt oval race track, and the Rainier Flat Track was born. The original wooden rodeo grandstands are still standing, set into the hillside and surrounded by tall fir trees that can make a visitor feel like they’ve stepped back into the 1960s.
Harritt arrived for camping Thursday with his son Mike Jr., 26, and 3-year-old grandson Mike III, who tools around his yard on a 50cc minibike. The senior Harritt still races, too, but only for fun.
“I’ve been here since the beginning,” said Harritt, proudly wearing an “Old Guys Rule” T-shirt. “I’ve been around this track more times than anyone.”
“This track is perfect for the little guy or the guy who doesn’t want to race pro. You don’t have to go fast,” said promoter Wayne Cooley, who took over operations of the races with his son, Danny, in 2009 after the track was closed and fell into disrepair.
Danny Cooley, now 41 with a 14-year-old son of his own, has been an all-league athlete at Franklin-Pierce High in Tacoma, a professional soccer player and a world-champion slow-pitch softball player. His motivation for taking over the track operations were family-driven: No local track was available for his son Dylan. “There is an environment here that is very family-friendly,” Danny Cooley said. “It needs to be positive. It keeps the little guys out of trouble and keeps them safe.”
Tami Stancil agrees, saying the lessons her son is learning through racing are invaluable.
“You see people who don’t necessarily get along on the track come together to help each other fix their bikes — give them parts — so they can get out on the track and try to beat each other. It’s really great for teaching the kids. I wouldn’t trade this for anything.”