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Many years ago, near the small town of Portland, Ind., there was a popular go-kart track that drew competitors from around the Midwest. For a short time, I was among them.
Today, the track is a cow pasture, covered in fertilizer and new farm construction, largely forgotten by the world. The remaining asphalt is broken and sinking back into the earth. No track signage remains. Track records are lost and Internet searches turn up nothing.
Rather than risk the memory of Partland Raceway to fading into nothingness, I made a few phone calls and came up with the number of John LaRue, a Muncie attorney who once operated the track under lease from longtime owner and IndyCar racer Mark Dismore, whose family owned a major karting supply shop nearby.
Portland Raceway opened in the early 1970s. The seven-turn, one-quarter-mile surface was long by karting standards and offered a tremendous amount of elevation change on natural, rolling terrain. There was nothing else like it in the area.
“Dismore bought the track and made some minor improvements,” LaRue recalled. “They didn’t do anything to the racing surface, but they put some billboards up along the back straightaway. Dismore allowed the go-kart clubs to come up and use it free of charge if they would maintain it. When he bought it, he just wanted a place for guys to go wear out go-karts so they’d buy more stuff. I thought it was a good idea.”
Despite being a great track available rent-free, it eventually became idle in the late 1980s, and the Portland city council threatened to destroy the track by zoning it out of existence. That’s when LaRue and his partners stepped forward to save it.
“I was up in Jay County at the hearing,” LaRue remembered. “The judge asked me if I was still racing karts. He mentioned to me, ‘You should be aware that they’re looking to yank the zoning for the go-kart track if it doesn’t stay in use.’ So I went and checked into it, and sure enough, that was going to happen if it didn’t become active in the next six months or so.
“So a friend of mine and I formed a corporation and we leased the track from Dismore. We began promoting some races up there. That was probably in 1990. We did that for four or five years.
“I think it was successful. We kept the track going. We had some major WKA events up there that were very successfu. We made some safety improvements. It was certainly nothing like what you see today, but it still was an enjoyable place to go. We had a blast doing it. It was pretty rewrding.
“It wasn’t anything that really made money, but it wasn’t really meant to. Everything we got out of it we poured back into drainage tiles, fencing and things like that. We wanted to put lights up and get the whole thing back together. It was a labor of love more than anything. But eventually, we just couldn’t spend the time on it anymore.”
LaRue began racing sports cars and lost interest in the karting scene. Portland Raceway fell back into the hands of Dismore, who once again, lent it out to local kart clubs. The track struggled along for a few more seasons, but by the late 1990s, the writing was on the wall. Dismore planned a major new outdoor karting facility just 50 miles south of Portland, off Interstate 70, near New Castle, Ind. The new facility was completed and exists to this day.
Meanwhile, old Portland Raaceway was put up for sale. “Dismore was asking, like, $15 or $20 thousand if anybody wanted to buy it,” LaRue said. “At the end, I imagine he would have given it away. The last time I went by it, it looked like (the new owners) stuck a pole barn out near the race track and pretty much destroyed the asphalt.”
Back in my karting days, I had raced at Portland on Aug. 16 1992. It was a blistering hot Sunday afternoon. My kart was old, poorly maintained (because I was the mechanic) and mostly uncompetitive. I drove that kart for four seasons and never had a single set of new tires. The only advantage I had was an Ed Keller-built, four-cycle engine that produced plenty of reliable power.
This last experience at Portland Raceway was, by my standarts at the time, very successful. We were competitive in the middle of the pack, moved forward throughout the event and finished 11th. I have good memories of the day. So when I decided to write this article, I had a personal interest in revisiting the track.
The property is now controlled by Shawver Auctioneering and Real Estate of Portland. To find it, take US Route 27 south of Portland to County Road E 300 S. Turn east and travel just over half a mile and be aware that a private residence has recently been built on the same plot of land. The old track is located on the north side of the road, and parts of the track are visible as you drive past. And that may be the only look you get.
After repeatedly asking the owners for permission to photograph and film the old track. Without response, I finally showed up in person and was informed that it was “not a public facility.” Doing my best nice-guy act, I persisted and was reluctantly told that I could walk the property, briefly, on a one-time only basis.
The owners did not open any gates or unlock any of the old buildings. I was on my own to take whatever photos I could manage on my cell phone in five minutes. That’s not much time to preserve the history of an old race facility, but I did my best under the circumstances.
You can help preserve the memory of Portland Raceway by sharing this article. The entire facility is quickly turning back into farm land. The likelihood of anyone else being granted permission to photograph is virtually zero. This blog may be its only legacy.
John Larue wrote the epitaph for Portland Raceway when he told me, “It ws a fast little race track. It was a lot of fun. I always enjoyed running up there, and I think most other people did.
“But it probably would have failed, anyway, once the big track in New Castle came along.”
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