News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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May 11, 2014

The next turn

Future of quarter midget track remains an open question

TERRE HAUTE — After more than five decades at the same place, the Terre Haute Quarter Midget Association is considering moving to a new location.

No new location has been selected, but THQMA committees have been formed as part of the process of looking for a possible new home, said association president Mike Frey.

“We’ve looked at quite a few pieces of property,” Frey said last Wednesday evening as a half-dozen “novice” drivers – some as young as 5 years old – zoomed around the THQMA 1⁄20-mile race track at South 13th Street and Lockport Road.

“We really don’t want to move,” Frey added. However, “we have a chance to better our facilities.”

The Hulman Mini Speedway quarter midget track, one of the busiest in the country, is already one of the best facilities in the U.S., Frey said. On a typical Saturday night, more than 100 cars will compete in a variety of classes for kids ages 5 to 16. Most quarter midget facilities are fortunate to have half that many racers, he said.

Nevertheless, the facility is 58 years old and – perhaps more importantly – is surrounded by current and future industrial sites.

Indeed, it is one of those chemical companies, Hydrite Chemical Co., that has helped bring about THQMA’s current search for a possible new location.

Tom Miazga, an official with Hydrite, which is based in Brookfield, Wisc., confirmed his company has an interest in possibly purchasing the neighboring quarter midget property.

“Over the past year, Hydrite has expanded its operation in Terre Haute and is evaluating options to expand our footprint,” Miazga said in an email to the Tribune-Star last week. “The neighboring Terre Haute Quarter Midget Association property is one of those options.”

Hydrite has been in discussions with the THQMA to “determine how we could work together to relocate the facility,” Miazga stated. Hydrite sent a “letter of intent” to the THQMA concerning the possible relocation; however, that has now expired, he stated.

Chemical company looking to expand

Hydrite made an offer to purchase the track property, Frey said; however, he did not wish to reveal the amount and said no final decision to sell the property has been made.

“We really don’t want to leave,” Frey said. “We love our spot.”

The THQMA owns about 11 acres on the east side of 13th and Lockport, immediately north of Hydrite and just south of the former Terre Haute Coke and Carbon industrial site, which the Terre Haute Department of Redevelopment has just paid several million dollars to clean up by removing contaminated soil and replacing it with clean soil. The city will soon market 20 acres of former Coke and Carbon property for future light manufacturing and commercial uses.

The neighboring Coke and Carbon land was found to be contaminated with tar, arsenic, lead, naphthalene, benzo(a)pyrene and other hazardous substances associated with coke production.

The THQMA property “seems like an appropriate site for [Hydrite’s] expansion,” said Cliff Lambert, executive director of the city’s Department of Redevelopment. As an industrial business, Hydrite’s use of the property would be similar to what the city would like to see at the former Coke and Carbon site, he said. The whole goal is to get the former Coke and Carbon property sold to private businesses that will generate much-needed property taxes for local government services, he said.

The city has been mediating talks between Hydrite and the THQMA, Lambert said. Principally, Pat Martin, the city’s chief planner, has been working with the two entities, he said.

As part of that process, Martin, using Environmental Protection Agency funding, conducted a “phase 1” environmental assessment on the THQMA site, he said.

A phase 1 study simply traces the ownership of a piece of property back in time to determine whether past uses might have involved environmental contamination. In the case of the THQMA land, that seems possible because it was once part of the coke production facility that just required a multi-million-dollar clean up next door, Martin said.

The northern portion of the THQMA site – currently an approximately 3-acre, grassy parking area — was deeded to the racing organization by the Vigo County Commissioners about 10 years ago, according to the results of the phase 1 study. This land was “carved out of the Terre Haute Coke and Carbon manufacturing site and was most likely used as a coal/coke/rail tie storage area until the materials were transported to another location,” Martin told the Tribune-Star in an email last week.

A new home might be safer

It is believed – by officials with the THQMA and the City of Terre Haute – that the Hulman family donated the southern portion of the quarter midget property (which includes the race track, concession stand, parking areas and bleachers) to the racing association in the 1950s.

The Hulmans once owned the nearby industrial plant that later became known as Terre Haute Coke and Carbon. Past Tribune-Star articles stated Tony Hulman “leased” property to the THQMA. However, the association, which is a not-for-profit entity, owns the entire 11 acres, according to county records.

The folks in the THQMA love their current location, Frey said. It is one of the most successful and active such tracks anywhere in the country. However, sale of the property could allow the organization to build a state-of-the-art facility and would also be “safer” because it would be away from the neighboring chemical plant, he said.

In the late 1990s, Hydrite Chemical Co. experienced at least two accidents that caused the evacuation of the THQMA track. On May 10, 1997, an accidental release of sulfur dioxide gas floated over the Hulman Mini Speedway “causing the evacuation of about 100 people who were watching quarter-midget racing,” according to a Tribune-Star article from that year. A few years earlier, a similar accident affected employees of a nearby cable television facility, according to the paper.

In 1998, employee error caused another accidental release of sulfur dioxide that affected more than 30 people at nearby businesses, sending most to local hospitals for evaluations. A few nights later, people watching races at the THQMA track complained of dry throats and burning eyes after a sulfur odor drifted over from the plant, according to a Tribune-Star article from Sept. 14, 1998.

A family affair

Quarter midget racing – so-called because the cars are a quarter of the size of actual midget racers – is a multi-generational, family activity that has thrived in Terre Haute for decades. Last Wednesday night, Shelby Van Gilder, a life-long racer, was overseeing instructional races for “novice” kids, some as young as 5, at the Hulman Mini Speedway.

“This is their very first year of racing,” Van Gilder said of the kids, who were driving in a counter-clockwise oval around the small track, occasionally bumping into each other on the hard-packed surface. Their small race cars are fitted with roll cages and small, low horse-power engines.

Van Gilder, who started in quarter midgets at age 41⁄2 and later won several national championships, has seen great improvement in the skills of the current crop of kids, she said. At the start of the season, she added, there are some “pretty scary ones.”

One of the novices behind the wheel Wednesday was Garrett Hawthorn, 6, a student at Sugar Grove. After taking several quick laps, Hawthorn was waiting to get back on the track, sitting in his shiny black car.

“Passing!” Hawthorn said when asked what he likes the most about racing. The difference between quarter midget racing and something like youth soccer is “we’re doing it with them,” said Garrett’s dad, Stan Hawthorn, as he pushed his son’s racing machine back toward the track. “We’re the crew.”

There is clearly a thick sense of family and community at the quarter midget track. Fathers and mothers of racers become deeply involved, working on cars, selling concessions and helping their young racers learn the ropes, Frey said. A racing family may go to a different event every Saturday from April through October, he said.

“It’s a very fun sport,” Frey said, adding it is also quite safe. “I’ve never seen an injury.”

Admission is free at the Hulman Mini Speedway. Most weekends, dozens of trailers from at least 100 miles in every direction around Terre Haute can been seen parked there.

“So many people drive up and down South 13th Street and don’t even know we’re here,” Frey said.

The kids driving around the small race track at the mini speedway are asked to watch other cars, watch for yellow flags and lights and turn their steering wheels every two seconds, Frey said. It’s a tremendous learning experience, he said.

Now the THQMA is facing a chance to turn its own steering wheel and find a new home after 58 years of racing on the city’s near-south side on land surrounded by current and future industrial operations. Still, with so much history and tradition tied up in one place, making that turn may be one of the group’s biggest challenges yet.

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com.

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