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Nationals put Cordova on the map

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Mike Faas

Cordova Dragway Park hosted the International Hot Rod Association's Summer Nationals this past year, a major event in the racing industry. The track's owner, Scott Gardener, was named IHRA's Track Operator of the Year for 1997.

CORDOVA -- Like all new business owners, Scott Gardener had a vision, a new direction for Cordova Dragway Park when he bought the nearly half-century-old racetrack in December 1995.

Since it opened in 1956, the historic drag racing quarter-mile has been the site of many outstanding race shows, chiefly the World Series of Drag Racing. That remains today the longest continuous-running drag racing event in the nation.

It's been a little more than two years since the Cedar Falls, Iowa, native assumed control at Cordova.

``A couple of things we wanted to accomplish was to transform the facility into a more racer-friendly and family-friendly environment,'' Mr. Gardner said. ``Secondly, we saw the facility itself needed a lot of work to bring it into the current era of racing. We felt by improving the facility we could at the same time make it more accommodating to the racers and their families.''

Those plans have moved along steadily since, and while he believes he has made significant progress, Mr. Gardner said more will be done. ``We've made a lot of strides with respect to improving the facility and the environment. There is however, still lots that needs to be done.''

Another dream of Mr. Gardner's was to bring a national drag racing event to Cordova. He thought he might succeed, but it would be a long way down the road.

However, an inquiry from an official of the International Hot Rod Association late in the 1996 racing season, started the ball rolling. Last season, Mr. Gardner and Cordova Dragway Park hosted the IHRA's Summer Nationals.

``It was really kind of ironic how it all worked out,'' Mr. Gardner said. ``A friend of mine, Bill Bader, who I had worked with for several years had been employed as a management consultant by the IHRA. Bill owns Norwalk Raceway Park.

``Bill approached us saying, `The IHRA wants to work with people that have the right community, where people are excited about racing. They want the right partner to help stage the event and they want the facility.'|''

Mr. Gardner told his friend he wanted to host participate, but the track was nowhere near ready to host a national event.

``Bill paid us a visit to look the track over,'' Mr. Gardner said. ``We gave him a tour and told him about the diverse interest in everything from the Mallards to the Thunder and the different racing shows each week in the area.

``Bill was impressed with that aspect, and once he had a look at the facility he was convinced we could host an event. We just had to put in more seating, improve the racing surface and increase the lighting. He felt if we could get that accomplished we could get by.''

Mr. Gardner and his partners, his wife, Laura, and Dick Bullers, set the wheels in motion, knowing that taking on an event of this proportion was going to be a huge financial undertaking.

``We sat down and talked about it and came to a decision if we didn't do it now, there may never be another opportunity,'' Mr. Gardner pointed out. ``It was a matter of we were in the right place at the right time. If we didn't go ahead, chances are it would have been a long time before another chance came along.''

The Summer Nationals took place with nary a hitch, fielding some of the biggest names in drag racing, and will continue to be held at Cordova for the next four years.

``It was a learning experience, but one I wouldn't have missed for the world,'' Mr. Gardner said. ``We spent the July 4th weekend sweating it out, hoping no rain or other catastrophe would spoil our plans, and everything worked out nearly perfectly. We had just a little rain which threw us off schedule a little, but overall the people from the IHRA were very satisfied.''

Mr. Gardner was pleased with the end results on the balance sheet as well. ``We didn't make a lot of money but we were in the black,'' he said, ``and that was the important factor.''

Mr. Gardner and his staff's performance in their first venture on a national scale was impressive. So much so, it earned Mr. Gardner the honor of being selected the IHRA's Track Operator of the Year for 1997.

``I was really surprised when they announced my name at the dinner in Charlotte, N.C.,'' he said. ``They gave the award to me, but there are so many people who own a share of it for the effort they put in to help make our first event a success.''

Mr. Gardner is not one to rest on his laurels. The success of the IHRA program has opened some doors that would otherwise be closed, and will allow him to bring in other national events.

``It's really amazing how many doors have opened for us,'' he said. ``One of the events we are in the process of scheduling for this coming season is called Fun Ford. It's a national Ford Motorsports event.

``They run about eight or 10 of these events across the country and are only open to national event-type tracks. This is just one of these types of events that are coming to us and will provide a different type of entertainment for the race fans. Had we passed on hosting the Summer Nationals, we wouldn't even be considered for this event.''

Bigger and better is what Mr. Gardner's vision for Cordova was when he started two years ago. It's grown bigger, and it will only get better.

-- By Hank Sundeen (February 2, 1998)

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