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Motor sports bigger in Oregon than you might suspect

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Tony Thacker, shown here speaking at the groundbreaking event at the World of Speed in Wilsonville, plans to combine history and education at the new motor sports museum. Tony Thacker loves living in the United States in part because the legend of American optimism is alive and well.

“The great thing about America is you guys always say, ‘yes,’” he said. “You don’t always know how you’re going to do it, but you say, ‘yes.’ Whereas growing up in England, the first answer is, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ So it’s a wonderful, refreshing feeling to say, ‘Let’s give it a go.’”

Thacker is the English-born executive director of the World of Speed, an experiential museum founded by West Linn residents Dave and Sally Bany, owners of Moonstruck Chocolates and the Youth Music Project. He previously ran the National Hot Rod Association museum in Pomona, Calif., and said the new museum, currently under construction in the 80,000-square-foot former Chrysler dealership on Southwest 95th Avenue in Wilsonville, will be three times as large. He hopes to open the facility to the public before the end of the year.

“So here we are, we’ve got a giant big building and a huge project, way bigger than we ever thought it would be,” Thacker said after last week’s groundbreaking of the new museum.

He’s lived in the U.S. for decades now, but Thacker still retains the distinctive accent of his native Northampton in the English midlands. Born in the shadow of the famed Silverstone Circuit race track in Northamptonshire, he moved with his family to Kent in the southeast as a child. His introduction to auto racing was actually somewhat clandestine.

“I had a paper route, and I like American racing better, and somebody on my paper route had ‘Hot Rod’ magazine,” he recounts. “And I would sit on the curb in the rain and gray, so reading this magazine with gray skies, gray cars and looking at pictures of blue skies and red and yellow cars, I was thinking, ‘Oh, man, I want some of that.’ But I didn’t know how to get there.”

For Thacker and many like him, the prospect of somehow finding employment in the auto industry seemed beyond remote.

“Even then people weren’t very aware of the industry,” he said. “People expected you to go to work at the mill, so how do you get there?”

One thing led to another, he said, and he ended up moving to America as an adult, where he found work with the Specialty Equipment Marketing Association, or SEMA, one of the auto industry’s powerful trade organizations.

“They said, ‘Come down and start networking,’ and I said, ‘What’s networking?’” Thacker said. “But once I did, I met everyone in the industry. And once you do that it’s very easy to keep progressing.”

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - This front-engine dragster once operated by the Northwest racing team of Peterson and Fitz forced the driver to sit on top of the axle and differential. Its part of the Pacific Northwest collection that will one day be on public display at the World of Speed in Wilsonville. At the World of Speed, Thacker is busy assembling a collection of more than 100 race cars, dragsters and land speed record vehicles that he hopes will go on public display before the end of this year. Of all of them, however, his personal favorite probably remains a street-legal classic.

“My favorite car? Probably a Cobra, and we have one in the collection, a 289 Cobra,” he said. “Probably because the sports car is English but the engine is American, and it’s kind of a hot rod, a sports car hot rod, so it kind of ticks all my little boxes of things that I love. So that would probably be my favorite, but I’ve probably got hundreds of favorites.”

He chuckled and said he and others on the museum crew take the Cobra to lunch.

“We drive it down the street,” he said.

While the exhibits remain outside the museum’s walls for the most part, one vintage racer brought in for the museum’s Feb. 18 groundbreaking was a Top Fuel front-engine dragster once operated by the legendary Washington racing team of Herm Peterson and Sam Fitz.

“What we’re trying to do is focus on Northwest cars,” Thacker said. “If it’s got a Northwest history and it makes sense up here, then that’s what we’ll try to have.”

Another local company that will feature prominently in the museum is Maher Solutions, which has built a sophisticated racing simulator for World of Speed. It’s more than a video game, Thacker added.

“The other thing about it is it teaches young people to drive in a safe environment before they ever get out on the street,” he said. “It’s amazing, you put young kids in that car and they know what to do instantly.”

It’s all part of a storied history of auto racing in Oregon that many residents have never been exposed to.

“Because of the Vanport flood, there’s a racetrack in the middle of town (Portland International Raceway),” he said. “And it’s one of the few cities with a racetrack in the middle of town.”

In addition, he pointed out that the metro area boasts land speed record daredevils like West Linn resident Matt Markstaller and his 400 mph rocket motorcycle, while further afield Aurora resident Marlo Treit is leading a crew of racing enthusiasts in Target 550 in building a piston-engine vehicle he hopes will eventually top, yes, 550 miles per hour on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

Even the remote Alvord Desert in southeastern Oregon is regularly used for land speed record attempts because of the dry lakebed the desert is known for. Most recently, celebrity racer Jessi Combs set a women’s land speed record last October by traveling an average of 393 miles per hour on a pair of 1-mile legs in a surplus Lockheed F-104 fighter jet converted for land travel.

“There’s a lot of motor sports in this region,” Thacker said. “Just Portland, and Oregon, are great locations; most people don’t realize there’s a huge motor sports history here.”



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