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'I followed my passion'
If there's one mindset which steered West Linn resident Dale LaFollette through a 27-year career managing Portland International Raceway, it's that "any job worth doing is worth doing well."
LaFollette's philosophy — and his lifelong love of cars and racing — recently earned him an inaugural spot in the Northwest Motorsports Hall of Fame.
"This whole thing was a huge surprise to me," LaFollette says of receiving the "Person at Large" Hall of Fame designation at World of Speed Motorsports Museum in Wilsonville March 18.
Today, the basement shelves of his West Linn home are lined with hundreds of books about racing history. The walls are covered with framed images and photographs — some he has taken, others he has collected through the years — featuring races and cars. One shelf is lined with model cars, handmade by a friend in England.
Growing up in Portland, LaFollette says he was always interested in cars.
"My parents didn't have a car, so that made me curious about them," he says.
When he was 14, he bought himself a copy of "Road & Track" magazine. A few years later, after he'd bought his first car — a 1954 Morris Minor — he drove out to Tillamook to watch his first in-person race.
"When I could see the actual racing, then I really was hooked," he says. "So I followed my passion."
While he never got into racing cars much himself, he bought an Ossa motorcycle in the late '60s and started riding in the woods, competing in observed trials.
When he wasn't riding, he was working as the owner of the Oregon Jacuzzi franchise. He sold the business in the late '60s and was working elsewhere when he heard that Portland International Raceway (PIR) needed a new manager. As it turned out, his business background — combined with his knowledge of the racing industry — made him a perfect fit.
The raceway, which was built on the remains of the city of Vanport after the 1948 flood, has been hosting races since 1961. The 268-acre facility is owned by the City of Portland — though it doesn't receive taxpayer dollars — and offers a nearly two-mile road course. PIR draws an estimated 350,000 visitors each year.
As manager, LaFollette wasn't just in charge of the racetrack — he was responsible for the 500 to 550 "event days" at the facility each year. His first assignment was an outdoor rock concert, he recalls.
But one of his main goals during his time there, he says, was to make the racetrack as safe as possible. When he arrived, the track had a single guard rail. He eventually turned that into a double guard rail and later replaced that with concrete barriers and catch fences.
"Right now it's probably one of the safest tracks in the country," he says. "That's very important to me."
He and a coworker even developed a method for building safety walls out of used tires. Now other tracks use the same safety system. He says people told him he should patent the idea, but he refused on the grounds that everyone should have access to the safety feature.
Between his many events and responsibilities, LaFollette says managing the raceway wasn't an eight-hour-a-day job. "I had a couch in my office, and I can't tell you how many nights I gave up (on going home) and slept on that couch," he says.
World of Speed Museum Curator Ron Huegli says LaFollette was selected for the "Person at Large" award — given to individuals who didn't race or own racecars but supported the world of racing in other ways — because of his "instrumental" work at PIR.
"For every great racecar driver, there are a hundred people behind him who are equally important," Huegli says.
Under LaFollette's management, the track saw the rise of drag racing in the '70s, hosted the Trans-Am Series in 1975 and brought Indy car racing to Portland.
"That really put Portland on the map," Huegli says.
In addition, LaFollette's behind-the-scenes work as a liaison between the city and the raceway ultimately kept the facility open and made each event run seamlessly, Huegli says.
"Those are the things that he did that a lot of people never knew, never saw," he says. "That's the reason why he got (the award)."
LaFollette retired in 2000, but his love of cars and racing has never waned. He buys and sells racing photography — in addition to taking his own racing, car and wildlife photos — and enjoys helping people research racing history.
He has two different weekly lunches with other local "car guys" and he and his wife travel yearly to Monterey Car Week in California.
Looking back, LaFollette says it's hard to pinpoint exactly what it was about cars that sparked this lifetime of enthusiasm. But perhaps, he says, it was the freedom that came with four wheels on the road.
He liked the idea that someone could "make your own mind up that you want to go someplace — and then go get in the car and do it," he says. "I just thought the freedom of having a car ... was pretty neat."