Drag racing events pick up speed at airport, raise public safety issues

by Kate Shunney & Geoff Fox

An upcoming drag racing event to be held at the Hancock airport is drawing the attention of public safety officials on both sides of the Potomac as organizers estimate that up to 15,000 could roll into the area to attend.

Late Model Performance, a Manchester, Md. auto shop, will be hosting a two-day Street Racer event on August 24 and 25 at the Potomac Airpark. Organizer Alec Bledsoe said the race would bring racers and film crews from Memphis from the Discovery television series “Street Outlaws.”

According to Bledsoe, the series will film their season finale at the Hancock airport during the event.

Drivers pay to get in and vie for cash prizes in three different classes, racing everything from old cars to newer imports. Spectators pay a separate charge to watch the races. Organizers expect the racing to continue through the night at this month’s event.

This will be the fourth race held by Late Model Performance at the airport. Organizers rent the airport for the events from the private owner, said Bledsoe. Riverside Airpark LLC, under the ownership of Donald Braugnier, has run the airport since 2008.

While the airport is privately owned, the Federal Aviation Administration classifies it as a public use airport.

Previous drag racing events at the airport have drawn large crowds. Bledsoe said word of mouth and social media advertising have spread the word about the races faster than anticipated.

“It’s really jumped tremendously in the last eight months.”

Hancock Police Chief Rich Miller told town officials last week that heavy attendance estimates have raised some worries, including getting emergency responders to and around the event.

The only public access to the Potomac Airpark is by Airport Lane off the Hancock Bridge.

At the height of traffic for one of the drag races, traffic was backed up on the bridge and as far back as I-70.

Chief Miller said blocked bridge traffic poses a risk if there’s an emergency and first responders can’t get through.

Hancock Mayor Ralph Salvagno said it’s a public safety concern.

“It’s not just an issue about somebody getting hurt there, it’s about somebody getting hurt and having an accident here and not being able to get through the traffic in town,” Salvagno said. “That’s my concern. That’s, I think, the council’s concern, too.”

Salvagno said he had been in contact with event organizers about the elevated numbers of people expected in the Hancock area for the races.

He said town officials would support anyone who would do an event like the drag racing event, just as long as it is appropriately planned for.

Hancock police don’t have jurisdiction in the area immediately around the race because the airport is on the West Virginia side of the Potomac.

Morgan County Sheriff K.C. Bohrer has talked over event issues with Chief Miller, organizers and the West Virginia Division of Highways (DOH).

Bohrer said his department is making preparations to have extra personnel on hand for the late August race.

According to an email shared with Bohrer, the DOH has told race organizers they must carry liability insurance and create a traffic control plan. Traffic control is the responsibility of the event organizer. Local law enforcement agencies will enforce the plan, said Bohrer.

Bledsoe said he and his partners haven’t heard complaints about the traffic blockages or any other issues tied to his events so far.

“We haven’t had any grief. We really didn’t expect it to be that big,” he said.

Their first “show” was held last December and has steadily attracted more and more followers here. A second race attracted more than 3,000 people and 120 cars showed up to race, said Bledsoe.

Organizers have heard positive feedback from area businesses, he said.

“The local restaurant owners, hotel owners are loving it,” said Bledsoe.

Bledsoe said another big racing event is planned at the airport in the fall.

Street racers looking for a new venue and new competition have been attracted to the airport events. Bledsoe said it’s not like driving a racetrack, where the racing surface is prepped. At the Hancock airport, the mile-long runway is a little rough. Cars race an eighth of a mile, said Bledsoe.

“We all street race. Street racing is pretty wild right now,” he said. The races appeal to a wide variety of people, said Bledsoe – “any adrenalin junkie, people who like cars and racing.”

An aerial photo shows the Hancock airport, also known as the Potomac Airpark, during a recent car race. photo courtesy of Alec Bledsoe