BY DAVID JAMES HEISS
There seemed to be a lot of buzz for Banning’s potential to build a drag strip in the dormant Smith Creek Park, past the Banning Municipal Airport.
Supporters offered their advocacy: it could make Banning a destination for thousands of racers and their fans who have limited venues to visit for their sport; it would provide a safe venue for racing and alleviate illegal street races in the area.
A smaller contingency expressed concerns that that portion of the park, the access of which is prone to flooding, may not be suitable, and has not been adequately vetted for environmental concerns.
Ranch owner Inge Schuler, who lives near the proposed site, warned Banning’s city council during public comment on the matter at its Oct. 12 meeting that major flooding incidents sweep through that region; construction of a bridge and proper embankment reinforcement would be advised, Schuler said. She also expressed concerns over potential noise pollution that could affect her neighbors and future residents of the planned Rancho San Gorgonio community nearby.
Kathleen Dale, who identified herself as a retired planner and environmental consultant, said that the project “raises a lot of questions.”
The city was seeking input from its council as to whether it would be feasible to include a quarter-mile drag strip as part of an update to the Smith Creek Park Master Plan.
The city claims to be in the works to submit a notice of exemption from CEQA restrictions.
Dale felt that “It isn’t the right place for this kind of use,” and recommended the city’s staff consider alternative locations for a drag strip; further, according to Dale, a drag strip is not consistent with the city’s general plan.
She also said that the county had no record of any environmental exemptions from the city as of Oct. 8.
Racing enthusiast Andy Morocco said via Zoom that he did not think the location was good, and told the council that its intentions of seeing a drag strip operational before the end of the year was a “pie in the sky dream,” and that he was not optimistic that there would be a lot of financial supporters lining up to sponsor its establishment.
“I know the studies that will be required. There’s a two- to three-year process for environmental” considerations alone. “Please don’t think grading’s going to begin” and get racing enthusiasts’ hopes up. “The reality is, it’s much harder than anyone thinks, and there’s not enough space there for a quarter-mile drag strip.”
When his organization assisted with drag strips at the Banning Municipal Airport, “insurance alone was $2,500 a day. I can’t imagine what it will cost a municipality.”
He also felt that Councilman Kyle Pingree, who has been leading the effort to get the drag strip going, and who has helped coordinate the previous drag strip events, may have a conflict on the council.
It triggered Mayor Colleen Wallace to declare that Marocco was out of line, and cut him off.
Pingree turned to City Attorney Kevin Ennis and confirmed that there was no conflict of interest.
Parks and Recreation Commissioner Juanita Diaz told the council that, while she supports a drag strip — as Smith Creek Park would fall under her commission’s purview — she reminded council members that there are other parks already in use that have needs, such as efficient lighting and upgraded bathroom facilities — and to not abandon those projects.
Canyon Lake’s Mayor Pro Tem Jeremy Smith came to Banning’s city council to express his support.
“I’m excited. As a county, we need this,” Smith said. “This isn’t just drag racing: it’s opportunity for events, and to put Banning on the map. You guys are blessed that you’re having this conversation.”
Robert Schulze, visiting from the Palm Springs area, told the council that he frequents drag racing and hot rod racing events in Bakersfield, Fontana and Pomona, among places.
“If you’re not there the day before, you can’t get in. It’s just packed” with racers who want to participate, he said. “Hundreds of kids use Fontana raceway for safe racing. It’s safe, controlled conditions,” and promises to attract thousands of visitors to Banning.
Tanya Spencer, co-owner of Skydive West Coast, which operates at the airport, voiced her support for the city to have a dedicated drag racing strip.
Larry Smith, Division 5 representative for the San Gorgonio Pass Water Agency, also spoke during the public comment period, saying “This council has the resolve to make something like this happen,” and forecast that the drag strip would make Banning a destination. “It’s high time Banning has its opportunity. Adrenaline junkies are going to get their fix. Drag racers only have the streets. Your law enforcement could appreciate them getting their fix in a safe, confined area directed by professionals.”
Resident Bill Hobbs chimed in, saying “I see this as a tremendous opportunity. I’ve been to the drag strip a couple of times. It will really fill the empty hotel rooms and restaurants in Banning. It’s a plus that will provide recreation many of us don’t have right now. It might be a little louder on weekends, but it might not be that bad. It’ll take the illegal races off the streets and put them in the right place.”
Jeff Book, a Yucaipa business owner and track worker for the Auto Club Dragway in Fontana, told the council how excited he was when he imagined “the revenue that could come into your city.”
He played down any noise concerns, noting “These are street-legal cars — not the same kind of racing cars” that zip along the Fontana Speedway.
Councilman Pingree suggested that, after “three or four races, we can raise enough money for lights at Lions Park.”
According to the city, the drag strip project would be solely funded through private donations; though the park itself would be owned by the city, a separate entity with expertise in running drag strips would be contracted to run the events.
The council passed the city’s request to pursue drag strip plans at Smith Creek Park 5-0.
Staff Writer David James Heiss may be reached at email@example.com , and messages may be left at (951) 849-4586 x114.